Thursday, July 12, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Tutu’s sins of omission

Perhaps this series of letters has made the point in the past, but even if it has, the point cannot be stressed enough. The Gulbenkian Foundation is perhaps one of the finest things to have happened to Portugal and in particular to the Portuguese capital Lisbon. The productions of this Foundation, in general, contribute much to the cultural, artistic and intellectual life of the country and capital.

One of these productions involved the hosting of a conversation on the theme of “Peace and Sustainable Development”, between Archbishop Desmond Tutu of SouthAfrican and Jorge Sampaio the former President of the Portuguese Republic, and now High Representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations. A number of those who had turned up for the event, however, hoping to hear powerful and profound ideas from the Archbishop were sorely disappointed. Personally, this disappointment stemmed not from what the Archbishop said, which amounted to very general, and clichéd thoughts on the oneness of humanity, and the need to take seriously the responsibilities that came with being placed as the Viceroys of God on Earth. On the contrary, the disappointment stemmed from what he did not say. It was Archbishop Tutu’s silence on two broad themes that turned the aspirations for the evening into crushing disappointment.

The first theme on which Archbishop Tutu could have responded, were the rather provocative suggestions by President Sampaio on the inadequacy of current models of democracy. President Sampaio was perhaps correct when he suggested that most of the problems we face today are beyond the time-frame of a normal democratic mandate. They cannot be met by political representatives who are elected for a short period of five years, for a variety of structural reasons. Most important of these reasons is that, if they desire to be reelected must look to more immediate results, rather than the necessarily long-term investments that are called for to make the unpopular civilizational changes necessary to achieve sustainable development. President Sampaio, was perhaps also not wrong when he suggested that the regular bureaucratic process of liberal democracies seem unable to meet the needs of the people. Anyone who has spent days within governmental departments often unable to achieve the most simple task for the inability to produce a ridiculous document will know the truth of President Sampaio’s assertion. Despite the truth of these statements however, what made them problematic, and this is what Archbishop Tutu ought to have taken up, when President Sampaio failed to do so, was to point, that despite the indubitable problems with the model of liberal democracy, as well as the labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures of this liberal democratic state, as of now, there are no other models that allow for the vast mass of humanity access to power. In light of his struggles and what he has gained recognition for, it was Tutu’s obligation to point out that these perhaps valid truths were not backed up by suggestions as to how exactly to overcome these challenges. There can be no doubt that attempting to articulate possible ways in which to overcome these challenges would present a substantial challenge. However, in failing this struggled articulation, and especially given the peculiar history of Portugal, and its contentious present, one that mirrors its early twentieth century past in disturbing ways, Sampaio's suggestions merely suggest (perhaps falsely) a consensus toward authoritarian solutions.

The second theme on which one would have liked to hear Bishop Tutu respond was the posturing of President Sampaio that created an odd ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy when speaking about models for the future. Sampaio began this articulation with the strange assertion ‘ofcourse we (Portugal) are a Western country’ and then proceeded to elaborate on how there was a need for ‘us’, i.e. Europe (and the developed West) to create links to ‘them’ i.e. ‘the emerging order’. Perhaps it was not what President Sampaio had in mind, but running like a particularly disturbing thread through this segment of his conversation, was a particular condescension. This condescension was composed first of the implicit suggestion that Europe and the West were prior in time in terms of achieving democracy; and then secondly that there was something to learn from this ‘emerging order’. This condescension was taken up in a comment by the moderator of the conversation, Ambassador Fernando Neves. In his intervention, he chose to present a variety of human rights as European. He made particular reference to the suggestion he received in Indonesia, that human rights were not universal, but in fact peculiarly western in nature.

On this second theme, once again for reasons of the nature of his participation in a historic struggle, one would have expected to Archbishop Tutu to temper these statements with a gentle counter, and especially with a counter to the moderator Ambassador Fernando Neves’ offensive suggestion. Perhaps Ambassador Neves needed to be reminded that the argument from Indonesia came from a polity that had a history of military and authoritarian rule. To be sure, members and representatives of such a polity would make nativist arguments of the sort against norms that curbed their drive toward Pharonic power. Could it be then, that the ready acceptance of this Indonesian suggestion, had more to do with Ambassador Neves attempting to suggest a European (and Portuguese) difference from the ‘emerging order’, and their moral superiority?

There was no reflection on these issues however, and in part, this may have been a result of the awkward moderation offered by the chair, who, did not encourage the speakers to speak to each other, but allowed them to spin independently on their own courses. It could also have been as a result of the internal culture of the diplomatic world, and we must remember that after being an activist, Archbishop Tutu has become a diplomat, that seems to thrive on broad feel-good suggestions, and that will often not disrupt the status quo, unless there is a definite gain for the powers that these diplomats represent.

All in all, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant evening, though it did, it must be said, provide food for thought.

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