Egypt, Hope and Democratic Origins
“Democracy: a recognition of souls, all down the open road, and a great soul seen in its greatness, as it travels on foot among the rest, down the common way of living.”
There are very few people around the globe who are not moved by the solidarity and passion of the Egyptian people as they unite to topple their bullying, authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak. Here in America, there’s an egocentric temptation to think the Egyptian freedom fighters want to be like us. It’s no longer “they hate us for our freedoms,” it’s “they want to emulate us because of our freedoms.” Both self-centered notions are dead wrong.
Human beings are moved by events in Egypt – as they were moved by the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the 1989 liberation of Eastern Europe, the Green Revolution in Iran and the events of Tiananmen Square – because it is human nature to level social organizations and topple bullying, upstart, authoritarian leaders. It is a tale told in our genes.
Egyptians don’t want to become like us. They already are like us, and like everyone else, too.
It’s time we dispensed with the “just so story” about the origins of democracy and egalitarian social practices. Born in the imaginations of the self-aggrandizing Western world, this destructive legend says homo sapiens were hopelessly stupid and enchained until the Greeks invented democracy. Only after the Enlightenment was well under way could the U.S launch its modern version, they claim.
The inventors of the Age of Reason and their powerful readers (who’d already set sail to conquer the world) told a tale of progress and the evolution of man. We began as primitive barbarians and, lucky us, grew to become like (trumpets and tympani please)the men (always men) who authored the tale. What a coincidence.
Today, anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists, and cognitive scientists are discovering that democracy has its roots in egalitarian political practices that predate the Greeks by thousands of years. It’s not a rose-colored view of ancient history. Hierarchy and tyranny have been with us all that time.
Still, the solidarity made possible by the evolved human capacity for empathy and evolution’s egalitarian genius in advancing a grand diversity of genes and not just those of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great or Stalin makes us all, at heart, democrats. And we’ve been that way for a very long time.
Many of the sources of these recent discoveries about the origins of democratic practices are cited in my series, “The Promise of Popular Democracy,” which you can read here: Part I, Part II, Part III.
I can’t resist naming just one of those sources, Raul S. Manglapus. He was former Philippine President Corazon Aquino’s foreign minister. In his book, Will of the People: Original Democracy in Non-Western Societies, he traces democratic practices to, among other places, ancient Syria. In 2500 BC, Syrians even placed term limits on chosen leaders. Given today’s events in the Middle East, Manglapus’ observations are timely.
We’ve been exiling, ridiculing and hectoring out of office bullying, upstart leaders for tens of thousands of years. And we created proto-democratic and democratic practices to help us do it. Hunter-foragers did it. Early sedentary societies did it.
We can and do grow weak, terrified and passive, of course. Even here. American voters are sadly idle in the face of the greatest theft of public wealth in our history.
The point I want to make is that the recognition of an ancient, universal human drive for freedom, the early invention of democratic practices, and our humanity-wide impatience with thieving, bullying leaders will take us beyond the self-serving folk stories of nation states.
Such recognition is a necessary accompaniment to the growing awareness that universal human rights trump myopic, self-serving nationalist notions. On the latter, by the way, I recommend Samuel Moyn’s new book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Moyn argues that it was only after 1968 that the transnational concept of human rights took hold. Before that, notions of rights often served parochial, ideological or nationalistic ends:
“Far from being sources of appeal that transcended state and nation, the rights asserted in early modern political revolutions and championed thereafter were central to the construction of state and nation, and led nowhere beyond until recently.”
Democratic practices are ancient. But the human rights movement, hijacked initially by nations to serve parochial interests, is newer than we think.
I have to believe with some optimism that a globally shared notion of human rights and a new understanding of the ancient roots of democratic, egalitarian practices just might lead to a new era of emancipation and liberating democratic practices and institutions none of us have even thought of as yet. At the very least it will help us understand that others are more like us than our self-centered cultural narratives lead us to believe.
Of course, this very hope is enough to make the bullies of the world double down. The closer we get, the harder will be the march.