A friend and I recently walked into a dark cave-like room full of young, cool men and women. Most seemed to have tattoos, piercings, and smartphones. We didn’t fit in, though it wasn’t at all uncomfortable. We were at the nightclub/bar to attend a Toronto lecture series called Trampoline Hall, a monthly lecture series with a twist: the speakers are not allowed to be experts on their chosen topic. In other words, they are just like you and me at the office water cooler, chatting about things they know nothing about. The talks are almost always funny, thoughtful, and interesting.
Surely, many of us have played the old parlour game of “who would you rather have over for dinner” with literary figures: Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen? Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway? William Butler Yates or Bob Dylan? Michael Ondaatje or Ian Binnie?!
The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Bahrain have justifiably captured the world’s attention, but it is possible that the West’s support and interest emanates partly from a conceit about our own democratic systems. Look what’s happening, we say to ourselves as these events unfold, they want to be like us. We believe that today’s Western democracies are the most open, transparent, and engaged systems of governance the world has ever seen. Why do we think this? Well, we have hundreds of years of generally positive history and experience to draw on.