Thinking, already, about the next general election

In a vibrant democracy elections should be a cause for celebration, an ever welcome occasion regularly marking the successful outcome of what in any country’s history has always been a long struggle to overcome authoritarian, and often brutal, rule.

In Guyana, sadly, elections are not a cause for celebration but instead have become occasions of fear and increased tension and incivility and foreboding. Elections are not so much a time when democracy is celebrated as it is a time when democracy is dangerously put to the test.

Already, astonishingly, nearly three years before the next general election, I find people worrying about it – concerned about what on earth the delay in appointing a Chairman of Gecom is all about, worried that the prospect of an oil bonanza will sharpen tensions further between the two ‘sides,’ suspicious in some quarters that rigging in some form is  contemplated and even now being plotted. All this is terrible for the nation which needs such fears like it needs knives in its heart.

I wish to invoke the name of Voltaire. This great Frenchman – poet, dramatist, philosopher, political activist – was infinitely gifted, wonderfully rebellious in the face of bigotry, incomparably brave in the cause of liberty at a time, the decades before the French and American revolutions, when liberty was by no means in fashion. He was the great civil rights leader of his era. He was famous for living vividly, writing brilliantly, behaving courageously but he has come down to us celebrated above all for tolerance. At this time, let us learn from him.

Voltaire’s targets were many – fanaticism, persecution, injustice, cruelty, fossilized institutions, rigid state authority, corrupt high-handedness of every sort. He loathed standard-bearers for the status quo. He bitterly attacked the philosopher Leibniz who had produced an immensely sophisticated argument to prove that in accordance with the inevitability of Divine Providence everyone “lived in the best of all possible worlds.” He scorned the view expressed in Alexander Pope’s famous and influential poem ‘Essay on Man’:


All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good;

And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.


Voltaire was as far from believing that as a man can be. He attacked with all the venomous wit he could command the brutally entrenched and the smugly complacent.

But of all that was repugnant in the world to him, intolerance was consistently Voltaire’s most hated enemy. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The words he addressed to Helvetius about the burning of Helvetius’s book De L’esprit in 1759 are widely known as are Candide and the Portable Philosophic Dictionary. But perhaps less widely known is Voltaire’s long essay ‘Treatise on Tolerance’.  This classic work deserves to be in all the libraries of the world. It certainly needs to be read in our society where parties and people still too often view each other with narrow-eyed suspicion and find innumerable reasons to be intolerant of any view or conviction not their own.

How Voltaire came to write the treatise is an interesting story.  In 1762 he took on the case of Jean Calas. Monsieur Calas was an ordinary middle-class citizen of Toulouse. He owned a successful cloth shop and lived above the premises with his English wife and their grown-up children. Monsieur Calas and his wife were Protestants in a city that was overwhelmingly Catholic and had a long history of persecutions dating back to the Albigensian wars. Their eldest son, Marc-Antoine Calas, who was twenty-eight, had converted to Catholicism. One evening in October 1761, Marc-Antoine’s body was found hanging from a rafter in the lower part of the shop. Jean Calas was arrested, tortured, tried for murder, broken on a wheel and, after a two-hour respite for “confession” (which was not obtained), was executed by strangulation. The Toulouse law court pronounced that Monsieur Calas’s motive for murdering his son was Marc-Antoine’s conversion to Catholicism.

When news of the case reached him Voltaire’s sense of justice was aroused. After extensive investigations and a long, searching interview with Calas’s younger son, Voltaire took up the case. He was convinced that there had been a grave miscarriage of justice, born out of fanatical religious prejudice in Toulouse. His grounds for appeal rested on two salient points. First, Jean Calas was not in the least anti-Catholic. His family servant of many years was Catholic, and one of his other sons, after also converting to Catholicism, received continuing financial support from Calas. So there was no convincing motive for murder. Second, the twenty-eight year old Marc-Antoine had been the one misfit in the family. He had been an endless source of worry to his parents: moody, immature, theatrical. He had failed to marry, failed to become a lawyer, and failed to pay large gambling debts. He had dined with the Calas family on the very evening of his death, and left early, “feeling unwell.” Almost certainly he had committed suicide in a fit of depression. So in any case there had been no murder.

Voltaire pursued justice on several fronts, with his customary energy, though he was now nearly seventy. He contacted government ministers in Paris. He enlisted the king’s mistress in the crusade. He wrote letters to everyone. Most important of all, he published the ‘Treatise on Tolerance’ (1762). It begins with a brilliant forensic analysis of the Calas case, and ends with a moving declaration of the principle of universal tolerance:

“Let all men remember that they are brothers! Let them hold in horror the tyranny that is exercised over man’s souls…If the curse of war is still inevitable, let us not hasten to destroy each other where we have civil peace. From Siam to California, in a thousand different tongues, let us each use the brief moment of our existence, to bless God’s goodness which has given us this precious gift”.

In June 1764 the judgement against Jean Calas was annulled by the Paris Supreme court.

“Let all men remember that they are brothers…Let us not hasten to destroy each other where we have civil peace.” In Guyana one senses already the tensions growing again.  Intolerance mounts as antagonisms grow and will mount further unless we take careful thought. Let Voltaire’s voice be heard in the land.

And if your despair is gradually increasing about what is necessary for holding a free, fair, efficient, unflawed and trouble-free election acceptable to all, then have faith. Have faith. Voltaire had something to say about that also: “Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe. It is not only that a thing be possible for it to be believed.”

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