Academic Dialogue at Boston University about Democracy

By Theodore Kalmoukos

ΒOSTON, MA – Tens of university professors, including many Greek-Americans, many students mostly graduate level, and a good number of Greek-Americans from many areas of New England filed the amphitheater of the Photonics Center of Boston University on March 27 for an academic dialogue on democracy.

The panel consisted of professors: Loren J. Samons- Boston University, Erik Goldstein- Boston University, Petros Vamvakas- Emmanuel College, and Nicolas Prevalakis- Harvard University.

The event was organized by the Consulate General of Greece in Boston, the BU Department of Classical Studies, and the Boston University Philhellenes.

Professor Kelly Polychroniou opened the event and Consul General of Greece Iphigeneia Kanara welcomed the panel academics and the many guests.

Prof. Samons said that “Democracy is not in crisis but it is contributing to a crisis in the West. That crisis is primarily moral rather than political, and it stems from the desire of individuals to enjoy the privileges of citizenship without paying a significant price for them. This crisis is reflected in many ways, including the tendency of democratic governments to spend their way into massive debt:democracy and debt seem to go hand in hand in the modern West. Demagogues and debt are not signs of democracy in crisis; they are signs of democracy period.This form of government and ideology has historically produced these phenomena and have also tended to produce nationalistic and populist movements fairly regularly.”

He added that “modern states need to appreciate the restraints on pure democracy advocated and created by the authors of the American Constitution and often imitated in representative governments since the 1800s.Such restraints protect minorities and attempt to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that democracy has sometimes produced. But the answers to the West’s problems today are not primarily political – they are personal and moral.We must take responsibility for ourselves as individuals rather than blaming politicians or the last election for current problems.”

Prof. Goldstein argued that “Greece’s struggle for independence and free government in the 1820s reflected and then inspired a movement toward democracy and liberty across the West.Greece has occupied a very dangerous and crucial location, at the crossroads of various cultures and forms of government, and has been forced to fight repeatedly for independent and free government.In so doing it has frequently served as an inspiration for other states.It is therefore Greece’s modern history, as much as its ancient history, that continues to play a crucial role in the struggle for democracy.”

He also emphasized that “it is important to recognize that a nation and a state are really two different things.A nation is a collection of people who identify with each other in particular ways, where a state is a political entity that is expressed through borders (among other ways).The state has tended to be a stabilizing influence in the world, where the nation has sometimes stabilized and sometimes destabilized the international scene.”

Prof. Vamvakas contended that “liberal ideals of the 19th century placed significant responsibility on the individual and did not ensure equality of outcome; only a promise of equality of opportunity. The modern ‘democratic’ state has tended to equate citizenship with the protection of individual rights without asking the citizen to spend his own “blood and treasure” to earn this citizenship.Since individuals are not invested in citizenship in the same way they were in the past, this has led to various problems seen in the modern West.”

Prof. Prevelakis said that “it may not be democracy per se that is causing the problems (apathy, low voter turnout, lack of trust in democratic institution) we see in Western democracies today.The evidence does not suggest that, for example, elections are any less fair today than they were in previous decades. Civil rights do not seem to be declining in general across the West.”

He also argued that “part of the problem may be one of perception:the more information citizens have the more they realize that they do not have enough information.Also, a series of individual historical situations that have particular causes may give the appearance of some kind of Western crisis of democracy that is rather simply a historical coincidence generated by these particular historical movements.”

A Q&A session and a reception followed.


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