Batsirai Chigama, “Democracy”

Democracy (via Prairie Schooner, with thanks to Omar Sakr)
Batsirai Chigama

I see you like to wave him about
Like a magic wand
to make all evil disappear instantly

Remember son
He is a senile, ancient one
Who uses human bones
For a walking stick

Comment:

Unfortunately, some prophetic warnings have been uttered in less poetic forms. The lack of artistry begat forgetfulness: the divine voice mute, a civilization razed.

Ms. Chigama does not suffer fools. She is a slam poet from Zimbabwe who knows evil when she sees it, speaking wisely and infallibly against. Her first sentence/stanza sharply accuses: “I see you like to wave him about like a magic wand to make all evil disappear instantly.” I do not think I need to detail how the invocation of democracy is used to excuse or justify great evils. Even the worst U.S. History student remembers the words “popular sovereignty.” More attentive ones can explain how absurd it was for a state to vote twice or more on the legality of slavery, until, of course, the South got the Senators it needed to preserve their peculiar institution.

You might quibble with the notion that democracy can advance evil. A properly functioning one has rules which confer rights and privileges impartially. It can allow everyone to be heard and given dignity. So if we speak of bad democracies, are we speaking of democracy at all? Certainly we are! Democracy in general acts as a “magic wand,” as it allows the casting of a spell, the rewriting of morality itself. “The people have spoken,” we say, and they make law, enshrine their accomplishments, set themselves as the ancestors of proud generations. Those generations will look back and revere their ancestors for what they did. “We the people” bind the future to pay homage to us. If we, say, effect a crude nationalist revolt based on years of conspiracy-mongering, we do so thinking those most deserving of honor – in some cases, the police, pastors, the military – will look to us in gratefulness. They and their children understand the hard choices we made against so-called “progress” or “change.”

Democracy can be misused because it allows “the people” to set themselves the arbiter of everything. Chigama understands this intimately and depicts Democracy as a demon come to life. A pact with the Devil makes the Devil incarnate. Use that magic wand, you seal your fate:

Remember son
He is a senile, ancient one
Who uses human bones
For a walking stick

The most striking word in this stanza is “senile.” That democracy can create great evils, evils which tear apart the social fabric, loose the blood-dimmed tide, we know. But so far I have spoken of agents within a democracy purposefully pushing those evils. Here, Chigama echoes an ancient wisdom, one which I must revisit. Socrates speaks early on in the Crito about the ultimate powerlessness of the many; Machiavelli says a mob without a head is useless. A demon is senile, as he may know how to corrupt and take over someone, but then he acts as someone thousands of years old would. Right now, it does feel like senility reigns supreme in the United States. Chigama, I think, understands something more. What exactly that is, I’m not sure. The prophet demands interpretation, and only time will truly tell.

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