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January 20, 2022

Democracy’s vitality

President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy at the Supreme Court of the United States. The choice has already generated strong controversies, in the midst of the campaign to nominate the candidates for the future presidential elections. But what should draw our attention is the fact that judge Garland is Jewish. In a country in which militant Christian electorate is very influential at various levels of political life, the fact that a man holding a key position is member of an ethnic-religious minority is extremely significant. Because it shows that one of the stakes of democracy is not just mutual checks and balances between various branches of power – legislative, executive, judicial – but also between various communities. Of course, a society such as the American one allows for remarkable social permeability, so that the individual is not strictly circumscribed to one community. You can more or less take on different identities but, at the same time, there are serious interests of the various communities, which you can support more or less. This does not mean we are dealing with a simple vicinity of communities – in fact they are positioned in various relations of prestige, with levers of diverse efficiencies within the public space. What is salutary is the credit offered to a position that is neither absolute nor marginal: it has an influence that, in certain cases, can matter in society’s overall balance. If there is an ideological war in the world at this hour, it is primarily the one between this structural pluralism and the ruinous trends toward homogenization. After all, the goal of today’s Islamists – to a good extent already attained in certain regions – is to eliminate non-Muslims. Or Muslims of a different orientation. The same was the case when Europe lent itself to anti-Semitic fury. Also when some leaders today are invoking defence of Christianity in order to block the flow of immigrants. The problem is not to delegitimize some in favour of others, but to offer a political space in which certain community identities would play their card even if the result were not the expected one, depending instead on the capacity to promote values sufficiently powerful to make headway on a competitive market.

People in general have the tendency to defend their own identity reference points, which lowers their capacity for self-criticism. Diversity is not just an issue of exoticism, it fundamentally expresses the condition of human values, not without contradictions and tensions. To bring together values that seem difficult to conciliate – not in a strictly moral sense, where the battle is sometimes more ruthless – is one of the most fascinating human adventures. Man can change by discovering truths alien to him, truths his initial condition deprived him of. Loyalty toward one truth is not an issue of hard-headedness but one of continuous adaptation to new data. But this renewal of consciousness does not often take place in calm conditions, it entails an uncomfortable confrontation marred by painful moments, crises and unexpected revelations. “Twelve Angry Men” (1957) was a significant film for the dynamic of democracy too: each of the 11 white jurors who were in a haste to sentence a black teenager to death had existential reasons propelling them toward such an easy verdict. However, the doubts of one of them eventually overturned the result, after a dramatic confrontation.

Let us not easily hide behind some ideals of homogeneity, irrespective of the latter’s type. Because the result risks not matching our desire to settle conflicts. Europe now finds herself in the situation of falling back on certain identities – which, in fact, more than once turn out to be rather simple imaginary constructs. It is not bad at all that she wants to defend certain values of hers – some populists on the other hand can be suspected of hypocrisy – but in order to be capable of sustaining her vitality she has to be capable of finding room for new values too. Of listening other voices too, to the extent in which they deserve being listened to. For the time being, the temptation rather seems to be to listen only to what we are already accustomed.

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