July 19, 2007

SORRY, SARDAR, NO CIGAR:

Democracy has never been an idyll (Ziauddin Sardar, 19 July 2007, New Statesman)

Presented by the historian Bettany Hughes, Athens: the Truth About Democracy argues that the Athenian model was rooted in military adventurism and the economic exploitation of slave labour. This democracy was not inclusive: it veiled women in public and excluded them from public life. Deeply rooted in superstition, it labelled all objectors "idiotes". In short order this newfangled democracy destroyed itself through endemic warfare, enthusiastically supported by the select voting populace.

In other words, democracy is no idyll; it is what people make of it. It is no good looking at an idealised model. What Athenians did with it is at least as relevant. Socrates, who gave us our noble ideal of free speech, was condemned to death for upsetting the established moral order. The political ideas of his student Plato were eulogised by Stalin and Hitler.

Rather than being true to the xenophobia that was a defining quality of the classical Greek world-view, we would do well to consider their achievements in context. This is one of two opportunities missed in the Channel 4 documentaries. Their focus is on an Athens detached from its vibrant, Middle Eastern contemporaries. The Greeks did not emerge from nothing. Their thought, art and science derived from the sophistication of the Middle Eastern civilisations with which they contended for dominance.

The second missed opportunity is the failure to explore properly the suggestion that there are explicit parallels between the histories of Athenian democracy and the United States, the country that most resembles the classical model. Like Athens, the US is an imperial power based on a war economy. Like Athens, America exploits the people and wealth of other nations. Like Athens, American democracy is elitist. And like Athens, America needs to be judged not by its claims, but by what it makes of its high ambition.


So close to an insight, only to stumble at the post. The point of his own comparison is actually that, while America is not perfect in the abstract, when judged against its contemporaries it is easy to see why its aspirations have made it dominant.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 19, 2007 8:06 PM
Comments

You konw if it's anything like her work on the 'Spartans' I won't really notice the insinuation. The point is that Athens was the
only democracy at the time; Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, were oligarchies of various grade.

Posted by: narciso at July 19, 2007 9:10 PM

The United States is based on a war economy?

Posted by: Brandon at July 20, 2007 7:15 AM

"Like Athens, America exploits the people and wealth of other nations."

Buying their goods and resources on the open market is exploitation? I did not know that.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 20, 2007 8:04 AM

"Like Athens, America exploits the people and wealth of other nations."

Buying their goods and resources on the open markey is exploitation? I did not know that.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 20, 2007 8:08 AM
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