democracy is not a pumpkin

in one of my democracy classes at university, the professor put my fellow students and me in front of a very odd question: imagine a pumpkin. you are three people in every group and pretend that everybody wants the pumpkin for themselves for different reasons and uses. so cutting it up in three pieces is not an option as it ruins the purpose of the others. now find a democratic way to solve the dilemma.

while i found myself puzzled about the task and even more about the fact how the professor came up with such an idea – i ended up blaming it on halloween soon coming around, i observed the other groups carving out election mechanisms and constitutional designs of how to decide who gets the pumpkin. irritated by the issue at hand, as everyone else in my group was as well, it was nothing but a joke that came to my mind and as no one else was speaking, i took the liberty to share the thought: ‘it is easy, really. one gets the pumpkin for halloween as a decoration. another gets the inside of it to make a soup. and all we need now is a styrian who will use the seeds for pumpkin seed oil and we are done.’

pumpkin seed oil is a rare speciality of the styrian region of austria. a delicious green oil that tastes extraordinary in both salads and pumpkin soup. and while my group laughed about the idea, one of them actually raised a finger and said ‘luckily i am styrian’. the laughter died down and what had started with a joke turned out to be the winning class assignment as we not only found the most efficient way to solve the problem, but also the most satisfying for all of the participants as we ended up deciding to make a common halloween party, with the pumpkin-decoration in the table center where we would eat pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil and thereby creat the nationalistic feeling of belonging together that is necessary for the basis of a democratic nation state.

sadly, democracy is no pumpkin. and apart from austria, no other country has styrian people to make pumpkin seed oil. what we know as democracy today is both a legal/institutional and a political concept as much as it encompasses a large body of philosophical work over the last few centuries. with that come different forms of meaning, understanding and, even more importantly, application. and what is such a commonly used word today, yes it almost seems to be a seal of quality that everyone tries to claim for themselves, there is no common agreement, neither in science nor in politics, of what actually constitutes this holy grail the whole world seems to dance around in utter, unquestioned worship.

to me it is as such a highly intriguing idea to think that one nation crowns itself the leader of the free world and shoulders the old white man’s burden in a new gown to bring democracy to the savages. oh, i am sorry, that is politically not correct, let me rephrase savages in to the more commonly used term of industrial developing countries. and yet, however loud you want to scream out ‘who are you to decide how others have to live’ one finds himself in a seemingly impossible balancing act between the feeling of wrong to impose any form of government, culture or economy on anybody else, and at the same time the stinging feeling in your chest when you watch the same people struggle to get to some form of liberty of their own. yes, who am i to accept that in the name of tolerance and culture every so remotely cruel act, at least as it appears in my own eyes, can just happen while i have to stand by doing nothing, trying not to impose my own version of right and wrong on someone else. it is a tricky question, really. and it is not me to give an answer other than to myself. it is me, however, to pose the question of where the line is between modern imperialism and democratic imposition from outside and utmost cultural toleration. more than that, however, i would like to point a finger towards the idea, that maybe democracy is not the holy grail we worship it for at last and is instead indeed just a pumpkin.

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