Donkey In a Ditch: A Critical Essay on The Current State of Democracy

August 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

Elshtain quote D_O_TThe following story illustrates the point that ‘good nature may be a great misfortune if we do not mix prudence with it’[i]:

”An old man and his young son were driving a donkey before them to the next market to sell. ‘Why have you no more wit’, says one to the man upon the way, ‘thank you and your son trudge it on foot, and let the donkey go light?’
So the old man set his son upon the donkey and continued himself on foot. ‘Why, sir’, says another after this, to the boy, ‘you lazy rogue, must you ride, and let you old father go on foot?’
The old man upon this took down his son, and got up himself. ‘Do you see,’ says a third, ‘how lazy old knave rides himself, and the poor young fellow has much ado to creep after him?’
The father, upon hearing this, took up his son behind him. The next person they met asked the old man whether the donkey was his own or not. He said, ‘yes’. ‘There’s a little sign on it’, says another, ‘by loading him thus.’
‘Well,’ says the old man himself, ‘and what am I to do now? For I am laughed at, if either the donkey be empty, or if one of us rides, or both;’ and so he came to the conclusion to bind the donkey’s legs together with a cord, and they tried to carry him to market with a pole upon each of their shoulders.
This was sport to everybody that saw it, inasmuch that the old man in great wrath threw down the donkey into a river, and so went his way home again. The good man, in fine , was willing to please anybody, and lost his donkey in the process” (‘The complete John Ploughman’)

The point of the analogy is pretty clear. In some respects the father’s acquiescence is blind. His son also shows the same symptoms by his inability to challenge the father’s sedate tolerance which, because of a lack of assertiveness has led to absolute confusion.

Consequently, they were both paralyzed not just by fear, but also by indifference and indecision.  Something akin to moral failure or as penned by Carl Trueman, ‘moral abdication’.[iii]

They were unable to push back or challenge the wisdom behind what they were accepting because they were too eager to appease the commentary of their detractors.

Accommodating the high opinions of those around, and not wanting to offend, negated the very purpose of their journey, harming not only themselves but also the donkey.

In a comment related to this story, the blunt-talking, 19th Century Preacher, the Rev. Charles Spurgeon, stated with some clarity:

‘Put your hand quickly to your hat, for that is courtesy; but don’t bow your head at every man or woman’s bidding, for that is slavery…A person is not free if they are afraid to think for themselves, for if our thoughts are in bonds we are not free.[ii]

This is somewhat echoed in the words from theologian, Professor Marguerite Shuster:

 ‘Those who Jesus confronted most directly were as likely to want to kill him as to follow him. He seemed to not have the slightest inclination to make hearing and following him pleasant and easy…Truthfulness, in other words, is not determined by customer satisfaction surveys’[iv]

For the free citizen, Shuster’s words mark the very essence of what it means to be a ‘good citizen’ instead of a ‘nice citizen’; the ability to say “yes” and “no” with a ton of responsible care and a stack of well-informed conviction.

Spurgeon’s analogy also shows that the misappropriation of words in our society becomes one of the causes of the double mindedness. As the axiom reads: control of the language means control of the argument, and therefore control of the people. In true Machiavellian style all contradictions such as double standards and hypocrisy are either suppressed or ignored as acceptable, if the end justifies the means.

Accommodation and blind tolerance, in the forms of indifference and indecision, create the ground from which the late political scientist, and moderate feminist, Jean Bethke Elshtain unpacks her own concerns:

‘Western democracies are not doing a good job of nurturing democratic dispositions that encourage people to accept that they can’t always get what they want and that some of what they seek in politics cannot be found there’[v]

What Elshtain and Spurgeon are alluding to is the ”absolute feel-nice yes” with a notable absence of any ability to say “no” and have it respected.

For example: equality, fairness and freedom cannot exist in a truly democratic society when the people give unquestioning loyalty to the state, or the fashionable ideology propagated by some circles in academia, which promise much yet in practice, deliver little.

It is right to suggest that nihilism and its progeny, like utilitarian hedonism or totalitarian fascism, should be identified and resisted by the public when it comes to having a decisive influence on socio-political policy. It is wrong to not allow these to be reasonably argued against in the free marketplace of ideas.

People pleasing politics that caves in to the demands for unrestrained freedom or extreme justice, shows that they do not understand that for genuine freedom[vi] to be realized there must be limitations.

Otherwise real mercy and justice are sacrificed for the sake of absolute freedom, which is an optical illusion because of innate contradictions, such as absolute justice which allows the mob-in-revolt to violently dictate and impose the rule of total law.

For instance:

‘Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom. The revolution to achieve justice, through freedom, ends by aligning them against one another.[vii]

Like the donkey in a ditch, democracy will lay dormant, placed there by indifference and indecision. Denied, despairing and desperate for rescue, whilst those who chose appeasement, pledge allegiance to an altar of ideology advanced by a lustful, lost and predatory activism.

Such an activism clings to historically destructive theories that say to humanity “you will only be free when you can liberate yourself from responsibility, and the life-giving source and order of that freedom.”

No longer are people citizens, free because their freedom is recognised as God-given, sourced from outside of themselves. They become thoughtless subjects of an ideology; pawns in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

In a direct challenge to French Communists Albert Camus highlighted this in 1951, claiming that people become subjects to a party, as ‘man takes refuge in the concept of the permanence of the party, in the same way that he formerly prostrated himself before the altar.’[viii]

They willingly march towards becoming the subjects (pawns) in the hands of an “elite” who worship at the altar of deified humanity, created by a ‘religion of [so-called] reason’[ix].

In today’s “post-modern” society we see this in the accommodation of blurred distinctions.

Our society tends to value appearance and reputation, over against the truth and the substance of real character.

The result seems to be a persecution of thinkers. In my case, Christians, who choose a thinking faith that acts on the ‘freedom in limitation’[xi] granted by our Creator.

With a large degree of venomous intolerance they are labelled as intolerant bigots and suppressed as an enemy instead of an opponent. Like Israel today, the very existence of Christians stands as a defiant, yet responsible “no” against any ideology that seeks to master and dominate others.

Christian theology is only political in the sense that it enters into conversation with politics. Theology never becomes political. It cannot or it’s no longer free. It’s no longer free to critique the politik and its ideology. It exists in relation to politics, not a substitute for it. Hence the working relationship – a very successful one – between Church and State. Something even Jesus talked about.

That critique is grounded on the ”Jesus is Lord” as opposed to the worship of Caesar as lord. Therein lies the danger of a Christless Christianity or any Christless Christian West, in general. Absent of Christ. Man becomes god. Only Christ, God become man, stops this. Hence, the way, the truth and the life – true freedom. OR as the Old Testament teaches us, God’s house of freedom vs. man’s house of slavery. In sum, God saves man and woman from themselves, in Christ this authentic “no” has as it’s goal, which is an authentic “yes.”

It is not surprise then that Christians are subsequently forced into bondage to trends, neo-tolerance and ideas, which lay waste to the existence of a free and responsible representative democracy, governed by faith, reason, mercy and justice.

Perhaps that old reminder stands as true today as it did then:

‘When we don’t apply a moral criteria to politics, we mix good and evil, right and wrong. Therefore we make space for the triumph of absolute evil in the world’
(Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1971, Harvard address[x])

Sources:

[i] Spurgeon, C.H.  2007 The complete John Ploughman Christian Focus publications

[ii] Ibid. This echoes the biblical call to pray: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach… because a double-minded person is unstable in all their ways’ (James 1:8)

[iii] Trueman, C. 2004 The Wages of Spin Christian Focus Publications Kindle Ed. (Loc.89)

[iv] Shuster, M. 2008 Truth and truthfulness in Performance in preaching Childers & Schmidt, Baker Academic

[v] Elshtain, J.B 1995 Democracy on Trial, Perseus Books Group (p.62) See also, Elshtain, J.B 2000 Who are we? critical reflections and hopeful possibilities (particularly chapter three) Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Grand Rapids Michigan U.S.A

[vi] Albert Camus, The Rebel 1951 Kindle Ed. (Penguin Classics, 2013)

[vii] Ibid, Loc. 3753-3754

[viii] Ibid, Loc. 2984

[ix] Ibid, Loc.1303

[x] Solzhenitsyn, A. 1978 A world split apart Harvard sourced from Columbia.edu

[xi] This phrase is Karl Barth’s, not mine.

©RL2014

(Edited and revised version originally published on July 11, 2013 as ‘Donkey in a ditch: some thoughts on democracy & blind acquiescence‘) 

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