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Thursday, September 23, 2004

Jon Stewart ponders democracy

Jon Stewart has new book out. Here is an excerpt on democracy

Athens: Our Big Fat Greek Forerunners
Ancient Greece is widely credited with creating the world's first democracy. It would be a worthy endeavor to travel back in time to the feta-strewn shores of fifth-century-B.C. Athens and ask Plato to define democracy, and not only to make money gambling on Olympics results that we, being from the future, would already know. Plato would tell us, in that affectionate but nonsexual way of his, that "democracy" is a Greek word combining the roots for "people" ("demos-") and "rule" ("-kratia").

In Greek democracy, political power was concentrated not in the hands of one person, or even a small group of people, but rather evenly and fairly distributed among all the people1, meaning every John Q. Publikopolous could play a role in Athenian government. The main legislative body, the Assembly, was comprised of no less than the first 6,000 citizens to arrive at its meetings — and bear in mind, no saving seats. Jury duty was considered an honor to be vied for. Membership in most other civic institutions, including the Supreme Court, was chosen ... by lot! Imagine a system in which anyone could wind up serving on the Supreme Court. Anyone. Think about your own family. Friends. The guys you knew in college who would eat dog feces for ten dollars. Now picture one of them as your randomly chosen Chief Justice, and you'll appreciate just how ... this system was.

Compared with American democracy, the Athenian version seems simplistic, naive, and gay. Transcripts of early Athenian policy debates reveal a populace moved more by eloquence and rationality than demagogues and fear-mongering. Thankfully, this type of humane governance wasn't allowed to take root. Athens's great experiment ended after less than two centuries, when, in 338 B.C., Philip of Macedon's forces invaded the city, inflicting on its inhabitants the eternal fate of the noble and enlightened: to be brutally crushed by the armed and dumb.

Rome: The First Republicans
The fall of Athens was followed by the emergence, overnight, of Rome. At first glance its people2 appear to have enjoyed a system of representative government similar to ours. True, behind its facade of allegedly "representative" officials lurked a de facto oligarchy ruled by entrenched plutocrats. But the similarities don't end there. In fact, the Founding Fathers borrowed many of their ideas from the Roman model, including its bicameral legislature, its emphasis on republicanism and civic virtue, and its Freudian fascination with big white columns.

However, there was very little real democracy in Rome. While the Senate theoretically represented the people, in reality its wealthy members covertly pursued pro-business legislation on behalf of such military-industrial giants as JavelinCorp, United Crucifix, and a cartel of resource-exploiting companies known as Big Aqueduct. They even monopolized the most notorious aspect of Roman life, instituting an orgy policy that can literally be described as "trickle-down."

Vomitoriums aside, Rome's biggest contribution to American government was probably its legal system, which codified key concepts like equal protection, "innocent until proven guilty," and the right to confront one's accusers. These very same issues would later form the basis of both the Bill of Rights and a mind-numbing quantity of Law and Order scripts. But by the time of Rome's huge millennium celebration marking the beginning of O A.D., the faint light of Roman democracy was all but extinguished. The Republic had given way to Empire. The only voting to speak of took place in the Colosseum and was generally limited to a handful of disembowelment-related issues. In time, the Empire itself fell, as history teaches us all empires inevitably must.3 Its most enduring legacy: a numerical system that allowed future generations to more easily keep track of Super Bowls.

1 For purposes of Greece, "people" means "free adult males."
2 For purposes of Rome, "people" means "free adult males with property."
3 Except America

(Via Other Crap)