Sunday, 12 May 2013

Book review: The Life And Death of Democracy, John Keane (2009)

It's really hard to know where to start with this 958-page goliath but perhaps I should start by saying that so far I've only read to page 311. And this is no indictment of the book's quality, its writing, or its pace or structure; it's a really good read. The reason I stopped reading it a few weeks ago, and why it has sat desultorily unopened since then on the floor next to my bed is that there's just so much interesting stuff in it. I stopped not because I was bored but because I had reached a cognitive threshold and needed to blog about it in order to register and refine and understand my own thoughts about it, before going on with it.

Keane himself is an interesting specimen, one of those tousle-headed expat Australians who is something of an eminence gris, but unfortunately for the rest of us he is not often in the media. No doubt his researches and his desire to write keep him busy elsewhere, but I'd like to see more of him on the small screen as a tonic to general ignorance. It's general ignorance that makes liberals squirm when conservative politicians put out a public call for us to spend more time in school learning about the contribution of Christianity to Western institutions, for example, including the institution of representative democracy. In fact, if you read this book, you'll learn that Christianity did indeed have a lot to do with how democracy developed over the centuries. But liberals in the community don't know that and only see politicians trying to buttress the values that underpin their political parties, and trying to foster support for those values - which are often retrograde and, unlike the way Keane handles his material, uncritically promoted - within the broader community. And as far as it goes the liberals are right: there are many special interest groups and potted loons in the community that just want to see their own narrow agendas given a bit of support in the face of the inexorable onward press of the Enlightenment.

Speaking of tonics, page 311 in the book takes you up to the years around 1776, when the US Constitution was written. But the story of democracy starts about 3000 years earlier. Novel, right? We get a lot of chest-beating from Americans, an ugly nationalistic exceptionalism that is encouraged by senior politicians there who are always eager to lift the value of their personal brands by telling their constituents how special they are. On the far reaches of the US political spectrum you get Tea Party patriots stomping down the street dressed as Minutemen, banging on drums and tooting on tin whistles. These kinds of public display are as damaging to the US in terms of community support as is the stance of the Chinese government vis-a-vis democracy, which also tends to foment distrust in communities overseas. Even loyal friends such as the average Australian gets tired of hearing Americans bang on. And China's refusal to engage with its countrymen on the matter of representative government leads to an unending stream of bad publicity in the form of negative stories in the Western media; the Chinese government responds by monopolising the media in its own country, and produces news websites that no Chinese reads because they know it's just propaganda. In terms of the US, nationalistic exceptionalism leads to distrust among the members of certain communities, and has contributed to the escalation, since the late 1990s, of terror attacks on American targets throughout the world. Uncritical and chauvinistic attitudes toward the matter of government damage everyone. Keane's books is therefore a must-read.

It's also a lot of fun. Keane uses a muscular, pungent, demotic language that is knowing and wry. He caters to the average reader by battening onto his or her standard cognates, and running the bigger story, complete with all its important details, like a weaver who shuttles the weft across the warp to fashion her cloth.

So, for example, everyone knows that the ancient Athenians kept slaves. Keane addresses this commonly-known fact and makes sure that he keeps one eye on that area of the story while talking more broadly about how democracy functioned in Greece in the few hundred years BC that democracy survived there. But this is not where Keane starts; the democratic impulse began, he tells us, a couple of thousand years earlier, in Mesopotamia, among the tribe of local gods the people living in the region consulted during their everyday lives. And Athens wasn't the first polity to use democracy for government; many other cities at the same time did, and even other communities used it even earlier, a fact that can be seen by tracing back the use of certain words in different places, words cognate with 'demos', the people.

Democracy developed in fits and starts often for reasons completely distinct from such notions as equity of access, individual human rights, or the idea that all people are created equal under God. But those precepts did also work to determine how things came to be. For example, from page 231 in the book:
The case of covenants in Scotland demonstrated yet again, within the history of democracy, that the raw, blind, passionate conviction that God is the source of all things human could spark the level-headed demand of mortals to rein in earthly rulers who saw themselves as divine. We have seen already that some basic institutions of both assembly democracy and representative government were twins of the belief in the power of transcendent forces. Mesopotamian assemblies took their cue from Anu and Enlil and other gods and goddesses; Greek democracies were nourished by the belief that the deities watched over them carefully; while Muslim institutions - the mosque, the endowment societies, economic partnerships - were self-evidently manifestations of a loving and benevolent God. Early Christians followed suit. In the name of God, they popularised the practice of responsibly holding office for limited terms. They had a hand in cultivating such things as the reliance on councils of representatives, the practice of petitioning, and the insistence that states run by monarchs need to be kept constantly on their toes - held publicly accountable for their actions - by their subjects.
It sounds simple when Keane tells these stories like this, but it has to be remembered that there are tens of thousands of hours of work sitting behind the writer's fluid verbal output. Oh, that Keane could be walked out from time to time, like Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the cinema scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, to put the pollies and the culture warriors - and the estranged liberal intelligentsia - right, when talk starts up in the commentary pages of the newspapers about teaching Australian children about the contribution of religion to the institution of representative government. If the discussion could contain these facts, and these stories, I think that everyone would just relax, sit back, and feel a bit happier and less ensieged.

But this is how a public intellectual like Keane can add value to debates, and so for my part I can only humbly recommend his large, heavy, and - basically - knowing book to readers everywhere. The quality of the paper is not that great but the quality of the prose is exceptional; there were a couple of places where the author ran ahead of me, but in a work this size that's to be expected.

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