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 for himself.
"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 interest."
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 odor."
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 'eager.'"
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."