On Strange Bedfellows: Heroes and Democracy

On Strange Bedfellows: Heroes and Democracy

For some inexplicable reason, I’m inextricably drawn to certain historical figures whose actions I frequently find reprehensible, or unjustifiable, or foolish, but whose charisma calls me from the past, drawing deep affection, bonds I can’t or don’t care to explain fearing what they might say about the real me, the one I don’t know but who controls what I perceive and do. Among them I number Alcibiades, Alexander, Gaius Iulius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. How to explain their inclusion in a crowd of heroes that includes Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, Socrates, the gentle Nazarene, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein and Noam Chomsky. What a strange party they would make.

I’ve been rereading a novel about Alcibiades by Steven Pressfield. Alcibiades has always been an enigma to me but an important symbol of the fundamental problem with democracy, how easy it is to manipulate, distort and pervert by those without fundamental values, those for whom truth and honor are mere inconveniences to be ignored; how all too often all sides in a so called debate involving democracy become infected with those moral deficiencies; how clearly that is happening today, most clearly, albeit certainly not exclusively, among those who most vehemently claim to act in the name of their god.

From a purely intellectual and academic perspective the phenomena clarifies for me the importance of accurate linguistics as a cognitive analytical tool, one that understands the distortive effects of subjective charges placed on representational concepts rendering them unfit for use in the quest for truth and for equitable solutions. It illustrates how distorted the word “democracy” seems to have almost always been, how alien from its roots, so flexible as to have become meaningless. Not almost meaningless but as a tool for the conveyance of information, totally useless. Propaganda, … now that’s something else.

Take the current situation in Egypt where “purported” liberals, in the purported name of democracy, overturned the only instance of democracy in that country’s history. In part the fault lies in how popular the sound of the word “democracy” has become, its resonance so appealing that it’s been loaded with contradictory concepts permitting every side of a political debate to claim it as its banner. Its meaning has been further obfuscated by its adjectivization – staring with the bastardization of direct democracy when it was coupled with the word “representative” as a veil for the oligarchical structure created by the United States Constitution of 1787. Democracy was a much prettier word than the more accurate phrase, “elective oligarchy”. The term “representative democracy” is an oxymoron but one that quickly became almost omnipresent.

The original meaning of the word “democracy” is not totally clear but early on it was used to contrast government by the poor with plutocracy, government of the wealthy, although it has a clear linguistic connection with a political subdivision in Athens, the “deme”, a term that also references the common people resident in Athens, the “demos”. Whatever its meaning at birth, the poor being so numerous it quickly morphed into a synonym for majority rule. Since then, however, it has become home to a conglomerate of disparate concepts as contradictory as my list of heroes, perhaps more so. Take three that I frequently illustrate, each as different from the others in a logical sense, as it is possible to be: majority rule (the now traditional meaning of democracy), liberty (individual autonomy free of whatever number think otherwise) and pluralism (participation in decision making by all factions, notwithstanding their numbers). Those three concepts can coexist peacefully only in a state where chaos rules, at the juncture of infinity and eternity, where anything is possible, and perhaps even there, only in the smallest and most isolated pocket.

In the world we refer to as occidental, home to another utterly confusing and during the past century, much maligned term, “liberal”, we have coopted the 18th century “liberal” philosophies and grafted them onto the term “democracy” rendering it even less coherent although even more attractive.

In my mind all of this conjures an antithetical image of the allegorical emperor sans clothing, that is, I see a great deal of clothing walking around without a body but still causing a great deal of trouble. That imagery, at least to me, explains today’s dearth of meaning in words like “democracy”, other than as synonyms for the results obtained on opening Pandora’s Box.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2013; all rights reserved