The Power of Asymmetry

(CREDIT: Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images)

The European flag flies above the ancient temple of Parthenon atop the Acropolis hill in Athens. 

The Power of Asymmetry


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From Sept. 13 to 17 at the Athens Democracy Forum, a conference convened by The New York Times, global leaders met to discuss the state of democracy and the challenges it faces around the world. The following is an edited excerpt from Roger Cohen’s closing keynote speech.

A friend once made an observation to me in Athens that stuck in my mind. “You know,” he said, “it’s the deviation from strict symmetry that imbues the Parthenon with the pulse of life.”

The human pulse is not a metronome. The human timber is crooked, and as observed, out of it no straight thing was ever made. The Greeks understood that. The Parthenon, it deviates. The folds and pleats of Athenian statuary are supple, and that’s why they’re alive.

Even a quick glance at the 20th century shows where things can end if we recognize that we do not fully understand our surroundings or our actions. Humanity on the whole is not perfectible. So the question then becomes what political framework is best suited to the human spirit? What system of government on the face of the earth, in the real world, has the flexibility to accommodate the infatuations, impetuosity and imperfections of humankind?

Isaiah Berlin wrote in his book “The Crooked Timber of Humanity,”: “A liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realize its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends, without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle cry to inspire man to sacrifice and martyrdom, and heroic feats.

The human pulse is not a metronome. The human timber is crooked, and as observed, out of it no straight thing was ever made.

Still, he wrote, that preventive machinery was essential because “no perfect solution is, not merely in practice but in principle, possible in human affairs. And any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment, and failure.”

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I don’t really know of a better case for democracy rooted in a prudent pessimism about human nature, but inspired by an optimistic belief in the fruits of idiosyncratic human questing in conditions of freedom. So never forget the power of asymmetry, and never abandon the fight for we the people.

Within democracy, the most important thing is this space that we have to disagree with each other, and the institutions that we have to filter those disagreements, and hopefully lead us toward the kinds of agreements that allow us to move forward.

A substantial number of people in our liberal democracies feel they’re being tossed hither and thither by forces beyond their control, nowhere more so than in Greece, where national elections in recent years — and there have been a lot of them — have revealed an almost complete disconnect between the voted self and any tangible effect. What then is democracy, a mere game? Precariousness and anxiety have grown throughout the West. They lead quite simply to unhappiness. This is not silent unhappiness. In the age of social media it’s cacophonous unhappiness. It’s also tribal unhappiness, to each, his or her preferred rant.

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The combined effect of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election have been to awaken those who were kind of sleepwalking through the first decades of this century to the precariousness of our democratic freedoms. L’Europe has rediscovered something of its idealism, and it was a winning card for Emmanuel Macron.

The European Union is a formidable peace magnet, perhaps the greatest gift of the second half of the 20th century to the 21st. That much-marked blue and gold European flag can make a heart or two beat faster.

We need intellectual humility. We need a lot of it. There’s been a lot of liberal arrogance. Nobody was ever persuaded of anything by being made to feel stupid. Please, let’s be humble. Let’s try to listen to each other. It’s what democracy’s about. And let’s preserve the multifaceted weave of our republics.

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