Monday, January 3, 2022

A Fragile Novelty.

Liberal democracy appears to be a very fragile novelty when viewed in the broadest context of history. Despotism has been a near universal norm for human society since before history was first written. From the god-kings of Egypt to the ideological god-kings of the modern era, strong men (and sometimes strong women) dominating subjects are what’s truly normal for history. The success of liberal democracy is that most people prefer it over ancient old reliable autocratic rule. Given the choice between an autocrat’s dreams of glory and a vulgar consumer society with a chance to live life safely as one sees fit, people will vote with their feet for a chance at vulgar happiness over anyone’s vision no matter how magnificent and refined. We’ve seen that happen since the end of World War II and we’re watching it even now. The autocrats able to deliver the comfort and consumer goods of a market economy fail to see how important the second part of that equation is to people -- the chance to live our own lives as we see fit, to make it up as we go along and choose our own companions for better or worse.

The drawback of democracy is that it is so ugly. It’s not Utopia. It’s not any promised End of History. It’s committees negotiating among competing interests trying to come up with some compromised result that no one is entirely happy with, but everyone can live with. Democracy requires the active participation of its members to make it work. It’s not a service for hire. Big Daddy won’t fix it for you. You have to fix it yourself. Democracy was never Napoleon on a rearing white horse saving the day. It’s all kinds of people coming together to save themselves and each other. It’s people and factions competing for power without having to kill each other and with the promise that each faction has a chance to govern. It’s about the supremacy of the law over everyone no matter how powerful, and everyone equally protected and obliged under the law. No one is deliberately left out. No indentured disposable labor is needed to sustain it. It’s about people regardless of tribe or faction investing time and effort into making the whole thing work for everyone.

There’s no guarantee that liberal democracy will last. It’s one of those things that people don’t appreciate until it’s gone. Along comes a self-proclaimed messiah promising victory and revenge to frightened people, and that’s the end of it.

The Narmer Palette from Egypt, c. 3000 - 2900 BCE or 3200 - 3000 BCE, both sides.

Some scholars refer to this as the first historical record.  It may commemorate an actual event in history, King Narmer's unification of Egypt by force.  Narmer ruled Upper Egypt and conquered the Nile Delta, Lower Egypt.  This may be the earliest surviving image of a ruler.  Narmer dominates this palette as surely as he dominated Egypt.  He is the largest and most prominent figure on both sides.  Everything else, including the goddess Bat who appears as the full face humanoid cow heads four times on the top (and multiple times holding up beaded fringe on the king's kilt), plays a supporting role to the king.  The consequences of crossing the king appear all over the palette.  I count 13 corpses on the Palette, ten of which are beheaded with arms tied behind their backs and their heads placed between their legs.
The Narmer Palette contains a number of firsts.  It not only is possibly the first surviving image of a ruler, but contains some of the earliest hieroglyphic writing.  The figure of the king slaying a captive is the earliest surviving example of the Egyptian figurative convention that shows the head in profile, the torso full face, and the legs in profile again and spread as if walking.  It's the first use of the Egyptian system of proportion based on hand widths (this figure and all later figures are 18 hand widths tall).  The figure convention and this composition of a king slaying an enemy captive would endure over 3000 years little altered down to Roman times.  Hieroglyphic writing and the Egyptian figure convention appeared together suddenly and fully formed around 3000 BCE.

The Two Dog Palette, c. 3300 - 3100 BCE

This ritual palette from Egypt still belongs to prehistory.  It's covered with the ferocious animal imagery scattered all over the palette as seen over millennia of prehistoric art.  This is maybe only a century older than the Narmer Palette.  Historical Egypt appeared suddenly and fully formed.

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