Saturday, April 26, 2003

I've been rereading Joi Ito's paper on emergent democracy, and thinking about current events as well. His first quote is from Howard Rheingold, who mentions Athens, as far as I know the first democracy.

I've been reading a little about Athens in conjuction with Joi Ito's paper. I still have much more to learn, but some of my thoughts are crystalizing. Here's a famous funeral oration by the Athenian Pericles online. A great many of his ideals are ones which almost all of us will agree with wholeheartedly today, and it is a pleasure to read them so clearly stated at first - then niggling doubts arise. Think how odd it would be if we still felt comfortable with a summary of any branch of science first made several thousand years ago. If the problem of good government is simpler than particle physics it should be solved already, but if it isn't why has their been so little change in so long a period? Yet there are a few bits most would object to, if only out of a sense of duty.

If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates, while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour and, fighting upon a foreign soil, usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

It seems here is another sense in which democracy may not scale. Pericles speaks elsewhere about how law abiding Athenian citizens are:

The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

Yet this determination to settle Athenian disputes legally and civilly and peacefully does not lead at all to a belief that international disputes should be settled the same way. Not that there is an actual statement that they believe in marauding for fun and profit, but there is certainly no word against it. Although they did put up some resistance to becoming part of the Macedonian empire at first, they later got behind the campaign against the Persian empire, becoming in effect a willing part of an empire. Yet how can a democracy that is part of an empire be more than a province with a limited ability to govern their own affairs?

Already a few Americans have begun to talk openly of empire. This is not the stated purpose of our government in any way, yet there is no talk of the fate of empires and how we can avoid it. It seems almost to be a bug in all versions of Democracy so far. A democracy that did not unite behind a leader in wartime might be weaker than a tyrrany which did. Yet a democracy which unites behind leaders in wartime almost provides an incentive for leaders to start wars. Perhaps we need a tradition to match support of wartime presidents - a tradition of examining the decision to go to war very critically once the war is over.

Many of the nations which have historically given the most freedom to their own citizens have also been most willing to attempt to control international chaos by brute force. The idea that a dictatorship is a more efficient means of creating peace and prosperity within a nation is pretty much on the trash heap of history, but the notion that it is the best or else the only way to run international order seems to have occured to every nation which succeeded by doing the opposite internally.

I would like to think America is in no danger of falling into this trap. It is pretty clear that Iran and other nations will interfere with our plans for Iraq. Britain and other empires before them had a solution to that - conquer more territory. We all know what happened to them - including our leaders. If we do escape though, it will be at least partly by good fortune. Our constitution has built in safeguards against the problems of many other democracies - but the rise and catastrophic fall of an empire does not seem to have been among the worries of our founding fathers.

If the idea of emergent democracy is in need of a killer app, this is it. I would like to believe that people being more knowlegeble would help, but I honestly can't say that on average the people who don't worry about this are better informed than the people who do. I think the root of the problem is emotional rather than intellectual. We have all been angry enough that not only did we want to hit somebody, we genuinely felt they deserved it. Living in a world where those who cannot restrain this impulse will probably be arrested for assault and battery seems to have enabled most of us to learn to resist it even when it seems impossible. I want the United States to be the first nation in history militarily capable of empire, sorely provoked, and yet resisted the temptation. Perhaps we are on that path already - some say we can rebuild Iraq despite any meddling, some that our show of force will prevent others from not meddling. I think about any time I've been wrong about anything eagerly - it gives me hope.

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