Thursday, September 4, 2014

Democracy of Democracies, All is Democracy

Ross Douthat had a thoughtful column last weekend. Let me give a liberal excerpt:
The history of liberal democracy is actually inseparable, as Abram Shulsky writes in The American Interest, from “the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it.” Whether reactionary or utopian, secular or religious, these counter-ideologies are as modern, in their way, as the Emancipation Proclamation or the United Nations Charter. Both illiberal nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are younger than the United States. They aren’t just throwbacks or relics; they’re counterforces that liberal modernity seems to inevitably conjure up.

So writing off the West’s challengers as purely atavistic is a good way to misunderstand them — and to miss the persistent features of human nature that they exploit, appeal to and reward.

These features include not only the lust for violence and the will to power, but also a yearning for a transcendent cause that liberal societies can have trouble satisfying.

As The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty argues, discussing the Europeans who have joined up with ISIS, liberalism’s “all-too-human order” — which privileges the sober, industrious and slightly boring — is simply “not for everyone.” Nor, most likely, will it ever be: in this century, the 22nd, or beyond.
The first thing to establish here is a definition: Douthat is not just talking here about voting. Democracy, instead, is to be understood as the society in which these elections have their life: that is, a society with free speech, a press, strong checks on the government, and religious diversity. As Douthat points out, this democratic society—together with the citizens it produces—is, for all its pleasures, rudderless. Now, that’s not a fixable flaw: part of the point of liberalism is that the polity enforces no ideals on its citizens; so if a society had a rudder, it wouldn’t be democratic.

And this is a serious problem, because democracy gives no shape to our lives. It forces us to make our own meaning out of the fog of life, and that’s a yoke that’s too heavy for all but the strongest souls. The difficulties of living in, say, Medieval Europe were enormous, but at least people knew what was worth living and dying for. Even though you and your neighbor were dying of the plague; even though you lived in horrible poverty; if you followed God’s rules as promulgated by the church, you were living with the comforting truth that heaven kept a close watch on you—and was on your side. You had a loving father in Heaven, and needed only listen to his light instructions.

And now we’re sitting on a rock hurtling through space; and not only have we given up trying to figure out what heaven wants, we’ve stopped believing in heaven altogether. We have no keen sense of purpose, beyond the vague sense that every person must be free to pursue his own purposes. And so we live in democracies.

I cede the floor to Plato. This is Socrates talking in Book VIII of the Republic (my translation):
“And,” I said, “[the democratic man] spends his life by the day, humoring whatever desire lands on him; sometimes getting drunk and sometimes being charmed by the flute, sometimes drinking water and sometimes losing weight, sometimes exercising, sometimes being lazy and throwing off his cares, sometimes whittling away time at philosophy. He often practices politics, leaping up to say and do whatever he chances on: when becomes zealous for military men he is carried away by them; if for profiteers, then he rushes in that direction. And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but, calling his life pleasant and free and happy, he spends it like this to the end.” 
“You have thoroughly described,” said Adeimantus, “the life of the lover of equality.”  
“I certainly think,” I said, “ that he is full of variety and different customs, and that he is beautiful and many-colored—just like the city he lives in. Many men and women would envy his life, for he has the most patterns of cities and characters within him. 
“That is him,” he said. 
“What then? shall we ascribe this man to the democratic regime, and say that he is rightly called democratic?”  
“Let’s do so,” he said. 
I read this passage for the first time when I was a first-year at Chicago, in the bygone, halcyon days of 2011. Plato, it seemed to me, was making a point that undermined the entire world I had grown up in. We democrats, he said, have nothing to live by. We spend our lives sating our intellectual and emotional appetites, and then we die in a breath of wind. There’s plenty of kale and challah, but no meaning on the Upper West Side.

Democracy on a Grecian Urn.
This is an incredibly vexing situation. But here’s the paradox: neither you nor I would like to live a life any different from the one offered us by our democratic regime. Perhaps American Jewish teenagers who join the IDF and Christian converts are exceptions, who revolt against the frivolity and emptiness of our democracy. But most of us stay on the path paved for us by our regime, correctly sensing the danger in leaving the tropical island of Scarsdale. Sitting in my dorm room with The Republic on my lap, I resolved I wouldn’t live a democratic life—but then had trouble taking any other way of living seriously.

In 167 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes attacked and conquered Jerusalem. The response of most Jews was a shrug. Already Greek-speaking, they were eager to give up their weird ancestral practices, which were quickly becoming a burden in the open society of the eastern Mediterranean. They were already laughingstocks for refusing to eat pork. And circumcision was a point of shame: it caused great embarrassment in the gymnasium.

Within a year, as every Jewish child knows, the Maccabees, a tiny sect of radical Jews, started a revolt; smashing idols, murdering Jews who ate pork, and waging a bitter—ultimately successful—war against the Seleucid invaders.

And here’s what every Jewish child doesn’t know: we are the Greek-speaking, whole-penised Jews. The Maccabees stood for everything we despise: intolerance, religious zealotry, violence, theocracy. The Hellenized Jews, on the other hand, were cosmopolitan, modern, and refined; in a word, democrats. Perhaps ironically, Judaism is now the most thoroughly democratized religion in the world. Antiochus lost the battle in the second century, but he has finally triumphed in Westchester and Los Angeles. And for my part, I thoroughly support the commercialism of hanukkah: every time we eat a gross metallic chocolate and gift-wrap Jonathan Haidt’s newest book, we put another stake in the hearts of the terrorist Maccabees.

Despite their odiousness, it’s extremely easy to see what motivated the Maccabees. I suggest we apply the same insight to our modern enemies who want to smash democratic society; understanding their distress while still doing everything in our power to thwart them. We shouldn’t expect them to change their minds: we should expect to defeat them.

In short: we’re leaves in the wind, and that’s a state of ruthless unease—sometimes, of agony. But God help us from those who would drive us down into the firm, unmoving ground.

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