Morals & the servile mind (Kenneth Minogue)

I am in two minds about democracy, and so is everybody else. We all agree that it is the sovereign remedy for corruption, tyranny, war, and poverty in the Third World. We would certainly tolerate no different system in our own states. Yet most people are disenchanted with the way it works. One reason is that our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly. They have overreached. Blunder follows blunder, and we come to regard them with the same derision as those who interview them on radio and television. We love it that our rulers are—up to a point—our agents. They must account to us for what they do. And we certainly don’t live in fear, because democracy involves the rule of law. Internationally, democracies are by and large a peaceful lot. They don’t like war, and try to behave like “global citizens.” There is much to cherish.

Yet it is hard to understand what is actually happening in our public life under the surface of public discussion. An endless flow of statistics, policies, gossip, and public relations gives us a bad case of informational overload. How does one tell what is important from what is trivial? The sheer abundance of politics—federal, state, and local—obscures as much as it illuminates. The first clarifying step must be to recognize that “democracy” in the abstract misleads us. Living in a democracy—and it is lived experience that must be our theme—becomes a different thing in each generation. Something that benefits us in one generation may no longer be a benefit in the next. Experiencing twenty-first-century democracy is radically different from what our ancestors cherished in 1901. Rising levels of prosperity, for example, change many responses. For, as Plato noted, constitutions are made out of human beings: as the generations change, so will the system.

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