Sunday, April 16, 2006

Athens, Apathy, or At a Loss?

I received an interesting spam email the other day, indicating that the end of American democracy is upon us. It began with an Alexander Tyler (Scottish history professor) quote from 1787 regarding the fall of Athens.

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:
  1. From bondage to spiritual faith;
  2. From spiritual faith to great courage;
  3. From courage to liberty;
  4. From liberty to abundance;
  5. From abundance to complacency;
  6. From complacency to apathy;
  7. From apathy to dependence;
  8. From dependence back into bondage."

I began to consider this quote. Our inception as a nation most certainly included a great deal of bondage, spiritual faith, courage, liberty, and abundance. Were one required to choose a single item from the above list, I'd say it should be liberty. I'd proceed from liberty to bondage.

Additionally, our age of complacency and apathy came far after the beginning of our age of dependence. Meanwhile, the author seems to be defining dependence as a welfare state. The only way I can see bondage stemming from dependence would be if the dependence era were part of an increasing gap between rich and poor, where those with power placed those without into a state of bondage. That doesn't seem to be the point of our welfare state which, following the passage of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), truly doesn't even exist anymore (see below).

As for spiritual faith, it is clearly more dominant in decisionmaking (e.g., politics) now than it has ever been. We often hear rhetoric to the contrary, but that is what it is: rhetoric. The Constitution, written by Christian - even Protestant - men, does not mention "God" one single time. Not once. If is simply specious, if not a downright untruth, to claim the founders intended a government based on Christianity, when they failed to include a single reference to such in the document that would guide said government.

The email continues by quoting Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, who points out that: "In aggregate, the map of the territory Bush won was mostly the land owned by the tax-paying citizens of this great country. Gore's territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in government-owned tenements and living off government welfare..." Oson believes the United States is now somewhere between the "complacency and apathy" phase of Professor Tyler's definition of democracy, with some 40 percent of the nation's population already having reached the "governmental dependency" phase.

How does one define government dependency? As elderly people having the security blanket of Social Security? As low income citizens having the safety net of Medicaid? Or is he referring to the couple thousand people left on welfare? Perhaps he's referring to the vast majority of citizens that "depend" on the government, through public schools, to educate our children? Or maybe he's referring to that nation-jeopardizing practice of "depending" on fire, police, and the military for public safety?

I would argue that a government that strives toward the common good, toward equal rights and equal access for all of its citizens, is certainly one that is likely to continue existing into the foreseeable future.

A quite perplexing piece of spam. However, there are two incredibly relevant points to be drawn from this email.

The first is this: this email is very likely an urban myth. indicates that the Tyler quote is likely fictitious and that Professor Olson is the source of nothing contained in this email. A friendly reminder we shouldn't believe everything we read, regardless of how intelligent it might sound.

The second is this: mythical as it is, the email nonetheless contains a solid conclusion. Apathy is, without question, the greatest danger to our democracy. On that point, it was dead-on.

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