Preserving the values
By Huang Cheng-yi ¶À¥à»ö
Does it still make sense to talk of political doctrines or moral values in
societies where values are so diverse? We are always being told by
battle-hardened politicians that in real life politics is all about gaining the
upper hand. With the political turmoil that erupted in September, when the
legislature became enveloped in allegations of improper lobbying, the general
public thought the whole thing was an ugly political dogfight, despite the
attempts by President Ma Ying-jeou (°¨^¤E) to dress it up as an issue of right
versus wrong, of propriety against impropriety.
Earlier in the year, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets
demanding the abolition of military courts and for trials involving the armed
forces to be heard in civilian courts, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)
was quick to promise something would be done, only to subsequently use all the
tricks at its disposal to stall any amendments to the law. Politicians are
becoming ever more sanctimonious, while the public watching them are becoming
ever more disenchanted. Democratic politics in Taiwan has descended into a
satire, and people are increasingly losing faith that a democratic system is
capable of bringing about change.
It is this kind of environment that can be a hotbed for the rise of an autocrat.
This is a tragedy in the making, and it is certainly not exclusively the KMT¡¦s
doing. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), preoccupied with furthering its
own interests, is the Brutus plunging the knife into the back of Taiwanese
When we were struggling against the autocratic regime in the past, we believed
in more lofty values, striving for fairness and justice, as all the power was in
the hands of the KMT, while the general public had none. The minute Taiwan
became a democracy, we changed: We became cynical and forsook our former values;
we no longer knew what we believed in; and politicians preoccupied with power
and winning elections came to dominate democratic politics.
Democracy is not just about elections, or about the system, or about political
or economic interest: Democracy is also about morality. A democratic politics
that ignores concrete values is a false democracy. Without morals and values
informing it, it ends up the same way, with the powerful controlling everything,
while the citizenry, clinging on to their vote slips, are as enslaved as they
were before, only under a new system.
There have been examples of politicians in history that have strongly believed
that democratic politics needs to incorporate actual values. Perhaps the most
oft-cited of these is former US president Abraham Lincoln. In his Peoria speech
of Oct. 16, 1854, Lincoln criticized people who defended slavery, deploring the
¡§monstrous injustice¡¨ of the system they were supporting and saying that keeping
slaves ¡§deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.¡¨
Lincoln said he believed that slavery ¡§forces so many really good men amongst
ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty
¡X criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no
right principle of action but self-interest.¡¨ For Lincoln, a political system
that was of no help in the realization of justice was of little use.
Just over a decade later, in his March 4, 1865, second inaugural address, given
at the time when the US Civil War was coming to a close, Lincoln noted that both
sides ¡§read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid
against the other.¡¨ Given this, who has the right to decide who is just?
He closed with the sentiment: ¡§With malice toward none, with charity for all,
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to
finish the work we are in.¡¨
Lincoln did not emphasize the superiority of his own moral stance: The tragic
circumstance of the civil war had given him cause to reflect upon how a nation
torn asunder because of a moral issue needed to come together once again. No
matter how tragic the war had been, it was still important to care for the
widows and orphans of the fallen enemy.
This ¡§tragic pragmatism¡¨ was not to say that people could not decide for
themselves the rights and wrongs of slavery. The shift in Lincoln¡¦s rhetoric was
merely representative of the need for humility in politics and morality, and
that despite the incompatibility of the respective values, it was necessary, in
the interests of the public good, to concede that the other party had the right
to voice its own political beliefs, too.
The prerequisite to this is that the candidates in the political arena come
armed with their value concepts. Anyone there purely for the sake of winning is
entirely lacking in the spirit of democracy. The soul of a democratic republic
lies in the rational debate of concrete values, so that people can see how they
can strive for ever loftier ideas. It is not founded merely on indulging in the
endless pursuit of personal interest or of maintaining your grip on the monopoly
Does Taiwan have a soul of its own? What values are we, as a nation, pursuing?
It is OK for values to be diverse, but we must have some. Otherwise, the White
T-shirt protests in August, September¡¦s furor over improper lobbying and the
shoe-throwing protests that followed Ma like a second shadow last month would
have just evaporated into thin air.
Without a value stance, how are we to evaluate what is happening in politics?
Without values, we may as well slump into nihilism and consign our democracy to
the ground ourselves.
Albie Sachs, a former judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, is
scheduled to visit Taiwan next month. On the eve of the abolition of South
African apartheid, Sachs spoke to his colleagues of the importance of not
allowing your soul to become as depraved as your enemy¡¦s. The greatest victory
of authoritarianism lies not in its continued actual existence per se, but in
the ability of its adherents, in the post-democratization era, to corrupt all
those individuals who had formerly advocated reform. It is important to remain
vigilant at all times, if we are not to forget why we strived for democracy in
the first place.
Huang Cheng-yi is an assistant research professor in the Institutum
Iurisprudentiae of Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper