March 2, 2005

Democracy No Cure-All

Robert Conquest on "Downloading Democracy" in the National Interest:

The common addiction to general words or concepts tends to produce mind blockers or reality distorters. As Clive James has put it, "verbal cleverness, unless its limitations are clearly and continuously seen by its possessors, is an unbeatable way of blurring reality until nothing can be seen at all."

Mark Steyn should get that tattooed on the back of his hand.

"Democracy" is high on the list of blur-begetters--not a weasel word so much as a huge rampaging Kodiak bear of a word. The conception is, of course, Greek. It was a matter of the free vote by the public (though confined to males and citizens). Pericles, praising the Athenian system, is especially proud of the fact that policies are argued about and debated before being put into action, thus, he says, "avoiding the worst thing in the world", which is to rush into action without considering the consequences. And, indeed, the Athenians did discuss and debate, often sensibly.

Its faults are almost as obvious as its virtues. And examples are many--for instance, the sentencing of Socrates, who lost votes because of his politically incorrect speech in his own defense. Or the Athenian assembly voting for the death of all the adult males and the enslavement of all the women and children of Mytilene, then regretting the decision and sending a second boat to intercept, just in time, the boat carrying the order. Democracy had the even more grievous result of procuring the ruin of Athens, by voting for the disastrous and pointless expedition to Syracuse against the advice of the more sensible, on being bamboozled by the attractive promises of the destructive demagogue Alcibiades.

It's bizarre how neocons are so obsessed with the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides' account of it, yet stumble repeatedly into the same mistakes the Athenians made.

Even in failure, the thought-fires it set off went on burning. But the views it posed did not really return to Europe and elsewhere until a quarter of a millennium ago. Thus it was not its example but its theory that hit the inexperienced thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the inheritance was less about the Periclean need for debate than about the need to harness the people (to a succession of rulers). And though the broader forces of real consensual rule began to penetrate, from England and elsewhere (such as the early New England town meetings or those of Swiss rural cantons), they had to compete in the struggle for the vote with inexperienced populations and "philosophical" elites.

The revival of the concept of democracy on the European continent saw this huge stress on the demos, the people. They could not in fact match the direct participation of the Athenian demos, but they could be "represented" by any revolutionary regime claiming to do so--often concerned, above all, to repress "enemies of the people." Also, the people, or those of military age, could be conscripted in bulk--the lev┼Że en masse that long defeated more conventional armies.

Burke said, "The Revolution was made, not to make France free, but to make her formidable; ... not to make her more observant of laws, but to put her in a condition to impose them." Of course, no true conservative pays attention to that old fuddy-duddy Burke anymore.


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