The event itself has a certain exoticism: two dozen academics from (among other places) Oklahoma and Zimbabwe, Arizona and Peru, gathered in a small Slovenian town to discuss censorship and democracy. But there is nothing exotic about the central question stalking us all. That's as relevant as the morning headlines, as fresh as blood in the sand, or Tony Blair biting his lip. Simply: why is America such a "weak democracy"?
The problem, of course, is best posed by an American. Enter Bob Ivie, professor of communication and culture at Indiana University. It's he who teases out and delineates the "weakness".
That began (in my free-wheeling and fallible extrapolation of his thesis) with the founding fathers. Read Madison and see. They were nervous about "distempered" democracy, about too many roughnecks rocking their elitist boat. So the constitution - far from being one man, one direct part in the action - was a cautious edifice of checks and balances: a lower house, an upper house, a president, all forced to wheel and deal and, at the end, deliver what the system ordained rather than what the voter crudely demanded.
And the years have not been kind to that constitution. It has frozen in mythic immobility. No ferment about reform, no movement. The alterations to the superstructure of this superpower are external, shifts in context. Consider the explosion in media spending; consider the zillions you need to run for anything; consider the dependence on corporate power. Greenback elitism.
The people have a vote (if registered). They can be, and often are, involved in community politics. But real politics is the preserve of the few. And the few, like Marie Antoinette reaching for the ginger biscuits, are perennially edgy about their authority. Television and radio have given the president the added aura of supreme power. They have helped to free him from the web the founding fathers wove. He has a digital bully pulpit now. But he runs what Ivie calls a "rhetorical presidency" - full of "images, phantasms, tropes and insecurity". That means "governance by crisis".
Modern history makes the case. First the mutual phantasm of the cold war, then the dominoes of Vietnam falling. If no more suitable dragon than General Noriega presented itself, there was always a "war on drugs" to wage or forget, as necessary. And today there is that "war on terror". If war is crisis, then war is also the stifling of debate in weak democracies.
Those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty" while criticizing the Bush administration's methods of fighting terror at home and abroad provide "aid to terrorists". That's attorney general John Ashcroft testifying to the Senate after 9/11. "See how dissent terrorizes democracy while political quiescence promotes peace and security," says Ivie dryly. "Democratic dissent has turned oxymoronic."
So today's headlines take over. There stand Messrs Bush and Blair on the White House lawn, vowing eternal devotion to the "historic struggle" for democratic victory in Iraq. They've been there before. Last time Bush declared that "every nation in every region has a decision to make - either you are with us or you are with the terrorists". But now we're beyond nations and shadowy forces lurking in Tom Clancy's dreams. Who are these unwelcome, individual Iraqis on our TV screens, protesting, rampaging, shooting and often dying? Why, says George, they're terrorists. Yes indeed, echoes Tony. He who is not for us is a terrorist. He can and will be killed unless he falls silent. He can and may be locked up indefinitely (like the 762 aliens in US jails) so that silence enfolds him.
Let's be clear where the blank rhetoric of good and evil, white and Arab, democracy and utter destructiveness, is leading us. It is designed to make democratic dissent seem treacherous. It renders argument damnable or deluded. It makes zapping Falluja or Najaf a no-brainer. It means the force-feeding of democracy, or else. And its feebleness - nay, feeble-mindedness - is manifest.
There, just before Tony on the lawn, was Ariel Sharon, an elected leader fighting his patch in a vibrant, often miasmic democracy. He sees Washington's vacuous conflation of terrorist campaigns into some world menace and takes his chance. Easy-peasy. Abdel-Aziz Rantissi equals Osama equals a blind man in a wheelchair, and destroying them all by hi-tech visitation is equally justified. He may not get his perversion of the road map through the Knesset. He may be turfed out for corruption. But at least dissent in Israel is expected, part of life: at least nobody says brute survival in crisis means disengaging brain and hearing aid.
But that is exactly what George Bush says. Crisis means mute obedience. To protest is to betray the master rhetorician reading Dick Cheney's script. He is a leader defined and protected by "war". He must not be troubled by voters protesting in Ashcroft's "free speech zones". Nuance is his enemy. He dare not stop to think.
It won't do. It's a grotesque, creeping parody of democracy. It hangs Blair out to dry because, even in Britain's elective dictatorship, the democratic climate has not yet grown so choking. Blair does have to explain and justify. He cannot just proclaim.
And there's one more oxymoron pending. Bringing democracy to Iraq? What democracy is that? One mullah, one vote? One pipeline, one ministry? One assassination, one empty seat? Will there be TV ads for Ahmed Chalabi, rubber chicken suppers and hanging chads? Will dissent be our mortal enemy there, too? Greetings from Piran. The clouds over Istria are hanging heavy.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004