Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Recent writings on democracy by Phil Paine

While I was more or less away from my computer for the holiday, Phil Paine, my sometimes collaborator on the history of democracy, wrote some interesting posts.

One, which was written just before the Canadian election, does not suffer from being "overtaken by events." It talks about how citizens in a democracy should think about elections, any elections anywhere, and it catches why even the prospect of a win by the saner presidential candidate in the United States leaves me uneasy. The hankering so many people have for "strong leadership" is all that much more evident when it comes to foreign policy especially warmaking. Every time I hear American politicians talk about the future of foreign policy I feel like they are trapped in a dream world, and that they will inevitably be led astray by fantasies they seem to share with most of the population. (Canada is hardly immune from this kind of thinking; a call to "support the troops" closes down sensible debate most of the time.) Phil's piece, his Seventh Meditation on Democracy, is here.

Phil is very good at locating specialized works that shed an interesting light on general human problems. Two such works are featured in his blog at

One, Hélène Claudot-Hawad's “Éperonner le monde” ― Nomadisme, cosmos et politique chez les Touaregs is a study of the Tuareg, the Saharan people, which serves to confirm in Phil's mind conclusions he drew from personal experience of this culture, a quarter century ago. You'll have to read Phil's whole review to see why I think it's worthy of notice ; but it's not long.

The second, Nancy M. Wingfield's Flag Wars and Stone Saints: How the Bohemian Lands Became Czech, shows how an ideological classification, embedded into a change in one bureaucratic document, can make a tremendous difference in the life of the community, and not a good one. Here I will quote from Phil's review somewhat extensively:

Ethnic nationalism is one of the most diseased and obnoxious ideas contrived by human beings, rivaled only by Marxism and religious fanaticism in its potential for creating human suffering. The stage was set for the horrors of the twentieth century by the passionate ethnic hatreds of the 19th century. It was in this era that collective loyalties among Europeans shifted from obsessions with God to obsessions with Race and Nation. And it was in this era that most of the "national identities", which now seem so fixed, were concocted.

This book deals with the process of manufacturing "national identity" in Bohemia, a process which involved the co-opting and polarizing of people who previously felt no special collective "oneness". For example, language seems to have been regarded as nothing more than a convenient medium of communication in most of Bohemia, until the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy turned it into a critical qualification for political and social status. In 1880, the Hapsburgs' imperial census demanded that everyone in the empire identify themselves by language, of which they could only choose one.

Millions of people who were bilingual or multilingual, who might use Czech to gossip with a neighbour, German at work, Hungarian to talk to a brother-in-law, and Slovak in bed with their spouse, suddenly had to define themselves like a species of insect by one, and only one of these languages. A Jewish shopkeeper might speak Yiddish at home, Moravian with his Customers, and read German newspapers and books. Czech nationalists insisted that he be considered a German, and German nationalists insisted that he was not. His rabbi claimed him as neither. The only opinion that carried no weight was his own. Up until then, in most of rural Bohemia, a given person would have said, "I am from such-and-such a village", not "I am Czech" or "I am German". Most Bohemians lived in this multi-cultural and multi-lingual reality, and had done so for centuries, but the census demanded that everyone be labeled ethnically under a single language, assumed to be identical with some inherent biological species.

To intellectuals and political activists, the resulting statistics and manufactured ethnicities became the tools for power struggles. National Defense Leagues, and parliamentary power-blocks used them in the pursuit of advancement, usually with blatant economic motives. The Nationalist mentality demanded not only the advancement of one's "own" schools, celebrations, statues, and job opportunities, but the extermination of everyone else's. Infantile vandalism, violence, and riots over statues, beer brands, and songs characterized life in late 19th Century Bohemia. Mobs attacked theatres that dared to perform a play in the Other language. The founding of a Czech-language university in Brno met violent opposition. Mobs of Czechs destroyed stores with German signs in their windows. Germans demanded boycotts of beers brewed by Czechs. History was rewritten into absurd fantasies of heroes and villains exemplifying the "superior" culture of Us and the perfidy and barbarity of Them. The old religious issues were not forgotten — they were merely re-shaped and twisted to amplify ethnic ideologies. And, of course, the age-old hatred of Jews thrived in such an atmosphere, and was used as strategic leverage.

So it was that when the Republic of Czechoslovakia emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after World War I, ethnic nationalism acted as a slow poison to weaken and corrupt a society that initially offered considerable hope.

Definitely one for my must-read list.

Image: a self-identified alpha male. (See Phil's Seventh Meditation.)

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Democracy vs. Crime: Phil Paine's Sixth Meditation on Democracy, part one

This is the best of Phil Paine's meditations yet.

Here's the key passage, I think:

Democracy is a mode of human social interaction that can be practiced by any human group, of any size, with any type of technology, and at any time or place.

Democracy is a product of human intelligence and creative imagination, in the same way that technology, art, and music are. These fields of human creativity are the direct consequences of human faculties, not passively determined by environment. In other words, human sculpture in wood comes about because of a built-in need of humans, as conscious, thinking, and self-aware beings, to manipulate physical objects for representational and symbolic purposes. It is not merely a side-effect of the availability of wood. If wood is not available, then the impulse to carve will find another object, such as bone, stone, clay, or even the human body itself. Similarly, democracy is a product of the profoundest creativity in human nature, the ability to grasp that other human beings are not merely external objects, but conscious beings, similar and equal to oneself. Consequently, democracy cannot be explained as the result of temporary conditions, such as population density, climate, resource limits, birthrates, or modes of production, though these variables may influence its application.

The purpose of democracy is to promote and protect the well-being of humans, while its opponent principle, crime (warfare, caste systems, hereditary privilege, tyranny, aristocracy, dictatorship, theocracy, and totalitarian ideology) is pathological. Thus the relationship of democracy to the “political” concepts subsumed in crime is similar to that of the healthy organism to infectious disease. The relationship is one of constant strategy and counter-strategy, innovation and adaptation, with the predators on humanity exploiting every novel condition as an “opening” to establish their infection. Thus, political crime, embodied in caste, aristocracy, or kingship, is “normal” and “natural” to human societies, in the same sense that infectious disease is endemic to it. That “normalcy” does not mean that crime is either desirable, or that we should passively tolerate it. Democratic thought and action constitute the practical strategy for surviving the pathology of tyranny, just as understanding biology and practicing cleanliness are the practical strategy for surviving the ever-variant assaults from disease.

Those of you interested in American politics may want to compare Phil's analysis to this front-page post at Daily Kos.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

The Second Meditation on Dictatorship

Phil Paine continues his series of meditations on dictatorship and democracy here.

I think anyone with a serious interest in history should think about this statement:

I argue that there are no necessary or predestined “stages” in the organization of human society. Morally good and beneficial democratic social arrangements can be made at any time and in any place, by any group of people, large or small. Language, ethnicity, location, and degree of wealth are not structurally relevant to democratic practice, and democratic practice does not originate with, or “belong to” any particular cultural group. Similarly, dictatorship can occur in any human group. Immoral, diseased societies can be made at any time, in any place, by any group of people, large or small. Both possibilities always co-exist.

And of course there's much more, including a call for action.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Phil Paine's Meditations

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Suckers for the old con-games

That's what we are, according to a new essay at I am told that we can expect a series of Meditations on Dictatorship, to go along with the Meditations on Democracy.

It might be worth looking at this material while you are at it.

Image: From the site of "Australia's Honest Con Man."

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Phil Paine's Fifth Meditation On Democracy

Most of my ideas of history and politics have evolved in the context of a long-established dialogue with Phil Paine. He is the most original thinker I know and the value of his insights has been proven to me again and again over the past three and a half decades. His recent series of Meditations on Democracy is perhaps his best writing to date, and today's Fifth Meditation the best of the best. It follows in its entirety. If you haven't read the first four, you can also find them at Phil's web site.

Monday, November 5, 2007 - Fifth Meditation On Democracy

It’s my contention that both hierarchical and egalitarian behaviour are equally “natural” to human beings. These two methods of interacting with others in a group have co-existed in all human societies, from the earliest stages of our evolution as a species. It is also my contention that, while there is a limited place for hierarchical thinking and behaviour in a good society, it is egalitarian thinking that has created civilization and morality. Any society that is dominated by hierarchy is essentially backward, self-destructive, and immoral.

There are no necessary “stages” in history, and no predestined sequence of political structures, though a particular polity may “evolve” in the sense that it may become more just or better at recognizing and protecting the rights of its people. It may just as easily “devolve” and become less just and more savage. It is the continuing concentration of effort towards justice by a people that makes justice happen, not some nebulous, abstract economic or historical process. Morally correct decisions have to be made, and real action must be taken, by real individual human beings. Just laws have to be made, agreed upon, and obeyed. An advanced ― that is to say a just and moral ― political structure can be created by any group of human beings, at any time, in any place, at any level of technology or degree of prosperity. The “technology” of justice is intellectual, not physical. It has to be discovered, invoked, and implimented, but it is not dependent on any particular kind of physical environment.

This last statement needs some exemplary illustration. The world’s history has seen a great variety of “polities”, that is to say, groups of human beings organized into political units. Some have been relatively advanced, measured by the standard of respect for human rights and dignity, others have been backward and barbaric. But historical periods, wealth, and technological gadgetry do not determine which is advanced and which is backward. Ancient Yaudhiya and Athens were more politically advanced than the large Mauriyan and Alexandrian empires that succeeded them. Germany in 1940 was equipped with some of the world’s most advanced technology, and had inherited a treasure of art, science, literature and accumulated knowledge ― yet, politically and morally, it ranked below the most primitive societies of headhunting barbarians. The same is true of all Communist states, which exist on a level of political savagery, despite whatever atomic weapons, skyscrapers, or space craft they produce. The smallest, humblest democracy is immensely more sophisticated than any state ruled by a dictator. Little, democratic Iceland is more advanced in civilization than the Roman Empire ever was, or the France of Napoleon, or of Louis XIV, or any of the empires of the world, no matter how many pyramids and victory arches they erected. The mere fact that an empire is an empire, or a kingdom is a kingdom, makes it inferior. A single village in Vermont in 1850, with its democratic town meetings, was a thousand times more politically advanced than the present government in Washington, ruled by a self-declared “Decider”, and managed by a crew of barbarian henchmen, and attended by a castrated legislature of uncontested incumbents who can be bought, like low grade ground beef, by the pound. Those who want America to be an Empire are not seeking to empower it, they are seeking to degrade it and destroy it. Those in Canada who want us to act as servants and cheerleaders for such an empire likewise seek to degrade and destroy Canada. That is why I oppose them.

Wealth is not civilization. Size is not civilization. Technology is not civilization. Those are not what determines whether a society is civilized. However, I am not making a case for any kind of Rousseau-an nostalgia. The techniques most useful to civilization have a long history, going back to our earliest beginnings as a species, but they have only sporadically been identified, practiced, and improved. We have much to learn from ancient, tribal, and pre-industrial societies that is useful and important. But on the whole, societies in the past have been more violent, less just, and more dangerous than some of the best polities that emerged in the last two centuries. It’s our duty to take advantage of the cumulative experience of the human race, from all times and places, wherever we have lessons to learn and experiences to learn from. Every successful innovation, no matter who made it, should be incorporated into our common treasure of wisdom, and every mistake should be acknowledged, studied, and remembered as a caution. The greatest weakness that pre-literate societies had was that they had difficulty remembering what they had done well, and constantly repeated the errors of the past. We don’t have that excuse. If we don’t learn from the horrors of the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the Laogai, what excuse could we offer?

For example, we have the glaring example of Germany and Japan. In the late 19th Century, both those countries experienced spectacular economic growth. This material success was not accompanied by any significant development of democracy. They remained under the rule of decrepit aristocracies and military men, while their economies expanded, and foreign investors flocked to invest in them. The eventual consequence of this lopsided development was to plunge the world into two gigantic wars, enable the demented slaughter of millions of innocents, and encourage the growth of obscene “philosophies”, like Marxism and Nazism, dedicated to the enslavement of human beings. Today, we can see exactly the same pattern forming in China. The Chinese people have worked hard, under extremely difficult circumstances, and have created a miraculous new prosperity. This is the product of the dynamism, creativity, and courage of the people, not of their rulers. But the rulers are still there, in power, a rotting, putrescent gang of aged mass-murderers and psychopathic criminals. There has been no progress in developing democracy, the absolutely essential ingredient of civilized life. The eventual consequence of this failure will be as horrible as that which befell the world the last time this error was made. At this stage, a dramatic change would be necessary to avert impending disaster.

Here in Canada, and more dramatically in the United States, with whom we Canadians have an intimate cultural bond, I have seen my society become progressively more conservative, more psychologically primitive, more militaristic, more cowardly, and more oriented towards hierarchy and mindless obedience. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the fundamental ideas of liberty, of egalitarian ethics, of respect for rights, and of the dignity and sanctity of the individual human being evaporate like milk splashed on a hot stove, leaving only an ugly stain and an ugly smell. I’ve seen independence, creativity and spontaneity, once the essence of our social customs, replaced by mindless conformity, callous brutality, and the cringing cowardice that characterize a backward, stratified society. I’ve seen the relentless poison of Conservatism destroy everything decent that we had accomplished, replacing science and reason with the mumbo-jumbo of witch doctors, rolling back sexual attitudes from those of free human beings to the moronic taboos and terrors of primitive savages, and simultaneously wrecking our once-creative economy. I’ve seen the vulgar, ruthless, malicious, stupid and inane systematically triumph over those who are honourable and principled in almost every aspect of our lives. In the United States, fundamental democratic institutions have been under systematic attack by Conservative ideology, with no effective resistance or opposition. In Canada, democratic institutions are in better shape than in the United States, but more by random good luck than by any conscious effort, or courageous defense.

The greatest menace to our society is the habit of submission to aristocracy. Aristocracy and civilization are incompatible. A civilized people has no “pecking order”. Civilized people do not worship celebrities, cringe before imaginary “betters”, or submit to “leaders” on the basis of alpha dominance. Civilized people do not have leaders. They lead themselves. Civilized people make group decisions by the reasoned processes of law, consultation, debate, and democracy, not by handing over power to some gang of charismatic apes. Civilized people make love, not war. Civilized people make and trade things, they don’t steal. Civilized people meet each other as equals, and judge each other as individuals, never as members of races, or ethnic groups, or castes, or classes, or any other termite-like collectivities. Civilized people respect the rights of others and demand that others respect theirs. Civilized people never sacrifice liberty or human rights for mere economic gain, or for the sophistries of realpolitik, or in a neurotic quest for the phantom of “security”. Civilized people never bow down before others, and never allow others to bow down before them. There is no rank in civilization. There is no authority in civilization, except the authority of nature and reason, the authority of two-plus-two-equals-four.

Dramatic changes in attitudes will be necessary for us to turn away from the suicidal path we have chosen. Not many trends indicate that we are making any of those critical changes. And yet, I continue to hope, continue to write, continue to explain and implore. There are no “laws of history”, there is no certain doom, and there is no predestination. What one generation destroys, the next can rebuild. We can have civilization, if we want it. Things can turn around. There are good, decent people everywhere. They only have to find the conceptual tools to see through the lies, schemes, and misdirection of the aristocracy, which are nothing more than larger versions of the swindles of petty criminals. Then, they have only to find each other, and act together. It is our self-doubt and confusion that gives the tyrants power, not any strength they possess.

It is not fit, not right, and not tolerable, that we the people should be ruled by apes.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Phil Paine's Fourth Meditation on Democracy

Phil Paine writes about human evolution, bullying, modern communications, and democracy.

For the first two meditations, see here, and for the third, here.

Image: The Pink Protest organizers in Cambridge, Nova Scotia.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Meditations on democracy and its cultural roots

Phil Paine's Third Meditation on Democracy is on his website blog (under August 18). If you missed the first and second, they are available here.

In the third meditation, Phil talks about the relationship between culture and democracy, specifically the idea that Christianity or the European Enlightenment were necessary precursors for the ideas behind modern democracy. Phil has always rejected this, and in the third meditation says:

The connection between articles of religious faith, especially in the form of abstract theological precepts, and what people do in practical situations, has never been obvious. Pacifism, for instance, is a pretty straightforward tenet of Christianity, recognized by most Christians as central to the teaching of Christ. Yet how much pacifist behaviour has Christianity generated? Only a handful of microscopic sects have practiced it, and they have generally suffered persecution in the “Christian” world. How many Buddhists actually make any effort to follow the Fourfold Path? Even if a particular religion can be shown to have some abstract principle that supports democratic theory, it does not follow that the people of that faith are bound to act democratically. Democracy is something that people do. It’s a practical approach to solving concrete problems.

That's a part of what Phil has to say here, but hardly all. Phil has some interesting things to say about the evolution of European culture and the cosmopolitan roots of what some of us most value in it. Read the meditation.

Just as Phil was publishing the third meditation, another interesting essay on the Enlightenment and the history of religion appeared in the New York Times, Mark Lilla published in the New York Times Magazine a long article, the Politics of God, on the relationship between Enlightenment thought and religion in modern times. His major point, in my view, is that the relationship hasn't been a simple one. His discussion of "liberal" theology in pre-World War I Germany told me things I did not know, but should have, given my scholarly interests:

By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.
I highly recommend this article, but it will go into subscriber-only status by the end of the week. Don't wait if you think you might be interested.

Image: Meditations Mist by Robert Masla.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Second meditation on democracy

I'm back from my vacation. I had a lot of fun and ignored the outside world very successfully. I had a few thoughts that are relevant to the blog, but I'll post them later.

In the meantime let be give you a link to Phil Paine's second meditation on democracy, springing from his recent trip to Europe and years of research and thought. Go here and read under August 7. Here's a sample:

The achievement of civil societies in this sense has been a very slow and painful struggle, and at the moment, only a minority of human beings are lucky enough to live in them. The majority still live under outright tyranny, or in societies in which civil and democratic institutions are a sham, or too corrupted to be effective. But the minority of functioning civil societies demonstrate to human beings everywhere that improved conditions are possible. The relative success of such societies by material measures has at least exposed one of the loudest lies of totalitarian ideologies: the claim that tyranny is more “efficient” than democracy. This notion was once so widely believed that a majority of intellectuals, even in democratic countries, subscribed to it. Now even the most isolated peasant knows that it’s a crock.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

What happened to Phil Paine in Europe?

Some time back I promised to keep my readers informed about the adventures of independent scholar Phil Paine as he traveled across Europe. Some of his blog entries were linked to from here (use the label "Phil Paine in Europe" at the bottom of the entry here) until they abruptly stopped. Not, fortunately, because something happened to Phil. Or maybe something did. He explains:

My last week in Czech Republic involved experiences so emotionally intense for me that it has taken two months for me to mull them over. I visited two strikingly different mining towns. One was a ancient city where miners where powerful enough to build their own magnificent cathedral, where the carvings and frescoes represented miners and metalworkers at their tasks, along with the traditional holy subjects. The other was a uranium mine run as a concentration camp by the Communists. Another moving event was a visit to the site of Lidice, the town in which the Nazis exterminated the entire population, including the dogs and cats, removed all the buildings and even dug the bodies from the graveyards, all for the purpose of celebrating their brutality and omnipotence. All this was taking place in a disturbing contemporary background ― one of my hosts’ friends had just been nearly killed by Neo-Nazi thugs, who infest the country, and enjoy the tacit support and encouragement of the corrupt police.

I will discuss all these events in detail, as they become relevant. But, they have impelled me to put down this series of meditations.
The meditations are on the subject of democracy, something that he and I have long been interested and have published about. The first of them are here, listed under July 25, 2007.

More as it becomes available, including the interrupted tale of the European trip.

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