openDemocracy, and this column, is about dialogue, human rights and democracy itself. None among its guiding spirits or its readers can relish conflict. Yet dialogue can be difficult, rights do not come easily, and what democracy was founded without conflict, if not violence?
Sometimes, in order to achieve progress, the primary need is to start a conflict. You can start a process nonviolently, but if the other side is violent, what do you do give up? That might get you to heaven, but it wont get you democracy if past history is any guide. Tyrants rarely resign peacefully.
This is a problem for us peaceniks. It doesnt seem to bother Zhang Yimou, the movie director, or Jet Li, the martialarts movie star. Their answers are simpler. They have made a stunning piece of propaganda for totalitarianism, a movie called Hero.
My 15yearold son loves Hero. His girlfriend and best friend love Hero. China loves Hero its the biggest movie ever there, after Titanic. The whole of Asia loves Hero.
Whats not to love? There were moments when I almost fell asleep but then Im not big on choreographed fight scenes, however exquisitely artistic. These are the most beautiful I ever saw.
To my surprise my son ranked it above even The Matrix. Why? Because, he said, the people in it respected each other deeply. Its true they took time out of the killing to explain their motives to each other. In fact the whole movie is a discussion of the morality of assassination.
Set in the 3rd century bce (before common era), it tells of a warrior, Nameless, who claims to have killed the three most dangerous wouldbe assassins of the King of Qin. This gets Nameless an audience with the king. He tells how he killed the three: in fight scene flashbacks, the colours are as vivid as a storytellers imagination. The king does not believe him. He tells another, hopefully more believable, version. Eventually we see four versions, all in different colour schemes, pure as paint chips in a paint store.
So why should all believers in open democracy despise Heros message, however much they may love its calligraphy? Dont read further, if you plan to see the movie.
The king in the movie is an actual historical figure, who indeed became the Emperor Qin Shih Huangdi, the first to unite the six kingdoms of China. Nameless and the three assassins come from one of the kingdoms he defeats en route. Killing him is their one plan for preventing empire. The king argues that his armies slosh through blood only to bring peace. In the end the assassins spare his life, for the sake of our land. Peace through dictatorship is better than constant war and revenge.
The first emperor, Qin Shih Huangdi, burned Confucian books and buried Confucian scholars alive. He ordered the building of the Great Wall. He was not a compassionate conservative.
The assassins in the film are terrorists. War is the ultimate horror. Democracy was hardly an option in ancient China. So love the movie.
But in the conflict today between democrats and authoritarians in Hong Kong, who will gain comfort from this movie? It provides one choice terrorism or centralised power. Beijing wins.
But of course theres another choice. Democracy developed in those lands that, entirely due to accidents of geography, were the hardest to unify under one ruler. The little valleys and mountains of ancient Greece gave citystates the chance to be autonomous; their independence and constant wars made their citizen warriors brilliant, innovative fighters; so much so that their methods enabled them to beat off the great unifier and peacebringer of their day, the Persian empire.
The mountainfortified valleys of Switzerland enabled the original three cantons to defy imperial peacemakers as early as 1291. The jumbled geography of western Europe, with all its peninsulas, mountains, islands and rivers unlike the great plains of China, the middle east or north India meant that empires were hard to create, harder to maintain. And the rivers were less dangerous, less prone to flood, less in need of centralised management to irrigate safely. The temperate climate, heavy soils, iron axe and team plough made for more local autonomy.
It is not fashionable to claim special value for one culture over another, still less for European cultures. But humanity is a whole, and geography a lottery. If we can learn of tools, crops, arts, medicines and customs from every tribe, then we can also value democracy from the tribes whose landscapes enabled it.
One of the lessons we all have to learn, though, is that you dont get democracy by ceding power to a despot, just because he will bring peace. You get it by fighting for your rights, for justice and against tyranny and conquest, and it helps to have a few good natural defenses to hide behind. The English benefited from a choppy channel between them and their wouldbe peacebringing conquerors, the Americans from an ocean, the Taiwanese (until now) from a useful stretch of water.
I am not a political person. I would like to think Im a natural democrat, but Im not. I would much rather have benevolent father and mother figures run everything for me, so I can amuse myself writing novels, making delightful things, and spending time with my family. I fancy most people would rather spend time on their own pursuits, leaving government to the good guys. Only the good guys never stay good, so we have to struggle, organise, get the vote, get out the vote, get out the facts, put up a charismatic candidate, hassle, argue, fight.
On the one side, there are the terrorists and the empires; on the other, there are the democracies. And the more successful the democracy, the more it shows its worth through economic success, the better its citizen army fights, then the more the democracy itself comes under threat from big money and dreams of empire.
There is no system so perfect that nobody has to fight.