Face the limits of democracy

The low craggy rock outcrop rises no more than about 150 metres above sea level. Actually, the harbour of Pireaus on the Saronic Gulf and the true…

The low craggy rock outcrop rises no more than about 150 metres above sea level. Actually, the harbour of Pireaus on the Saronic Gulf and the true sea level lays only a short metro ride off from downtown Athens, Greece. The Acropolis’ height likely provided some defensive benefit to the earliest inhabitants of the region.

The current invaders, though, are dropped off by tour buses in the thousands. I remember having to face a horde charging up the steps of the entrance, or the Propylaea as I left after an early morning visit. The fame of this flat-topped height which covers only about three hectares comes from the ruins atop and surrounding it.

The Acropolis and the Parthenon which dominates it has served a succession of religious and civil functions since it was completed in 438 BC. The Parthenon first provided the chief place of worship for the classical Greek goddess Athena. Christians later took it over and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary. After the Ottoman Empire completed the conquest of the last remnant of the Roman Empire in 1453, it became a mosque complete with minaret.

A few metres south of the Parthenon you come to the edge of a wall buttressed cliff. From there you can look down on the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus. This amphitheatre cut into the stone of the southern cliff face of the Acropolis is said to have to been able to seat as many as 17,000 people. Likely one of the uses it was put to beyond premiering Greek tragedies would have been hosting meetings of the polis or city-state.

All citizens of Athens would gather as many as 10 times a year to debate then decide the course of action on the key issues confronting them. This exercise in direct democracy of course was limited. Women could not vote nor could foreign residents of the city or the slaves upon whose labour the economy depended.

Over the two and a half millennia since the participants in Athen’s polis cast their votes in the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, humanity has witnessed a slow inexorable expansion of political as well as civil rights. Sixty years ago this coming Wednesday the United Nations adopted the Universal declaration of Human Rights. These rights are a long way from being globally implemented, but at least they have been stated. They provide a vision of a desired future.

Multiple crises are now assailing our planet. “Who still believes that the welfare of the community as a whole guides the decision-making process? Who can doubt the power of special interests, whose dirty hands are exposed with increasing frequency?,” said then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Faith, Truth and Tolerance, The will of individuals to prevail over one another, blocks the freedom of the whole. It is precisely in the face of the limits of democracy that the cry for total freedom gets louder.”

In Canada we have developed a social safety to buffer us from the vagaries of unemployment, illness and other personal calamities. Our stable parliamentary system helps us collectively sort out the common challenges we confront.

The current economic and political crises force us recognize the limitations of our national and international institutions. This recognition demands our commitment and action to measures such as electoral reform here in Canada and the creation of effective, truly democratic regulatory bodies for the world economy.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

Namaste Notes

Sunday, December 7 — 2nd Sunday of Advent. The suggested reading is Mark: 1:1-8.

Sunday, December 7 — Waqf al Arafa marks the day during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, when pilgrims pray for forgiveness and mercy.

Monday, December 8 — On Bodhi Day Buddhists celebrate Prince Gautama vow to remain under the Bodhi tree until he attained supreme enlightenment.

Monday, December 8 — The Feast of the Immaculate Conception honors the belief by Catholics that Mary, mother of Jesus, was free from sin from birth.

Tuesday, December 9 — Eid al-Adha is the Islamic religious festival recalling Abraham’s willingness to obey Allah even by the sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

Friday, December 12 — The Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day commemorates the appearances of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on the hill of Tepeyac outside Mexico City in 1531.