The recent spate of hand wringing over the youth and “inexperience” of some of our new Members of Parliament is risible, scripted, and campy.
“They’re young, they’re NDP, they’re MPs and they’re coming this way!” reads the newspaper headline.
“What are we going to do?” screams the panicky pundit.
“Hide the children!”
“But they ARE children…”
For some people, the election of a handful of previously-unknown-to-the-general-public NDP MPs under the age of 30 is “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” scary.
Far scarier are the arguments of their critics, and the lack of conviction shown by some of their defenders.
For their detractors, and even for those who would defend them, these youthful voices in the democratic debate come without much “experience” and hence without much value.
And so they can be mocked. The May 4th edition of the National Post caricatured them as the “Layton Bunch” riffing with the Post’s usual heavy hand on the 70’s Brady Bunch sitcom, featuring Jack as the father, and MPs as kids.
More troublesome however has been the response of some of the MPs’ well-intentioned defenders. It suggests that they are unable to marshal our best arguments in defense of democracy.
These weak defenders often shift the focus of the debate onto the so-called “star” NDP candidates from Quebec; Francoise Boivin, Tyrone Benskin, Romeo Saganash, et al
. It’s as if they’re conceding a point to the anti-democratic enemy: not just anybody can govern themselves or others.
(For proof that “professional” politicians are not always the ideal, take a look at this list of dubious “talent”
compiled by Rabble.ca.)
Even Jack Layton gave credence to the attackers in his first speech
to the NDP caucus.
Everyone is missing the point. Their error goes back to the very philosophical foundations of the conflict between democracy and oligarchy.
The fundamental philosophical argument against democracy is that political judgment is a specialized skill, given only to a few.
This is the argument of Socrates and Plato in the Republic: that the Athenians allow simple sailors and tradesmen to lead them, and so are led to ruin. Plato relates how Socrates taught that political skills are analogous to a trade, and so government should be left to “the one who knows.”
Their followers, admirers of anti-democratic Sparta, staged two bloody coups d’état
based on this idea. This has been the intellectual last line of defense of every King and of every tyrant since. It’s at the root of the Fuhrerprinzip
. But it has also corrupted our own modern notions of democracy, plagued by self-dealing, “indispensable” specialists at every turn.
It’s also a steaming heap of bullshit.
The key to exposing it as such can be found in the Platonic dialog, Protagoras
, named after the radical philosopher of democracy, whose works have been mostly lost, probably because they were deliberately destroyed: his humanistic relativism was too subversive, perhaps even for democratic Athens.
In the eponymous dialog, Protagoras is set up to debate Socrates, who denies the proposition that virtue can be taught, and by extension that democracy is good.
This dialog is only instance where Socrates and his anti-democratic ideas are forced to acknowledge a coherent democratic worldview, though they fail to respond directly to Protagoras’ arguments, which cut to the heart of the present angst over “inexperienced” NDP MPs, and expose our worries as baseless.
Protagoras defends the political competence of the common people in terms understandable to his contemporaries, in the form of a creation myth:
“Hermes asked Zeus how he should impart justice and reverence among men: Should he distribute them as the arts are distributed; that is to say, to a favoured few only, one skilled individual having enough of medicine or of any other art for many unskilled ones?
‘Shall this be the manner in which I am to distribute justice and reverence among men, or shall I give them to all?’
‘To all,’ said Zeus; ‘I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.’”
In other words, every person, regardless of their station in life or their technical experience possesses the innate skill of political judgment, which the ancient Greeks described using several subtle terms which we do not use, such as aidos
, (reverence, justice, excellence) to name but a few.
To translate for the generation which just produced a 19-year-old MP: “Baby I was born this way!” And yes baby, you are on the right track.
In our culture these qualities have been left to atrophy. 0ur political muscles are weak from disuse, while the consumption of commodities is offered as a surrogate activity. Perhaps it is because we “outsource” our political judgment to representatives that we expect them to have “skills.” We mystify our own atrophied capacities, and project their shadows onto others.
But as the mass uprisings springing up all over the world show, even after a long period of dormancy, the innate and natural capacity of human beings to directly govern themselves cannot be repressed forever.
It expresses itself spontaneously in Egyptian teens who have never voted in an election, and who have never lived under representative democracy, and in formerly passive Spanish youth, decked out in the latest Zara togs, but sleeping in the public square in imitation of the Egyptians.
Both groups have resorted to a kind of direct democracy that the Athenians would have recognized instantly. Without this innate capacity, even voting in our shambolic elections would be not only pointless, it would be counter-productive.
To profess belief in any kind of democracy, one must side with Protagoras.
The young NDP MPs need no recommendation other than their own humanity. In fact, the unsullied humanity of youth is precisely the political purifier we need right now.
Uncorrupted by fretful cynicism, untainted by the diminished expectations of age, unencumbered by the limits of previous experience, it is often only the innocence of youth that has the moral courage to demand, and occasionally the strength to bring into existence the world as it should be from the world as it is.
The world as it is was shaped more by the Neo-Platonic attack on democracy than by the radical democratic ideas of Protagoras. The principal 20th century philosopher of “elite democracy”, Walter Lippmann characterized the public as “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” who are incapable of participating in political decisions.
Later, Joseph Schumpeter described the ideal democracy as a system for producing a strong government based upon market choice from among competing leaders. It’s their ideas which hold sway today.
Our current system, which produced a majority government in parliament with the support of a minority of voters and an even smaller minority of the total electorate, with candidates chosen from parties representing less than 2 percent of the population would satisfy Schumpeter’s criteria for democracy, but it would satisfy neither Protagoras nor Plato.
It should not satisfy the rebellious spirit of our youth. (X)
James Kerr writes about deep politics, constitutional and classical
history, energy and the environment, and whatever strikes his fancy at stephenjameskerr.ca.