by Mark Babatunde
”Does it suggest that natural law punishes transgressors with bad governments, to scourge their backs with serpents and scorpions, or does it just submit that, a bad leader is but a representation of a bad citizenry?”
In the 19th century, two mad French men suffering from the deep anxieties brought about by a rapidly shrinking sphere of influence, would separately go ahead to proclaim that;
“In every democracy, the people get the government they deserve”—Alexis de Tocqueville
“Every country has the government it deserves”—Joseph de Maistre
The brusque sort of indolent philosophy behind both statements, has plagued the practice of good reasoning all over the world. The good news however, is that despite being such a wide spread affliction, it is a benign one. The simple recognition of it for what it is – an idle philosophy – would provide immediate relief for all who are afflicted. Now it shouldn’t really matter what experiences Messrs Tocqueville and Maistre lived through, as there is no doubt that both of them were over indulged aristocrats and their mindset can be pretty much summed up from their words above, delivered in a classic fit of moronic epiphany.
However, we should be guilty of similar indolence, if we simply came to a conclusion about the two men from their often quoted phrases or chopped up sentences, without taking a peep into their lives. Both men were elite members of the gentry, which automatically made their lives worth chronicling. In addition, they were both prolific writers and important philosophers of their day, who have gifted us with their thoughts elegantly captured on paper, guaranteeing abundant resource from which to make an informed opinion about their person.
Monsieur Tocqueville, we have learnt was a lover of democracy, hater of free speech, and strong advocate of racial segregation. In summary, he was a largely inconsistent character who loved power and was willing to do anything to remain relevant. Monsieur Maistre on his part was a more sinister character, a block head aristocrat who completely rejected rational thinking and made no clumsy pretentions about loving democracy. He shamelessly maintained that the corrupt and contemptible French monarchy of the 18th century was divinely inspired, even suggesting that the turmoil that followed the sacking of Louis XVI’s government was God’s punishment for the popular uprising.
Knowing the antecedents of both men, it becomes more than a bit of a surprise, how eagerly public commentators in these parts rush to quote any one of these two knaves in the middle of a serious conversation about democracy or good governance. Still, it is only fair to acknowledge that, there may be something about those words that seems to resonate quite intensely with the average listener at face value. Clearly enough, it prescribes that people stand up and take responsibility for their common situation, but then it stays vague on some other account.
Does it suggest that natural law punishes transgressors with bad governments, to scourge their backs with serpents and scorpions, or does it just submit that, a bad leader is but a representation of a bad citizenry? Surely, it has got to mean one or the other or a combination of the two, and whichever it is, on closer inspection, they can all be seen to be packed full with sinister notions and wicked undertones that easily give away the source and intent of such evil messages.
The narrative is one that portrays governments as helpless moppets, caught in the crossfire of the wrangling between ‘God’ and disobedient people. Pretty, vulnerable, and long-suffering, tossed left and right with no control of its own. It procures the perfect alibi to insulate a class of vicious bandits, from the load of responsibility that should typically follow any asset manager of a commonwealth.
Even if Tocqueville and Maistre meant well, they could have made their point in a more wholesome way, leaving out the part that gleefully pronounces jugdement on the downtrodden and casually puts the blame on the victim.
There is no question that we all need to stick out our necks, for what we believe is truly ours. Edward R Murrow tells us how, when he opined that “A nation of sheeps soon begets a government of wolves”. He does a good job of reminding us (without making any ominious proclamations) to refuse to be consumed by the authorities, but to grow canine and fangs if necessary, as our responsibility to ourselves.
Over the years, these quotations of Tocqueville and Maistre have enjoyed currency with simple minded citizens, devious government apologists, and especially with genuine but exasperated revolutionists; who can’t get their minds around why oppressed people may sometimes appear to sit around like lame ducks, scratching their anus and smelling their fingers, and not choose to do-it-like-Bouazizi. Nevertheless, however innocently or well intended those words are used, they often amount to semi unguarded utterances that serve to indulge the ruling class all over again.
One way or the other, a certain number of people would continue to be enamoured by the ramblings of our french friends. The rest may choose to scoff at their words, but none can deny that de Tocqueville and de Maistre do have a number of impressive things to their credit; exotic surnames, and the benefit of the childlike interest that people have been taught to invest in just about any European philosopher, who lived and died before the invention of the telegraph or pipe borne water. Surely, they have those in common with Aristotle and Plutarch and that’s impressive enough.
“In every country, a leader gets the people he deserves”—Viscount Toyeyemi de Babatunde 438 BC.