Friday, March 22, 2013

Is Democracy Failing?



1.

- I've been here before, a long time ago, twenty-five years I think.
- With your family?
- Yes. We stopped for lunch before seeing a movie.
- I take it you didn't enjoy yourself.
-  It was minor torment. I'm thinking now how my whole family, how I lived with them, was a disaster.
- What happened?
- Same as is happening to our democracy. Failure.
- Alright, that's a promising start. Why is our democracy failing and why was your family failing? People always say democracy is failing. It goes through cycles, fails, recovers, fails again....
- The problem is not with democracy but with us. We are practicing democracy in a different way.
- Go on.
- We sat down there, my brothers, my mother and myself.
- Did you fight with your brothers?
- No, we didn't bother. We knew we had nothing to fight about. Our disagreement was complete and total.
- What caused that?
- It was always that way.
- What about your mother and father?
- They tried to argue with me. It was futile.
- Why?
- Well, for the same reason politics is hopeless at the moment.
- What reason?
- It's assumed that no one has to be a student of ethics in private life, yet everyone must debate ethics in public life. And where can people who don't practice ethical observation in their private life find ethical positions except second hand, from ready made stories of how life with others should be managed? And then people who have taken up positions second hand, without having any reason other than sort of liking the sound of them, are supposed to debate with each other in a democratic arena? Or worse, work in government as representatives of the public?
- What's the alternative?
- Plato said democracy was the form of government in which no one agreed on what human nature truly was, so which resisted being made into an instrument of perfecting human nature. It was the safest form of government. And do you know why?
- Why?
- Because people would not be doing what we are doing now in our country, debating ethical principles in public life.
- But you've got me confused. How can democracy survive if it's not ethical?
- Because politics is a practical, technical question of making the best choice, a compromise among the views of all the people.
- But you just said the people don't have their own ethical views.
- Yes. So it doesn't work. People with ethical understanding can compromise in practice. People without ethical understanding, when it comes to politics will contend uselessly.
- Your family were unethical people contending with you, and you refused to debate. But they knew what you thought?
- Sure.
- They told you you were wrong. What did they say?
- I was doing nothing with my life.
- And what did you answer?
- I was doing what I wanted.
- And they said?
- I wan't allowed to. I said I was.
- So if all you in the family were like a real democracy, not like what we have now, you'd have been able to reach some practical understanding?
- I think so. The problem with our democracy is that everyone who is not talking partisan politics, public morality, is talking out the technical questions: does economic failure cause democratic failure, or vice versa? Which economic theory is correct? How dangerous is climate change?
- Shouldn't we be talking about these things?
- We should. But our democracy cannot make good decisions on them except by chance unless we return from our upside-down world of public morality and private practicalities, to the reverse, private morality and public practicality.
- Neat wording. But I'm not convinced.
- How can we talk about the fact our democracy is finished, no longer represents the interest of the people? What do we do about the fact our congress is now "legally" bribed to act in the interests of those with most money to bribe? Are these ethical problems? Then forget about our ever solving them. People with unreflective practical lives go into public and throw at each other their matter of taste politics. Decisions come about only by deciding who has got the most money to bribe with.
- Then how are we going to solve our problems?
- We have to change how we talk to each other.
- How?
- By talking about what is really important, what makes our lives good, stop talking exclusively about what makes our lives secure, return our private interests to questions of good and away from questions of practicality.
- Aren't we breaking your rule right now?
- Having a public discussion about morality?
- Yes.
- Like with my family: I state my position, and withdraw. If you're only the public.
- We're friends, not a democracy.


2.

- If democracy is to work people have to believe there is a better and worse for a human being to do. But in a democracy everyone agrees that there is no human nature. How can government last that is based on hypocrisy?
- Because it is not hypocritical not to want to discuss what is most important to you with strangers.
- I don't think you can be a good person and not respect strangers.
- It isn't respectful to speak to someone knowing you won't be understood.
- How do you know you won't be understood?
- Because I won't be able to choose words that I know from past experience will be understood as I mean them, I won't be able to refer to shared experiences and know the reference will be recognized.
- Only people who have good friends can make up a democracy, but everyone in a democracy is not everyone's friend?
- It's enough that everyone could become a friend.


3.

- Could you become friends with your family?
- Off and on.
- It's sort of eerie, imagining you sitting over there at one of those tables, 25 years ago.
- Times changed. The ghost of my family is at home here.
- Let's go.


4.

- Times really have changed. The movie tonight was amazing. The President of the U.S. is held hostage, he says he'll never give up the code that will allow detonation of our entire arsenal of nuclear weapons in their launch sites across the country. Next thing we know the terrorists have the code and the President no worse for wear. We're not supposed to notice. The President doesn't seem to notice he just allowed his captives to kill a hundred million or so of the American people.
- There's a logic behind stupidity of this kind, a mathematics of stupidity you could call it.
- Explain.
- Let's say you are writing a book - we've had enough of movies for today. A good writer will write what he knows from his own experience.
- That would be non-fiction.
- Say that our writer adds to the description of what he's seen or done or thought something not from his personal history. Do you know what happens when he tries to go on with gathering up, adding together his experiences?
- What?
- The need to be consistent with what he made up reduces the available experiences he can recall and write down.
- You mean everything that really happened to us is consistent with what really happened.
- Right. The more you add fictional elements to your story, the less reality of experience you have to draw upon, and finally, at the end of the process there is no reality left to draw upon that is consistent and everything now added has to be imagined.
- Then how is it that fiction is good, has any sense of reality at all? Or are you going to say only inconsistent fiction like our movie can have any reality?
- Fiction can be consistent and real.
- How?
- By fitting reality to the frame of fiction, not fiction to the frame of reality.
- More formulas.
- Adding fiction upon fiction you press out reality. No reality means no criterion for judging consistency. If we are not in our world we are in another where a President is possible who doesn't mind killing hundreds of millions and is still a nice guy.
- Then how can good movies and novels be made if fiction drives out reality?
- By making the frame of fiction first, and fitting our real experience into it. The rules for making the frame are kept independent of our rule for sticking to personal experience.
- Are you speaking from personal experience here?
- You tell me: am I being consistent?
- Yes, but like the movie you're in another world.
- And you're there with me.
- I am, in way. I know where you are going.
- Where is that?
- You are going to argue that a movie like we saw, made by a group of people at great expense trying to follow their formulas and keep them all consistent with each other the best they can....
- Is like modern democrats trying to assemble a society out of moral principles drawn out of nowhere, certainly not from personal experience.
- And like the makers of the movie we don't object to inconsistency because we have lost sight of reality.