Tag Archives: Orlando Patterson

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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On viewing “The Handmaid’s Tale” with My Daughter

Note: What follows (with the aim of getting it out quickly, without the usual belabored perfectionism, a little rough around the edges) is adapted from this morning’s handwritten journal entry. As with the disclaimer attached to the TV series: Mature audiences only; readers’ discretion advised.

Invited over to youngest daughter Stephanie’s last night to watch the first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I had read the novel years ago, introduced it, I think, to her and Nadina. I remembered the dystopian premise and mood without a great deal of meaningful detail. Some details, now, have been updated to make it resonate all the more explicitly with our historical moment, but without harm to the story’s integrity. The author (Stephanie pointed out to me, she and Rachel having already seen the whole series) was allowed a role in the script: she stepped forward and slapped the face of the lead protagonist and handmaid-in-training—played by Elisabeth Moss—for not taking her cues with sufficient show of hatefulness.

So many disturbing scenes in these first segments, there’s no point in enumerating them. The ritualized sexual intercourse of the “commander” and handmaid could not be more antiseptic or less erotic. His zipper is open, instrument properly inserted (one presumes, for sake of the narrative) at the precise and proper point of access, but otherwise both of them are covered in all modesty; her head cradled by the barren wife whose legs might someday again be symbolically spread for the ritualized act of childbirth by proxy. The ritual is only sensual to the degree that a bowel movement is sensual—from her standpoint, at least, who perhaps derives more satisfaction from the latter, while the man in his procreative labor does enjoy some rudimentary orgasm.

But the sequence that finally brought me past moral disgust to the verge of tears is the execution of another handmaid’s judgment of “redemption” from the crime of “gender treason” (read: lesbianism), played by the actor (Alexis Bledel) formerly known as Rory on The Gilmore Girls TV show that Anita and I used to watch with our daughters.

The closing scene in that segment is sickening enough: when that redeemed captive of Biblical sin awakens in a sterile white room to discover that she has been surgically (and genitally) mutilated; so that, as the hateful matron puts it to her, while she can still experience the great joy of impregnation and giving birth to someone else’s child, she will no longer be tempted by physical desire for what she cannot have. But the really gut-wrenching scene, the one that had already devastated the father (and father-in-law) of Stephanie and Rachel, occurs just previous to that: the woman’s abbreviated last parting from her lover, cuffed hands clutched in the back of the penal van until the beloved one is ripped from her and she left screaming at the spectacle of rope being placed around loved one’s neck, her body lifted into the air by a construction crane.

Atwood with actors Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley

Now, let’s be clear: whatever not-so-distant dystopia might actually threaten us, if the retrograde would-be theocrats and other powermongers of the moment get their way, it is unlikely that it will exactly resemble this one of Margaret Atwood’s imagination. But the defunding of Planned Parenthood; a return to back-alley abortions and increased maternal deaths (already the United States has greater child mortality—more in some states than others—than any other “advanced” Western nation); opposition, even, to the very concepts of contraception and family planning, unless for the wealthy and hypocritical and privileged; well, we already see how easily something like that might happen, and to no small degree already has happened to those women and families least equipped for survival in this country. However much American women might remain, superficially, free, they might be forgiven for feeling so perilously close to becoming—body and soul—tied to the will of the men who rule the roost at home or who pull the legislative and judicial strings in Washington D.C. and/or their state capitals.

But the real take-home here, from last night’s viewing, is the degree to which some women will stand against other women for their own security within an essentially and abusively patriarchal order. Not just the obvious fanatics like the hate-filled doctrinaire matron who seethes at the very thought of lesbianism, and enjoys the infliction of pain on other women with repeated, violent thrusts of a sort of electrical taser-stick to neck or shoulder or face. Nor just the genuinely religious women of our Heartland who, beaten down by economic and other exigencies, are persuaded to see the source of their problems in the liberal or culturally depraved other. But also the privileged wife (like the mafia wife on The Sopranos, who tries not to think about the murderous activity that underwrites her privilege) who is so pleased to flourish tender care on her husband’s almost subhuman sex slave so long as she might be going to bear her a child. How oblivious she is to the handmaid’s very human feelings as she listens to her mistress exclaim at how God-blessed she is to have her there to bear the child that, as soon as she’s done nursing it, will be ripped from her arms forever without a thought! And then, when it turns out that our protagonist is really not pregnant after all, how swiftly cooing wife turns into vicious hellcat, dragging the presumed tramp upstairs to her attic bedroom and throwing her on the floor, hissing: Things can get so much worse for you here!, or words to that effect.

Similar phenomena that continue to occur in the real world we inhabit include Blacks and other racial minorities who align themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, with the party or class of privilege. I suspect, too, that it is manifest, however precariously, in working- and lower-middle class individuals who still dream of winning the lottery or of acquiring celebrity status by means of reality TV. If we can still get rich, too, or can talk ourselves into still believing in that possibility, then what social or economic ill might we not tolerate in the spirit of selfish self-interest?

All of which brings me back to Orlando Patterson’s argument in his history of the making of the idea of freedom in Western civilization, which emerges from and is defined by its relationship to slavery. Numerous other writers and activists have made the point: that the relative prosperity that we defend was built on the backs of indentured servants and slaves. What has lately been unveiled (though not for the first time) as “America’s original sin,” which we continue to ignore at our own peril. The tragic secret of our history that resurgent voices of white supremacy—however rabid or muted the assumption of racial or cultural or class superiority might be, however conscious or unconscious.

This hearkens back to Jay-Z’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross, which I heard the other day on Fresh Air after he became the first rapper to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; and what he said about his hip-hop version of “It’s a Hard-knock Life” from the Broadway musical Annie—and of why, despite the complaints of offended white pride by some detractors, there is nothing more natural than an African American Annie, given Black experience in the era between the post-Civil War overthrow of Reconstruction and the present era of police shootings of unarmed Black men and BLM.

The Handmaid’s Tale, in any case, is just one manifestation of humanity’s original sin of power and privilege built on the backs of others. And it is true original sin, if we may set aside the religious-mythological model that paints the woman as eternal temptress and authorizes condescending patriarchy to act on womankind’s behalf and for her good as established by the male to whom she is a help meet and proper. Take the issue of race and extend it universally, and we are likewise faced with our national sins of territorial and economic imperialism. The ecological sinning against Nature and against poor nations and Indigenous peoples whose mineral wealth we have robbed and will hold onto until it is pried (like Charlton Heston’s guns) from our cold, dead hands. The sin is original and sticks to us all to the extent that we stubbornly refuse to see that we are not a truly “exceptional” nation or “self-made” success story whose wealth and privilege do not depend to any appreciable degree on the labor and the exploitation of our fellow (and presumed lesser) humans.

This is the hard truth behind the increasingly—and inhumanely—punitive state in which our increasingly undemocratic handlers continue to sustain a perpetual-war economy by sending bombs to Saudi Arabia and by locking up the malcontents in our country, warehousing them in prisons rather than grant them the dignity of “socialized” healthcare and food and shelter for all. Even the squatters—“unworthy” poor, we are supposed to believe—who encamp in the house next door, with its overgrowth of grass and weeds, with its electricity and water cut until the state can finally evict them. If it were a national priority—if we were really pro-life instead of merely pro-birth, as the radical Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister has put it—we could guarantee a dignified life for all our citizens. And might be surprised at how many hopeless bums become respectable neighbors. It has been demonstrated, after all, even in this land of hard-wired libertarianism, that given their dignity, seeing to their basic human needs and giving them a hand up, without drowning them in punitive bureaucratic regulations aimed at reducing or withdrawing those benefits, the members of that potential community will make it a functioning and mutually-reliant, democratically-run space.

Even in conservative Republican Utah, in Salt Lake City, and outside of the theocratic strictures of traditionalist “United Orders,” it has recently been proved that, if you give the homeless a home and a social system to help them get on their feet, they will become grateful and responsible neighbors and citizens. Give them their dignity first, without strings attached, without punitive regimes—African Americans, Latinos, the Native or Indigenous communities, downtrodden and homeless, even poor and struggling Caucasians everywhere—and we might become a healed and sustaining community. But as long as we insist on separation, on greed and war and death, on law and order, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later, on the punitive economic regime of privilege for the few on the backs of the many, we will continue to unravel as a civilization and as a coherent, once-relatively-functional society.

All things are related. We sink or swim together. The power of the oligarchs and the militarists will have to be overthrown, since entrenched power will not give itself up easily. One hopes that it might be done nonviolently, by means of firm and multiplying resistance to the wreakers of under-acknowledged violence who are amassed against would be, small-d democrats. The odds are against us, and pessimism may be the most sane and realistic attitude to have in the face of potential nuclear and climate catastrophe. Especially if that realism awakens us to the critical nature of the struggle we face. But if we leaven that natural pessimism with a modicum of hope joined to enlightened, collective action of the many, then Naomi Klein (with her call to action against the multiple shocks that the world’s political and economic powers continually unleash on us) is right, and our future might indeed still be redeemable.

Otherwise, it seems to me that we are royally screwed. If I may say so, not only bluntly, but in the most polite manner possible, under the circumstances.