Thursday, January 1, 2015


I've been thinking about Greece lately. I always dreamed of going there, of visiting what remains of that glorious ancient civilization. The prospect of that isn't so appealing just now. The Greek economy is where the U.S. was a few years into the Great Depression: staggering unemployment, soup lines, hopelessness. They got themselves into this mess with years of profligacy and corruption. When the government spent and borrowed unwisely and the rich refused to pay taxes and hid their money in Switzerland, the country stopped being able to borrow money to pay its debts. The price of a bailout, exacted by the Germans, was austerity. But four years of belt tightening has just made things worse. The people--the ordinary people--are suffering.

Have you noticed how it's always the ordinary people who suffer? They didn't bring this on themselves, their leaders did, but they pay the price.

Take a look at Gaza. Two million people caged in hopeless conditions, with no chance to better their lives. Caged by their own leaders as much as by the Israelis. Just like the Russians, after throwing off the Czar, were caged by Stalin. The North Koreans by Kim. The Iraqis and Afghans by al-Maliki and Karzai.

All of which makes me wonder: how did we in this country get so lucky? Why has America had two hundred years of political, social and economic stability? (There was that little hiccough called the Civil War, and maybe we should have just let the South go, but like the boys who fought on both sides we stitched ourselves back up and marched on.) Is it our Pilgrim roots? Those modest toilers in virtue. Is it our passion for capitalism and the enterprise and growth it brings? Are we just smarter and better than most?

I think we are a lucky mutation. Like a gene that pops up along the evolutionary trail and turns out to be highly adaptive. Our mutation was spawned in the heat of our revolution and imprinted on the DNA of men like Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson. Ours was no Bolshevik revolution. Our founding fathers were landed gentry, classically educated men who were committed to throwing off the shackles of monarchy and guarding against its resurrection in their midst.

Ours was the perfect place for such a mutation to flourish. We are isolated but have abundant natural resources. The first gave us space and time, the second gave us means. The other element of course is our system of government. It's hard to say why one so progressive, balanced and ultimately pluralistic was adopted in Philadelphia all those years ago. The men who wrote the constitution were both idealists and pragmatists. They fought it out on those two fronts and came up with something that, frankly, has been a little magical.

Britain has done more or less the same thing. It threw off it's monarchy internally, gave up its colonial ways (if somewhat reluctantly), and settled down to being a steady and inclusive democracy. Not too many other countries have pulled off our magic trick, though. I've thought about why and don't have an answer.

Well, I sort of have an answer, but it's a bit depressing. It's not gong to help Greece or Gaza, North Korea or North Africa. Political leaders seek power. When they get it, they work hard, often abusively, to keep it. The democratic mutation in America and Britain, and in some parts of Europe, has so far kept political megalomaniacs in check by elevating institutions above individuals.

We have our demagogues here in America. They are sometimes laughable, sometimes scary. So far, though, none has seriously threatened our democracy. How long will that last? I don't know. Maybe we should ask the ancient Greeks.

1 comment:

  1. Or maybe Ancient Rome. Christians are losing out to an increasingly secular left . And the lions are licking their chops.