Democracy: The Universal Solvent

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Updated: 19 Feb 2011

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This post is dedicated to the Egyptian Coptic Christians who participated in the protests in Tahrir square, largely ignored by the press, but claiming their ancient heritage as Egyptians, stood along side of their fellow Muslim citizens.

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In 8th grade science we were taught that water was considered the universal solvent. That is, given enough time, water would dissolve almost everything.  Water inexorably works its way into every crack, nook and cranny, saturating the soil, seeping through the dikes and dams built to try to hold it back.  In that sense, water will dissolve or penetrate any barrier it meets or finds a channel though which it can flow if given enough time.

In North Africa and the Middle East a new manifestation of that concept has appeared. The flowering of democracy and freedom among the populace to break the grip of autocratic and repressive theocratic regimes seems to be a gathering force that politically and socially is having the effect of a universal solvent against retrenched and decades long rule by dictators or monarchs. The water of democracy has not only found the cracks in the façade of those rulers who by force have imposed their will upon the people, but it has opened up channels and holes in those walls and is flowing with historically-unprecedented force.

First we saw Tunisia, which did not demand our attention immediately, although it should have. The success of the revolution, remarkable for its lack of violence, did make us sit up and take notice. The collapse of the government in a matter of days and the exile of the strongman ruler, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were accomplished without the revolutionaries possessing guns.  In an ironic contrast, according to the Gun Rights doctrine espoused by millions who practically deify the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution here in the United States, Tunisia’s gunless should have been inconceivable let alone successful.

Then came Egypt. For eighteen days we held our collective breath as the unarmed protesters daily came in waves into Tahrir Square demanding President Hasni Mubarak’s resignation, a new democratic government, a new constitution, and a reduction in soaring food prices.  Each successive day we watched entranced, despairing that night the hated police attacked the protesters, who had managed to conduct their demonstrations with virtually no violence. Then finally, with stunned disbelief we again allowed ourselves to hope the cause might succeed for the Egyptian people when the army began taking very visible action to protect the protesters and take the reins of power from Mubarak and his cohorts. Though many questions remain, Egypt was transformed into a proto-democratic state in just over two weeks. Once again a government was toppled without the people being armed to the teeth and having no equivalent to the U.S. 2nd Amendment in their constitution. Bringing down a government without a heavily armed populace is not supposed to be within the realm of the possible.

Jordan’s King Hussein, educated in America, saw the events unfold and voluntarily began to institute democratic reforms. Whether they will be enough to satisfy the force of the democratic waves pounding against the shore of an autocratic monarchy remains to be seen. But here we have a third instance where the true power of the ideals of democracy works into the hearts of the oppressed and the realization of that dream does not require an armed populace.

Now we are again holding our breath as we watch the protests and demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, and most importantly, Iran.  The regimes of those autocratic and theocratic states are resorting to using brute force in their attempt to make the price of protest and dissention too high and to preserve their iron-grip on the status quo. What will the final outcome be?  Only time will tell.  None of these countries have a 2nd amendment on the right to bear arms.

There are, in my assessment, two broad consequences regarding bringing down a government by force. The first, when the population has unlimited access to firearms, an scenario is set up that will either almost certainly be a protracted or bloody revolution, or worse, an even bloodier civil war.  In recent years we have seen the horrendous conflicts in places like Rwanda, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Somalia and Chechnya and East Timor, to name a few.

What we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt in the past few weeks is incontrovertible evidence that revolution by an unarmed populace does not require years but weeks, and does not require the blood of thousands. It also does not require that populace be armed with guns. Unfortunately the protests claimed the lives of a few dozen who were caught in the fringe of rage staged by the ruling regime’s police and their operatives.

But in recent history, this is not the first time we have seen a revolution succeed largely without violence. We watched two decades ago, transfixed, by the collapse of East Germany, and then to our greater astonishment the disintegration of our Cold War super-power adversary, the Soviet Union.  Poland and Czechoslovakia broke away from the Warsaw Pact and had their own versions of bloodless revolutions.  Czechoslovakia in particular separated into to two countries, The Czech Republic and Slovakia without a civil war.  Hungary voted to leave the Warsaw Pact with an 85% majority, as did Bulgaria, Estonia, and Latvia. Romania was the only Eastern European country to have a bloody revolution as part of its citizens overthrowing the government, ending in the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena.

I cannot predict the outcome of the current protests for democratic reforms in these other nations, but I have confidence in the universal solvent of democracy.  The tide has turned. Even against massive state violence, as has happened in Iran and Bahrain, where the protesters are beaten back for a while, the regimes’ blindness to the unequalled strength of the democratic ideal will ultimately be their downfall.

The right to bear arms as a part of the Great American Experiment, as guaranteed in the Constitution in the context of the power of Democracy and Freedom, is appearing more and more like one of our greatest failures when placed against these historical events. We endured the horrors of one Civil War, and I can see no rationale that excludes a similar nightmare and threat to the Union should a group of radically discontented  people decide it is their right to overthrow the legally elected government by force.

Such action would be treason because all the other parts of the Constitution, which are more important than the 2nd Amendment, are the solid foundation we enjoy as a nation of laws as well as providing for the orderly transfer of power every eight years at the most, ensuring that democracy and freedom remain the keystone of The Republic.

What we have seen in the events unfolding in Africa and the Middle East is that the true power of Democracy and Freedom comes from the hearts of their people and not from their having all the guns in the world.  It is a lesson we Americans, particularly at this moment in our own history, need to understand where the reality actually lies.

Dr John Bogen contributed to this post.

The Middle East: Once the Cradle, Now the Grave

The Cradle of Civilization.  Mesopotamia.  The Middle East.  I love its history.  I’ve read about it since I was a teenager.  My first trip to Europe in the summer of 1971, I was 18 years old and just graduated from high school.  Part of a Boise State University music tour, we visited the British Museum in London.  I headed right to the exhibition of the Royal Tomb of Ur.  I could have stayed there all day.
One face of the Standard of Ur.  British Museum, London

One face of the Standard of Ur. British Museum, London

(I have a neck tie with this motif woven into it I bought from the British Museum in 1995.  Beats the heck out of Paisley for my taste.)

Part of my fascination is grounded in my interest in biblical history in general.  My bachelor’s degree is in Biblical Studies, as well as having earned a Master of Divinity degree.  There are, however, many regions around the Holy Land and the Mediterranean in which I might have been attracted to.  For me it was Mesopotamia.  I’ve studied their ancient history, their pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Gilgamesh is my favorite hero-myth (who, by the way, was a historical figure, an actual king, ca. 2700 B.C.E.).  I’ve read it numerous times and have two of the most recently published translations on my bookshelf.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Image from cylinder scroll.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Image from cylinder scroll.

Today, what was ancient Babylon and Sumer sits in Iraq and Iran.  I have no illusion that I will live to visit either place in a time of peace.

The Cradle of Civilization has become a grave.

5000 years of nurturing the very essence of what it means to be human is being crushed by a simmering slag of hatred and revenge, a cycle of violence like magma pushing to the surface that may erupt erupt with the force of an atomic mushroom cloud.  Literally.

Roger Cohen, New York Times columnist, captured this virulent culture of revenge:

History is relentless. Sometimes its destructive gyre gets overcome: France and Germany freed themselves after 1945 from war’s cycle. So did Poland and Germany. China and Japan scarcely love each other but do business. Only in the Middle East do the dead rule.

Their demand for blood is, it seems, inexhaustible. Their graves will not be quieted. Since 1948 and Israel’s creation, retribution has reigned between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements.  (NYT, 7 Jan ’09)

Cohen’s insight is so deeply troubling in its truth.  The violence, this time between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Palestinians, defies all reason for common, everyday living; it defies everything the three Great Religions, which were born in this Cradle, teach about peace and how to treat one’s neighbors; and it defies the very essence of what it means to be human.   And that essence is that the living rule, not the dead.

Gilgamesh grieves over the death of Enkidu (whose demise was decreed by the gods) like today’s Middle East hard-liners and jihadists who wail and beat themselves over those killed by the godless.  Gilgamesh is so distraught he weeps by the corpse until maggots begin to crawl out of Enkidu’s rotting body, then vowing vengeance against the gods who robbed him of his most beloved companion, he sets out to bring them down from heaven itself. . .

Except that is not how the epic reads.  Gilgamesh is not bound forever in his grief over Enkidu’s death.  He does not engage in unending vengeance against his enemies. Given strength by the gods, he begins a quest for eternal life, and journeys to the home of Uta-napishti, the “Noah” of this Sumerian flood story, who with his wife, were the only two humans to survive.  And though Gilgamesh does not achieve physical eternal life, by the end of the quest he arguably is Homo sapiens modernum, Modern Man.  The dead do not rule his life.

(Homo sapiens modernum is my literary creation, not a paleontological species name.)

How then, do we understand the Rule of the Dead in the lands that gave us Gilgamesh?  How can that cycle be ended?  What will it take for the sword of atrocities to be broken, the blade shattered and unsalvageable, replaced by the Rule of the Living?  Gilgamesh lives in his myths, but his story, his true legacy to his living descendants has been lost.

Do not blame Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Do not cite their words, writings or teachings as justification for these atrocities.  Unnamed millions have already been butchered over the course of 4000 years, in the name of and by the hand of followers of all three.  The LORD God Almighty/Allah weeps that even today, millions who call on his name, do so as they kill, destroy, and ravage the innocent.

As long as the Death rules the living in the cultures of the Middle East, be it national, religious, political, or an aggregation of all three,  Homo sapiens modernum, that great rock of civilization, is being blasted away by relentless, unforgiving sand storms of dogma and loathing. One day all that will be left of Gilgamesh’s legacy will be featureless desert, devoid of all life, of all humanity, the howling winds oblivious to the countless millions who once tried to live just one day up to the potential of humanness he achieved.  It will be all in vain.  On the fields of massacre the blood they shed will be blown into nothingness.

Homo sapiens modernum will be extinct.   The Middle East will be perfect.  Sinless.  An unspoiled holy land.  No desecration of sacred laws.  No infidels to attack.  No punishment for the reprobates.  No honor to be defended.  No vengeance to be paid.  No revenge to be meted out.  No need for forgiveness.  No God to be avenged.  Empty and dead.

No amount of oil will change the outcome.

The perfect war will be over.

And the fate of those who followed the rule of Death?  Perhaps it shall be this chilling image, recounted when Gilgamesh  goes to the Netherworld in search of Enkidu.

Gilgamesh: Did you see the one who cheated a god and swore an oath?

Enkidu: I saw him.

G: How does he fare?

E: He cannot get near the places in the Netherworld where the libations of water are made, he drinks in thirst.

G: Did you see the citizen of Girsu at the place of sighs of his father and mother?  (Girsu was a city-state in what is now Iraq.(1))

E: I saw him.

G: How does he fare?

E: Facing each man there are a thousand Amorites, his shade cannot push them off with his hands, he cannot charge them down with his chest. At the places in the Netherworlds where the libations of water are made, the Amorite take precedence. (2)

G: Did you see the sons of Sumer and Akkad? (3)

E: I saw them.

G: How do they fare?

E: They drink water from the place of a massacre, dirty water. (1)

This fate for the desert people of the Middle East who endlessly kill to proclaim the rule of the dead, to be denied water, the very stuff of life–first, for one’s blasphemy, second, to have to wait subserviently while foreigners drink first, and third, to be forced to drink filthy water in a place that is ritually soiled and impure for all eternity–is indeed the deepest level of Hell.

Gilgamesh is speaking.  Are we, all Homo sapiens modernum, capable of listening?

Gilgamesh and King Akka of Kish, ca. 18th Cent. B.C.E.

(1) Text: “Bilgames and the Netherworld,” in: Andrew, George (1999) The epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. 190. [Note: “Bilgames” is one variant of Gilgamesh.]

(2) This is a bit spooky–The Amorites are associated with the West, and their kingdom, ca. 2000-1600 B.C.E. encompassed  modern Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestine Authorities, Lebanon and NE Egypt.  Source: Wikipedia.

(3) Sumer, one of humanity’s most ancient regions dates from at least the 6th Century, B.C.E., and was clustered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, that flow through modern Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Its most famous city is Ur (in Iraq).  Akkad was a Sumerian city but later established Babylon (in Iraq) when its empire rose to power.  Source: Wikipedia.