It is a dismal truth that democracy can die from lack of use, and the technologies of electronic communication and mental distraction now in use are potent foes of a self-governing, self-disciplining citizen. We might be amusing ourselves to the death of our own government.
Dropping out of political engagement is easy. I know I was pretty disengaged for entire years of my youth, and only in middle and elder age have I been consistently responsible to my duties as a citizen. Seniors, as any politically-informed person can tell you, are dependable participants in Canadian democratic institutions, at a high and respectable rate. Not so the young. Youth can be forgiven for finding other parts of life more worthy of their passions and energies than politics and nightly news, but not for failure to come to the ballot box at elections.
But by far the worst phenomenon in democracy is apathy and outright cynicism. To deliberately decide to drop out of political participation is to invite the worst results. To imagine one knows that all politics is useless or corrupt or valueless or fake, is hubristic arrogance of the lowest sort. The internet is increasing this kind of error.
People of completely self-interested motives actively desire that the masses be made ignorant, incapable of critical thinking or independent understanding, and enslaved to appetite and sensation, and the wonderful tool of these lords of manipulation is the algorithm behind the screen. Each of us has the freedom to be the master of our own use of screens and what we ingest there. This is ultimately down to us.
Divided by irrational hatreds, polarized into electronic tribes of shallow identities, we are horribly vulnerable to the would-be masters of what goes into our minds unless we stop them. The power to direct our future is still with us, but perhaps not for long. The pandemic is a master lesson in how a real emergency might be exploited for over-reach by governments, and one must be constantly on guard not to be coerced into surrendering personal sovereignty to electronic devices that ought to serve us, not turn us into servants of others.
We can resist. The forces pushing us toward electronic slavery – I do not think that word is hyperbolic -- are inarguably formidable. This is a spiritual crisis, I make no mistake, and I seek out the opinion and analysis of people who know this truth.
Small is beautiful
Let nations grow smaller and smaller.
and the number of people grow fewer.
Let weapons become rare and superfluous.
Let people feel the gravity of Death once more
and never wander far from home.
Then boat and vehicle will sit unused
and sword and shield lie unnoticed.
Let people knot cords for notation again
and never need anything more.
Let them find content in their food
pleasure in their clothing
peace in their homes
and joy in their ancestral customs.
Then people in neighbouring nations will look across borders to each other
their dogs and roosters calling back and forth
and yet they will grow old and die
without bothering to visit one another.
From the Tao Teh Ching, chapter 80.
When I cannot say it better myself, I let this 2500-year-old text say it for me. My perfect world is described. Small, with few technologies, no travelling for its own sake, and contentment with simplicity. As homo sapiens lived 10,000 years ago, and as a few tribes like the !Kung San of the Kalahari and Yanomami of Amazonia in the year I was born -- who can live that way no more since “progress” broke into their worlds.
Dominant species do not have to be as we are. Dinosaurian dominant species lived atop the pyramid of life for over 135 million years without ruining their own habitat. Humanity -- the master of material, the lord of science -- has been here on earth for only a tiny fraction of the time those species dominated the globe.
Well. That was then. Now we are here, and we know what we face.
Big is unavoidable
Can humanity go back to the small worlds from which we evolved as a species? The probability is miniscule, and if the possibility were realized, it would only by a catastrophic die-off of humanity that no one can make congruent with their compassion and empathy. Big interconnected world, huge population, global organization, is here to stay. Let us think how to live with that reality.
We can, I am sure, create a harmony and equilibrium between the planetary scale and the intimate scale of individual humans in their chosen circle of family and friends, community and “tribe.” I feel an instinctive aversion to the idea of a mono-culture for a planetary species. I love the imponderable, improbable ways humans became so variegated into so many cultural shapes and flavours. There is no way that a single cultural global community would be preferable to variety, in my opinion. Let hundreds of ways of life, belief, custom and tradition flourish on Earth.
And yet, I have been implying that our political culture upholding the democratic norms and rights of Western historical provenance, is good for all. I reject the dictators, tyrants and totalitarians who say humans over whom they rule are living in contentment, without protest while lacking rights and freedoms Westerners think are normal. That is not credible. When people say simply that they want to live in Canada or Europe or Australia because “it’s a better life there” -- I believe them.
The individual and the collective
I am personally not a very sociable person, happy to go weeks without seeing more than a small handful of family and friends, not drawn to large congregations of others, not wanting to attend events with crowds. I’m charmed by the words of Kierkegaard that “the crowd is madness.” This is me, today.
But I live in society, and politics is about my relating with others. I have gone on at great length in my exploration of politics and politicians, particularly in democracy; I have to be willing to put aside my disinclination for group activity where politics is concerned, because I have aspirations only a group, a community, or a nation, can make possible. I am like everyone in that, having to find that “sweet spot” between my individual autonomy and the necessity of belonging to a political community.
Once again, I encounter the truth of my privilege and good fortune, that I live where I take as much of politics as I feel inclined to, and disengage when not inclined to be political. Not a lot of people on this earth are in my position, and political struggles for rights, for material support, for health and education, are facts of life for far more people than there are Canadian middle-class citizens like me. Only solidarity with a large collective can advance the agenda of people in struggles like that.
I am certain that the political systems that can give effect to their agendas, the politicians who can be entrusted with power to lead, are found more in democracies than in any other form of large government operating today.
There are probably some very small, isolated communities of humans where politics might still operate on an intimate scale, untouched by the overworld of states and corporations and law enforcement. I just do not know where they are. If I did, I would not publish the knowledge, for that would likely ruin what they enjoy.
Conclusion: Keeping Faith
My faith is not strong. Modern humans in the present material world might not be capable of the highest ideals of liberty, self-sovereignty, autonomy, independence, and freedom, that I wish for us. The counter-forces opposed to the realization of hypothetical utopian order are immense. Democracies enjoy the best odds for my version of the good life and optimum politics, and they confront enormous obstacles.
But I do not despair. I keep to a chosen path, speaking truth as I understand it, not because I know for a certainty it will help, but because not to do so betrays my spiritual being. Being true to self is an exercise of freedom too. Being someone who can tell his child and grandchildren that I was bowed but not beaten, matters to me.