Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Governance (not Politics)

i would like to begin by saying: i am not a historian. i do not have any qualifications in: political science, public policy, human behavior, sociology, activism, psychology, or comparative anthropology. therefore, i am inviting you to believe i really am ignorant, underinformed, misinformed, confused, and usually wrong (about everything). with that out of the way, let's begin.

The invention of Democracy came with a little clause- a prerequisite that was always understood to be its Achilles heel (to use a Hellenistic pun for an Hellenistic invention). And what was that prerequisite? A well-informed, active, and engaged citizenry. It seemed a simple enough assumption for the Greeks (though they got it wrong more often than right, and we'll come to that); as it was for the Founding Fathers, who framed the US Constitution with similar anticipations. Which is fair enough right? Who doesn't care about their life? Well, ok, in Greece you had Zeno the Stoic walking around with some different ideas, passing them on to Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and a few of his mates, but for the most part, people care. People care about their kids' educations. People care about their ability to live (read health-care). People care about their property, their livelihood (read economy). People cared about the state of peace and stability that surrounds them (read defense). In short, why wouldn't people care?, people do care, people totally care, it's the coolest thing ever to care. It's natural. Also, how can you not care?, it's everywhere. You are literally in it, it is happening all around you.

So that's how it works. You care about something(s). You care about the state that it's in. You naturally come into discussions with your fellow farmers, your fellow friends and acquaintances. These people have similar concerns as you do. You select, from those amongst you, one who is notable in their ability to communicate these concerns cogently, to win support for your cause (this the Greeks would call rhetoric), and send him off to a gathering of other such persons, where compromises could be reached that would be of benefit to all. (at very least, the majority).

I don't wear printed tshirts, I've grown off them. I prefer solid colors, or simple geometric designs- but I do love slogans printed on tshirts. The other day I saw one that said: overnewsed, underinformed. And I thought to myself... 'yes, that's about right isn't it?'.

[As an aside, I have this observation: I find it a little disconcerting that watching election campaigns (at least in the two countries I've lived in) I get the feeling that I am watching a sporting event. winners. losers. scores. falling behind. clear lead.]

Early on Democracy came across problems. I will sight just one example that has resonated with me on a personal level: the trial and death of Socrates. Note these appropriate words I quoted recently on this blog by Toni Morrison: What it is to live at the edge of a town that cannot bear your company. Socrates was given 2 minutes (sound familiar? it really is just as a coincidence- but anyone watching the debates?) to counter the claims of the Sophists- that he was leading the youth astray from the Gods, and defiling the minds of the young. In truth, Socrates had, with the most meek and modest demeanor (and the sharpest wit and reasoning capacity) asked those who claimed to know, what it is they knew. Upon scrutiny, those who claimed to know often did not know. Nor did Socrates. He made this clear from the outset. "I am curious sir, might you know what loyalty is?, and if it is a good thing?" "I do" someone would respond, "I am wise, and know the answers to your questions". Socrates would nod, dressed in rags, physically he was not very comely- often referred to as the beggar of Athens (though he never begged, it was his appearance they were noting), and continue "mind if I sit sir, and discuss this matter from you- so that I might learn what it is. I've been thinking on it, and have come up with nothing in my own mind."
"you are welcome" And so a series of questions would begin. The interlocutor would make assertions, and Socrates would begin a process of dissection. Usually, the so-called 'expert' would end up sounding foolish. (and often brash). Enough of these people were humiliated before someone took the matter to the Senate. and there we have it. The Sage of Athens, Baha'u'llah would later say this (to paraphrase): when God was rationing wisdom, that man had one sip more than the rest. And so Socrates spoke, we have three accounts- more or less, of what was said. Did the Senate of Athens make a brutal mistake? He was known amongst many as a harmless old chatterbox. Something to laugh at, even scorn in a way... but to kill? No one believed he really posed any serious sort of threat to anybody. He would walk around and ask his silly questions, if you didn't want to talk to him, you said, no thanks, I have some shopping I need to get done. He'd say no problems, do ya' need a hand carrying the bags home? It is reported that at his hearing, half the Senators were asleep. A number drunk. Most bored. Democracy is the will of the people, so the question then, naturally, is: who the hell are these people?

Democracy is founded on the principle that people have a right to self-governance. To have a say in the matters that are of interest (or necessity) to them, and their kin. And what they say suddenly becomes of grave importance. The reason you might set things up this way, is the proposition we had before, that people care what happens to them, and if they care, then no doubt they will act in a way that is in their best-interest.

But how do you know? Really. We have lawyers because we do not know the structure and formalism of the rules that govern our society. We have doctors because we do not know the functions and illnesses of our own bodies. Interestingly, we invest in doctors the ability to determine if someone is even behaving in their own best interest. A doctor can decide, non-democratically, to have someone removed from 'the system' because they fail to follow what Rousseau called 'the Social Contract'. How do we know what is in our best interest? The answer is: we ask someone who 'knows'. (Unsurprisingly, the same thing Socrates did 2 and a half thousand years ago). This person gives us advice about how to behave. So the next question is whom do we decide 'knows'? Well, we determine that based on various measures. Some like to see academic degrees, proven excellence, past recognition. Others see it as a rapport, a sense of understanding between parties. Some as any point on the spectrum between the two poles (some entirely different factors- family bonds, various prejudices, etc).

Personally, I am of the mind that the persons elected to represent me, should be the best amongst us- not the median. And the reason for it, is the best argument against Democracy: because I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed. I go to the Dr. because (s)he knows better than me what medicines I need. I go to the lawyer, because (s)he knows better than me how to structure my will so it is implemented as intended. I go to see an economist because (s)he knows how to manage the analyze the budgets of my province. Economics was invented more or less with the division of labor. By allowing people to specialize their activities, so that those more naturally inclined to hunt should hunt for all, and be more productive at it than those who are better gathers, better carpenters, better farmers, better teachers etc., and that the gains of such a division would be of benefit for all since goods/service could be traded for one another. The philosophers of Athens, determined that the smartest among them should be the ones to govern the people. They believed that running a country was best managed by people trained in the skills of the Trivium (grammar, ie the formulation of thoughts into language; dialectic, ie the construction through language of sound and logical arguments- or thoughts; and rhetoric, ie the ability to educate and persuade others in an eloquent matter) and the Quatrum (more or less what we call 'the sciences'- though mathematics has carried on, the other 'sciences' have obviously evolved over the last 2,500 years). So a goat-herd was most successful at herding goats, a philosopher was the best at analyzing problems, discovering solutions, and communicating them to ordinary citizens.


I see more and more now a political trend towards what is called Populism. The 'Populist candidate' is a phrase you hear repeated more and more frequently these days. Populism is not a new concept either (none of these concepts are... except maybe mass-socialization, mass-media, and related goodies that we haven't gotten to and I hope to avoid because everyone knows about them and everyone knows they suck and no one quite knows what to do about them). the Romans knew all about Populism, and knew that 'the mob' was where the power lay. Huxley calls them 'the proles' in Brave New World, and sadly, ladies and gentlemen, we are a global first-world community of proles. Populism is practiced in the arts (it's the reason pop-singers are more well-known than Johannes Brahms)- what sells the most is awarded the title 'Best (Fe)Male Artist'. artist? As determine essentially by a social demographic made up of over-sexualized, drugged-up, ill-confident, pimply teens who don't know the Emancipation Proclamations from the notes of a major triad. Such is the 'evaluation' and 'critical judgment' of music (as one example). But all arts are effected. As are the sciences: how many people actually know what stem-cell research involves? How it can be done other ways? What alternatives exist? How invasive it is as a procedure? and so on. (I'm not pro stem-cell research, my concern is on being well-informed, and the point is: many people do have a position on this issue). And lastly, matters of pop-culture (which by the way I despise. BUT, here, I will offer a confession: I am old-skool. To me, scholarship means what it meant to the generations before me all the way back to the 12th century: a workable knowledge of Greek and Latin (including Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Ovid, Catullus etc), theology, mathematics, the 'natural sciences', and what Plato had already determined would be called 'Poetics and Aesthetics' and the rest of us would come to know collectively as 'fine-art'. To most people nowadays, a scholarship is a wad of money someone/an organization gave you cause you're pretty good at something or another. So my point is: I'm not really impressed by people who have a working knowledge of Tom Clancy, celebrity-gossip, current television sitcom affairs, and can translate from MTV to almost-correctly-punctuated-English). Pop-culture is a reflection of the median, and worse- the median with no aspiration to rise above the median. The median has been apotheosized as 'the Common Man', 'Main Street', 'Everyman'. Being stupid, ignorant, uninformed, and worst of all: disinterested has become the signpost for being an included member of this society. Like knowing its culture. The lofty ideals of Greek philosophy, common curiosity, and the Founding Fathers of at least one current Democratic Nation have been branded: esoteric irrelevant mumbo-jumbo. Elitist crap. (not knowing anything about the economy is not your fault, it is the fault of the liberal-media-elite... or was the phrase leftwing-media-elite? whatever is was- you know the reference. And if you don't, then you should) "I am pro the government leaving me alone and not raising taxes. i'll vote for whoever won't raise my taxes" is a common 'political position'. More than half of the US would align themselves with that... and most of them, would consider that a coherent and comprehensive system of political identity. Based (I stereotypically and with-bias imagine) on a typically lax populist approach to due-scrutiny and research. (all the derision I hear when speaking to people about Al-Jazeera, most of whom haven't read Al-Jazeera 'i wouldn't read that Commie Terrorist loving propoganda rubbish'. - hmm)

Personally, I am not concerned with what people determine is their 'stance'. Pro choice. Pro guns. Pro abolition... don't care. My concern is the lack of knowledge; the ill-informed being praised as 'one of us' (the Populist tone of an ambitionless pop-culture), and the simplification of identities to simple Party mentality (which is almost identical to sporting alliances). Eg: I'm going for the Red team... how about you? Aaron Sorkin in his recent NY Times skit (I have a link to it on one of the posts lower down, I can't find it now) put it this way: American exceptionalism doesn't extend to Americans being exceptional. I think it is equally applicable to a great many number of other places I've been (in Australasia, the Orient, and Europe).

A well-informed, active, and engaged citizenry.

I don't know.
These are just some random thoughts.
Am I wrong?

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