Mar 27, 2007

What Ancient Athens Can Teach Modern Americans Today: The Health of Democracy Depends on its Citizens.

What are the responsibilities of a citizen? Or, can you be a tourist in your own country?

In 507 & 508 B.C.E. [Before the Common Era] a populist revolution brought democracy in Athens. This experiment in government was the first of its kind. It was very radical. Ordinary citizens were given rights of participation in the affairs of their city-state. Most of them would hold public office sometime or other. One of the city's leader, Pericles, argued that this new regime produced far greater achievements that any other regime. Its success was due to the openness, tolerance and cosmopolitanism; and, to the fact that its citizens were active participants, not idiots [from idiotes: a private, selfish person who doesn't care about the common good].

It's no accident that open societies tend to be more successful, and to produce the most benefits for the greatest number of people. I know that no society or any political system are perfect--and democracy is a very flawed system of governance, but it's the best system we've got. I realize that this statement is a value judgment, and, perhaps, meaningless to a person who has chosen a monastic life, or one who wants to kill others in the name of his god(s). But, for most people who don't want to impose a theocracy or an authoritarian regime, democracy is a system that can allow the greatest freedom for the individual to pursue his/her own bliss, and for the greatest opportunity for a person to fulfill his/her own potential.

Anyway, that Athenian democracy grew into an empire. This made the rest of Greece and its neighbors nervous, especially since the rest of the world was not democratic. But, it was not the enemies that destroyed Athens. The destruction came from within. Even though Athenians were confident of their superiority and confident in themselves to make the right decisions, it was arrogance that doomed the city. Athens, as an imperial power, picked many fights that resulted in massive casualties, famine and diseases.

This crisis not only brought the horrors of physical disasters but it changed the Athenians themselves. The great historian Thucydides described the 27-year long Peloponnesian War (between Athens and Sparta). He recorded the various battles, the effects of war, and what became of human relations during this time of crisis. Reasonable, educated, cultured people changed their behavior and became distrustful, vindictive, intolerant, criminals, shedding all sorts of allegiance to the ideals of a democracy and to all those qualities that had made their city great.

Thucydides himself was a critic of democracy and he believed that it would crack under pressure--as it did during the Peloponnesian War and its end, civil war in Athens. Perhaps he though that human nature is not best suited for a democratic government. Others have argued that barbarians don't know what to do with democracy. Indeed, democracy is a work in progress; it takes a long time to take hold, and it's not just a way of governing but a way of life as well.

External pressures brought on by the choices democratic people make can have a deleterious effect on democracy. But a lot depends on how people handle a crisis, like 9-11 for example. If they have been active, informed and engaged citizens, then it's easier to handle a crisis because no national paralysis takes place. Yet, when people don't know much and allow their fears to take over, a paralysis occurs. Thucydides called this, stasis--inaction, confusion, death. The more a person, or a nation, falls into this category the harder it is to get out of it.

People have a habit of complaining about outcomes--like the war in Iraq--but who owns the war really? Where were the people (and the media) to seriously challenge the claims of their administration before it committed the nation's precious resources into this ill-fated expedition?

In a state of stasis, the passive people look to their leaders to explain what's going on, because the former don't have the ability to analyze the situation, and they fall prey to the politics of fear. After 9-11, the Bush administration exploited the feelings of the American people who were afraid, wanted revenge, and were willing to believe anything. Further, they kept believing or ignoring the facts for too long. They voted for Bush in 2004 too, only to repudiate his Iraq policies within months after his reelection when the situation went from bad to worse. However, what the majority of the American people discovered in 2005 and 2006 was known before the election--but most people didn't pay attention. It was very frustrating for me to talk to voters in the few days before the 2004 election and find out that they, by large majorities, held serious misconceptions [had bought the pack of lies] about the war, ie, that Osama had been helped by Saddam to attack NYC on 9-11!

A healthy democracy requires attention from its citizens, and the power of education cannot be understimated. The question remains, why do democratic people in times of crisis come to see their freedoms as luxuries rather as basic necessities and the true sources of their country's success?

I think there's a proportional relationship between rigid structure/authoritarianism on one hadn and the degree of freedom on the other. The mediating factor is maturity. The less mature the people are, the more structure they need; conversely, the more mature people are the more responsibly can exercise their freedoms.

Oh, yes, it's possible to have adults in perpetual immaturity, acting like little children, needing the disciplinarian father figure, and letting others doing the hard thinking and telling them what to do. [The philosopher Immanual Kant wrote extensively about this condition]

The good news is that as Americans we still have choices....