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Democracy – Dancing for Joy?

About 300 years ago, like a smouldering kapok pillow, a massive revolution began its slow burn.  A scientific revolution. A social political revolution led by great minds. Newton, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau,  Diderot, d’Alembert, Montesquieu. Hume. Robert Burns. Thomas Payne. The Age of Enlightenment surged on and rational, egalitarian thought swept everything from its path. Except religion, of course. You’ve got to give it to religion – it’s resilient. Like an ocean wave at last it broke into violence. The French Revolution, The American War of Independence. But in the rubble a fragile flower bloomed.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen [Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen] of 1793. The Americans, between their Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, embraced the same sentiments at about the same time.  

By these documents were guaranteed the liberties and rights whose influence quickly spread throughout the western world and which we now take so much for granted.

Homo sapiens sapiens has been around for perhaps two hundred thousand years.  The Neolithic Revolution, farming and domestication of animals, and the building of cities, occurred perhaps 10,000 years ago.

Not so long ago (post Agriculture, not before) life was indeed, as Hobbes imagined, “nasty, brutish and short”, a seething battleground of warring lords and ruthless despots, of slaves and serfs, and of absolute monarchs who had the arbitrary right of life and death over all people.

It was just 300 years ago unrest began to swell in earnest. That’s just 3% of our history since the rude beginnings of agriculture.

Only 200 years ago – one thousandth of our history as a species, a minute dot in time – the tide turned and democracy began to struggle to life. That democracy was tiny and constantly under threat from still powerful influences. But with the aid of its champions and nurturers it survived and grew.

Yet it is still under threat from those same influences, barons of another kind who control the thinking of the masses, press barons, princes of religion and those who desire power for themselves for power’s sake.

Our democracy is an infant. New Zealand was the first to introduce universal suffrage (including women) in 1893.  Australia followed with not quite universal suffrage in 1902. That’s just yesterday in historical terms. But it was not until 1962, only 51 years ago, that Australia gained universal suffrage by including the Aboriginal people.

This is a new thing we have, a child, not an obvious, done deal. It needs nourishing still and it needs vigilant champions. We are not as far as we imagine from the possibility of the events of Egypt in the last few weeks.

Our democracy is still under threat and it is under threat from three sides.

First, the politicians themselves, who would be kings but are fools, who corrode, erode and mock the meaning of democracy with their travesties, and all for their own petty, selfish and shortsighted ends. The politicians who drain the blood out the hearts of the citizens.

Second, from the ignorant who wonder what all this has to do with nail-tech or Big Brother (more than they realise).

From the comfort of our sofas we see on our plasma (or, for the supremely self-congratulatory, LED-LCD) screens the people of other countries, newly democratic after pitched battles, blood, pain, terror and ultimately victory – like the people of Timor-Leste, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – dancing on Election Day in the streets with joy, and music, and riots of colour, celebrating their right to choose their representatives and their own futures and the future of their countries.

It is wonderful and as we look up from the tv dinners on our knees, tinnie in hand, we beam indulgently and complacently at these innocents who have joined the “right” side, our side, with, unlike us, their shed blood, ruined families and ransacked economies, still dancing for joy the way we never have.

We drag ourselves and our prejudices resentfully and reluctantly to the polling booth, sometimes with our children in tow to teach them how to despise, as we do, our astonishing freedoms and democratic rights for which, and for 300 years, millions fought and died.

So the third and biggest threat is our own complacency and, worse, our boredom and apathy.


We can’t imagine it being taken away. We think it is here forever. We think it is obvious. We think it is safe. We are wrong. A decade ago we nonchalantly handed over basic rights in the interests of “security”. Habeas corpus, the ancient cornerstone of our legal system and therefore our democracy, was slipped away without shame and without a murmur.

Our democracy is under threat right now from the most powerful multinational-conglomerate opinion manipulators the world has ever seen. It is under threat from those, of not just one religion, who see theocracies as the future of their world. And these are not the only threats.

If we take our eyes off this still very young child, democracy, if we will not remember to dance for joy in the streets for the brilliant gift from our forbears that democracy is, it can turn to dust in the blink of a bored and apathetic eye.






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