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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 6, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nick Catalano
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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

Huge population segments on both sides of the Atlantic have grown up in a bubble -- under the impression that their long running democracies will simply continue uninterrupted far into the future. The recent Trump phenomenon with its rightist swings against democratic traditions such as immigration, voting credentials, health care and social equality have alarmed elders who see similarities to such issues in the fascism of Nazi Germany early in their lifetime. Yet others who have no historical recollections feel no real dangers.

Despite the outrage of Trump and his right wing preaching, a more ominous trend against democracy exists close by in our own hemisphere and in Europe. Elections in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela and other countries for extreme right-wing candidates have sprung up suddenly. The trend has acquired the term ‘populism’ or as Trump has iterated ‘Nationalism,’ but that is a euphemism for autocracy as anyone with a knowledge of history can see. Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Orban articulate rhetoric right out of Mein Kampf while other populist rulers express similar sentiments.

Nevertheless, the wave of democratic societies that followed the crumbling of monarchies and oligarchies since the time of Columbus has been inspirational. The slogans and traditions adopted by the American and French revolutions have shaped many of the values and governments of the modern world and resulted in widespread belief that the planet has achieved an important punctuation mark in human evolution. Many historians look back on the origins of democracy in ancient Greece and proudly declare that its legacy has successful counterparts in the modern world. Indeed the goal of free elections and jury trials initiated by the ancient Athenians has been the hallmark of countries everywhere. The triumphant drumbeat of democracy still resonates loudly.

But the parades and flag-waving of recent millennia have often failed to note the moment to moment stumblings of democracy through the ages. Its uneven development and evolution are nowhere as triumphant as many think. Even the beacon of democracy in ancient Greece has a history that bears a look back in the context of the recent right-wing activity.

The ‘miracle’ of democracy in fifth-century Athens did not spring up ex nihilo. A retrospection at least a century and a half to the time of Homer is necessary to understand the struggles toward societal freedom that the Greeks undertook.

Beginning with Draco (620 B.C. -- some of whose ‘Draconian’ laws re homicide have become infamous) reforms were instituted to try to establish fixed principles of justice that would override the personal preferences of judges; the role of state government had begun to evolve. Later, in the 6th century, Solon drew attention to the problem of the wealthy class having advantage over the poor in legislative decision-making (difficulty that persists to the present day). He also instituted economic measures and offered skilled craftsmen from abroad citizenship if they would settle in Attica (the first move toward immigration). In addition, he tweaked the justice system to allow male neighbors of victims to bring forth indictments if they witnessed crimes. Accordingly, once the sole concern of families, justice now became the business of the community.

Unluckily, because some of Solon’s laws allowed most citizens to compete for political office, they probably played a role in fostering civil strife. Also, the increased freedom under Solon led to tribal groups whose competition for societal advantages predictably caused further conflict. So a pattern developed: the more autocracy, the less freedom; the more freedom the more tribal squabbles.


As the search for a more perfect government continued to convolute, the ‘democratic’ momentum stalled, often reverting back to autonomous rule. In came the time of Peisistratus and his sons -- historians use the word ‘tyranny’ for this regime -- but despite autocratic movement some of the earlier marches to freedom managed to survive. This tyrant offered loans to the needy so that the whole agricultural economy would benefit. In fact, his autocratic policies ironically resulted in a furtherance of democracy because when the last of his sons was expelled in 510 B.C. all non-Peisistrads, rich and poor, found themselves in surprisingly similar circumstances. That situation set the stage for a return to the earlier egalitarianism but predictably, also a return to factional strife.

Now into power came Cleisthenes. He was strongly dedicated to reform and a furtherance of freedom for all. In short order he revised the older and sometimes ignored Athenian constitution that had had a topsy-turvy history under the aforementioned regimes, organized a boule (somewhat presaging the senates of future governments) and focused on the enhancement of the Assembly as the principal instrument of legislative power.

So by 505 B.C. the system of ‘pure’ democracy finally arrived and all citizens rich and poor could attend Assembly meetings on the Pnyx (a famous hill facing the Acropolis), speak their minds and vote on the agenda.

To the present day we celebrate this epic time of the 5th century in classical Greece. Most significantly, this onset of previously unavailable political and societal freedom spurned the golden age of culture and science which followed. For 2500 years we have re-visited this age and held it sacrosanct in the annals of human evolution. The achievements of Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, Aristotle and so many others are unmatched. And the arrival of real democracy, after as we have seen, a millennium of governmental experimentation, obviously played an enormous role in the cultural activity.

Since those heady years in ancient Greece no political system has been held in higher esteem. And, in the modern era, following the ignominious dictatorships we spoke of before, overwhelming numbers of the world’s nations have rushed headlong to adopt democratic systems.

However, if we return for a moment to classical Athens and take a closer look, the picture darkens quickly.

After only a few decades in the fifth century of intoxicating universal participatory democracy, fissures and cracks developed. Battles with neighbouring city-states (particularly Sparta) which had often occurred before, began to accelerate and the 25 year Peloponnesian War began in 431 B.C. Plague broke out (over 50,000 Athenians died) and everyone suffered; the smooth running trade economy all over the Mediterranean eroded suddenly; wealthy citizens began to mistrust the masses. These difficulties led to increasing squabbles in the Assembly and new power struggles. The miraculous threads of equality began to unwind.

After Athens suffered a huge military defeat in Sicily, democracy suffered its first of many convolutions in 413 B.C. when Athenians placed decision-making in the hands of ten Oligarchs. In 411 the Assembly, symbol of the purest democracy the world was ever to see, voted itself out of existence.

Reactionary oligarchic experiments followed: first a council of 400, then an evolution into a council of 5000. Finally, the war, the deteriorating economy, and old factionalism virtually wrecked the democracy and in 404 a government of 30 tyrants assumed power.

The proud voice of Democracy became hoarse and then silenced by the events described. Such events – war, economic hardship, tribal factionalism – had struck down widespread democratic freedom in Athens and would continue to stifle egalitarian government efforts far into the future.

As we said initially, those forces are certainly at work today and it remains to be seen if western democracy can continue to thrive or will suffer some catastrophic disintegration into autocratic or even tyrannical rule.



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