A really great idea
One of the last acts of the Early Modern Age (pre-1800) was the first-ever establishment of the noblest political idea ever to arise in the long history of modern Homo sapiens. We cannot leave this section without briefly acknowledging it. If you are a U.S. resident you are among its inheritors, for in the year 1789 the fledgling United States led the way. Most of world’s nations would eventually try, one by one, to follow where we led.
The idea simply stated was that common, ordinary people can govern themselves. Conversely, believing they do not have to be subjects of a sovereign—a strong man who lords it over all—was a new idea. Recall our cultural history you read some pages back. The “idea” of democracy was introduced in ancient Greece. Pathetic it may have been, excluding all women, all slaves and everybody else but a select few male citizens as it did, but it did last 186 years, and it put the idea of consensus voting on public affairs out there in ancient writings that passed down through history for all to see and think about.
The idea of a republic had been around a long while too, descending from Plato to our founding fathers via the old Roman Senate and its senators who were elected by (limited of course) popular vote. When Romans had fought their way to freedom in 509 BCE after centuries of being dominated and bullied by their Etruscan neighbors, they had expressed their gratitude in a never-again sort of way by setting up a uniquely new style of governance in which citizens would democratically elect representatives to rule on their behalf. For over four centuries this worked pretty well—until they descended into a condition of such bitter partisan infighting among themselves that the way was opened for the strong man Julius Caesar to bring both republic and democracy to an abrupt end. This internal dissolution the formerly-free Romans inflicted on themselves is not infrequently cited by critics of comparable partisan disharmony in the modern USA.
In any case, these historical precedents of government by democratically elected representatives, acting within the structure of a republic, were the models carefully pored over and remodeled into our Constitution by Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison et al. Their particular genius was in the details they adopted—e.g., a two-cameral legislature with one house representing population, the other statehood per se, along with separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, plus checks and balances to ensure that no one branch—or person—could repeat Caesar’s usurpation of the works. So far so good.
Never mind that U.S. democracy had major flaws from the outset (women were denied the vote, slaves were denied the vote, men not owning property were denied the vote), the structure and style of the U.S. government that the founders created for the first time in human history was utterly new—and it was revolutionary on the side of governance that is good and right. Though imperfect, it had potential—the USA was a brave new idea in the history of the world. The French Revolution which shortly followed reinforced this new idea, and though that chaotic event ultimately failed in its intent, the reinforcement persisted. All over Europe and elsewhere, traditional monarchs looked at this new idea and trembled. And well they should, for nowadays monarchs fall in two categories—royal families are either extinct, or their ancestral arbitrary powers are fully subordinated to some sort of elected parliament (from the French “parler” meaning “to talk”).
The brave new idea of democracy in a structured republic has proven to be a good one, a beneficial example for other nations to follow. And most nations have indeed followed—or pretend to, so great is the American idea’s influence.
Sadly, even after all this time, the great idea has never fully matured: Witness the United States prolonged genocide against the Native Americans who had occupied this land for thousands of years before 1492—this land was their land. Witness millions of people enslaved and demeaned on the silly basis of skin color, who remained un-free a full century after a savage civil war was fought to free them. Witness half the U.S. population denied the vote until womens’ suffrage prevailed only in 1920 after seventy-two years of struggle for democratic equality. Witness would-be despots, who openly do not believe in political or economic rights, elected to high public offices by uninformed single-issue voters willfully blind to their own needs for both political and economic rights. And witness the nation’s long history of xenophobic mistreatment of immigrants, tired and poor, pursuing their hope to come live in the great land of abundance and opportunity where Liberty’s welcoming light shines so brightly above its ocean gate.
Notwithstanding these grievous deficiencies and a litany of others too unworthy to list, the “idea” of the United States remains the single greatest advance of political ideas in human history. In 1789 it was the best political idea ever emerged to that point. Though a few other nations have since fully caught up with our political rights, and even surged ahead with their economic rights, our great political idea of democracy in a representative republic is still a beacon to the world—a legacy of hope and fairness, hopefully not to be futilely squandered on selfish partisan bickering that divides and degrades.
If only we could get our economic ideas right as well, we might really have something.
Maturing: The Modern or Contemporary Age (roughly 1800 to the present)
As evolution does its work, and as things on the whole emerge upward—rising to something better, something more—one emergent aspect can be called “maturity,” which is that quality of rising in knowledge, understanding and wisdom that most (but not all) people experience in the passage from childhood to teenhood to adult to aging adult to elder. And just as individuals mature, whole societies as societies also mature.
Personal maturing may be said to be evidenced when an individual demonstrates consideration, concern and caring for other people’s interests and wellbeing equal to the concern and caring the individual shows for self. This is especially demonstrated by freely choosing to avoid advancements of self that can only be attained at someone else’s disadvantage. This definition directly scales up to whole societies when a democratic self-governing society evidences—through its laws, regulations and their enforcement—consideration, concern and caring that all its members are treated equally, with assurance that no citizens are systemically advantaged, or disadvantaged, relative to all others.
By these standards, the most recent two centuries have encompassed somewhat of a maturing trend in human affairs. Somewhat. This positive trend, slow to become discernable, has probably been more evident in personal interactions between individuals than in the inter-national relations that nation-state-societies conduct among themselves. On average, individual people have become nicer toward each other than they were historically. This is true, but less so, for whole nations, where civility toward each other is highly qualified as geopolitics, and equal rights and treatment for all their own citizens are far from assured. One evidence of maturity between whole societies is foreign aid given when truly needed, such as food donated during a famine, given with generosity of intent and free of conditional strings that would hang onto an expectation of something bartered for a return quid pro quo. I was hungry and, unconditionally, ye fed me.
Qualified progress in our maturing as a species can be recognized by looking back at the ample bad examples littering the roughly two centuries of our modern age. For instance, Napoleon’s highjacking of the idealistic French Revolution was perhaps the most blatant example of unrestrained, egotistical strong-man self serving since Ghengis Khan. This French blackguard’s self-promoting ambitions directly caused the suffering and deaths of tens of millions of innocents, but if he ever showed remorse over them, history does not record it. Bonaparte’s standard of excellence, outdated already in his own time, was the perceived glory of conqueror and gee-whiz adulation by lesser beings—Caesar-like, one could say. Not only did Napoleon never mature, he turned selfishness into a life vocation.
Many would argue that Napoleon’s time-limited excesses were thoroughly exceeded by the blind ego implicit in the British Empire’s three-century colonialist assumption of a divine right to rule over the earth’s other peoples, whom it declared inferior to rationalize helping itself to the native wealth (i.e., robbery) those subjugated so foolishly left laying around unexploited. In comparable context, I have previously mentioned 1) the American Old South aristocracy—a British clone—with its deeply ingrained rationalizations of enslaving and exploiting people, 2) the American Civil War which tried to stop the enslaving and exploiting, and 3) its failed aftermath at the hands of the great many both north and south who Did Not Care a whit about political equality or economic adequacy.
While these clearly are not cheering examples of human maturing by either nations or the individuals who laid claim to governing them, they do form a helpful backdrop against which any slightest progress in maturing stands out more noticeably. That so many contemporaries considered these wrongs was itself evidence of progress. Their advocacy for freedom contrasts as favorably matured over, say, spectators in the old Roman coliseum who left us no evidence that they even perceived any wrong in those bloody hungry-lion proceedings. I guess it’s all in what you get used to, as they say.
One evidence of maturational progress appears in the fact that by the late 1800s many U.S. residents were becoming aware of the nation’s economy as an economy. This was a significant expansion of awareness above the mere daily struggle for household income sufficient only for survival. Between 1819 and 1893 no less than seven major “panics”—the old fashioned word for market crash or recession—helped bring to conscious notice the elephant that so insidiously enriches a few while the many remain impoverished. By the “Age” of Robber Barons, such popular awareness had risen to a level adequate to sustain widespread resentment at the unfairness a few were perpetrating on the many. Since those days “the economy” has never quite fully regained its guileful old anonymity.
The Great War, now known as World War I, contributed slightly to human emergence from barbarism toward maturity. The war itself was barbaric beyond description. Soldiers were deployed by the obsolete wisdom of nineteenth-century tacticians against the armored battle tanks and technologically advanced field artillery of twentieth-century weaponry. All over Europe blood ran inches deep, and few parts of the globe were left undamaged by the silly entanglement of alliances that had triggered the horrible war that need not have happened at all. No sneak attack on Pearl Harbor launched it, no barbarian invasion of Poland justified the war’s outbreak. No, a resentful Serbian assassinated an Austrian aristocrat, and a complex web of the entangling alliances George Washington had warned us against soon set off the worst bloodbath in history to that point.
So how does all this suggest progress in maturing? When it was over many nations gathered together, as nations, and created a parliament-like League of Nations designed to promote peace through diplomacy, understanding and goodwill, so that the war to end all wars would never need to be fought again. It was a very mature thing to try to do.
So they tried. A mere twenty years later the League of Nations was defunct and the entire world was precipitously sunk into globe-circling World War II—pan-European and pan-Pacific—triggered by the hate-filled, mentally deranged Adolph Hitler and the toweringly egotistical territorial ambitions of Japanese warlords posing as modern generals. The toll over less than a decade was some 75 million deaths consisting of 40 million civilians, 20 million military personnel, and 15 million “others” who succumbed variously to mass bombings, massacres, deliberate genocide, refugee displacement, exposure, diseases and starvation. Soon after it ended, fifty-one nations led by the victors created the United Nations—a very mature thing to do, and a noble idea that has had considerable success this time around. The very war itself, in and of the savagery it represented, focused ever more minds on the concept of mature behavior by modern whole societies.