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With Mishana Hosseinioun

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If Democracy Is The Answer, What Was The Question?

By Mishana Hosseinioun

November 12, 2006

In his 1762 work, Social Contract, the sometimes loved, other times dreaded French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserts that it is essentially the role and shared responsibility of citizens to question the validity of the status quo and test the soundness of the powers that be. To that end, he concluded that in order to preserve their autonomy, people must first and foremost ask themselves how they would like to be governed. In this way, by their very own hands, a social contract or set of communally determined codes of government conduct would be born, to put leaders in their intended place from the very start-a place, which Rousseau depicted as the obligatory convergence of humility, invisibility and seamlessness in governance. Furthermore, a compact that proposed to privilege the volition of the people every step of the way would also ensure that power would not be summarily abused, as it has so often been.

The dramatic notion advanced by Rousseau that sovereignty emerges from the will of the people as opposed to government is slightly if not entirely paradoxical by today's standards. Such a prospect trumps the contemporary, greatly over-simplified logic used to deduce that democracy is achieved through the mere act of voting and that democratically elected officials are by extension, automatically democratic in their actions once stationed behind their bureaus. This may even suggest that with no mechanism in place to lubricate the flow of democracy in between election seasons, every time citizens vote their conscience, they may actually be surrendering a priceless and irretrievable piece of their agency to the ballot box.

Most probably, Rousseau would have hoped for this profound message presented in his Magnum Opus, to have at least caught on, posthumously, in the mainstream-a book, which in its time practically incited the French Revolution but which, today, might easily sub as fly-swatter. That Rousseau's line of thinking is scarcely to be found in modern day convention is not a matter of incompatibility, neither does it make a case for the existence of a form of ideological Darwinism wherein philosophies are either bound to sink or swim in the 'think-tank' of humanity; for the sake of inciting one less controversy, we will just blame its current unpopularity on poor 18th century marketing, and collectively pick things up right where Jean-Jacques left off-no questions asked.

Mishana Hosseinioun is the Program Director of International Convention on Human Rights (ICHR), a non-profit dedicated to drafting a legally enforceable international human rights document. She is a longstanding intern in Mayor Gavin Newsom's office in San Francisco and a recent graduate of Rhetoric and Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Email Mishana at Mishana@ichr.org


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