Time Makes More Converts than Reason

by Phil Paine and Steve Muhlberger

This is the preface for a draft of a world history of democracy. It is put out for comment, and all comments are welcome. For more on the world history of democracy, see the World History of Democracy site.

In the course of human events it sometimes becomes apparent to a new generation that the intellectual tools they have inherited are inadequate for the task before them. Stone axes are of no use to lumberjacks. We, the two authors of this book, are different in background, experience and temperament, but we were brought together by some similarities. Both of us have read a lot of books on history, anthropology and politics. Both have a strong attachment to the ideas of human freedom and democracy. Both are suspicious of many notions that are held in general respect. We've both come to the conclusion that our reading and our experience reveal a world very different from the ideas currently taught in our schools and discussed in our press.

When we discuss matters of society, we employ a variety of abstract patterns --- mental diagrams --- which, for the most part, we have not constructed ourselves. Other women and men have made them in the past, and they've been given to us. They are tools. Some of these tools are sturdy and useful, while others are shoddy. Some were designed for quite different purposes than we suppose, or were led to believe. It must be remembered, however, that they ARE no more than tools. They did not come from the Gods; they are not eternal, unquestionable or unalterable.

What we are presenting here isn't a manifesto or a grand synthesis. On the contrary; you will find it an ornery, grab-bag of a book. Like the "fake books" which guitarists study so that they can improvise with facility, it assumes that the reader will do most of the work. The idea is simple: we'll examine a variety of notions, which are widely held and promoted, but which we've come to doubt and dispute. In each case, there are books we have read which led to our conclusion. No special talent or inspiration was required. Rather than make a mystery of it, we'll tell you what the books are, discuss them, and recommend that you consult them yourself. Our bet is that you'll reach much the same conclusions. Furthermore, we challenge the reader to find better books, and supplant our choices. If this book is to be useful at all, it should trigger a process which will eventually make it useless. We will try as best we can to confine our discussion to works which can be obtained by anyone with a library card and some patience. We'll try to use plain language.

Suppose that this was NOT a history of democracy, but a history of an altogether different topic: cleanliness and public health. A historian who wished to cover this topic systematically would be far less hindered by the conceptual confusions that bedevil a historian of democracy. There would be no need to clamber through pre-existing notions of millenial destiny, historical "stages," or absurdities like the notion of a "left-right" spectrum. A historian of cleanliness could proceed without fuss in the following manner:

Human beings live in a natural world in which micro-organisms sometimes, but not always, pose a threat to their lives and health. Various strategies can minimize, but never altogether eliminate this threat. These strategies are sometimes individual (such as washing with soap and water) and sometimes collective (sewers and filtration plants). To the contemporary reader, the underlying conceptual framework to the discussion is "the theory of infectious causes" --- a body of belief about nature that has accumulated over the last two centuries.

At first, this body of belief was tentative and clumsy, and it was confined to a small number of specialists who argued from a mixture of speculative theory and empirical evidence. Gradually, the details of this theory were ironed out, and more and more people became convinced that disease was caused by micro-organisms, and that practices that promoted cleanliness would limit disease. By the beginning of this century, these ideas had spread widely among the public in the wealthier regions of the world, and were increasingly reflected in both private behaviour and in political acts. As we approach the end of this century, a probable majority of the human race is at least roughly familiar with the idea of germs carrying disease through water, food, air and human waste. Many people living in slums and rural poverty may be in no position to do much about it, but they know WHY they are ravaged by disease.

The theory of infectious causes has widely supplanted other ideas about the nature of disease. Some of these ideas attributed disease to other physical causes than micro-organisms --- to an imbalance of "humours" or to "bad air". These attempts at an explanation were precursors of the current theory, with some empirical basis. Without the essential clues provided by the microscope, they were the best that a scientific approach could come up with. Other ideas attributed disease to supernatural agencies ---spirits and demons, among those who held to local and folkloric religions; the will of God among those who held to universal prosetylizing religions. Sometimes people believed that the supernatural agency acted capriciously and randomly; sometimes they believed that disease was a just punishment meted out to sinful human beings. These beliefs have not disappeared in any society. There are many people working in sophisticated aerospace industries who simultaneously believe that colds are a natural phenomenon caused by viruses that infect people, whatever their "moral" state, and that AIDS is a punishment inflicted by God on those who fail to heed the injunctions of the Bible. The two explanations of disease can co-exist.

However, disease is a condition in nature. Nature is not created by our opinions, and does not act in response to our opinions. People who drink water infected with cholera get sick and die whether they understand the cause or not. Practices that promote cleanliness will limit disease whether they originate in the "correct" explanation or not. If people wash for ritual or supernatural reasons, or because they find it a pleasant pastime, the results are positive, even if the actions are done for the "wrong" reason. Any society that failed entirely to develop some standards of cleanliness would soon cease to exist. Therefore, it would be a profound error to see the history of cleanliness exclusively as a history of scientific ideas about micro-organisms. A genuine history of cleanliness and public health would encompass all sorts of things, like the public baths of Ancient Rome, the ritual ablutions of Islam and Hinduism, Amerindian sweat-baths, and the defecation customs of hunter-gathering tribes, all of which are relevant to the story.

On examining these different aspects of cleanliness, the historian would notice a few patterns that contradict expectations and cliches. They would notice first that a "linear" or "evolutionary" model of events would be profoundly out of place. The Europeans of the 17th and 18th centuries, for instance, seem to have been considerably dirtier than those of the 12th and 13th centuries. Attempts to tie cleanliness directly to "technological levels" would also be foolish. Many people who survived with only stone tools or bows and spears have had admirable systems of cleanliness and enjoyed relatively good health, while there are people in today's New York, surrounded by electronic gadgets, living in filth and squalor.

Despite the basic simplicity of the problem, the appropriate techniques of cleanliness vary widely with the particular situation people find themselves in. The desert nomads of the Sahara do not often wash with soap and water. Wandering in small groups, far from thickly populated areas, they are not too vulnerable to diseases that require a large population to feed on. Water is far too valuable to expend on washing, and bathing in oases or rivers would expose them to schistomiasis, a deadly parasite that enters the body through breaks in the skin. They do, however, consume almost all their water in the form of boiled tea, wash their hair with antiseptic urine, and employ the ancient practice of scraping the skin with oil. These customs provide a reasonable degree of protection in their particular environment. But, if these same people settle permanently in a village, as is happening to most of the world's nomads, these same customs will lead to disaster. They are insufficient and inappropriate for life in a crowded village. In real life, the very simple notion of cleanliness to protect against disease must be applied with scrupulous regard for the details of concrete reality. It is not an "ideology."

Knowing the ideal measures of cleanliness and public health is not the same as implementing real measures among real communities of human beings. Everything must be paid for, and no community can afford to spend more than a small fraction of its time and resources on efforts to keep clean. And nature always comes up with twists and surprises. For example, the previously rare disease of polio first appeared in epidemic form in Canada, New England, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, and then spread wherever modern sewage treatment and public health laws appeared. It seems that this disease's peculiar etiology allowed it to thrive in the conditions of general cleanliness which suppressed other diseases! Another technique had to be devised to protect against polio.

Our approach to the history of democracy will in many ways resemble this hypothetical history of cleanliness. We believe that democracy is an idea that rests on certain simple philosophical premises of universal validity, but that its application to communities of real human beings resembles that of cleanliness and public health. Our approach is not "ideological," in the sense that writers on politics and society are accustomed to think. We reject many familiar types of analysis and argument on the grounds of this analogy. For example, there is an immense literature (largely produced by the sycophants of dictators and slave empires) that seeks to condemn democracy on the grounds that it is supposed to be a custom specific to particular parts of the world, and unsuitable, alien or "unnecessary" to the rest of the world. These authors condemn democracy in the same way that Communist regimes condemn rock & roll, racial bigots condemn immigrants' food and dress, and intellectuals fulminate against the influence of popular art forms. We reject these arguments, in toto, without assigning them any serious legitimacy. To us, they are identical in nature to someone arguing that the germ theory of disease doesn't apply to Africans because it was a Dutchman who invented the microscope, that the Burmese should be condemned to die of cholera rather than to acknowledge the validity of medical practices pioneered in France, or that Americans should reject all knowledge of the treatment of syphilis because it was the discovery of a Japanese.

In this work we will be assuming, without any concession to its opponents whatsoever, that democratic practice is a moral imperative of universal application and validity to all human communities. We assume that democracy is the common birthright of all human beings. This is meant to be a thematic history of an idea within the WHOLE human race, and we confidently address our findings to every human being, in every suburban home, apartment tower, hogan, longhouse, grass hut, sampan and tent in every corner of the world.

Go on to the first chapter.

World History of Democracy site.

Originally posted March 28, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger and Phil Paine. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
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