It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
I’m teaching my Year 13 Classics class Socrates. Even though I thought it was a cool topic, I’m still a little surprised how much the students seem to like it. Last week we looked at the Athenian court system, and Athenian democracy, and ended with an essay about the flaws of democracy written by Emily Wilson.
The play [The Knights] suggests that democracy need not mean freedom. It may mean that the people sometimes choose bad masters. The personality politics created by today’s media risks taking us closer to the demagoguery and ruin of the Athenian political scene.
I remembered the article when I saw this at a meeting on Friday:
A total of 73.2 per cent (399) of respondents – all of whom live in Auckland – said they supported the introduction of standards for reading, writing and maths in their children’s primary schools.
However, just 11.9 per cent said they had “a full understanding” of the policy; 61.8 per cent said they had a partial understanding, and 26.2 per cent admitted not understanding it.
Herald, 6 Feb. 2010
73% of people surveyed support something that 88% of them don’t understand.
This kind of surveying is close to the direct democracy that Athens had where the citizens of Athens would vote on every issue concerning the city (rather than representational democracy where we vote in the election and our representatives do whatever they want for three years). Sometimes it seems like direct democracy is a good idea, and sometimes when you hear what the man and woman in the street actually has to say in the pointless, time-filling vox pops in a news item you really begin to worry.
Actually I worry about two things: (1) what people think, and (2) how badly the media let us down when they shape these thoughts. On reflection I find (1) a lot less worrying than (2).
I am not nimble minded. Ask me a tough question about an issue of the day and I will say something ill-conceived. I imagine if a guy with a microphone and a TV camera asked me something I would also say something inane.
Reporter: “Bananas… good or bad?”
Man of Errors: “KILL EM ALL!”
Watching the clip below makes you realise that perhaps half of what makes news news is the way it is delivered, and if you say nothing at all but use the accepted format and tone you can create the illusion of news.
This idea feeds into my other class which is doing Afghanistan. This class is about 14 years old on average, and what they know about Afghanistan has been formed by half listening to the news (and by being 14). When we started the topic they were pretty ill-informed and we had such cheery views expressed as: “Why don’t they just bomb all the Muslims?”, and “Is Afghanistan a city or a country?” Five weeks in I am relieved to see a better informed bunch of individuals debating difficult issues with better balance.
Today we looked at a newspaper article about the New Zealand SAS in Kabul, and at the end I asked them if they thought we should be fighting in Afghanistan. It was an interesting discussion. Most believed we should be in Afghanistan, and some of those supporters thought we should be there because of what the Taliban had done, and wanted to carry on doing. I wanted to know if they believed there were such things as universal values and that other countries should intervene if they saw those values being broken. On this they were less sure and moved on to the idea that we should only be involved if a group does something to us first. One kid mentioned 9-11, but the rest of the class felt that this was done to America, and not to New Zealand. What about the idea that if we help America, then one day America might help us? We ran out of time for that question.
It was a good discussion, and reassuring. 14 year olds do care, and have opinions, and the issues we were discussing are pretty complicated. Personally I can see both sides, and I am unsure about our involvement. Nowadays I think people like to suggest New Zealand is in Afghanistan to help put it back on its feet and deal with the Taleban, and Osama has sort of slipped down the radar. At the time the Taleban were in power though I remember the main outcry over their rule being when they blew up the ancient rock Buddhas in Bamiyan, and not so much about their appalling treatment of millions of women (and others). Did I miss this, or wasn’t I told?
In Emily Wilson’s article she makes this point about the death of Socrates:
An obvious lesson was that democracy allows ignorant, uneducated citizens to have power over the lives of the few who might teach them.
On the whole though, I think I agree with Socrates that people only do bad things when they are ignorant, and that in some respects it must be the fault of teachers if they end up getting slaughtered by the masses, or being led by bad leaders.
I extend “teachers” to include “the media”.
It is only recently that I have begun to realise what people mean about a free and open media being crucial to a democracy. To free, and open I would like to add: informed. The New Zealand media seems pretty free and open, but to be honest they rarely seem to know what they are talking about.
Democracy does not, in itself, ensure that human rights will be protected. Restrictions on intellectual and religious freedom, along with torture, unfair trials, and unequal access to education, work, money and political power are features of democratic societies, ancient and modern.
When 73% of people surveyed support something that 88% of them don’t understand you get the feeling that someone’s not doing their job very well. Emily Wilson is right, democracy is a guarantee of nothing. Giving people the power of the vote alone does not ensure informed decision making.