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Whither Democracy in America? Part 3: Myths and Lessons of Athenian Democracy
by Dr. Habib Siddiqui
2008-03-31 09:31:25
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In 1871, Walt Whitman, the great poet of America, wrote, "We have frequently printed the word democracy, yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempest out of which its syllables have come, from pen to tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remain unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted." (Democracy Vistas)

The word democracy derives from the ancient Greek dēmokratia (literally, rule by the people) formed from the roots dēmos "people," "the mob, the many" and kratos "rule" or "power." To understand its history, we should look at Athenian Greece where it all began nearly 2500 years ago. Athenian democracy evolved out of the revolt of organized peasants against the abusive power of oligarchic rulers who redistributed wealth upward – from demos to the privileged few. It transformed those abused peasants into active citizens who demanded public accountability of their elected officials. Socrates is the towering figure of this democracy precisely because he challenged the chauvinistic thinking of his day. As we shall find out below, he was also its major casualty.

It is not easy for anyone in the West to think of ancient, democratic Athens as anything but a paragon of equality, free speech and democracy. After all, to him/her Ancient Greece is the keystone of Western civilization. However, as classical historian Bettany Hughes has demonstrated, democratic Athens had a darker side. It was highly xenophobic and imperial. To illustrate this point, Athenian statesman and General Pericles's great funeral oration is enough. He proclaimed, "For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation … we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us." (Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War) He contended that democracy at home was rooted in slavery, patriarchal households, and the economic advantage of the cheap labor for resident aliens who could not vote.

Under the Athenian empire, as Professor Loren J Samons II of Boston University has argued, almost all of Athens' formerly free allies eventually either accepted her hegemony or were reduced to the status of tribute payers. Athenian settlers occupied prime lands in former allies' states, local legal cases were transferred to Athens (where Athenian juries would render decisions), garrisons were established in some cities and the allies were required to make the contributions at certain Athenian festivals.

Democratic Athens practiced “black magic” and created a society where one in three Athenians was a slave, many separated from their families and forcibly sterilized. The Athenian intellectuals who were describing the ideals of justice and freedom were also slave owners. Nine tenths of the Athenian population were not allowed to vote. This included all women, as well as slaves and other groups. Not only were women denied the vote, they were considered demonic and compelled to veil themselves fully outside their homes.

Rhetoricians practiced modern “spin control” as a central part of democracy, and no two years went by in which Athenians did not vote to go to war. Overall, it was a bloody, confused place of both bright ideas and a repressive regime. Thus, Athens became a warlike state that carved out an empire to enrich itself, an empire that couldn't tolerate criticism from within. Inevitably, Socrates had to be its casualty. In 399 BC, a jury of some 500 Athenians voted to convict and execute him. Despite its legacy which lasts to this day, democracy in ancient Athens did not flourish but quickly died.

With such a root in Athenian democracy, is it any surprise, therefore, that many of the European powers – e.g., Holland, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Russia, France, England and Germany – had deep imperial foundations? We are not surprised either that many founders of the American Revolution – from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson - were slavers. Thus, true to this complex and contradictory nature of democracy, the U.S. government, immediately following the Civil War, would deploy troops in the imperialist cause of further westward expansion, engaging in genocidal war against the indigenous peoples.

It was no accident also that in the early 20th century, while America was preaching democracy, she had already colonized Guam, Samoa, Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba, let alone denying those same rights to her black population and women. Not only that, she created a vast hegemony in the Central and South America by giving new meaning, force and enforcement to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
The word "democracy" no longer stands for the type of "direct" democracy that was practiced by the Athenians. It is redefined as something like "government by elected officials that ensures the sovereignty and benefit of the people while protecting their rights."

Very few people today would question the wisdom of this "indirect" democracy. It is seen (and prescribed by America) as a panacea in many third world countries where people are denied the right to elect their representatives, where there is lack rule of law and separation of powers. Democracy allows them to elect leaders who will serve their best interests. And if those leaders do not measure up, it empowers them to replace them in the next election, provided that election is held on time, and it is fair and free. It is all about majority rule.

However, as has been correctly argued by Fareed Zakaria in his book "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad", majority rule may not necessarily preserve democracy and guarantee liberty, freedom, equality and justice for all. The majority spirit may prove to be not only misguided but also greedy, corrupt, belligerent and bloody. It can lead to mob violence, annexation and colonization of others. It can crucify voices of reason and moderation, if such views are deemed politically incorrect or Socratic. Through enacted laws, it can even terrorize its own people.

The founding fathers of America viewed democracy of the Athenian type as an unstable form of government. America emerged as a republic (representative government) by creating buffers between the popular will and legislative or policy decisions, and not as a demokratia precisely because of that elite fear of passions and ignorance of the demos. For founding fathers – just as Plato – too much Socratic questioning from the demos and too much power sharing of the elites with the demos were expected to lead to anarchy, instability, or perpetual rebellion. Not surprisingly, the term "democracy" is nowhere to be found in either the American Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

Plato defined democracy as "a polis full of freedom and frank speech (Parrhesia)" that could never resolve the perennial problem of corruption or crawling despotism. For him, only the rule of philosopher-kings equipped with knowledge of the good life could control the unruly passions of the demos. The views of Socrates, Aristophanes and Thucydides (all Athenians) were not much different either. Arguably they were all prejudiced aristocrats who sought to thwart the empowerment of the poor.

In America today, like many other democratic countries of the world – both liberal and illiberal (to coin Zakaria's terminologies) - democracy is increasingly becoming a toy in the hands of the elites, the powerful financiers and lobbyists of various interest groups that back politicians and set their agenda before those of the ordinary voters. Many politicians and government officials, after their retirement, end up with lucrative jobs as Board Members in various lobby groups and corporations to buttress the vicious cycle of power. Such common practices are a danger to the health of a nation.

With a failing economy and a looming war casualty, America needs to take a Socratic self-examination and choose her path. And it is not going to be an easy one. After all, the contingent origins of American democracy and the ignoble beginnings of imperial America go hand in hand. This vibrant and multifaceted bonding of the opposites -- of democratic flourishing and racial subjugation, of freedom and slavery, of imperial resistance (to British rule) and imperial expansion of Amerindians -- is driven primarily by market forces to satisfy expanding population and greedy profiteers.

There is no denying that the influence of merchants of war, big business, Constantinian Christians and Jewish neoconservatives has steadily grown to a dangerous level today. Neither of the two major parties is immune from their deadly embrace. Only time would tell if this combo had pushed America off the cliff of ascendancy to embrace the fate of imperial Athens in the dustbin of history.

As mother America is torn between the opposing twins of democracy, it may be prudent to take lessons from Athenian Democracy. To quote Prof. Simons II, "Athenian history teaches us that 'what the people want' is not always or even usually a good thing. The execution of Socrates should give us pause…. The Athenians provoked hostilities with Sparta and Corinth, their former allies against Persia, fighting with one or both states (and their allies) off and on from about 460 to 404 BC. During that period, the Athenians undertook military actions virtually every year, often attempting to expand their empire (invading Sicily in 415), reduce recalcitrant allies or force others into the Delian League. In the course of these conflicts, the Athenians bankrupted themselves while killing thousands of fellow Greeks and selling thousands more into slavery. In 416, when the island of Melos (where the Venus de Milo would be found in 1820) refused to join the alliance, the Athenians besieged the city and then slaughtered all the Melian men and enslaved the women and children. Afterwards, refusing offers of peace on favorable terms from their foes, the Athenians eventually lost the war, their fleet and their empire."

Is America listening? Is she ready to leash her imperial passion?

February 28, 2008

Click here to read Part One

Click here to read Part Two

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Emanuel Paparella2008-03-31 11:19:25
"No one pretends that Democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried."

--Winston Churchill

Churchill had it on target: with all its warts Democracy remains by far preferable to Theocracy as found in present day Iran and Saudi Arabia, ideological Communism as found in China, Cuba, North Korea parading as rule by the people but in the final analysis a Dictatorship. Indeed while it may be true that a slave holding democracy is an oxymoron and a contradiction, it is equally true on the other hand that that there is a better chance that the equality of all men be recognized and slavery eventually eliminated within a democracy than within any other form of government; the same applies to imperialism. Dr. ought to read more carefully the struggle between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars. The lesson there is that Democracy has the ability to transform and change and adapts while dictatorship may be stronger and may win for a while but its inability to adapt and change eventually dooms it. Indeed without understanding that principle one understands little about what makes the Wes tick and what tha word Renaissance means.

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