Shifting sands of democracy?

中国日报网 2014-04-18 11:28



Shifting sands of democracy?

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: “Politicians must embrace the shifting sands of democracy.” Shifting sands of democracy?

My comments:

In a democracy, politicians win power via an election, i.e. by getting the most votes from the voting public. Hence, public office seekers in a democracy have to follow public opinion.

If, for instance, most voters want to allow gay marriage, vote seekers say they, too, support gay marriage. If opinion polls show that most voters are against abortion, then they say they’ve been against abortion all along. If voters want illegal immigrants to be deported, then they say they are all for it.

Then the next election comes around.

This time, most voters are against gay marriage, for abortion and of the opinion that the more immigrants the better, legal or illegal, the politicians will change their tune also, going out of their way to explain that they have, in fact, always felt the same way.

Then the next election comes around, and voter opinion changes again. No doubt, politicians have to change their positions one more time, inventing new stories of how they’ve held the same ideas, beliefs and principles since the day they were born.

As a result, sooner or later, some sooner others later, politicians are all exposed as inveterate liars, i.e. people who lie all the time and cannot stop doing it.

All kidding aside, this gives you a hint of what the shifting sands of democracy feel like. Here, swinging public opinion is likened to the shifting sand dunes in, say, the Sahara desert. Those sand dunes, though stationary to the human eye from a distance, are in fact moving (shifting) – little by little under the influence of the wind.

It’s not a good idea, of course, to try to build a house over a shifting sand dune – it’ll crash as the sands underneath the house move away.

Hence, as a metaphor, if people talk about someone making, say, a plan on shifting sand – they mean to say that plan won’t work because it doesn’t have a solid foundation.

In our example, politicians are advised to embrace public opinion, though it is always changing.

To embrace the shifting sands of democracy is to put your arms around them like you’re thus holding a loved one.

But how do you embrace them if they are shifting sands?

Well, it’s a good question.

It is a good question, I mean, for real politicians to grapple and come to grips with. We must be quite satisfied with having learned the expression itself.

Here are media examples of shifting sand or sands:

1. The Washington Times item, Unlocking the Keystone pipeline illustrates some of those nasty facts that cause the political blockage from an administration that is bent on fostering an unrealistic energy policy.

“While Mr. Obama says he’s all in for boosting oil and gas production, a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service contradicts him. The record of fossil-fuel production during his tenure reveals that nearly every recent increase in oil and natural-gas production was on state-owned and private property, not federal land. U.S. oil production has increased by 1.1 million barrels per day between fiscal 2007 and 2012 on state and private land, but has fallen by 7 percent on federal land. For natural gas, production since 2007 has grown by 4 trillion cubic feet – up 40 percent on state and private land, but down by 33 percent on federal land.

The Congressional Research Service places partial blame on a slowdown in the federal drilling-application process. From 2006 to 2011, the average time needed to approve applications has risen from 218 days to 307 days. The complexity of paperwork involved in getting the government’s approval of drilling sites inhibits production and contributes to higher prices at the pump.”

Significance of the Seven Reasons Why Obama Will Approve the Keystone Pipeline arguments what should be of especial concern for John Kerry at the State Department:

“If the oil doesn’t head south of the Canadian border, it will head west to China, which craves cheap oil for its military build-up and its metastasizing territorial claims in East Asia, which it is Obama’s stated policy to vigorously oppose.”

The Oil Roustabout Economy is here to stay for the near future. If the country is to reduce reliance on foreign oil from unstable sources, the manifest alternative is to tap our friendly neighbor to the north and the resources domestically in the route of the Keystone Pipeline. “Since the environmentalists base their cosmos on shifting sand, why not go for the real stuff?” Commerce in petroleum is fluid and spongeable, crossing all borders. The artificial political obstruction, which delayed and added gratuitous costs to a utilitarian project, violates our real national security.

- Keystone Pipeline Blockage,, March 27, 2013.

2. There were mea culpas aplenty in this part of the world last weekend. John Kerry – to whom few gave much hope of getting the equally stubborn Israelis and Palestinians to even agree to hold peace talks – appears to have got to first base, and if all goes well the two sides will sit down for preliminary discussions on Tuesday.

The leading liberal newspaper in Israel, Haaretz, has gone from describing America's newish Secretary of State as “like a naive and clumsy diplomat who has been acting like a bull in the china shop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, to hailing his achievement as transforming from “Mr Bean’s ultimate disaster to Tom Cruise’s mission impossible”.

And it’s not just the otherwise excellent Haaretz. Back in March, following Mr Kerry’s first visit, with his boss Barack Obama, I wrote that for all the Obamamania and stardust, the duo achieved virtually nothing on their visit.

So it’s hats off to Mr Kerry for his tenacity, hard work and bloody mindedness – the parties in this fragile part of the world are as close to direct negotiations as at any time during the past three years. Dealing with ideological factions on either side of the divide here must drive even seasoned diplomats to despair, and Mr Kerry’s achievement – if the Israelis and Palestinians do make it to negotiating table next week – should be acknowledged.

But now what? Having reached this stage in 2010, the talks collapsed within weeks (or hours, if some reports are to be believed). For all the plaudits, and his four-month marathon diplomatic effort, Mr Kerry did not get precisely what he wanted: he wasn't able to announce a resumption – no matter how it was spun – but rather that the two “reached an agreement that establishes a basis for direct final- status negotiations”. Speaking to senior Palestinian officials last week, it is clear that they already feel that what they say they were promised is now on shifting sand.

- Written off – but John Kerry is defying the defeatists,, July 28, 2013.

3. The Home Office declined to comment, beyond a statement that is both bland and inaccurate by omission: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it and we consider every application on a case by case basis.” (It should have read “a proud history that we’ve abandoned …”, but never mind.)

Theresa May probably feared an onslaught of xenophobic remarks – “What could be more specious than a belief that is really the absence of belief, a luxury belief for cynics and intellectuals? What next? Asylum for French people who prefer Derrida to Foucault?” – but the critical comment barely came.

Instead, there was a generalised, muted acceptance, which makes perfect sense. If you accept the place of religious belief on the human rights agenda, then you have to allow atheism equal weight. It is as much a traducement of religious people to dismiss atheism as it is a denigration of atheists.

However, there’s a lot of shifting sand around this principle – it is telling that this man is the first atheist to be offered asylum here, when he can’t be the first ever to face persecution. Australia accepts the principle of atheism as a belief to be protected, while the United States doesn’t. It’s one of those things nations can cherry-pick from the fruit bowl of international law without feeling that their “civilized” status is compromised. It may be the only belief of that kind right there in the 1951 refugee convention, but with no back-up institution vulgar enough to insist upon it. That is part of our problem, us atheists: we don’t organise.

- Come on, atheists: we must show some faith in ourselves,, January 15, 2014.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Social safety net?

Bad karma?

Overcoming idioms as stumbling block

Taking their feet off the pedal?

Turn the tables?

My bad?


(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)



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