A couple of months ago I re-opened the comments here on the blog (and I’m glad I did – thanks to all of you for some really interesting input) and one particular comment to my piece A Radiant Eruption of Democracy, which talked about the money men and Gosplan and the 1976 film Network, really stuck in my head. Quite simply put, someone called me a “genius”.
That got me to thinking about all sorts of things, including the discussion on the subject of geniuses from my man William James that you saw a few days ago. But it further got me to thinking about someone who was once world famous precisely for being a genius but who is now largely forgotten, William James Sidis. While not a blood relation to the philosopher, the father of WJ Sidis was friends with William James and he (WJ Sidis’ father) named his son after the man he so admired.
And I mention all of this because William James Sidis wrote an obscure book that almost no one has ever read (it was published under a fake name in 1935) but the topic is one of extreme interest to me here and all of our lives in Romania. That topic is democracy.
The word “democracy” comes from the Greek. And the political concept of democracy, that people have a vote and that through this voting they choose and shape their government is one that historically the Greeks from the “classic period” did create. The architecture, mathematics, philosophy, poetry and even political ideas from this period were greatly celebrated by the Romans, who incorporated a number of Greek elements into their culture and these were later admired and copied by later European cultures until we have the situation in 2012 where Senators (a Roman invention) and Presidents and other representatives are elected by vote to operate the government. Globally, one form of representative democracy or another is the type of government most of the countries have around the world today.
But Greek democracy and the later Roman and other European forms (such as the Viking Althing) were all very different than what we call democracy today. And it’s that difference between what I’ll call “classical democracy” and “modern democracy” that’s important to understand (and write about with a hangover on a Saturday morning LOL).
The original classical Greek model was that all of the eligible citizens met together and voted on the laws and rules that they wanted. Furthermore, they chose most of their government leaders by “allotment”, literally a kind of lottery. One day you might be in charge of the city’s sanitation department and the next month in charge of something else. The reason this could work for a brief period of time in classical Greece was that the number of eligible citizens in each city were very few and technology and social management was small enough that you could be an “ordinary” person and do these governing jobs you were randomly assigned to do.
The eligible citizens in any Greek state from that period of time were only the men, and only those men who were born in the city from two parents who were also born in the city. All women, foreigners, slaves and everybody else were not eligible and couldn’t vote or hold office or do anything else. The democracy was only for this small group of men.
It was this extreme restriction on who was eligible that was adopted by the Romans later for their Senate and the other classical models of the European system, (Althing, English Parliament, etc). Their definitions of who was an “eligible citizen” varied but largely you had to be a wealthy male with a noble title of some sort to participate (this is the system still in place today in Saudi Arabia and a few other places btw). Regardless of how powerful or how weak the parliament or Senate or “assembly” was, participation and voting on laws and holding government offices was restricted to the wealthy and powerful.
So where in the world did this concept that everyone, rich or poor, woman or man, get to participate in voting and choosing their leaders come from? A lot of people don’t like to admit it but it comes from the original Americans themselves, called “Native Americans” now in polite talk but known to most people as “Indians”. And that’s where William James Sidis’ book comes into play because he was one of the first people to document this, that before the European expansion into North America and contact with the Indian tribes the idea that the idea that”regular” people, non-nobility, non-wealthy, non-males should have any voice or say in how society was run did not exist.
All of the “great” leaders in European history, whether the kings of England, France or Spain, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire or the boyars and princes of Romania, ruled societies in which it was taken for granted that some people (the “nobility”) were superior than other people (peasants, serfs, etc). The idea that people were all equal did not exist. There were different laws and social responsibilities for the nobility and it was taken for granted as an “obvious truth” that as a class they were superior and better than everyone else. This is true whether we’re talking about the democracy of classical Greece or the Kingdom of Moldova under Stefan cel Mare or the days of the Roman Republic.
Romanians today, including in many of their “traditional” dishes (such as mamaliga) eat plants and animals that came from the American continent. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys, chocolate, tobacco and many other foods and consumables did not exist in Europe before 1492 and later colonizations of the western hemisphere. But it was this idea that all people are equal both under the law and in the power to choose their own governments that also came from the “New World” and eventually took root so that we get what we have here today in Romania, a representative democracy.
Probably one of the biggest problems facing this country today is that while on paper everyone is equal under the law and that fairness and equality and the power to govern is theoretically the same for all citizens, in many ways this isn’t so. The Romanian slang word for those operating the media (which few people trust) and the big political parties and the other key institutions of this society is “barons”, which is clearly an allusion to the old concept of nobility. In the old days, the king and heredity decided who was a member of the nobility. In these days, it’s money and connections that decide.
As an American, to me it seems fundamentally obvious that people are equal, not the same or identical but equal in terms of all the rights and responsibilities as a citizen. Not only do the laws and rules and duties apply equally to everyone but the responsibilities, particularly the responsibility to shape society to serve the needs of the people, fall equally on everyone’s shoulders.
But for Romanians, I realize this is a new concept. A hundred years ago there was a king and then came both fascism and Communism, different in their political ideologies but roughly identical in that a small cadre of powerful elites, called “nobility” or not, were the ones choosing the laws and who were superior to the other members of society. And in 1989, when a storm wave of change washed over Eastern Europe, it was many of these self-same elites who stepped into the breach and took over when nominally on paper there was a “revolution” and “everything changed”.
There was certainly a revolt in 1989, first by an ornery Hungarian priest then followed by angry youth in Timisoara and then by thousands of people nationwide. But I’d hesitate to call it a revolution because there wasn’t a sea change in the way people thought about their government. Democracy was mostly a word used to signify money and material goods and western entertainment (movies, TV shows and music) and far less about the ordinary people now having the responsibilities and freedom to shape the society they live in.
But the times are changing. While there wasn’t a revolution in two weeks in 1989, there has been a slow revolution that’s taken place over the past 20 odd years. Self-organizing truly democratic organizations, institutions, non-profits and other movements, from cleaning up the trash to providing free bicycles to artist collectives, are starting to spring up. A new group of cabinet ministers are now in place, many of whom were never part of the ruling nobility of Romania’s past. Protests and marches in the street are now a daily occurrence.
And it is this, the strangest gift from America, not the American government of Obama or Bush, of white people and black people and Hispanic people and Asian people that you see on the news, but the one from the native peoples of that land, the tribes of “Indians” who met together to choose their laws and leaders as equals, that is the greatest gift that America ever gave the world, far superior and far more precious than any movie, any entertainment, any sport, any brand name, any fast food restaurant, any material good or nominal wealth or any animal or plant.
But it is a fragile gift. It’s one that needs to be nourished and taken care of. And all it requires is that each and every person wake up in the morning and say “I am responsible for the way things are in this society”. It requires a shift in thinking from “I suffer or benefit from the actions of others and I am powerless to change this” to “it is up to me and everyone I know to make this country a place where I want to live”.
Every purchase at the store, every newspaper read, every discussion held in a coffee-shop or bar, every blog post written, every vote cast, every Youtube video created, every song sung in the street, every banner waved, every march or protest attended, this, ladies and gentlemen, is the gift in action. All it requires is that you use it.
And thus it is that I say to you…
O ROMÂNIE FRUMOASA E SARCINA TUTUROR