Amphibian Politics

June 6, 2011

“We forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is men who are afraid of the light.” – Plato

Great political metaphors earn a long shelf life.  Plato coined one of the best, a thought probably lifted from Socrates. Plato likened the 1,500 some odd classical Greek settlements and city states arrayed around the Black and Mediterranean Seas to “frogs around a pond.” Greek culture had spread far and wide for its day, but it was still a small piece of the universe. Early philosophers were humbled by what they didn’t know about the larger world beyond Greece.

Nonetheless, poor and untimely communications may have nurtured the political pluralism and religious diversity that was the true glory of ancient Greek culture. For most Greeks, including Spartans, independence was more important than democracy. The variety of polities in Greek waters ran the gamut from chaotic egalitarianism to ham-fisted dictatorships; when neither worked, the vacuum was often filled by a tyrant. Yet, the individual city states were independent and free – and vulnerable. The cement that bound Greeks was language, art, and commerce – not politics. The enlightened, if not loose, Greek water world was always at risk; first to Persians and then to Romans.

Greece is associated with democracy today because of Athens, a democratic experiment which reached an ironic climax with the trial of Socrates. The formal charges against Socrates were impiety and pedagogic corruption. Socrates drank the hemlock to score one last debating point; suggesting that democracy might be its own worst enemy. A jury of Athenian citizens helped Socrates stage his last teaching moment.

The trial was not about freedom of speech; it was about opposition to democracy. Socrates opposed the Athenian brand of polis and several hundred free men voted to silence his voice of dissent. Wisdom of crowds, indeed!

Neither Socrates, nor Plato, nor Aristotle were great friends of democracy.  Aristotle became tutor to Alexander, the boy general who ended the Athenian experiment with government “of the people and by the people.”

The Roman culture that superseded that of Greece was symbiotic.  An educated Roman was one that spoke Greek. The irredentism which became the Dark Ages did not start with the fall of Rome; it began with fall of Athens. The Roman Empire may have lasted for two millennia, but it was always an avatar of an earlier civilization. And when that empire fell, first on the Tiber, then on the Bosporus, the vacuum was filled by lower forms still; rodents, fleas, disease, and ignorance – a civic and ideological night that lasted for a thousand years.

All of the world’s great waters are surrounded today by noisy frogs; and the political hubris that subverted early democracy is with us still.  Emboldened by the fall of National Socialism and Communism, America and Europe celebrate a universal democratic norm; a mythic idiom, a political silver bullet that Utopians believe to be the closet aspiration of all rational men. Never mind that the world’s most populous nation, China, is still warmed by the fires of Marxism. And never mind that another fourth of the world’s population, dar al Islam, is energized by the Hira of a 7th Century religious zealot.

Three fatal flaws, or toxic assumptions, are usually associated with democracy; universality, determinism, and vendibility.

Idealists assume that democracy is a model with universal application. Little historical evidence supports this view. Beginning with the Greek experience, most examples of egalitarian political forms failed or devolved to republics; and the republican exemplar flourished only briefly during the Roman era. Indeed, the declaratory and constitutional boilerplate associated with the American experiment does not mention “democracy.” And constitutional provisions, like the separation of powers, are daily reminders that the founding fathers did not believe in the wisdom of crowds. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” might make for a memorable speech, but such sentiments have little to do with political reality – especially in Lincoln’s day.

A second flawed predicate is one that assumes that democratic institutions represent an evolved political consciousness. Such political Darwinism confuses history, or the passage of time, with progress. History is a two-way street; irredentism is as likely as improvement. Historical phenomena like the Dark Ages, National Socialism, and contemporary Islamism are all cautionary tales about the twin vectors of human history.

History is not wishful thinking; it is not deterministic; it does not move only from right to left; and if evidence and science matters, human politics are as likely to regress as advance. Irredentism and stasis are not simply options; they may be the preferred historic choices. Apathy is often the loudest voice in the public square.

The agent of regression is ignorance. And ignorance, now the science of Agnotology, is at the heart of the vendibility problem. Celebrated facilitators like the internet and social networks are as likely to spread falsehoods as truth. And like history, communication, no matter the technology, is a two-way street. The internet makes it possible, as Mark Twain forecast, to get “a lie halfway round the world before truth gets its pants on.” Demagogues, like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf Qaradawi, with the assistance of al Jazeera, reach an audience of 60 million Muslims a week – in Arabia alone. Repetition is the mother of convention.

Expectations about the internet and democracy are misguided, if not implausible. Republicanism is a fragile commodity, a bottom up phenomenon. Even in America, the republic gained its sea legs in fits and starts, as much a product of imperial neglect and religious reform as premeditated design. Democracy is not always fungible. It’s just one unlikely branch of political evolution; and surely not the most persuasive.

Democracy and theocracy seem to represent the poles of modern political possibilities.  The two camps are similar, like frogs trapped in different wells, to the extent that each is afflicted with tunnel vision. Neo-conservatives and liberals see only the blue skies of democracy; and Muslim theocrats see only the dark clouds of jihad. The neo-conservative right believes that democracy is a kind of shotgun wedding; the progressive left thinks democracy is a logical consequence of bloody revolution. More pragmatic Islamists believe they can exploit the naiveté of both.

This binary world is reinforced by amoral communications. If numbers matter, pornography, not politics, is the more likely utility for cyberspace; although, as time goes by, the two may become indistinguishable (see Anthony Weiner, D-NY). Clerical demagogues and asabiyya (clan loyalty) are unlikely to be replaced by elected or appointed Muslim parliaments – or blackberry toting, English speaking nerds now posturing on al Jazeera.

When European and American politicians agitate for regime change, giving Arab autocrats, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s Bashar al Assad, the bum’s rush; the busybodies do not facilitate political freedom so much as open the door to religious tyranny – a  pathology that has stalked humanity since the 7th Century.

No Western ideology or political institution is liable to save Islam from itself. The prerequisites for modern democracy are radical religious and cultural reform. Such change is hardly inevitable and unlikely to be imposed. The major targets of internal Islamic politics are rapidly shifting from   infidels to apostates. Secular Muslim government is the enemy, not the goal of Islamic insurrections.

And for Western spectators, there is no “right” or “wrong” side of  history. History is history, merely the immutable past; subject to interpretation, but changeless nonetheless. If political eras or politicians were tested by morality, neither would pass. Human history is like a Greek tragedy, a litany of foibles punctuated by tedious political hubris, fleeting moments of levity, and the incessant chatter of myopic* frogs.

* (Frogs are naturally near-sighted. They see no further than they can jump.)


This essay appeared in the  5 June 11 edition of American Thinker .