As the world looks at America’s massively dysfunctional democracy, humanity begins to wonder whether this democracy thing is a good idea or not. The assumption is that if democracy was such a good idea then it would just always work; it doesn’t. Democracies fail. Marriages fail. Children fail in school. Airplanes fail and fall out of the sky. Things don’t just work. They take work. Literally every damn thing takes work. So, how hard are you working on your democracy?
Usually, this then turns into a sermon about the importance of calling your elected representatives or giving money to some political party. I do neither of these things. Why? Because I don’t think they’re the root of the issue. I think the issue is that we are a nation of American idiots…in the ancient Greek sense of the word.
In Ancient Athenian Democracy, an idiot was someone who only focused on their little life and didn’t want to put in the work to figure out public affairs. If you’re the kind of person who says things like “Oh! I’m not political” or “I try to stay out of politics,” then guess what? You’re an idiot in the original sense of the word. To paraphrase Pericles, the Ancient Greek Leader, you may not take an interest in politics but that doesn’t mean politics will take an interest in you. Decisions will be made about taxes, education, health care and war. As Michael Enzi, the senior senator from Wyoming put it, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
When President Trump walked away from the Paris Climate Talks, he put every American on the menu. Decisions will be made and America will not have a say in them. Trump’s idiocy made idiots of every American.
During World War II, idiocy wasn’t a choice. It was clear that we were all on the menu and so we had to get engaged and involved. But it’s been too long since the world burned its hand on the stove of a truly global conflict. Living so far from the direct memory of totalitarianship, democracy has lost much of its lustre. If you don’t know how bad totalitarianism is and democracy doesn’t seem to be working well, then maybe you’re better off without it. When Yascha Mounk reviewed data of the percentage of people who believed it was essential to live in a democracy, he found that in democracies around the world people’s commitment to democracy had plummeted. When you’ve been on the menu, you want to be at the table. When you haven’t been on the menu, you begin to forget why it’s so important to be at the table.
Of course, the Ancient Greek meaning of idiot is very different from the modern sense of the word. Usually, people take idiot to mean someone who doesn’t know the facts of the situation. In that sense, we’re all idiots. There are 130 million books and 60 million scientific papers. Guess what, friend? No one has a handle on even a tiny fraction of that. And that’s why it’s so important to understand that humanity’s superpower isn’t humans being individually smart; it’s humans working together to break down problems and learn socially from each other. The Ancient Greeks were definitely individualists who thought atomistically but they also knew how to gang up on the problem of how to build a better society. Usually, we call that attitude civic virtue.
JFK’s words are as true as ever. What can we do together for the freedom of man? A lot. And much of that comes down to one simple thing: because we’re all idiots in the modern sense of the world, we can’t afford to be idiots in the Ancient Greek sense of the world. We have no choice but to work together to make sense of the sheer complexity of the world’s information. To do so will take a global village. That will require all of us to become less idiotic than we currently are in every sense of the word.