by Austin Bay
August 16, 2005
An Iraqi democracy, whatever its final form and written
constitution, will be both controversial and dangerous.
According to philosopher Paul Woodruff, controversy and danger
are innate characteristics of democracy.
I read Woodruff's provocative new book, "First Democracy: The
Challenge of an Ancient Idea" (Oxford Press), on the long return flight from
Kabul, Afghanistan, to the United States. I'd just visited the Afghan
village of Bakhshe Khil, on the Berq River near Bagram. The villagers had
talked about water --there's plenty this year -- but one of them mentioned
the next round of national elections, scheduled for September. The elections
were on his mind. They were a sign of hope and a cause for worry.
Based on Woodruff's thesis, the worried Afghani understands some
of democracy's more salient social and psychological features. He knows he
faces a political struggle; he also has the spine and confidence to speak
"If it is not controversial, it is not about democracy,"
Woodruff writes. "If it is not dangerous, if it does not ask us to consider
changes that frighten the establishment, it is not about democracy."
Woodruff argues that that Athenian democracy still instructs
everyone with democratic aspirations.
"'First Democracy,'" Woodruff says, "is about the ideas that
guided the Athenians in their efforts to build toward a perfect democracy.
Without a firm grasp of these ideas, we will not understand democracy. And
unless we understand democracy, we will be led astray by its doubles."
Democracy's false "doubles" include "government by and for the majority."
Genuine democracy must "involve all citizens and serve the general
Iraq's Shia majority hasn't learned this lesson -- but Woodruff
notes the Athenians had to learn it "the hard way" after years of internal
strife along class lines.
Woodruff, a Vietnam War vet who teaches philosophy at the
University of Texas, reminds us that prior to the democratic revival of the
early 19th century, Athenian political failures scarred democracy. For
"generations of thinkers" --nearly two millennia -- democracy had a "bad
Critics doubted and sometimes scoffed, with words that echo the
current crop of naysayers who dismiss the possibility of an "Arab democracy"
or "East African democracy" or "Chinese democracy."
Woodruff says the critics argued that "democracy may seem an
attractive idea. But it is impossible to maintain in real life. An
experiment in democracy would take us on the road to disaster. Look at what
happened to the Athenians."
Woodruff identifies "seven ideas" that a democratic government
"tries to express":
-- freedom from tyranny;
-- the rule of law;
-- natural equality;
-- citizen wisdom;
-- "reasoning without knowledge";
-- general education.
He devotes a chapter to each. Harmony entails "wanting
together." Lack of harmony can lead to civil war. Democratic equality "rests
on the idea that the poor should be equal to the rich ... at least for
sharing governance." Woodruff says Athenians taught that "reasoning without
knowledge depends on working out what is most reasonable to believe. What is
most reasonable to believe is the view which best survives adversary debate
Iraqi constitutional negotiators have engaged that process --
adversarial debate -- in the midst of a grinding war waged by terrorists who
reject debate and despise democracy. This is a remarkable feat.
The title of Woodruff's afterword should get him a booking on at
least one cable TV talk show: "Are Americans Ready for Democracy?" He
answers his own question: "Of course Americans are ready for democracy.
Everybody in the world is ready for democracy, if by 'ready' we mean
America, however, wrestles with the same challenges Athens
confronted -- and may have finessed with greater politesse.
Does America exhibit harmony? "Democracy, when it really works,
engages majority and minority elements in a cooperative enterprise. ...
Harmony failed terribly in the U.S. after the Civil War ... and harmony
among races is still an elusive goal."
Woodruff thinks the two-party system or "the geographical
sorting" of political parties may erode public harmony.
"First Democracy" provides an often troubling but always
instructive perspective in a world where so many eager people risk their
lives to establish "the next democracy."