Purification does little good for political history. For a long while, we in the West have awarded the sash proclaiming World’s First Democracy to ancient Athens. But as imperial power loosens its insistent white fist—in fits and starts—our understanding also opens. Maybe it’s time we acknowledge that democracy didn’t spring, fully formed, from the head of an oracle in the Athenian Cave of Schist. While we’re at it, we Americans might try to see our republic for what it actually is: a mongrel work in progress.
Ages before Cleisthenes seized power in Athens in 508 BCE, instituting popular reforms that picked representatives by lot rather than birthright, proto-republics existed for the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and in the ganas and sanghas of India. These city-centric societies established early systems of self-government. In Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, historiographer Martin Bernal bestows the title of earliest probable republic on Arwad under the Phoenicians, during the second millennium BCE, in what is now Syria.
Asked if his ideas were anti-European, Bernal replied: “My enemy is not Europe, it’s purity—the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, that it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture.” Our American political system is a hybrid of its antecedents, and what greatness America offers isn’t a function of nationalist Puritan origins. The very hodgepodge nature of our American government is what makes it so damn resistant. Glorifying the homogeny of our forefathers and the originality of their words and ideas is the worst kind of revisionist history, and it doesn’t make ideological purity any more real.