John Keane’s questions to David Held

In response to David Held’s account of his involvement with the Libyan regime, John Keane has published an open letter at openDemocracy raising further questions for Held. This is one of the smarter interventions in the whole affair, it seems to me, because amongst the specific issues of ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ that Keane raises about money, PhDs, plagiarism, etc, he ends with a set of questions that transcend the specifics of this case. His ‘parting question’ is the ‘least tangible but most concrete of all’: “do you think the LSE Libya affair has done damage to the scholarly credibility of research programmes in the area of democracy?” Keane raises interesting questions (and not just for Held) about the extent to which research on a concept and practice which has such powerful normative force, undertaken in a spirit which wants to do justice to the values and promise behind this force, might always lend itself to the possibility of ‘perversion’ or ‘misrepresentation’. One response of course to Keane’s line of questioning on this issue is to dismiss all such research as hopelessly naive and idealistic. But that is hardly his intention. His question does raise some important issues about the relationship between broadly normative and more worldly analyses of democracy and democratization, however – and of how to temper the idealism of the former with the realism of the latter without reducing the real-world force of the normative content of ‘democracy’ in its various registers and forms to mere ideology and hypocrisy.

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