Tag Archives: Aviva Chomsky

On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 3)

This should be the second segment to last of my review and response to Paul Woodruff’s First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, copied, with slight edits, from my personal journal of last year. While at all stages I have quoted rather liberally from Woodruff himself, that is even more the case in the first part of what follows, where I thought it best not to try improving on his patient development of a somewhat complex idea.

Tuesday, September 19 – “James Madison did not believe in the equality of rich and poor, and so he and the founders of the United States Constitution made sure that the rich would have greater power than the poor. Not so in democratic Athens”: So wrote Paul Woodruff in the gloss at the beginning of …

Chapter Six. Natural Equality.

“Rich and poor, Greek and Asian, men and women, all belong to the same human family. The earliest Greek poets saw the significance of this. Homer makes the Trojans – an alien race – more sympathetic than the Greeks. He does this by setting stunning scenes from family life – a baby frightened by his father’s helmet, an old woman pleading from the walls for her soldier-son to take refuge, an old man risking everything to recover his son’s body. These are not Greeks; they are Asiatics (to the Greeks) and they will be utterly demolished by the Greeks. Yet the Greek poet knows how they feel, because they are human, and because – apparently – he believes in a common human nature.

            “Homer is no democrat. But the same theme sounds in the work of the earliest truly democratic poet of Athens, Aeschylus. Aeschylus fought against the Persian invasion at the battle of Marathon. Yet he was able to imagine the grief and pain of the Persian court when they heard that their great army of invasion had been defeated by the Greeks. It is an unparalleled feat of imagination: what great American writer has made palpable the pain of Japanese leadership in 1945, when it saw the necessity of surrender? And yet the Japanese were no more different from Americans than Persians from Greeks at the time of Marathon. And the Persians posed a greater threat. Still, the poet knows how to express their fear and grief” (pp. 128-9).

“In the time of democracy, the study of human nature emerged among a group of early anthropologists.” – Democritus, Pythagoras, and others – “These early anthropologists studied cultural differences in order to identify what is common to human beings” (pp. 129-30).

“Democracy rests on the idea that the poor should be equal to the rich or well born – at least for sharing governance. But, as we all know, human beings are not equal. So in what ways are the citizens of Athens equal? They all know what it means to be Athenian, because of their common culture, but they are not equal in education. At the same time, Athenians believe that they all have the same human nature, but not that they are equal in strength or intelligence. What is left to be the meaning of their belief in natural equality? Like most democratic ideas, this one is controversial” (p. 132).

“As soon as the idea of human nature became explicit, it started to encounter resistance from antidemocratic philosophers. Philosophers have two main objections. Both miss their target. The democratic theory of nature is neither so thin as to succumb to the first objection, nor so thick as to succumb to the second. A too-thin theory would refer only to our common biology, and so leave out value altogether. On the other hand, a too-thick theory would incorporate values that are specific to one culture. A just-right theory is thick enough to include values, but not so thick as to include only the values of the person who proposes it” (p. 134). (In the margin, I refer to this as Woodruff’s “Goldilocks analogy: 1. too thick, 2. too thin, 3. just right.”)

            “Once we start appealing to nature in order to justify political choices, we are in danger of claiming too much for human nature. We are tempted to think that the way we live and think is natural, while the way other people do is unnatural. One group might claim that nature requires us to criminalize homosexual behavior, while another group does not. Or one group might wish to give political rights to women while another says it would be unnatural for men to allow women to join them in politics. Unless there is a rule that limits claims on nature, any group could thicken its idea of human nature in order to claim natural support for its own values. If that’s so, then this whole line of reasoning is useless. Bogus appeals to nature are so common that many philosophers want to leave human nature out of political discussions altogether.

“Luckily, there is a rule that limits the appeal to nature. Human nature has to be thin enough to be shared by all human groups. If you try to make human nature as a weapon in a war of cultures, you are no longer talking about nature. Nature cannot disagree with itself, but cultures do disagree with each other. Nature underlies all culture. The mistake is to take ourselves, in our own culture, as paradigms of the human” (pp. 136-7).

“In short, they know that language can weave society together, and that the weaving works because it uses discussion to sort out good decisions from bad ones. Now see what follows: We are all capable, by nature, of learning to use language to build and maintain community, through sharing in government and justice. If we are not permitted to do so, we are not permitted to realize our full potential as human beings. This argument is based on a theory of human nature that is neither too thick nor too thin” (p. 138).

“It did not escape the best Greek thinkers that the same rule that opens politics to poor citizens should open politics to women, foreigners, and even slaves. The ancient idea of a common human nature […] is as powerful as the modern idea of human rights, when it comes to supporting democracy. But even powerful ideas do not always affect the way people live. Some ideas call for greater changes than people can tolerate.

“So it was after 1776 in our era, when a group of American men signed a statement proclaiming that all men were created equal with inalienable rights, and afterwards chose to deny those rights to slaves and Native Americans. So it was in ancient Greece. Democracy came on a wave of good feeling about human nature, but that wave was not powerful enough to sweep away the most oppressive traditions” (pp. 140-41).

“To the credit of Athenians, they did on at least one occasion give freedom and citizenship to a group of slaves, to reward them for service in battle. But this was an anomaly. On the whole, slavery was proof against any argument brought against it on the basis of democratic ideals. What saved slavery, and doomed the slaves, was far simpler than Aristotle’s argument. Too many Athenians had a financial stake in slavery” (p. 142).

Orlando Patterson

“As happens all too often in Athens, wealth won out over freedom and equality.

“The protection of property, however, is not in itself an ideal of democracy” (p. 143).

This all corresponds well to Orlando Patterson’s idea of Western freedoms being built on the backs of slaves; an idea picked up by others in relation to even my freedoms being built on the back of African slaves – and now, according to Aviva Chomsky in her book Undocumented, which I am almost finished reading, in respect to our artificially created “illegals” and the impoverished around the world who provide cheap, exploitable labor.

Chapter Seven. Citizen Wisdom.

            “So all human beings – all human beings – are given a share of the ability to be citizens, and that ability is understood both as a pair of virtues and as a kind of citizen wisdom. This is the most controversial idea behind democracy: it is a natural part of being human to know how to govern your community” (p. 149).

In respect to the decision to go (or not to go) to war: “We cannot let the generals make this decision for us. To begin with, they disagree among themselves, so we must decide. If they were experts by Plato’s standards, they would agree. But even if they did agree, could we let them make the decision on our behalf? Is any human being expert enough to know what the future will bring?” (p. 151)

Here and elsewhere, Woodruff shoots the shibboleth of “expert opinion” full of holes, without discounting the need for certain kinds of expertise for different kinds of tasks. It is also worth observing here that, in our own day, we have already ceded to the executive branch (i.e., the President) the liberty to launch acts of war at will. Trump has in turn thrown it all over to “his” generals, a trifecta of men who are in charge of a great deal of oversight that is Constitutionally supposed to be overseen by civilians. A commentator I read today suggests that we are not too far removed from the conditions that would allow the rule of a military junta, as earlier in Argentina and Chile, among other places.

“These people who speak to us claim to be experts,” Woodruff writes, “but they are not telling the truth. No doubt they are experts on their own line of work – tactics in war – and they would agree on how best to conduct a siege.” (Some, the civilian neo-cons like Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration, are not even that: they are mere ideologues, who keep singing the same song however bad all our wars go.) “But no one is expert on what the future will bring from a decision like this one. So these speakers are deceiving us, and perhaps themselves as well, when they think this mastery of tactics gives them the authority to tell us what to do in foreign affairs. Worse, some of them are investors in the import-export scheme that looks to make money from the war. Their personal self-interest clouds their judgment, and they are not thinking for the good of us all” (pp. 151-2).

In this context Woodruff addresses the “antidemocratic metaphor” (as the ancients understood it) of the “ship of state.” “Some modern writers use the ship image as if it were innocent. But it is not. Most political decisions are not at all like the ones made aboard a ship” (p. 153).

            “Citizen wisdom is what we exercise, as ordinary educated citizens, when we judge a contest of experts. It is not the same as ‘folk wisdom.’ Folk wisdom has many virtues, and it is the root of citizen wisdom. But it needs to be seasoned by education. Citizen wisdom is capable of learning from experts, when it recognizes them.” (Climate scientists, anyone?!!) “Citizen wisdom is what the citizens in a well-run democracy ought to have. It builds on common human abilities to perceive, reason, and judge, but it requires also healthy traditions and good education for all” (p. 154). This “ability to make good decisions without knowledge was called euboulia – good judgment” (p. 153).

(“Any government is government by ignorance. No one knows the future, but luckily, knowledge is not everything.” – p. 153)

Aviva Chomsky

Ancient Greeks knew “that expert knowledge can lead to hubris, the outrageous behavior that comes from pride in success. Experts often think they can do without citizen wisdom altogether. If sea captains try to assume political power on the strength of their success in navigation, that would be a good example of hubris at its destructive work. Hubris shows up when success leads to pride and pride leads to outrageous behavior, in this case, to taking more than your share of political power” (p. 155).

An aside: in the context of the “ship of state” metaphor, I am struck by Walt Whitman’s great tribute to Lincoln: “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman, of all people, did not intend an antidemocratic message. I will not take the time, right now, to pursue that paradox to whatever rich territory it might lead.

“In democracy, every adult citizen is called upon to assist in managing public affairs. Therefore, the democracy should see that every citizen has the ability to do so. Citizen wisdom is common human wisdom, improved by education” (p. 156). General, not vocational education, but I’ll save a deeper exploration of that to the appropriate chapter (of course, all of these chapters, woven together, are intertwined at all points, as is already clear from the constant overlapping of those seven big ideas).

“Education is the hope of democracy. And though democracies often fail in education it is imperative that we do not lose faith in the potential of the people to make good decisions when they are decently informed. Politicians who lose that faith tell lies to the people. Lies are fatal to democracy. When you lie to the people you take the decision out of their hands.

“The people must be able to hear expert wisdom, however, and they must know enough to make good use of it” (p. 162).

As a good example of what happens when politicians lie to the public, Woodruff brings up the Vietnam War, in particular, LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin. From that rich discussion comes a bit of advice to leaders who think the people are too ignorant to take the truth: “And if they really do not understand you, whose fault is that? How well have you explained the matter? Further back, what have you done to support education?” (In the days of privatizer Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, we must emphasize the word public in education.) “If you really cannot expect your fellow citizens to understand the situation, whose fault is that?

            “The great failure of Athenian democracy, in my view,” Woodruff writes at chapter’s end, “was its failure to extend education beyond the moneyed class. Athens’ killing of Socrates is unassailable testimony to the ignorance of its people. Ordinary people had lethal suspicions of the new education. But they ought not to have been left knowing so little about it” (pp. 168-9).

Which leads us to the present moment, in which religious, private, and online education – as well as home-schooling – are leading to a continually and precipitously further dumbing down of the American citizenry. The mass of American people know nothing about Darwinian science or about climate change, for instance, and are kept ignorant of far more by gigantically lying politicians and by the corporate media, with Fox and Breitbart News at the head of that class. I’m not sure that a democracy can afford to let our children be educated at home by ignorant and superstitious parents with inadequate, privatized scripts and programs. If they only know what the fanatics (or just plain duped, ignorant, unschooled) teach them, how can they participate responsibly in a civic process that depends on both sides being heard and on a tolerance that extends to harmony?

But, that they’re ignorant is not an excuse to write them off. If the people are ignorant, I think Thomas Jefferson said, the solution to the problem is education. Because, without the people’s informed voice, there can be no government of and by the people – no democracy.

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