When Democracy Fails

blue LThis year the old Siamese oligarchy decide there had been enough corruption, too many illegal immigrants, and far too many demonstrations disrupting Thai business so they threw the politicos out of government. Quite right. If elected representatives cannot govern then a selected body should be given the job.
Sadly that goal is not so easy to achieve in the richer countries where the roots of democracy have sunk deeper and the ideology of one-person-one-vote continues to outweigh all alternatives.

Loose financial reins are synonymous with, essential to in some books, capitalist democracies but they shouldn’t be – they should be tighter in money fuelled systems otherwise all the nation’s assets, air, land, water, minerals . . . slip away from the many only to be corralled and harnessed by the few for the good of only the few. History endlessly demonstrates that – not with cherry picked examples, but with examples taken from under most democratic administrations over long periods. The renowned economics Professor Thomas Piketty in his recent masterpiece Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, carefully presents 250 years of the economic history of Britain, France, and the United States revealing, in the process, the dangers of loose financial reigns. He draws conclusions from known data and demonstrates the inadequacies of administrators, both in analysis and corrective action, yet the court of public opinion blunders on under the flag of democratic freedoms.

It is hard to find a more glaring example of administrative folly than that currently being carried out in the Eurozone. How can policies that leave 50% of a nations’ recent graduates standing on the street corners be the right ones? Such policies are clearly asinine yet we continue. We continue to elect the wrong people who, in turn, employ the wrong people, to do the most important work. Why do we insist on that? Why is such mindless medalling allowed to prevail? We might as well worship an invisible god and spend our days chanting and singing of wonders never performed. We might as well throw our scientists and historians out of the window and allow the stimulating odours of fear and greed come rushing in to return us to the survival of only the very fittest.

Twenty-five hundred years ago our most enlightened ancestors examined these issues and concluded that democracy works only if the populous is informed. Poorly educated electorate are doomed to seduction by the sophists so our only protection is education. We learned that then, and have seen the lesson repeated endlessly because we fail to face the facts. One-person-one-vote only works if all are informed. Until that situation prevails democracy cannot be usefully employed.

As I write the people of Hong Kong are declaring themselves well enough informed to choose their own candidates for election to high office but the oligarchy that oversees them doubts their wisdom. The citizenry can voice their objections, even demonstrate in public places, but if they extend those activities to obstruction of business and chaos in the streets then they will have proven their inadequacy, leaving the oligarchy no choice – as was the case in Thailand.

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Democracy

sandLThe First World nations enjoy a distillate of all the systems of government tried over the years which we call Democracy. It’s not everyone’s preferred choice: many of the famous, and many more of the influential, have passed less than flattering remarks about democracy. Some are funny, most are pithy, and nearly all are accurate to some degree but the ones to which I most closely identify are those of Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to chose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy therefore, is education,’ and Karl Marx’s observation that, ‘Democracy is the road to socialism,’ – wow. Had many of the United States Republican Conservatives read Marx they’d be all in a quandary unless, unless they turn to Plato, who was not at all keen on democracy, for his, ‘Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy.’ Aristotle and Socrates too, were none too enthusiastic about this system of government: The most notable drawback, they observed, being its tendency to generate sophism.

A word here about sophistry: originally from the Greek sophizesthai, to make wise – to teach. Once a respected profession in Ancient Greece sophism fell into disrepute because the teachers quickly saw they could earn more money teaching the sons of the rich than those of the poor – no education for daughters. In order to engender a comfortable life for their families the educators tended to pander to the wealthy: i.e. teach the rich man’s son what his father longed to hear. Imagine if that was the case today: we’d have elite schools, available only to rich kids, preaching the word their parents dictate in order to ensure future administrators are all of a mind.  We’d have the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer – how awful.

So back to democracy: is it the best for us today?

The answer is: it could be.

It could be if we pushed all the hucksters and bully pulpit orators, the sophists, into the backroom where they belong and let the proletariat express their opinions on topics various. This we can do. Through our wonderful Internet we can, and are, doing it. We have data processing on a massive scale. We have analytic algorithms writing their own scripts to further analyse our analyses. We just have to stop the blah, blah, poppycock of the sophists from filling our TV screens and bending our thought processes with their images of the cool, and the free, and the oh, so, happy. We just have to stop that silly spending to elect people who care not for we the people, but for themselves and what they can do to further their own agenda. If we don’t, if we don’t insist on integrity and honesty we’d best throw out the democratic process: didn’t FDR say that? Didn’t he say, ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to chose wisely?’

The current system is far too cumbersome anyway with the arcane paper and physical transport process. I mean really, pieces of paper marked with ticks and crosses to be folded into a slot then removed for a physical reading and selection. Dear me. It is before that process starts though, before all the hucksters go about ‘Getting Out the Vote,’ that the real damage is done. The real damage is done behind locked doors where the electoral candidates are trained and scripted before setting out on voyages of deceit and deception in which they lie about their commitment to family and religion and promise a fair and competent administration not hitherto seen.

The truth is the necessity for elections is no longer there. That is not to say we no longer need them: we probably do, at least for a period of adjustment. We no longer need to actually vote formally because we already vote informally. We already tell those who care to listen our preferences, prejudices, and ambitions through our blogs, reading habits, search criteria and purchases. Why, then, do we need go to rallies and queue for the privilege of voting? It makes no sense.

Before you dive for the keyboard to plead the case for the computer illiterate recall Winston Churchill’s observation: ‘The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.’  So when the argument is raised about the inability of those who are not computer literate to vote you have to wonder if they should. It doesn’t take away their right to vote any more than the inability to write. The requirement for a driving test doesn’t take away the right to be a motorist, but it does insure you know what you’re doing. If help is needed, be it physical, logistic, financial . . . voters have only to ask and a volunteer will bring a notepad to the door within a few million nanoseconds.

The introduction of online voting will be the first, radical, step into the world of the modern democratic process and will of course raise many questions and uncertainties. Will it reveal your vote and thus alienate your right to secrecy at the ballot box? Yes and no. No to those unable to hack and crack the encryption – say 98% of the populace. Yes to all those clever folks who can, and to the data miners that normally come in the form of interrogative algorithms. I don’t see the problem with that anymore than with electronic filing of taxes or online banking and brokering.  If we are to have open government then surely open voting cannot be a handicap.

Within a short space of time the need for voting will fade as the majority view on many issues becomes readily available dynamically, as our shopping and reading habits are already. As I write social media, which has long since graduated from a ‘bit-of-fun’ for the less serious to an important monitor of current interests and values, is galloping ahead and is soon to be as integral an element of our lives as walking, talking and drinking tea . Twitter, facebook, Linkedin, Google . . . have all taken up their position and will, in all probability, coalesce into one or two global institutions fed by a plethora of specialist sites. National administrations have only to take up the mining tools developed by commercial interests to have ready access to current opinion and the needs of citizens. In this way  democracy can graduate to socialism beloved of Karl Marx, and the voter choose as wisely as FDR would have wished.

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Immortality

sandLThe Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk’s quest to find the secret of eternal life. It is inspired by the death sentence placed on his friend, and possibly his lover, Enkidu, by Ishtar, a powerful goddess of the time. Ishtar’s motives lie in Gilgamesh’s rebuff of her advances and, possibly, her jealousy of Enkidu.  Her first reaction was to have Gilgamesh put to death, but that did not sit well with the other gods because of King Gilgamesh’s success as a warrior and builder of cities. She happened then, on a more effective revenge in the sentencing of his loved one.

Before dismissing this as nothing more than a good foundation for a compelling story remember that it was written about 4,600 years ago and is, by common consensus, credited with being the first story ever written. There are other contenders which, for the most part, seem be the same story in differing guises so The Epic of Gilgamesh then, in all its scripts and languages, is now accepted, at least by the majority of literary historians, as the beginning of the written story.

In the original The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in the Samarian language on twelve stone tablets using the Cuneiform script. There is some doubt as to whether it was ever intended as an epic, or became one as the tablets accumulated. There is little doubt though that events thus transcribed took place in Lower Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in the third millennia BCE – probably just after the great flood. The tablets tell of King Gilgamesh’s relationship with Enkidu, a man of the wild, and their adventures in the mountains and cedar forests of Mesopotamia and the Levant until the advent of Ishtar, and her sentencing of Enkidu. Heartbroken by the prospect of the loss of his friend, possibly his lover, Gilgamesh sets off in search for his ancestor, Utnapishtim, who, it was believed, held the secret of eternal life and could thus retrieve Enkidu from the underworld.

It turns out that Utnapishtim had, in fact, achieved immortality, but not because of some secret formulae or magic potion. He was immortalised, principally, by his work in building a boat, of length and volume specified by the gods of his land, to house two of every living creature in the hope they might survive the coming floods. This was about the time of the climatic optimum of the, current, Holocene Interglacial, a warming interval in the Quaternary Ice Age we are still enjoying. At that time the icecaps were receding so quickly the sea levels were rising and there was general flooding throughout the region. Utnapishtim’s immortality lies in saving the human race from extinction. His fame had to wait until the emergence of the various religions that high jacked his story under different names.

On learning of Gilgamesh’s purpose Utnapishtim and his wife set about teaching him a practical lesson in humility by demonstrating his physical weakness in not being able stay awake for lengthy periods, and his gullibility by sending him on a foolish errand. He finally went home with his tail between his legs. “So,” as later chroniclers would say, “Endeth the first lesson.”

The search for immortality continues to this day in various forms from magic potions to stem cells but, as Utnapishtim said to old Gilgamesh, “Life for which you look, you will never find, because that remains with the gods . . . ” but he did. For a comparatively short while he did because it was his story that inspired the expression “Since the Gilgamesh,” used broadly in the elegant world of literary and performing arts to mean from the very beginning, or, since the original. Sadly this has been misinterpreted in recent times to become “From the get-go,” which is neither artistic, nor edifying, or even remotely elegant. Immortality is, it seems, at best only short lived.

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