The news from Ukraine these past few days has been truly depressing—the kind of depressing that, for me, turns a pint of ice cream and two shots of bourbon into dinner. For years I’ve been saying, with no sense of hyperbole or theatrics, that we’re back in the 1930s. I had assumed that Trump was gearing up to be the Hitler of the 21st century, but through some combination of his own incompetence and our determination to preserve whatever fragmentary democracy we have left, he has, so far, been denied that dubious honor. And now Putin has beat him to it. What is most depressing about today’s news is the sense of complete impotence it engenders.
American correspondents interview the terrified citizens of Kyiv on camera. Sitting on our sofas, we can see and hear them up close—normal people just like us, speaking excellent English, with a terrible duty thrust on them that they didn’t choose: the duty to defend themselves against a powerful bully, against a monstrous, mechanized evil, and to assert their freedom and dignity with their lives if necessary. Last night on MSNBC an American reporter asked a slender, clearly frightened 19-year-old Ukrainian student, who was heading to join the defensive guard, if he was scared: “Just a little,” the kid answered, obviously trembling. A round 70-year-old woman, wearing an incredible mixture of fluorescent colors and patterns in her parka and hat and scarves, said that she would learn how to shoot. Equally inspiring are the Russian citizens in Moscow and St. Petersburg, mostly young people, protesting and getting arrested, plus the other brave Russians with their cell phones recording everything, following and filming the police who are dragging detainees to the police busses.
What is mortifying is how careless we Americans have been with our own democracy. What is infuriating is how Fox News keeps trying to get its audience of “legacy Americans” (Tucker Carlson’s charming phrase) not to care about democracy, not to identify with the people of Ukraine, and to take Putin’s side.
This morning I decided that the best medicine for my dark mood and yesterday’s thorough pessimism would be to rent and watch again a film I first saw when it came out three years ago—the documentary What is Democracy? by Astra Taylor. I think it preceded her wonderful book—Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone—by a few months. The film is beautiful, though beauty was not its goal. It is complicated and thought-provoking and certainly not designed to be uplifting, but it does remind you what the people of Ukraine, discarded, trampled people all over the world, and lots of us Americans in a very different way, are all fighting for.
What is Democracy? is mostly a series of interviews in a small number of locations around the world—primarily in Athens and the port of Piraeus in Greece, in Siena, Italy, and in Miami. Taylor interviews academics and intellectuals, such as Wendy Brown, Cornel West, Efimia Karakantza, and Silvia Federici. She interviews emergency room physicians in a Miami hospital, grammar-school kids and college students, a charismatic and eloquent ex-convict barber who quotes Machiavelli, and an accordion-playing Syrian refugee in Greece. So many of these people have lovely, powerfully expressive, fascinating faces—especially Federici, the Syrian refugee girl, and the Miami barber.
One of the central ideas in the film is that democracy is a highly artificial human invention. It’s hard work, it doesn’t come naturally or easily to people, it needs to be cultivated, we quickly get out of the habit of it, and most would rather not do it—if they could get away with it. Wendy Brown talks about how, because human nature inclines toward individualism and greed, successful democracy requires a conscious effort on our part to suppress selfish inclinations: it requires an acknowledgement of the common good, of the community, and a submission to general rules of fairness. Self-government, in other words, is a pain in the neck. But the alternatives, alas, are terrible.
What is Democracy? begins in Athens, in the ancient agora, because democracy is a Greek creation, and because Plato, in The Republic—the first major text in the western philosophical tradition—famously disapproved of it. Plato believed that democracy necessarily led to tyranny. He thought that average people weren’t wise enough to rule themselves, couldn’t avoid being bamboozled by con-men, by demagogues, who would become tyrants by manipulating them. Cornel West points out that our whole democratic experiment in the West is haunted by Plato’s skepticism. Plato thought he had a better idea, that philosophers, like him, should rule.
Taylor’s interview with the mesmerizing Silvia Federici is set in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, surrounded by the gorgeous early-14th-century frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the Allegories of Good and Bad Government. If you love early Renaissance art, that alone is worth the five bucks you’ll pay to rent What is Democracy?