Saturday, February 12, 2011

The poison of "The People"

It's a well-known fact that the name of many "tribes" and "nations" is simply the word "people" in that group's language. The implication being that we are people, and then there are those other not-quite-people who we can't even understand.

Populist and socialist politics did much the same in the era of popular revolution: "We the people" overthrew the British royal government in what became the United States. Communist revolution established "People's Republics" all over the globe. "People power" toppled Ferdinand Marcos and has been a byword for popular revolt ever since, including the ongoing changes in the Arab world.

I was struck again this morning by how that language permeates Bob Herbert's warning opinion piece this morning in the New York Times.
I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”
The problem is, of course, that what "the people" rise up against is, well, other people. And there's a thread in liberal thought that emphasizes the unity of homo sapiens (and more recently, the whole earth as one ecosystem). But we still have this idea that "the people" will empower themselves... and as we've seen in the last few weeks in Egypt, when the bulk of the population finds itself utterly at odds with a ruling elite, they will in fact do just that: take back the country.

So what's next? That's the theme of commentary over the last couple days, as Mubarak's exit seemed clear to everyone but himself. And I think part of the answer lies in how "the people" comes to be formulated in Egypt's new formal political and social structures. Nasser founded the modern Egyptian state on rhetoric of popular nationalism, borrowing heavily from his Soviet sponsors. Like those sponsors, it was in large part a smokescreen for oligarchy, and as the socialist pretense wore thin and was eventually dropped, the "people" that the Egyptian state was supposed to be founded on found themselves adrift.


"The People" is a powerful concept. It makes every human an equal component of the group in question, whether it is a nation, clan, religion, association, or rock band. But it also implies a false dichotomy whenever it is invoked: we are more human, they are less human. And whether you are dealing with class struggle or inter-national conflict, it dehumanizes.

As a concept, the equality-making "People" is offset by how we humans generally self-organize: with leaders and followers. The feudal model, of a king and his lieges, is the other extreme of a pure democracy, but both need the core element of the other: without leadership, a nation is like a ship without a helmsperson, drifting aimlessly. It can get along fine in calm waters, but watch out when a reef arises—and a reef will inevitably, eventually, appear. Likewise, when a purely power-based king forgets that he depends on his lieges' loyalty, and that that depends in turn on a feeling of commonality, he'll be chucked overboard at the first opportunity, like Captain Bligh...

European nations, and their political heirs, have been struggling with this balance for centuries. Do we endow a king with god-like power? Consensus seems to be that a constitutional balance is better in the long run. Do we let anyone run for president? Hitler was popularly elected, and most democracies have exceptions for parties or leaders who explicitly want to undo democratic institutions (remember the presidential oath to "uphold the Constitution" etc.?). And on and on...

What I find intriguing and kind of exciting is the potential of the current revolution in Egypt especially to change the nature of global political thinking. Islam, unlike Christianity, has an inherent, core philosophy of radical equality: we are all equal before Allah. There is no Islamic Pope, no priestly intermediaries. There are wise scholars, and there is the Prophet, but the structural basis for a "God-given mandate" is really a lot thinner than in the West, reserved for fanatics like bin-Laden. So we will see.

In the meantime, could we in the West please watch out for invocations of "the People"? Please? Remember Louis Armstrong's comment:

"All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."
Despite what you may have read, we've never had a horse as President or CEO either. Let's find some other way of saying "the people who are not in a leadership position, who are oppressed by those above them in power."

We are all the People. No exceptions.

1 comment:

James Riemermann said...

I, too, have problems with invoking "the people" as an ultimate and unified source of wisdom and justice. You've touched on some of them, but there are others.

For one thing there is no such animal; people are diverse and often want radically different outcomes. I feel fairly good about the leadership of the protests in Egypt, but I have heard enough man/woman on the street interviews to be skeptical about the deep and thoughtful collective wisdom of the crowds. One woman was asked if she had any concerns about the threat of an ongoing military dictatorship, and her answer was essentially, "No, they're wonderful, we need strong and powerful leadership." That's not at all the thrust of the protests, but I suspect there are quite a few protesters who think it is.

The crux of enlightened government and society is not to do whatever the people say, but to be accountable to the people's needs, to seek to guarantee their rights and well-being, and particularly to protect minorities (ethnic, religious, political parties/views, etc.) from tyranny by the majority.

Representative democracy is a useful tool for maintaining enlightened government/society, largely because it offers a release valve for frustration and encourages accountability. But I find things like a strong bill of rights, an independent judiciary, etc., far more important, partly because they are a check against the tyranny of the majority. The people, all too often, tend to be selfish and short-sighted.

If Egypt comes out of this with a solid constitution to protect minority rights and the right to free expression, with institutions empowered and committed to protecting those rights, that will be worth a lot. If not, not. I remain hopeful.