by Anna Sharp
Why do we need each other? Why do we need politics? What happens in a society without democracy? These are all questions Belmont Political Science professor Dr. Nathan Griffith answered in his seminar, “P for Politics: Words That Scream for Your Submission.”
Dr. Griffith began by posing the question ‘what is politics?’ He explained that the root of the word, ‘polis,’ means community in Greek. Therefore the heart of politics is that it brings people together. People do not do well on their own, Dr. Griffith reminded the scholars. However, he continued, “the problem with communities is they’re full of people.”
To illustrate his claims Dr. Griffith introduced the idea of ‘the prisoners’ dilemma,’ a strategic game that examines the logic of choices made by two prisoners who are arrested for the same crime and isolated from each other. The game reveals that if both prisoners betray each other, their sentences will actually be greater than if they both keep silent. Therefore it is always the better option for each prisoner to keep his word to his partner and not talk. Dr. Griffith suggested that this is the reason criminals form communities; they can coerce their members to keep silent, since betrayal will mean the other members are there to retaliate. In a similar way, he joked, “government is the mafia for honest people. It makes us keep our promises.”
He went on to explain the role of control, conformity, and fear in keeping authoritarian governments in power, listing several examples from history. Václav Havel, a Czech playwright who became president after the country’s revolution against communism, used the example of a green grocer who must choose whether or nor to display a sign in his shop that supports the communist regime. If he displays it, he is revealing his submission to the government. Yet if he alone refuses to conform, his dissent means nothing, and he will be punished. Dr. Griffith’s next example was a bit closer to home: internments camps the U.S. government forced Japanese residents into in the atmosphere of fear following the Pearl Harbor bombing. He also noted the chilling fact that some Americans called for similar treatment of citizens with Arab heritage over fifty years later, after September 11. “Fear makes us do stupid things,” Dr. Griffith acknowledged.
He then took the scholars back in time to the 1830s when the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to our country to study what made democracy work in America and bring his ideas back to France. Tocqueville found that what made our country’s democracy effective included our laws separating powers, federal programs done through state governments, customs of self-sufficiency within communities, and religion because it teaches people to restrain their impulses and make room for others. In short, he suggested that the more community there was, the better the politics were. Therefore the way to avoid or defeat an authoritarian government is to build relationships with our neighbors. “It’s no longer us and them—it’s us,” Dr. Griffith said. He returned to Václav Havel’s story of the green grocer; if the green grocer alone refuses to put up the sign, he fails. Yet if he talks to his neighbors and they rebel together, the despotic government is suddenly threatened. The scholars got the chance to see this theory in action in the final scene of V for Vendetta, wherein everyone in London joins together to overthrow their tyrannical government. This dramatic conclusion to the seminar left everyone empowered to go forth and take Dr. Griffith’s advice to “be government”—even if it might look more like doing jury duty than starting a revolution.