Every so often here at Society Matters, we stumble upon a piece of writing that makes the entire staff stand up and cheer. Which is what happened yesterday when we read Democracy Still Matters, Roger Cohen’s latest op-ed in the New York Times. The key passages:
“One mystery of the first decade of the 21st century is the decline of democracy. It’s not that nations with democratic systems have dwindled in number but that democracy has lost its luster. It’s an idea without a glow. And that’s worrying. …
While the democratic West fought [in Iraq and Afghanistan], a nondemocratic China grew. It emerged onto the world stage prizing stability, avoiding military adventure and delivering 10 percent annual growth of which Western democracies could only dream.
China’s “surge” was domestic. It was unencumbered by the paralyzing debate of democratic process. When the West’s financial system imploded in 2008, the Chinese response was vigorous. A “Beijing consensus” gained traction.
The borderline between democracy and authoritarianism grew more opaque. The dichotomy between freedom and tyranny suddenly seemed oh-so 20th century. The new authoritarianism of China or Russia was harder to define and therefore harder to confront. …
So what? So what if money trumped democracy and stability trumped open societies for hundreds of millions of people? So what if the rule of law or individual freedom was compromised, the press muzzled, and media-controlling presidents thought they could use “democracy” to rule for life with occasional four-year breaks.
So what if people no longer thought their vote would change anything because politics was for sale? Perhaps liberal democracy, along with its Western cradle, had passed its zenith.
Wrong. It’s important to stanch the anti-democratic tide. Thugs and oppression ride on it.
And it’s a point we’ve made repeatedly (though not nearly as eloquently as Mr. Cohen): National Geographic — as a Magazine and as an organization – once saw itself as a champion of democracy. From the 1940s to early 1980s, NGM wasn’t shy about celebrating what made America and the West distinctive and good. Imbued with that confidence, the Magazine told stories that cast our national and civilizational journey like the adventure it truly is — one in which we all are participants who are all blessed with speaking parts. That sense of mission, purpose, and engagement is what this guy loved about our Society before we turned Green and morphed into The Lorax — at which point he quickly grew to hate us.
Make no mistake: John Fahey and his executive team have turned their back on our Society’s democratic legacy to embrace a very different set of priorities: We’ll inspire you to care about the planet — but people who aspire to freedom and a democratic way of life are no longer our concern.
(To view the evidence, please see our archives, including these stories, and these, and these. And be sure not to miss the embarrassing tale of how our Society lost its democratic bearings as it curried favor with Omar Bongo, who, until his recent death, was Gabon’s President-for-Life (at left). Or the story about censorship in China that Editor Chris Johns censored. Or the long list of stories that we were proud to publish decades ago, but today have all but vanished from the pages of our Society’s official journal.)
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National Geographic’s world headquarters is in Washington, DC, just five blocks from the White House. During World War II, our Society gave maps to General Eisenhower to help Allied forces defeat the Nazis. The first photo ever published on the cover of the Magazine wasn’t a gazelle or a glacier, it was an American flag. As Bob Poole points out in his (highly recommended) book Explorers House, National Geographic maintained intimate ties with the U.S. government for decades.
Which is a long-winded way of saying: National Geographic has always been a political institution. The main difference now is that our Society’s global business strategy — get into Russia… get into China… publish in Arabic… the whole world is a potential market for our cheetah pictures — has driven us to embrace thugs and oppressors, while we become increasingly indifferent to human rights and democracy.
We think this is a huge mistake, partly for hard-headed business reasons: If you try to please all, you will please none.
But mostly because this global strategy is a soul-sapping strategic blunder. International Geographic takes members who were once energized and inspired by a particular national and civilizational story — and transforms them into planetary custodians who are reminded, month after month, that the biosphere is a mess and it needs to be cleaned up, pronto! So rather than living an adventure of historic scope and importance, we trudge along, burdened by a very long list of chores: Reduce carbon footprint… clean up Gulf oil spill… save biological hot spots… save endangered species… save the oceans… < yawn > ….
Going global is sucking the life out of our Society.
Which is why we enthusiastically agree with Roger Cohen: “Democracy is still an idea worth the fight.” We only wish our Society would rejoin it.