Wisdom needs no votes: We are kidding ourselves if we think our views matter, says GF Newman, in the second of this week's three essays on democracy. But tinkering will not help: we must opt for a more radical course

Gf Newman
Tuesday 03 May 1994 23:02

PARLIAMENTARY democracy is a misnomer. No society dominated by trade and consumerism can ever be democratic. The person representing the most money or the greatest media leverage - which usually amounts to the same thing - is the person elected to highest office. In this oldest functioning democracy the most democratic action we could take would be to shred unread the local, national and European voting papers that drop through our letterboxes, then sit back and wait.

Most of us would get jittery; the media would editorialise that we were rudderless; has-been politicians would tell us that we must have elected representation. But what if we continued to ignore the siren calls of officeless mediocrity?

Every community small enough to have an identity - and at one time that was every community - had its 'wise' woman. She advised according to ancient instinctual knowledge. No one would elect her - she would just emerge. Despite the fears of chaos from officeless politicians, amplified by suddenly friendless news media tsars, a natural order would emerge.

The problem with democracy is that it allows the worst in human nature to triumph more easily than the best. True wisdom and the application of the universal laws of compassion to the weakest and most defenceless are subverted to selfish economic goals. In the late 20th century all the constituent parts are in place for there to be disaster on an epic scale: the law and order estate; the technological medical estate; the information technology estate and the estate of trade and commerce.

Let us look first at the erosion of our democratic freedom by the police estate. Daily we are told our streets are unsafe; houses cannot be left without a triple lock; every woman is at risk from rape; drug dealers proliferate, polluting every child of school age, while murder happens every six seconds] In our mind's eye we have alarming images of a society breaking down faster than any of us have experienced.

How is this perception brought about? A nation in fear for its well-being is more easily controlled. If we are told often enough that the only hope of safety is first in identifying the strong man, then increasing his strength with excessive powers, we cannot but respond. We need to understand that we create our own reality. If we fear being robbed, we will be robbed. The lock on our door is in direct proportion to theft in our heart.

There is no conspiracy in operation, no latter-day Machiavelli works upon government or police to make them behave as they do. Rather they, like us, are subject to the same fear-fed adrenalin and inevitably come to the point where they, too, cannot tell the difference between reality and the lie.

The negative spiral affects us very simply. From that horrendous (reported) burglary, that vile (reported) child-abuse case, we get all the sensation but none of the function. By that I mean we are not dealing with our feelings through action by rescuing victims or understanding why these things happen. There is always a reason; but because we have such a shallow relationship with events we fail to recognise it.

Let us look at the other estates helping us towards the edge of the precipice: technological medicine, which embraces everything from treating colds to swapping genes. That modern medicine is based on theft and murder is evident by the number of vivisection laboratories attached to our medical teaching centres, hospital research departments and pharmaceutical companies. How democratic is it to allow creatures to be burned and scalded; to have their heads smashed in order to simulate accidents; to chemically poison rats with drugs; to irradiate sheep; to inject chimpanzees with the Aids virus; to give mice cancer; to sew up the eyes of kittens; to make dogs swallow alcohol until they develop cirrhosis?

The list is necessary because in our democratic society we are never given the information with which to decide whether the ends justify the means.

In the struggle for survival, if we back only our own species we are doomed to failure. The true democrat defends the weak and voiceless. He doesn't cower behind the oft-quoted lie: all for the benefit of mankind.

Fear operates as effectively for this great estate and by much the same means as for the previous one. Democracy emerged in opposition to the tyranny of church dogma with the development of rational thought. Scientists have now taken the place of the priests, and it is as much of a heresy to question them. Just as voiceless, ignorant peasants could be driven to their deaths by the injunction 'God wills it', so can we be similarly manipulated when told, 'It's scientifically proven'.

Abetter definition of democracy might be the oppression of the ignorant by the prejudiced, rather than providing the greatest numbers with the greatest access to usable information. A third estate of democracy, our fearless free press, can effect either result. Through its operation of preselection and bias it restricts rather than guarantees any democratic rights. By some sleight of hand this oligarchy has convinced us that without it our lives would be the poorer. This is in some way achieved by running the odd insight story about secrecy in high places which erodes our civil liberty. But if this estate truly wanted to breach state secrecy, it could run such stories every day until the ramparts crumbled. But rule by the media is not democratic; no one elected the media tsars.

Nor did anyone elect the corporate heads who form the other great estate essential, we're told, to any thriving democracy. Can commerce and democracy coexist when exploitation is at the heart of one and equality central to the other?

Consider the undemocratic exploitation of the planet: the forests, the seas, the air, the freshwater aquifers. Profligate destruction of rainforests occurs for a relatively small number of hardwoods to decorate our homes. Millions of factory-farmed animals which never see the light of day are despicably slaughtered for food that in no way enhances health. Millions of tons of animal slurry leach into our water courses to render them dead. Millions of tons of fertilisers and pesticides poison our land. But what would happen if, by the same magic that we denied the politicians oxygen, we denied trade? No goods were manufactured? Nothing was imported? Nothing was exported - we could only barter local goods? We would be a lot poorer, but relative to what? The number of nuclear power stations we could subsidise? The amount of hi-tech medicine we could indulge in? The boxes of videos we could get from Japan?

The real measure of democracy lies in direct proportion to the numbers of lives, human and animal, we are prepared to exploit and expend in the pursuit of these things.

This would not happen in the only progressive alternative to democracy, a theocracy; a state in which the ideal of compassion is paramount. Not even the smallest creature would fall without hurt to us all. Could we imagine Gandhi trading lives in a swap for a nuclear power station? Or Albert Schweitzer sacrificing a single one of his children for a case of anything?

In such a state it would become impossible to value one form of life over any other. The affirmation of all life becomes the ultimate expedient, not so-called happiness for the few based on the acquisition of material wealth at the expense of the lives of others.

Democracy seemed like a great idea for a self-contained city state leading a simple life. Its time was the fifth century BC, but it couldn't be adapted to the megalithic state. The basic problem is that it assumes we are all created equal. Instinctively we know this is not right; we are only created vaguely similar. Our opinions in different areas carry different weight. None of us is a universal expert. We are at different stages in our spiritual evolution. So why should we necessarily have equal rights? But if we should, according to abstract democratic principle, why do we not accord such rights to all creatures?

How can democracy ever throw up a leader of people such as Martin Luther King when such people never offer themselves for elected office? Democracy, the strident equaliser, inevitably fosters mediocrity. Only the mediocre offer themselves for elected office with their cries of 'Choose me]' The natural leader in a theocracy simply emerges, like a Dalai Lama.

Regrettably we can't go from our 'democracy' to an idyllic spiritual state in one jump, while the church with its inverted values has about as much chance of guiding us as getting a fat man through the eye of a needle. Can we aspire to the seemingly unobtainable? Not easily. Either we step back from the precipice and seek something magnificent, or plunge on to those jagged rocks of human disaster when our genes are eventually interchanged with those of our neighbour, the animals and the plants.

Then we will all be absolutely equal.

At this moment we still have a choice - just.

The writer is a television dramatist. This is an edited version of last night's 'Opinions', the second in a series produced by Open Media for Channel 4's 'Bite The Ballot' week. The next one will be shown tomorrow at 8pm, and will appear in Friday's 'Independent'.

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