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New Social Compact

Democracy, Ancient and Modern

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Poverty is not measured by how much one possesses but by how big are one’s desires.”–Plato

“A well regulated State is based on the common sense of the people.”–Giambattista Vico                

“No one pretends that Democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried.” –Winston Churchill

In a relativistic age which beliefs in functional relativistic truths but not in Truth itself, when consequently many sing the praises of democracy but precious few can pin down its essence, a revisiting of Plato’s skeptical attitude towards it may be in order. It may lead us to a surprising discovery, that of Giambattista Vico in the 18th century (see his New Science): that democracy has never been based on the rule of a few all-wise leaders and not even on that of well-learned people, i.e., the philosopher-kings and the all-powerful manipulating politicians, but on the “common sense” of all the people.

The statement on democracy quoted above was proffered by Churchill in the House of Commons on the 11th of November 1947 at the origins of the EU. Some have assumed that Churchill had Plato’s critique of democracy in mind when he proffered it. That assumption is based on a kind of rationalism devoid of imagination which ends up missing the irony of Churchill’s statement, not to speak of the paradoxical nature of Plato’s critique of democracy in The Republic.

Indeed, in an age of relativism, when many sing the praises of democracy as the gift of the age of Enlightenment, ignoring the fact that in reality its cradle is ancient Athens, when others (the futurists who run on cars with no rear view mirrors) say that its essence may have changed even in the last fifty years or so, and will keep on changing faster and faster, while precious few bother to explore its essence, its ambiguity and paradox, perhaps a revisiting of Plato’s critique of democracy may be worthwhile. In book VI of The Republic Plato narrates a parable as a way of answering this crucial question by Adeimantus: “How can you be justified in saying that cities will not cease from evil until philosophers rule in them, when philosophers are acknowledged by us to be of no use to them?” This is the parable by which Plato answers the question, via Socrates: “Suppose the following to the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is large and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short sighted and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarreling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it cannot be taught and are ready to murder any one who says it can. They spend all their time milling around the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drinks or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the wind and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship (488b-d).”

The above allegory, as per Aristotle’s book on Rhetoric, can be interpreted thus: the ship is the Athenian ship of State, the rather incompetent captain is the Athenian people. The people own the state and are supreme in it, as indeed it ought to be in any democratic Republic, even a rudimentary undeveloped one. The motley crew represents the politicians who are constantly quarrelling with each other on how best to navigate the ship while regularly attempting to take the helm from the captain.

Now, it would appear that things have not changed that much in twenty four hundred years. Undoubtedly, this allegory from The Republic paints a rather bleak picture of democracy. Plato seems to be neither a “republican” nor a “democrat.” Had he lived today in the US or somewhere in the EU, he might have ended up voting for the green party. Be that as it may, some of his readers over the ages, while acknowledging his penetrating genius, have attributed to him totalitarian-elitists intellectual tendencies, the attempt to explain the whole of reality with one over-reaching theoretical scheme. This charge seems to be supported by the fact that Plato maintains a rather skeptical attitude toward the poetical in general, and that his ultimate solution to the conundrum of the political incompetence of ordinary people who own the ship of state in a democracy, seems to be that philosophers become kings or vice versa, kings become philosophers. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that he also advocated that no one is ready to be a philosopher before the age of fifty; wisdom arrives, if at all, with the experience of a life-time of virtue, or to say it with Shakespeare: “maturity is all.”

Were we to seriously survey the history of mankind we would soon find out that humanity has had as their leaders precious few philosopher-kings and an abundance of Caesars and Napoleons, people who in general are in love with Machiavellian “power politik” which they practice rationally on the chess-board of life while being completely uninterested in philosophical speculations. Exceptions are Alexander the Great (a student of Aristotle) and Marcus Aurelius, the author of The Meditations.

We would also find out that sometimes the rule of the majority turns into the tyranny of the mob which represses the few who may be branded as outsiders. This ugly phenomenon is observed and commented upon in modern times by none other than Tocqueville; despite the fact that he had great sympathies for democratic systems, he suspected that it applied to democracies also. The founding fathers of the United States were in fact so troubled by this sad tendency of human nature to rule and manipulate others, that they decided to add the Bill of Rights to a Constitution which already proclaimed and enshrined inalienable and universal truths and values.

At this point one may ask: is Plato’s critique still valid today, and if so, what are the practical consequences of ignoring it? Let us try to apply this critique to an overarching problem of modern Western Civilization, namely the principle of sustainable development. This principle would require that we change the way we live our lives. We should distinguish what we truly need from what we want, as Aristotle teaches in The Nicomachean Ethics. In other words, we the people would have to democratically agree to place a greater value on the future quality of the environment than on our present comfortable life-style. This is particularly true in the developed countries, the so called first world, such as the US and the EU.

This moral concept creates obligations not only for the common good of the present inhabitants of the world, but also toward future generations. There is a problem however: in a free market there is no normative standard of what constitutes a need and what constitutes a want. The only standard is one’s desires, as Madison Avenue well knows and as Plato intimated when he said that poverty is not measured by how little one possesses but by how big are one’s desires. In effect the idea that the majority of the people in a democracy would deprive themselves of their wants is redolent of one of Eco’s hyper-reality fantasies.

Most “successful” politicians would not risk their popularity with the ones who elected them for the sake of voters yet to be born, to wit the jettisoning of the Kyoto agreement by a President Bush and its disregard by the EU political leaders despite its pious lip service to it. Hence Plato’s dire pessimism about democracy. He would tell us this: in rational terms, you lovers of democracy have a clear choice; you can keep democracy or keep the earth cool so that you can keep on living on this earth, but you cannot do both. You may ask: what Is Plato suggesting that we opt for dictatorship or perhaps that we vote for the Green party and Ralph Nader? Not exactly, but he is however suggesting a rational pessimism about democratic governments.

The question at this point is this: is such pessimism warranted? Yes, if one keeps in mind Plato’s metaphor of the ship of State and its assumptions. No, if one challenges any of its assumptions. One such assumption is that wisdom does not reside with the people but with a select few elites: the philosopher-kings. However, Giambattista Vico asserts in his poetic philosophy that such an assumption is unwarranted. He has another better idea: he called the wisdom of the people “common sense” and he considered it superior to that of the few which he called “la boria dei dotti” (the conceit of the learned). He is the first philosopher to put forward a radical notion: that Homer, the blind poet, did not exist, that he is the poetic representation of the common oral tradition and wisdom of Hellas, i.e., of all the ancient Greek people which he calls “common sense.”

Vico proved this notion philologically by comparing The Iliad and The Odyssey and showing that they could not have been written by the same author. He repeatedly explains in his New Science how this common sense wisdom has, time and again, saved humankind; that Providence avails itself of that wisdom within the immanence of human history, and it is that kind of wisdom, much more than the elitist kind of wisdom of the learned parading as “leadership,” that saves humankind time and again.

Here we need to remember that in the above statement by Churchill there is an “exception:” Churchill seems to agree with Plato that democracy is inefficient, the worst kind of political system imaginable when manipulated by incompetent politicians, yes, but with the exception of all the others. This paradox that Churchill perceived and Plato seems to miss can be explained thus: when one has trust and faith in the innate wisdom of the people, then democracy begins to appear as the only possible solution to the problems of all the people, for democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people.

This explanation has been proven even empirically and mathematically based on fixed statistical laws by which most modern insurance companies operate. Two or three people are asked to guess how many jelly beans are in a jar; an average is taken and recorded. Then six more people are asked and the average is again taken and recorded. Twelve people are than asked and the average is taken and recorded again. Consistently, the average for the last group will be closer to the reality of the situation than the second or the first, the second closer than the first, that of all the groups together closer than any individual group and closer than the guess of any single individual. This phenomenon was observed even by Aristotle who observed that the decisions of many people tend to cancel out the blunders of a lonely tyrant or even a group of tyrants, hence democracy is always preferable.

In practical terms, the above statistical mathematics proves that one can trust the common sense of all the people more than the conceited knowledge of a few elites. Not to do so, is to risk ending up with dictatorship, albeit that of a philosopher-king. Which is to say, trusting the people, the way an Abraham Lincoln did, for example, when he advocated a government of the people, for the people, by the people, has far better consequences than not trusting them, as a Machiavelli would suggest in his Prince and his geo-political considerations.

Indeed, few people would cooperate with a State that denied them some sort of participation in the decisions affecting their own lives. They would only do so under coercion. In conclusion we can say that from a purely rational viewpoint Plato was justified in being skeptical of democracy, nevertheless he was wrong in the assumption that it was a mere matter of logic and rationality; it is also a matter of imagination and faith: faith in the ultimate wisdom of the “common sense” of the people.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

New Social Compact

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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New Social Compact

Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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New Social Compact

Call for Action from Leaders and Business on Violence against Women

Newsroom

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Spiralling levels of violence against women in Africa require immediate action from governments and businesses, including tangible measures to create safe spaces, experts from across the continent told the World Economic Forum on Africa today.

Protesters in South Africa have taken to the streets and social media to demand action, following the rape and murder of a Cape Town university student who was attacked in a post office. Uyinene Mrwetyana was just the latest of many victims of brutal assaults in a region where approximately 45% of women and girls over 14 years have experienced physical or sexual violence.

“I’m dumbfounded by the idea that we can continue with business as usual,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, Director of African Monitor, who urged technology companies to take a lead in delivering solutions. “It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge.”

The potential for technology to help in the fightback highlights the need for businesses to think creatively, given that cyberbullying can also contribute to discrimination in the first place. Mniki-Mangaliso said the wider business community should also step up to the plate by backing a gender-based fund to address the deep-rooted problems behind the rising tide of physical and sexual assaults.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Africa Initiative, said Africa could learn from China, where decisive action was taken to ban harmful practices like foot binding and polygamy. African governments, by contrast, too often fail to enforce bans on polygamy or genital mutilation, thereby reinforcing a culture of discrimination against women that becomes embedded from childhood.

The failure to protect women is not just a moral issue; it also comes with a high economic cost. “Who drives African communities? It’s our women. Our women can drive Africa’s development, if given the chance, if protected, if their rights are respected,” Abiola-Costello said. “Africa missed the first industrial revolution, we missed the second, we missed the third. If we don’t address this issue, we will miss the fourth.”

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, who spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria and is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, said calls for women to help drive African development will simply ring hollow if violence is not addressed. “The world lacks the moral pedestal to stand on to ask girls to aspire if we cannot have the back of those who are vulnerable,” she said.

With 16,000 deaths due violence against in women every year in South Africa alone, Akudo Anyanwu, Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Our presidents and the leaders in government need to come out and take a position. We need to have our leaders come out and call crimes a crime.”

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