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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 20, No. 2, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Chris Barry
Don Dewey
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Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
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Diane Gordon
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Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
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Tariq Ali
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Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




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 , A New Yorker at Sea,, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor and his most recent book, Scribble from the Apple. For Nick's reviews, visit his website: www.nickcatalano.n


Elections alone do not produce a functioning democracy.
Barack Obama

In the 2020 spring issue of Foreign Affairs, candidate Joe Biden promised, if elected, to convene a global summit on Democracy during the first year of his presidency. Citing an article in Freedom House which reported that of the 41 countries consistently ranked 'free' from 1985 to 2005, Biden noted that 22 had registered declines in freedom during the last five years.

Because of several events -- Trump authoritarianism, rioting in the U.S. capitol, autocracy in Brazil, Hungary and Poland -- a hue and cry re. the nature and future of Democracy has been raised by many observers, few of whom seem to know much about the origin and initial struggle of Democracy and its topsy-turvy history.

Although ancient Athenian originators of Democracy have often been given carte blanche credit for their bed of roses 'miracle' achievement, this revolutionary form of government begun in the early 5th century B.C. quickly went through tortured convolutions and was cruelly crushed by Macedonian tyranny. Because of social and economic squabbling, power grabbing oligarchs, horrific pandemic and unceasing war (mostly with Sparta) Athenian democracy constantly floundered. And after witnessing innumerable failures in 'the people’s rule' both Plato and Aristotle, objecting to the notion of mob anarchy, dismissed it out of hand early in their writings.

But the idea of abandoning absolute tyrannical rule in favour of a power-sharing citizenry remained an ideal that could not be dislodged.

Although Rome soon dominated the world and powerful Emperors made the headlines for centuries, the legacy of shared power was clung to by a Senate which often heeded citizen demands and the Roman Assembly which contained ordinary citizen voters. So even though the practice of pure democracy died in ancient Athens, its legacy of citizen inclusion evolved into the structure of Roman republicanism; and it should be noted that all modern democracies are, after all, republics.

During the dark ages following the fall of Rome classical learning was largely abandoned and predictably accompanied by the virtual disappearance of democratic governmental structures. The power of the Catholic Church organized societies around the absolutist tradition of the papacy secularly embodied in 'Holy Roman Emperors' and every schoolboy knows about the power of that religion over every phase of medieval life.

But early Florence not only revived classical learning but retrieved democratic practices when, in 1115, the citizenry refused submission to the absolutist Marquisate and shortly established a Florentine republic. This new governmental movement gained notoriety in neighbouring Italian cities. The Signoria or city council featured elections controlled by guild members and, although there were coups and counter-coups (the poet Dante was exiled during one) this republican tradition survived.

A similar movement away from absolutism occurred in England in 1215 when estate owners forced King John to accept the famous Magna Carta which newly codified power- sharing with laws that remain the basis of democratic institutions to the present day.

Although these late medieval/early renaissance events were rare, and absolutism remained and even gained adherence with the notion of 'divine right' kings, it’s important to note that the early ideas of Greek democracy never really disappeared. By the 17th century, although superstar monarch Louis XIV still maintained his divine right (L’etat c’est moi), the 1688 glorious revolution in neighbouring England began the permanent dissolution of European absolutism. Soon, the classical intellectuality of the Age of Enlightenment advanced the notions of liberty and constitutional government, and with the oncoming of revolutions in America and France one-man rule became the arch foe of people everywhere.

But the ancient anarchy of mob rule that Plato and Aristotle feared could occur with sudden democratic adoption, as in the rush to freedom during the reign of terror in the French Revolution. Now absolute rule was replaced by absence of rule and chaos reigned. Politicians and political science thinkers were forced back to the drawing board.

Despite the French reign of terror, constitutional rule permanently fixed itself in the British parliament and the success of early American representative democracy impressed people everywhere. It is the huge economic and political success of American democracy during the last few hundred years that has moved much of the world toward the adoption of this form of government. The central attraction is freedom and it is this factor which leads populaces to try for it as the best approach in the eternal search for a workable system of government based on consent.

But despite the ideal attraction that societal freedom can bring, the history of attempts at democratic government is fraught with potholes and clashes. A quick look at some democratic experiments in just the past few centuries reveals a checkered history of collisions with economic disparity, ideological opposition, all sorts of political power grabs, colonial domination and plain old human frailty.

In post-revolutionary France and the scars of its reign of terror, there was almost a farcical consequence as the country hastily flew back to Napoleonic absolutism in less than a decade after the fall of the Bastille. And in the following centuries up to the recent past the French, in their unswerving passion for individual freedom, have constantly twisted and turned with democratic structures and elected officials. Just a short while ago the electorate swooned over President Macron as they have for past favourites and now half the country wants to throw him out.

Speaking of the electoral process, this necessitarian implement in any democratic undertaking is pock-marked with corruption and collapse. Few seem to recall that Adolf Hitler was an elected leader. As often happens because of severe economic strain, approaching anarchism appears in the form of dozens of political parties and sometimes, through violent action, an extreme ideological group can capture enough 'votes' to gain power. On March 5, 1933 the German people sick of their victimization in the Treaty of Versailles, in a panic during incredible inflation (it took a wagonload of deutch marks to buy a loaf of bread), fleeced of much of their own territory and bought into the glorious promises of the Fuhrer and his gangster cronies.

Less dramatic but equally consequential during the same period, small minorities banded together to overthrow the absolutism of Czar Nicholas in Russia. Sneakily, one of the groups hid behind the flag of Karl Marx, an idealistic German philosopher who was virtuously trying to combat the evil elements in capitalism. But once they got into power they quickly rushed to implement a different kind of absolutism under the stranglehold of the KGB. At this writing that absolutism is still running things.

Just a few weeks ago the short period of democratic freedom in Myanmar ended because it upset the covetous desires of selfish Generals who are shooting protesters in the streets as I write this essay. The democratic experiment was not able to harness the forces of order and process, a story only too familiar in the wobbly history of some modern Democracies.

One of the problems associated with these failures is a remarkable naïveté. Somehow, the notion that Democracy is the ultimate solution for all human problems has ingrained itself in the minds of too many in western countries -- the daily struggles of political parties, power groups, lobbying interests and the age-old fights between rich and poor occur with often painful regularity even in the most successful modern democracies.

And much of the world gasped when, on January 6, insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol building, the arch symbol of contemporary Democratic tradition.

Obviously, citizens everywhere need a refresher course in the history of Democracy. In the film The American President Aaron Sorkin wrote the following lines for the fictitious President who is trying to educate a restless and cynical citizenry:

America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours." You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.
Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.

One wonders if those who boast of the miracle of democracy would be willing to tolerate the degree of freedom referenced in this movie.

It would seem to be a propitious time when violent protesters and grumbling minorities adjusted their expectations, stopped their bitching and ceased complaining about their dissatisfactions with democratic systems. Perhaps the sagacious words of Winston Churchill might help to begin the refresher course. He said “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have ever been tried.”


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By Nick Catalano:
And Justice for All
Costly Failures in American Higher Education
Trump and the Dumbing Down of the American Presidency
Language as the Enemy of Truth
Opportunity in Quarantine
French Music: Impressionism & Beyond
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. II
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. I
Kenneth Branagh & Shakespeare
Remembering Maynard Ferguson
Reviewers & Reviewing
The Vagaries of Democracy
Racism Debunked
The Truth Writer
#Me Too Cognizance in Ancient Greece
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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