Monday, 26 September 2016

Poetry: Eulogy for Democracy

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except...”
A Eulogy for Democracy

 A poem by Chengde Chen 

(Breaking news: A democracy elects a fascist president…)

Democracy has committed suicide.
Freedom, at the funeral that is almost for itself,
invites Reason to give a eulogy.
Reason says, ‘This, however…
also shows the greatness of Democracy:
Dictatorship may let a madman rule the majority;
Democracy allows the majority to be mad!’

No one knows what is being added up in the ballot box
– wisdom or stupidity?
But the wonder of ‘water kindling fire’
has shown how absurd Democracy can be.
The sacred formula of ‘one man one vote’
casts the power in proportion to the birthrate.
‘Majority rule’ is to bully by numbers
– neither freedom, nor goodness

Democracy doesn’t mean freedom,
but the majority oppressing the minority.
That ‘all men are equal before the law’ is only half true –
the legislative process has favoured those in the majority.

From the point of view of mechanics,
to be oppressed by the many is no less uncomfortable
than to be oppressed by one person.
To avoid the oppression one has to join the majority,
so those in the majority may also be compelled.

Democracy doesn’t mean goodness either.
Don’t be deceived by the look of the ballot box,
which seems big and square, appearing to be fair.
Being big is able to accommodate both good and evil.
Being square is easier to confound right and wrong.
When the majority fancy gambling,
gamblers are regarded as heroes.
When the majority get drunk,
those sober are seen as abnormal.
When the majority decide to wage war,
death is entertained with mothers’ agony!

Granted being somewhat just,
Democracy is destined to be fragile.
Democracies lacking bread are dying of hunger.
Democracies lacking efficiency are dying of exhaustion.
Democracies lacking education
– like crowds of uncultured children –
are directing flattering politics to dodder along,
mistaking funerals for festivals!

Democracy is not a Gospel from heaven,
nor is it a serenade of a dreamland.
It is the tracks of a chaotic herd of sheep.
It is an average probability of molecules colliding.
It is a rough competition of head counting.
It is an institution of coercing respect,
made for beings who don’t respect each other.
This simple game of ‘51 beats 49’
is merely a way out of a no-way-out civilization!

Is this what we fought for with our lives?
Yes, and no
We pursued Democracy because we had never had it,
so we had a wrong dream, which assumed that
with driving dark away, what would be left would be light.
In fact, driving dark away is only driving dark away
– what is left is the problems not seen in the dark!

Democracy is nothing else but these problems –
the problem of freedom,
the problem of law and order,
the problem of the economy,
the problem of education.
The problems are as numerous as the hairs on a dog.
The problems are as chaotic as tangled hemp.
Democracy is the right to contribute problems.
Democracy is a machine to generate problems!

Democracy carries freedom of speech.
There comes the problem of abusing the ‘holy right’ –
the problem of libelling others,
the problem of deceiving the public,
the problem of inciting racial or religious hatred,
the problem of advertising violence or pornography.
Once Democracy tries to exert control,
there comes the problem of gagging opinion,
the problem of media discontent,
the problem of human rights,
the problem of foreign criticism,
the problem of international relations,
et cetera, et cetera.

Democracy establishes freedom of marriage.
There comes the problem of marriage rates falling,
the problem of divorce rates rising,
the problem of single parent families,
the problem of youth crime,
the problem of drugs,
the problem of AIDS,
the problem of the rights of HIV carriers,
et cetera, et cetera.

Problems have the infinite ability to produce problems.
Every solution is a reproduction.
The wisdom of dictatorship is to forbid problems arising,
like a sealed cylinder giving no oxygen for reactions.
Whereas Democracy is an open chemical space,
or a chain of uncontrolled nuclear reactions.
It is its very nature
to generate more problems than it solves!

Democracy expects the law to deal with problems.
This is both underestimating human creativity
and over-estimating what society can endure.
In the modern age, especially with social media,
the amount of human activities increase exponentially,
the number of conflicts resorting to court are exploding.
There have been so many laws that we have to
make indexes for the indexes, find lawyers for the lawyers,
while the legislation machine still runs round the clock.
At such a pace, two hundred years later,
half of the population would have to be lawyers,
and the other half would have to be policemen.

This is not a joke, but the destiny of Democracy!

A system that increases problems infinitely won’t last.
This law of mathematics won’t yield to the majority.
Democracy may be powerful enough to crush its enemies,
but the obese body can’t overcome the weight of itself!
When it is too exhausted to carry its fairytale,
it may have to turn to its enemy for help.
Thanks to the accommodating ballot box,
which is open to anything!
When Democracy votes for Dictatorship,
who dares to say it’s being undemocratic?

Churchill once said, and it’s often quoted,
‘Democracy is the worst form of government
except for all those other forms that have been tried’

monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, theocracy, dictatorship,
none of which is ‘of, by, and for the people’
Yet, have we exhausted all the forms possible?
Won’t there be ones with more reason and efficiency?
Civilisation is young, albeit a few-thousand-years-old
When looking back after a few more thousand years
we may find the democracy worship of today laughable –
if not a frog at the bottom of a well looking upward
asserting that the sky is as big as the well…

Wouldn't democracy look crazier than al-Qaeda?

Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here


  1. Haha. Unfortunately (by and large) true. A refreshing poem. In a democracy, the decision-making process has priority. It obtains supreme consent, above individual desires. And that, one calls political legitimacy. I am thankful, though, when I see the worst restrained.

  2. Fascinating, postmodernistic pushback against the kind of triumphalist theory expressed in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 The End of History: The Last Man Standing, favoring Western liberal democracy. Of course, Fukuyama wasn’t the first person to declare the ‘end of history’—Karl Marx, among several others, immediately comes to mind (though one could argue that communism proved even more fragile, fractured, and flawed than has democracy). And Fukuyama won’t be the last to take a stab at the end-point.

    You say in your poem, Chengde, “When looking back after a few more thousand years / we may find the democracy worship of today laughable.” I would certainly hope that future generations get systems of governance, society, and culture ‘better’ in the (literally) unimaginable timeframe you mention: thousands of years. But, let’s look at a more realistic, modest, and manageable timeframe; you pick the number. Putting aside, for a moment, your judgment of democracy and of the other systems of governance you reject as blemished, let me ask you to don your Nostradamus hat and take your theory to the next logical level.

    To my point, Chengde: Would you venture a pass, here, at describing at least the major (even crude) contours of the system of human government that you believe might prove the next best thing? Not necessarily the end-point, of course, but ‘the next best thing’—better than what we’ve got or had.

  3. Yes, I remember the context of the Fukuyama book - everyone was convinced that the world was entering a golden age of not only 'democracy' but civil soceity, human rights, equal opportunities... you name it!

    But what I get from Chengde's very topical poem, is the ironty that the current UK Prime Minister was not elected, and inded is likely uneleectable. Ms May fineagled her elevation to the top of the UK's electoral dictatorship by simultaneously plotting her (properly elected) predecessor's fall - and proclaiming her loyalty. I mean by consistently ramping up 'fears' about 'imigrants' as Home Secretary and refusing to speak in favour of the EU - while nominally being part of the official government campaign to 'remain'.
    So recent history gives two new instances of the strange workings of democaracy...

    *Mrs May has never presented herself or her government's political programme to the British electorate - yet she is nomainally a democratically elected leader*

    * Mrs May carefully fed the 'out' vote - to leave the EU - while supposedly campaigning for *Remain'*

  4. Dear Keith, thank you for inviting a prescription of “the best next thing”. I think, given the problems of the current democracy, the best next thing, whatever it might be called, should be more efficient and hence sustainable. But a more pressing problem is the democracy worship, which prevents people from seeing its faults. It was incredible that, in Britain, all the political parties would agree to have a referendum on something that was obviously beyond most people’s comprehension. This tells how bad the worship has become – a kind of fundamentalism.

    1. You have good company historically, Chengde, in your view of democracy. As you well know, some among the eminent ancient Greek philosophers and historians were more than just a tad critical of democracy, equating it—ouch!—to something like mob rule. They unflatteringly painted the masses as too ignorant, unskilled, ill-informed, lacking in self-discipline, corruptible, devoid of virtue, and easily swayed by cleverly couched inducements (rhetoric). It doesn’t overstate it to say theirs was a terribly harsh portrait when it comes to the general population’s (un)worthiness for such a form of government. In their eyes democracy was, therefore, inefficient. Hmm; maybe, as you suggest, why the Brexit referendum passed? (By the way, as you again well know, a few among America’s founding fathers shared some of the ancient Greeks’ misgivings—though they ultimately relented. However, I doubt many of us in the States would go so far as to label either of today’s mainstream presidential candidates as ‘philosopher-kings’ in the making ;-)

      To the other, broader point, if you were to discard democracy, along with the other forms of government, how might you proceed to develop a better, as-yet-undiscovered form of government? Societies build their features like corral reefs, accreting stuff over time—though, alas, resulting in something vastly less pretty than reefs. Such a thought exercise might require starting with a presocietal ‘state of nature’. A clean slate. That is, to peel back the layers one assumes any society (and system of government) has, by definition. The result of that peeling back is no government, property, institutions, laws, authorities, organisations, communities, constitutions, rights, covenants, obligations, justice, sovereignty, moral agency. Where the individual is preeminent, reliant on his or her own strength, ingenuity, and cunning for protection, food, shelter, ‘healthcare’, clothing. Where, as Thomas Hobbes succinctly described the situation in a decidedly dystopian, ‘Blade Runner’-like mood: “War of all against all”. Distracting, to say the least. But then comes the quintessentially hard part: Building the base, the frame, the rooms of that ‘next best thing’.

      Meanwhile, with no disrespect to Plato et al., or to James Madison et al., I’d rather engage in that (safe) thought exercise while sitting back and enjoying the ‘comforts’ and 'privileges' of democracy, warts and all.