On Democracy, Demoguery and Foolocracy

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In Book Six of Plato‘s The Republic, there is a very illuminating passage about the nature of democracy. Socrates is discoursing with Plato’s brother Adeimantus trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea“, asks Socrates “who would you ideally want to decide who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course“, says Adeimantus, ” So why then“, responds Socrates,” “do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?

soc1Such display of distrust in the democratic system from one of the foundling fathers of  philosophical thought and symbol of that idea of civilization which has Ancient Athens as universal icon, sounds quite striking. However, that means that since the very beginning the issue of representation was seen as the weakest aspect of democracy. Should electors require any skill to exercise their right to vote, census, education etc.? Or should we presume that democracy by birthright is the greatest modern achievement?

Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of that ship sailing to the frightening ocean. If they are not qualified, it might very likely crash against the rocks when the first storm comes. It sounds snobbish, I know,  but he was not. For Socrates only those who” had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote”.Giving the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom could lead a system the Greeks feared above all:( demagoguery: dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading) and only education could be the most effective antidote.

soc3Ancient Athens had indeed experienced  what being ruled by demagogues meant with Alcibiades. Rich, charismatic, smooth-talking,he had slowly eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. However, any era has seen the birth of one or more Alcibiades, because their real skill is exploiting our desire for easy answers, that is all. We want to believe to their alluring world made of slogans and promises without  taking the trouble of pondering on how all could be achieved or their consequences on people. We always enjoy a good story, don’t we?

As a demonstration of how our minds work, Socrates wanted us to imagine an election debate between two candidates: a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner’ s speech would sound more or less like this:

“Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will”. Socrates asks us to consider what the reaction of the audience would be like: Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – “I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’” would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think? That’s why we prefer to give our vote to sweet shop owners rather than doctors.

But, if Socrates could be here among us and see that we are about to put in charge of the Italian vessel a comedian, a fool, I guess he would regret that sweet shop owner, wouldn’t he?

Words,words,words

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Once upon a time, in a remote part of the South of Europe, there was a kingdom sun-kissed and pine fragrant, whose blue waters lazily washed pink white beaches of shells and corals. The inhabitants of this enchanted place were also renowned for their constant effort to add to the other celebrated beauties the most precious one:democracy; because despite the country was a true paradise on earth, anybody who attempted to visit it could see that lacked the most basic foundations of social organization. Furthermore signs of moral decay could be detected almost anywhere.
“Democracy! This is what we need, and we’ll be saved”: somebody started to say.
Till one happy day, the most important people of the country decided that it was time that the first elections should be held. The hopeful citizens rushed en mass to the polling stations and enjoyed so much this ritual that decided to repeat it once, if not twice a year. Unfortunately they soon understood that democracy was not so easy to achieve. In fact election after election, decade after decade, scandals, the corruption and degradation of the political system had not been stopped yet:
“Maybe, this democracy doesn’t work here!” they wondered.
“Maybe, it’s because of the sun” pondered one “or the sea”, said a woman. Maybe. Any possible solution had been explored, besides the inhabitants of the beautiful kingdom sun-kissed, pine fragrant whose shores were washed by crystalline seas, had slowly started to desert the polling stations. But one glorious day something totally unexpected happened. There was a man, whose speeches had started to inflame the hearts of men and women again triggering a sparkle of hope. Well, he wasn’t exactly a man, he was a FOOL ,a real fool, not like those other fake fools who had ruled the country the previous years. His words were captivating and passionate and people were overwhelmed by his impetus and somebody even assured that he was a sort of wizard because he a magic panacea which would have helped heal their rotten country: the WEB. When the next elections were held, the inhabitants of the beautiful kingdom sun-kissed, pine fragrant whose shores were washed by crystalline seas went joyously to vote with the certainty that THIS time something would have changed for sure. The party of the fool conquered one-third of the voters, it had been a huge success: for the for time in the history of the known world, a fool might have changed the course of events.
” This could be a model to be exported abroad”, said a man.
“This time WE might teach something to the other kingdoms” he added proudly and the others nodded.
“Yes, let’s call it foolocracy. It will our brand all over the world”. And they quickly set out to register it.
After a few weeks, the people still crowded the public meetings of the Fool but with less enthusiasm:
“This Fool keeps on talking and talking, but when do you think he’ll start to do something?”
“Maybe, it’s not time. I’m sure he is certainly planning something sensational, you’ll see”.
But time went by and nothing happened. The Fool kept on talking and threatening the other two parties, without realizing that his followers had started to abandon him. One day, during another of his public meetings, there were just a few people who were absently listening to him when they heard just like a distant sound of something arriving. It seemed like a train.
“A train? There isn’t even a railway  here. It’s impossible!”
Everybody turned toward the strange thing that was coming closer and closer. It was actually a train, a big sparkling train with a bright flashing signboard, where there was clearly written: GREAT CHANGE TRAIN, LAST RUN.
The train was approaching quickly, so all the people started to shout to draw the Fool’s attention, who was still talking and talking:
“C’mon, jump on the train and drive us to the change! C’mon, what are you waiting for? YOU FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooolllllllllllll!!!!!!!!”
The train had now gone. The people, now silent, were horrified, because maybe it was the heat or the rage, but everybody could see the ghastly image of the previous fool who had ruled the kingdom the past twenty years, slowly rising behind the stage where the Fool was still talking and talking and talking.
It was Sunday and another election day had arrived. The inhabitants of the beautiful kingdom sun-kissed and pine fragrant, whose blue waters lazily washed pink white beaches of shells and corals were ready to reach the polling stations to vote. But this time some of them decided not to go, because they thought that they had better spend their time doing some housework, some others had to go to an important football match that evening and needed time to arrange everything. Many others had really nothing to do, but remained at home anyway. They were puzzled because they had the feeling they hadn’t actually understood how democracy worked and needed more time to study the instruction booklet.

Foolocracy (1)

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Every time it was the Fool’s turn to go on stage there was great expectation in the audience. The most important actors wanted to play that role in fact, because he was not only one who juggled or made you laugh with trivial jokes or puns. He was charismatic, witty, shrewd, but above all, the fool was the only character who was allowed the privilege to say whatever he liked. He was a fool after all. He could target whoever he considered worthy of contempt exposing him to ridicule, king included (with a certain prudence obviously). People laughed with him, people were with him because after all he was one of them, one who could understand their frustrations, misery, rage, disappointed hopes. With a laugh he could exorcise all that. It was a great power indeed and he knew it, but I’m sure that not even in his wildest dreams he would have ever imagined one day to use this power to become a politician and, why not, rule a country. People would have died from laughing. Yes, but it was the Middle Age, the dark age. Nowadays, in the modern age, we have smashed these prejudices and we have allowed fools of any kind to be part of the active political life. Even those who were not really born fool try clumsily to imitate them, because this seems to be what people want. Will it work? We’ll see. God bless Italy.

Foolocracy (2)

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When fools leave the familiar setting of a theatre to seek maybe a better fortune, they seem to suffer of a curious disease: the “all world is a stage” syndrome. Its symptoms are easily recognizable: they keep on acting or speaking  freely without realizing that in the real world acts and words have consequences on people. This happens because they can’t perceive the difference between the fictitious and real life. Problems arise when one of these fools happens to have received the responsibility of ruling a country or anyhow making or sharing a political project with the elected non-fools. He will inevitably have to face an identity crisis, because his job has been for years that of ridiculing, attacking those he is supposed to work with. A fool is very good at destroying, but once he is demanded to reconstruct,his mocking laugh fades away and he starts to display a certain agitation and becomes even aggressive, because all of a sudden he realizes that he just cannot keep on playing his favourite game off the stage. But the question is: can we expect a fool to be responsible and decide the destiny of a country? Only real fools would give him such a mission.This is the point.