Posts Tagged ‘Goethe’

The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?

March 14, 2015

Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even further back and to the east, in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. In his book Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Fleming examined 3,000 letters from the archives of the ancient city of Mari, finding in them evidence for collective leadership and early democratic ideas and vocabulary in the city’s myths and literary traditions.

I haven’t read the book, but I think I can see where Fleming is coming from. The cities of the Babylonian Empire were ruled by three different layers of government. There was the governor, appointed by the emperor; the city’s local ruler, the mayor; and the karim, or chamber of commerce. This last could be the popular assembly of a limited kind that provided the proto-democratic element in the Babylonian political system.

The Babylonians were also rather like us, in that they also expected their rulers to act in their interests, and had a cynical contempt for them when they didn’t. There’s one Babylonian story about a citizen, who gives the mayor a golden cup, expecting a suitable favour in return. When he doesn’t get it, the citizen arranges a series of four incidents, in which the mayor has the living daylights beaten out of him in consequence. Okay, so it isn’t democracy so much as a bribe, but it does show that there were limits placed on the actions of their rulers, and the citizenry considered it their right to mete out appropriate justice when their rulers didn’t govern on their behalf.

Aside from this, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a move by some historians to challenge the simplistic notion of a free, democratic West versus a despotic East. Said traced this idea back to Herodotus’ The Histories, and the Father of History’s account of the Persian War as a battle between Greek democracy and Persian absolute monarchy. Sasan Samiei, for example, in his book Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire , wrote a measured attack on this view, in particular examining and contrasting the works of Goethe and Gibbon.

Said’s Orientalism was an attempt to challenge what he viewed as Western imperialist attitudes towards Arabs and their cultures, attitudes, which justified American and European imperialism and domination. The same attitudes have been seen as influencing Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan victory over the Persians at Marathon. Clearly histories like Samiei’s are important as they challenge the assumptions about the Near East and the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see them as a terrible ‘Other’ implacably hostile to the West and democracy, and which partly justify Huntingdon’s theory of renewed ‘culture wars’ between the democratic, free West, and a despotic, Muslim East.

And I wondered if Fleming’s book also didn’t provide another key to explaining the destruction of the priceless Assyrian artefacts by Isis a few weeks. They weren’t just trying to destroy the remains of a civilisation they considered to be pre-Islamic and therefore idolatrous. They were trying to destroy the reminders that Iraq had a history and culture going back thousands of years, in which democracy, rather than the rule of force, may have played a part. This last might provide a point a rapprochement between the West and Iraqi Islam. ISIS despise the West, and would like to provoke us into further attacking Iraq and its people further, in order to create more chaos. This would, they hope, further cut the rug from under the moderates and radicalise more of the people against us. Smashing those artefacts was part of that process, in the hope it would incense the West, as well as destroy the ancient, and possibly democratic legacy, of that ancient civilisation.

UKIP’s Alliance with the Extreme Right in the European Parliament

May 17, 2014

NigelFarage

I reblogged earlier today Mike’s piece on Farage’s grilling by LBC radio’s James O’Brien, in which he was asked some uncomfortable questions about racism and homophobia within the party, and Farage’s own comments about feeling uncomfortable in a railway carriage in which the was the person speaking English. He was also asked another awkward question about the party’s association with the parties of extreme Right, despite UKIP itself boasting of being a non-racist, non-sectarian party, which refuses to admit members of the BNP. Mike wrote

There was an implication that Farage, who has banned former members of the BNP from joining UKIP in an effort to protect the party from adverse publicity, has himself associated with the far-right organisation; and a question over the far-right parties with which UKIP sits in the European Parliament. Farage said UKIP would not sit with people who didn’t have a reasonable point of view but O’Brien flagged up a member of the group who had said the ideas of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, Islamophobe, Anti-Semite and anti-feminist, were “in defence of Western civilisation”.

Farage’s paper-thin defence was that the European political discourse was very different to the UK, (again) an admission that his party had encountered problems with “one or two members”, and a reference to problems in other parties (the Conservatives, on this occasion)

O’Brien leapt on this: “Your defence so far is that you’re no different from any other political party and yet your unique selling point … is that you are different.”

One of Mike’s commenters, HStorm, pointed out the hypocrisy in Farage’s attitude:

‘Farage’s paper-thin defence was that the European political discourse was very different to the UK, (again) an admission that his party had encountered problems with “one or two members”, and a reference to problems in other parties (the Conservatives, on this occasion)’

I find it amusing that an anti-European separatist, who is uncomfortable sitting on a train on which people dare to speak in other languages, should pontificate in the name of how political discourse is carried out in other parts of Europe. Surely if he prefers the notion that freedom-of-speech-equals-no-consequences-for-irresponsible-speech then he should live in precisely those countries that, he says, practise that manner of discourse. And yet he wants the UK to distance itself from them?

Why do so few people spot this enormous paradox in his position?

Farage’s comments about political discourse being different in other parts of Europe, thus allowing his party to join the same bloc as extreme Nationalist parties like the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns is also wrong and weak. It’s true to say that many of the other European countries don’t have the same culture of political correctness that there is in Britain. A Danish friend of mine told me that in Scandinavia non-Whites are regarded with a suspicion and hostility that he felt didn’t exist to the same extent in Britain. The Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown ten years ago described in her column the personal hostility she encountered as an Asian when she and her family went on holiday in France. I’ve also heard from others how the shops in some areas, like the south of France, will refuse to serve Arabs. Having said that, Alibhai-Brown has also written about how she and her family were treated well with no hint of racism when they went on another holiday across La Manche. And in the 1980s there was a national anti-racist movement amongst the young, when White youths showed solidarity with the Arab compatriots under a slogan, which translated as ‘Don’t Touch My Buddy’. This was initially directed against nightclubs, which refused to admit Arabs.

Yet even in those countries, where it has been alleged that racism is more widespread than in Britain, the extreme Right is still very definitely not respectable. The Financial Times also described in one of its columns how the Germans also don’t share the Anglo-American culture of political correctness. Nevertheless, there are naturally very strong laws in Germany against Nazism. At least one Neo-Nazi party, the NPD, was banned for a time in the 1970s under the Basic Law as an anti-democratic force for an article it published in its newspaper celebrating Hitler’s birthday. One of the more amusing ways Germans have taken to express their very strong hatred of the new, extreme Right is through mass demonstrations taking the mick out of them. Paul Merton covered one of these in his travel programme a few years ago journeying through the land of Kant, Goethe, and Wagner.

This is the anti-apple movement, the members of which were shown gathering outside one of the Neo-Nazi parties’ HQs in Berlin. There the protestors held up placards showing apples with the ‘banned’ symbol stamped across them, and shouted slogans about deporting apples, like ‘Sudfruchte Raus!’ – ‘Southern Fruits Out!’. The protest was organised by the politics professor at the University, who was very definitely no kind of Nazi. I found out later that the head of one of the Neo-Nazi organisations named had the element, ‘Apfel’, ‘apple’, and I have the impression that foreign immigrants of African ancestry are referred to as ‘southerners’. Hence the slogans about southern fruit. It’s a way of parodying the Neo-Nazis own racism and xenophobia, while turning into a very pointed attack on their Fuhrer.

Put simply, the growing popularity on the continent of parties like the True Finns, the Danish People’s Party, or the Front National in France doesn’t make them any more respectable in their countries, let alone over here. As an ostensibly anti-racist party, UKIP certainly is under no obligation to sit with them or form blocs with them in the European parliament.