Why I Think that Republicanism Should Take Back America
October 31, 2010
A few years back, I read in a local newspaper an announcement about a prescreening of a documentary on ancient Greece. It was titled Greece: Secrets of the Past. Sooner than I read about it, I decided to go and watch it.
The screening gave me the opportunity and moments to connect with this “secret” of the past. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the documentary is dubbed “a tribute to early Greek explorers whose ideas still light our world” and its story concluded that “so mighty was that one great burst of light that its afterglow still lights the world”.
The profound message I took home from the documentary is that “equality redefined what it means to be human” and allowed the citizens of Athens to vote for the first time in 510 B.C. As someone who came to the United States to pursue higher education from a humble society in Ethiopia with rich egalitarian value, my connection with the story in the documentary felt instant and natural—one of the best enlightening moments in my life.
Similar observations have been expressed by scholars in the social science field. Jean Doresse, a French historian who specializes in Ethiopian and Egyptian history, noted in a 2002 interview with a privately owned Ethiopian newspaper that when he went to Ethiopia, he found the culture which was at the origin of ancient Greece. He elaborated that he is very much in fond of reading some of Plato’s dialogues but couldn’t understand them until he visited Ethiopia, and that he found it in the veins of the people and their clear mentality.
In her review of the Aithiopika, an ancient novel written by Heliodorus from Greece, Kathryn Chew of California State University at Long Beach observed that “... Greek culture takes a back seat to the cultures of Egypt and Ethiopia”.
The documentary on ancient Greece showed a remaking of a dated excavated painting that, it asserts, is proof that the ancient Greeks had wider contact with other cultures. They “sailed well beyond the Aegean Sea, encountering exotic new ideas, which inspired them to reshape their view of the world”. These new ideas led to the emergence of free thinkers in the face of censorship and even death and “made Athens a place for heated debates, the most radical topic being about democracy”.
The fact that the name Ethiopia itself is believed to be of Greek origin and that an ancient novel called Aithiopika was written by Heliodorus from Greece attests to the possibility of unique interactions between the two societies during those days.
Granted that the interaction was likely and meaningful, perhaps what preceded each society’s acceptance of egalitarian value may be more interesting factors to appreciate and uphold this value. This societal value in Ethiopia, which is part and parcel of what is known as the Gada System, is most evident among the Oromo society and the wider East African region. According to Donald N. Levine, a professor of sociology who studied Ethiopia for a long time, the Gada System “represents one of the most complex systems of social organization ever devised by the human imagination”.
What led to this complex system of social organization by the Oromo society is anybody’s guess at this time. What prevailed among the Greek society prior to their acceptance of the exotic new ideas about 2500 years ago, which “initiated the most radically innovative period in all of human history,” according to the documentary, isn’t clear to many, either. However, we can fairly reasonably guess that anarchy among each society prevailed more in the period before their acceptance of egalitarian value than during the period that followed it. The level of reverence to this value among each society and the wider world community is a clear testimony to this thesis.
Therefore, it seems possible to draw a trajectory of humanity’s yearning for equality from the start of the earliest known practice of egalitarian value to the iconic democratic experiment in the United States in the recent few hundred years.
In trying to draw this trajectory, I understand that I am taking the risk of being biased towards the two societies and their societal value systems in which I have ever lived. So, I am very cautious not to run this risk while straying out to social issues, which aren’t in my realm of training, although these issues appear to want to find us where we are comfortable by training and practice. For these reasons, I have tried to be as objective as my understanding goes and have taken time to reflect on my exposures to the historical happenstances in various corners of the world.
After I came to the United States, I got some opportunities to watch documentaries about the long-running social conflicts in Europe on the dawn of its renaissance and during its enlightenment. To the extent that Europe’s renaissance was about reconnecting with its Classical Civilization and building on it, I view the American democratic experiment as an extension of that building process, which forms a contemporary part of the trajectory of humanity’s collective project for social progress on our common planet.
Admittedly, this long running trajectory of social progress project isn’t without its deficiencies. Being at the frontier for a collective progress for humanity through the process of enlightenment is naturally bound to face deficiencies, as already reflected in the sacrifices paid in the various historical conflicts.
Despite its deficiencies, the contributions of this trajectory to humanity’s collective project for progress are the guiding lights that should be guarded and defended by a collective civic virtue. Without attributing it to any single organized political party, I characterize republicanism as a learned human trait that understands and defends the value, history, and posterity of this trajectory. I believe that in a nutshell, this is civic virtue defending itself.
As it seems to stand today, there seem to be two discernible societal forces on our planet; one a conscious defender of this collective project for progress and the other a subconscious trespasser on it. What should be of concern is if the misunderstanding between the enlightened and their beneficiaries on the one hand and those being enlightened on the other hand borders on unhealthy discussions and societal relations.
In my cursory reading and humble observation, signals of the defense of humanity’s collective project towards progress in today’s America seem to be scattered.
The trespasses are evident in the Tea Party’s instinctive reaction and Newt Gingrich’s characterization of these trespasses as alien to America’s history and traditions.
It also seemed evident in President Obama’s speech at his Noble Peace Prize award acceptance ceremony in Oslo, Norway. In that speech, he said: “For some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are somehow Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development”.
It was also evident in the instinctive reaction of one of Ethiopia’s main political leaders, Birtukan Mideksa, in opposition to the continued criminal trespasses of Meles Zenawi, its long time Prime Minister, against the civic virtue established by the Ethiopian populace and prevalent in its culture.
Overwhelming shocking evidences have been documented to show Meles Zenawi’s assault on civic virtue of the Ethiopian populace and international community. Evidently subconscious to the very idea that characterizes humanity’s iconic project towards progress, he reportedly prescribed what he called “Revolutionary Democracy” as an ideology to impose on the Ethiopian society. According to him, when “Revolutionary Democracy” permeates the entire Ethiopian society, “individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by ‘Revolutionary Democracy’”.
In recent legislative elections in Ethiopia, his party claimed to have won 99.6% of the results. Asked at Columbia University more recently about how his political party could win 99.6% of the results, he got the courage to respond on the campus of this premier university that his party won not 99.6% of the votes but seats, subconsciously churning out an insult of this magnitude to the learned community and redefining the essence of elections.
Many people have lost their lives due to violations of human rights and election disputes under Meles Zenawi’s nearly twenty years of rule and orders in Ethiopia. On the other hand, just not too far away from his governmental office, a group of Oromo civil society got together in 2008 to peacefully transfer local traditional power in a much more meaningful way according to the Gada System. At this ceremony, one of the local officials noted that under this system, the outgoing official not only peacefully transfers an eight-year-term power to the incoming official but also blesses it for the latter and wishes him success. This may be a living testimony to Plato’s dialogue in ancient Greece and Jean Doresse’s recent observation of it in contemporary Ethiopia.
Such historical contrasts between those who uphold civic virtue and those who trespass on it may not be limited to the United States and Ethiopia. As Michael Mandelbaum notes in his recently published book, “the world will be a more disorderly and dangerous place” due to the possibility of diminished capacity of a global stabilizing force. If there is a possibility that this kind of prediction is what the future has in the store for the world, the assault now on civic virtue anywhere in the world may be a determining factor for this prognosis of global disorder in the future.
Birtukan Mideksa, who courageously rose to the call of civic virtue in Ethiopia by opposing Meles Zenawi’s unlawful trespasses, was inhumanely caged by the latter for nearly two years. As a consequence, she is widely believed to have been forced to sign a historical paper that would have the world believe as the guilty party the courageous defender of civic virtue, who was one of the three finalists for the 2010 Sakharov Prize and named a prisoner of conscience by various global institutions.
Interestingly, the paper she is reported to have signed under duress by a man who spent about 17 years of his adulthood life in the wilderness and then nearly 20 years ruling Ethiopia appears to suggest that Birtukan Mideksa misled the Ethiopian people and government for standing up to the call of civic virtue. The very nature of the letter is perhaps an unwitting revelation of his actions over the course of most of his life time, a subject of crucial importance for social science researchers and historiographers.
Reverence to the almighty and the consciousness to the power of the truth have served humanity’s compass towards the integrity for civic virtue. Whichever compass works for the individual member of our human community, its utility to fulfill some of our collective project for social progress is arguably unmatched. It is exactly for this reason that I think humanity should firmly defend it with integrity wherever it has flourished and shows signs of mushrooming. Civic virtue should not be the causality of the conflict between the enlightened and those being enlightened and where it flourished should not be the battleground.
The fruitful trajectory of social progress from East Africa to Europe and its successful experiment in the United States makes it imperative for republicanism to firmly protect humanity’s collective project for progress here in the United States and elsewhere where it is evidently rich and has the potential for further growth. It is not the creeping up of subconsciousness about the fruit of our collective quest for progress on the turf of civic virtue that will propel us all forward but the consciously projected shining out of the glows from the fruits of our collective progress that was brought about by that burst of light for equality and free thinking. The latter is what has been characterized as what it means to be human.
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