The bus took us part of the way up the hill. Then, where the road ended and no more vehicular traffic was permitted, we began walking up a winding path; as people had been doing on this spot for 2,500 years. The path was steep, yet each winding curve brought increasingly stunning views of the building at the top. Finally we traversed a wide flight of steps, proceeded through an ancient portal of columns and crumbled marble, a great gate called a propylon, and saw, across a wide plateau strewn with pieces of marble and broken columns, what is, perhaps, the world’s most famous building: the Parthenon.
This was in the spring of 2000 when I traveled with a group of ten students to Athens to participate in a model United Nations conference. We took one afternoon off for a city tour, the highlight of which was the visit to the Parthenon. The Parthenon, and a complex of other buildings, had been part of a huge temple on the top of the Athens Acropolis. Acropolis means “citadel,” and Athens was not the only city in ancient Greece with an acropolis. It was, though, as my guidebook noted, “The purest expression of a brilliant era, of a unique moment . . . in the life of ancient Athens and ancient Greece . . . the most sacred of all places of worship in Greece.”
The Acropolis and the Parthenon still dominate the city. At night, bathed in the warm glow of floodlights, the building is remarkably beautiful. But one must stand close by the building on a brilliantly sunny day to feel the powerful pull exerted by the immense, ruined building. The proximity of the austere, columned ruin conjured up for me feelings akin to my initial experience of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben in London, and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.
Yet my first view of this particular historic location evoked strong feelings that those other postcards-come-to-life had not. I am a professor of politics. I teach American political theory, and at an earlier time I taught western political theory. I believe in and teach the power and importance of “politics” and democracy. And here I stood, where the idea of western democracy first took root more than two millennia ago. Down the hill from the Acropolis and the Parthenon was a spot where Athenian democracy was practiced a place where citizens, not kings or dictators, made decisions about their own lives. For me this place was indeed sacred ground.
As our group wandered around and clambered over the rocks and pieces of marble strewn around the temples, I spoke with awe about the importance of this location to our study of politics. We took a rest, and sat on one of the many benches placed around the site to afford excellent viewing opportunities. One of my students, a senior political science major who had taken several of my classes, interrupted my ruminations. He pointed out that I, as I was prone to do in class, was being somewhat idealistic.
He reminded me of classes where we had focused on the problems of the evolution and practice of democracy in general, and of American democracy in particular. We had read parts of E.M. Forster’s critique Two Cheers For Democracy, and Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics, both of which warned about the dangers of mass political participation. We had learned that in one of his first elections in Virginia in the 1780s, James Madison, before he was “Father of the Constitution”, found he had to treat voters to food and drink to get their support. “And remember,” my student pointed out, “ancient Greece, even during its democratic time, was not ‘democratic’ in a way we would agree with now what with slaves and women treated as lower members of a patriarchal society.”
Little did we know as we discussed the problems of democracy that the presidential race then beginning back in the states would end up in a huge mess. It would be a mess that to many would be an indictment of American democracy. But, with the Parthenon as backdrop and inspiration, I pursued the argument with reference to Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) which we had read in our course, American Political Thought. In that essay Whitman demonstrated that he was no wide-eyed optimist about American democracy. “I will not,” he wrote, “gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States.” People, he wrote, were often “crude. . . capricious.” Yet he concluded that U.S. politics was “with all their faults, already substantially establish’d, for good, on their own native, sound, long-vista’d principles, never to be overturned, offering a sure basis for all the rest.”
The debate, of course, never ends. And the debate’s focus is the essence of what I teach and write about. When we discuss democracy/American democracy, my students often raise questions about what “democracy” means. There is danger in glossing over the problems of democracy and it is difficult to pin down what democracy is. But I can be fairly certain about what it must be like to live where there is no democracy, of whatever type.
During the summer of 1988 I was fortunate to be part of a Group Fulbright Project. I traveled to Hungary with other academics for six weeks to explore the country’s politics and culture. It was my first trip to Eastern Europe, and communism still ruled. As we crossed the border from Austria to Hungary we saw barbed wire on either side of the road that stretched off through the thick woods. Some of us joked that here we were, the first time for many of us, “behind the ‘Iron Curtain’”, inside the Soviet bloc. The jokes ceased when the bus stopped, the door opened and a young at least he seemed very young soldier with a very big machine gun stepped into the bus to begin examining our passports. We were no longer in a country where this soldier’s actions were constrained by democratic niceties. When he said get off the bus, we got off the bus. On each side of the road were large towers manned by soldiers carrying machine guns.
We traveled to southern Hungary to the small city of Pecs, near the Yugoslav border, where our host institution was Jannus Pannonius University. Actually, compared to other nations of the Soviet bloc at that time such as Romania, Bulgaria, or Czechoslovakia, Hungary, since the time when the Soviets crushed its revolution in 1956, had become a fairly open society. Western books and movies were available, and people did not fear talking to us. But . . . there was no democracy in Hungary.
During our stay I jogged each morning from the city out into the country. At the end of the block where the University was located was the city police building. It wasn’t a large building; but on the roof was a guard tower, manned by a soldier with his gun. Every morning as I jogged past the tower I could feel that soldier’s gaze follow me as I headed down the street and out of the city. Was I being paranoid? Perhaps. But such wariness and fear, was the norm for those living in the nation.
As our group drove into Budapest our Hungarian guide pointed to, somewhat ruefully I thought, a thick concrete wall, with the roofs of buildings barely visible behind it, and armed guards patrolling the entrance. These were not, he told us, Hungarian soldiers. These soldiers were from the Soviet Union. They were in Hungary keeping “fraternal” watch over the country and its people.
Back in Pecs two weeks later our Hungarian friends held a farewell dinner for us. I was sitting next to a Hungarian colleague, who also taught politics. We were discussing American politics and that year’s (1988) presidential contest between George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis. I was lamenting the choice and complaining about how few Americans vote. When the Hungarian professor asked about voting in America I pulled out my voter registration card. I told him that Americans had to register to vote before they could vote, and that many Americans found this burdensome. He, however, had taken the card and was looking at it as though it was the Holy Grail. For him it personified, in all their messy glory, American democratic elections. “Some day,” he said, “we, too, will have real elections.”
I chose not to discuss the whole sticky question of what a “real” election was, in America or anywhere else, with my Hungarian counterpart that night, a colleague who was also a prophet, of sorts: in 1989 I watched television with astonishment as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, with Hungary and Poland leading the way. Pictures in the papers showed soldiers rolling up the barbed wire at the Hungarian-Austrian border
In 1990, six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and six months before the reunification of East and West Germany , I traveled to Berlin with a small group of journalists and academics. We went to Checkpoint Charlie in the American sector. This (in)famous spot, was a main gateway in the wall between east and west, between communism and freedom, a place where in 1962 American and Soviet tanks faced off in a dangerous confrontation. I walked along the famous wall that stretched out on either side of the checkpoint. A year prior I would have been shot for walking here. Now I scrambled around, picking up pieces of the wall, which was already so full of holes it looked like a piece concrete sculpture of Swiss cheese. Ambitious (soon to be former) East Germans were renting hammers and chisels. Anyone who wanted to could get a hammer and hack at the. I felt that each of my own strikes at the wall were small blows for democracy.
During the 1990s I made several trips to Russia to observe the coming of democracy to the former communist bastion. I saw a Presidential election, worker protests, and spoke with Russians about their new democracy. Not being a war correspondent, I did not regret seeing on TV rather than in person the violent confrontations between the Russian Duma (Parliament) and president Boris Yeltsin in October of 1993. But in subsequent trips to Russia the question of defending democracy through violence was one that I discussed often with Russian professors, journalists and friends.
Most whom I spoke with seemed to believe that Yeltsin’s violent defense was necessary. But whether I was in Hungary before the fall of communism, in East Germany as it crumbled, or in Poland and Russia after the fall, it was the mass consumerism that followed in democracy’s wake that sparked the most discussion. During their new democratic elections television viewers were bombarded with negative and inane American-style political ads that were by American political consultants. Most TV shows and movies seemed to be imported from American; or at least they were clones of American movies and products.
At that farewell dinner in Budapest in 1988, a Hungarian journalist had lamented that he felt trapped between communism and the western notions of democracy and capitalism that were even then insinuating their way into Hungarian society. For him, each notion seemed to foster a numbing similarity of politics and culture. For me, there is no dilemma in this choice: interchangeable/dissembling politicians, and “Hey Dude where’s My Car?” and Jerry Springer (feel free to select your own lowest political-cultural common denominator, that is your democratic right); or a society controlled by one political party and cultural dictates are underpinned by force.
When our group left Athens in the spring of 2000 we could see behind us the first glimmers of “The rosy fingered dawn”, as the great Greek poet Homer might have thought, mingled with the floodlights on the Parthenon to bathe it in a warm, soft glow. Again wrapped in my reveries of “democratic vistas”, I heard two students talking as they looked back at the magnificent view.
“You know,” said one young man, “that would be a great place for a rock concert.” I flinched. But then I thought, why not? I could see N’Sync prancing around the columns, Michael Jackson on the top pediment. . .
Two cheers for democracy, indeed.