West has no reason to be smug

Graeme Maxton says Western leaders who lecture the rest of the world about democracy, human rights and the free market should first practise what they preach, then learn to respect other ways

If it had been my 10-year-old daughter, it might have been OK. A simple mistake, the duty of parents to correct. But when the error is made by someone who wants to be the next leader of the free world, and when it concerns primary-school levels of general knowledge, it is more troubling.

When Mitt Romney confused the word "Sikh" with "Sheikh" recently, more than once, he demonstrated a humiliating lack of knowledge about, well, just about everything. Were such gaffes by Western politicians once-in-a-blue-moon events, it would be easier to snigger and let them pass. But they are not. Sarah Palin thought she could see Russia from Alaska. Hillary Rodham Clinton, unable to pronounce the Russian prime minster's name, decided that "Medavedeva … whatever" would suffice.

It is not the lack of worldly knowledge that these politicians display that is so troubling. It is that it is combined with a know-it-all smugness and self-righteousness. Despite understanding much less about the world than they should, they seem to think they can tell others what to do. Romney thought it acceptable to tell the British that they had made a hash of organising the Olympics. Clinton thinks she can lecture China on human rights and press freedom.

But it is their hypocrisy that grates the most.

American and European politicians love to bash Chinese, Middle Eastern and African leaders around the ears, lecturing about their lack of democracy. Representative democracy is portrayed as a self-evident truth, despite being viewed by America's founding fathers as a system they wanted to avoid.

Worse still, Western leaders do not practise what they preach. In the US and much of Europe, the democratic choice is often limited to two big parties, which are almost identical. It is as if Western politicians are suggesting that a two-party state is much better that a one-party state.

Moreover, big business has hijacked the legislative process in many countries. Huge corporations fund US electoral campaigns and lobby for favourable legislation in Europe and Washington, corrupting the system. Media organisations keep politicians in their pocket. In Britain, Canada, Australia, and most US elections, the first-past-the-post system means that most votes are practically worthless. The same party wins in most constituencies, most of the time. And, in the US, according to a study by the Pew research group, an ever more complex registration process has effectively disenfranchised 24per cent of the people.

Barely half of those eligible bother to vote in the West any longer, so little do they think of the system. Despite this, the dogma of democracy is shoved down the throats of everyone else.

Freedom, that other great beacon carried aloft by America's State Department, is not what it once was either. Human rights have been badly undermined by the embarrassment of Guantanamo, and by the thousands of people who have been detained for years without trial. Lots of them have been subjected to torture. The policy of assassinating others without judicial review, using unmanned drones, undermines America's human rights record even further.

Worryingly, police brutality has grown in much of the West too. Protesters hailed for their calls for democratic change in the Middle East are forcibly removed for making much the same demands in New York and Los Angeles. Students calling for social justice in California are pepper-sprayed at close range while they sit peacefully on a paved path.

Western media liberty has been undermined too. In the annual ranking of press freedom, the US is now 47th, four places behind Botswana. The reason? It has arrested and detained tens of journalists to stop them covering democratic protests. American police now also use powerful strobe lights to blind and confuse television cameras trying to record their activities.

Personal freedom has withered in much of the West too. Citizens are routinely watched by their governments. They are tracked and monitored by CCTV cameras. They have their e-mails opened, their Google searches logged and their phone calls recorded. In Britain, one in eight adults has been swabbed, their DNA taken, stored and kept, despite the fact that many have not been charged with any crime.

And it is the same with the West's endless calls for free markets and more liberal trade. It is promoting a system that is not working and that has lost touch with its principles. Free market economic ideas have brought Europe and America's citizens a mountain of debt, an obsession with shopping and widened the gap between rich and poor. Indirectly, they have also led to some of the highest crime and obesity rates in the world. Yet, still, the West tells everyone else that their way is the best way, indeed, the only way. TINA, said Margaret Thatcher - there is no alternative.

It is time Western politicians went back to school. They need to learn the basics about geography, other religions and how to pronounce the names of their counterparts. They need to learn about the principles that underpin the concepts they shout about - democracy, freedom and the free market. They also need to learn that there another way; indeed, there are many other ways.

And they need to learn to respect that.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Too smug