Review of Importing Democracy

Subtitle: The Role of NGO’s in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina

Author: Julie Fisher

Publisher: Kettering Foundation Press, 2013

In reading this book I am struck by two things: the array of factual material, which is exceptional–Ms. Fisher has done her research and done it well–and the unfortunate absurdity of modern scholarly writing, which defeats the purpose of writing books as means for transmitting ideas.

Let me focus first on the research: Ms. Fisher shows how many of the elements that make democracy sustainable are present in the three nations she focuses in on.  These elements range from markets to grassroots organizations and associations which ensure governmental accountability and form civil opposition, preventing the use of force to implement “regime change” (or “administration change”).  At times it feels as though Ms. Fisher is hammering the reader with facts, sometimes so much so that I found myself discombobulated reading through them.

Which leads me to the unfortunate aspect of the actual writing.  First off, I found the organization of the book poor: the first chapter is heavy on presenting her theory, which lends the later chapters, where she lays on the facts, the aspect of trying to fit them into what she has already determined she will show.  This is, of course, the way the scientific method often works–but this kind of book is not describing science, it is describing society and institutions, which should be treated much more casually.  If, however, Ms. Fisher had laid out all the facts first, and then theorized afterwards, I believe that the writing would have been much smoother and the book would have been easier to read.  At times, because of how she has organized the material, it appears that she uses “but” four or five times in a span of two or three paragraphs, which should not happen.  Laying out the facts first would have prevented this.  When I teach writing, I tend to tell my students: think like a lawyer.  In no place is that more relevant than here.

Beyond that, the use of language leaves much to be desired.  Every scholar ought to be familiar with George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”  Never use a long word where a short one will do, avoid barbarous usage, and so on and so forth.  One particularly striking passage in it is where Orwell quotes famously from Ecclesiastes, then rewrites the quote in very technical, modern “scholarly” language, in which long words replace short ones and the attempt to sound sophisticated results in something approaching insanity.  I find that Ms. Fisher, like so many other scholars, forgets at times that the book’s contents only have meaning if the reader can digest them.  Thus while at the time of writing some of her phrasing and construction may have appeared good because it was sophisticated, upon revision the proper thing to do would be to try to place the same ideas in simpler, clearer language.  And this was apparently not done.

So, in respect of the facts, the book deserves three stars–it would get four or five from me if the writing were not as it is.