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by Zack Lieberberg


Finally, we've done it. We have come to believe our own lies. Like water turning into wine in front of an ecstatic crowd, our war against terrorism has miraculously turned into a war for democracy in the Middle East. Incredibly, that does not mean defending the only Middle Eastern country that is friendly towards us, the only democracy that exists there, the only democracy that is possible in the entire region, from those who hate both the United States and Israel with the same murderous passion. No, the United States has openly joined the Muslim war against Israel, and against the United States, and against the rest of the civilized world under the idiotic pretense of building democracy among people who hate democracy as much as they hate everything else that comes from the West, with the exception of money and weapons.

All I can do is try not to be bitter about it. That leaves me with only one option - being philosophical. And being philosophical makes me feel nostalgic for my happy days at the Moscow U. where I, among other things, diligently studied what in the good old USSR passed for philosophy.

The Soviet version of philosophical science consisted of two major parts, Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism. Contrary to what you may suspect, neither of them had anything to do with Madonna. Dialectical Materialism explained how things worked in nature; Historical Materialism explained how things worked in society. Both in nature and in society things worked in exact compliance with the Party line. The truths proclaimed by Soviet philosophy with the shrill of a muezzin's call to prayer, along with the words expressing those truths, were endorsed by the Ideological Department of the Central Committee, which made them as immutable as Koranic verses. Students were not encouraged to put those truths through the unique prism of their individual vision of the world. Understanding was optional and, as I eventually grew to suspect, impossible. The best strategy was to memorize the officially approved texts and recite them on demand, exactly the way the Koran is studied in Muslim schools all over the world. One of the main reasons I decided to major in math was that math required lots of understanding, but practically no memorization. I suffered through my four semesters of Marxist philosophy, and that makes whatever little of it I managed to retain through the years especially precious.

My Dialectical Materialism textbook was authored by a philosopher whose name was Spirkin. This is how the book conveyed one of those fundamental truths to its readers:

Everything around us is made of atoms.

I had studied some reasonably serious physics in high school, and so, this revelation failed to impress me. I happened to know that it was false; for instance, electromagnetic waves that were literally all around us were not made out of atoms and, therefore, Comrade Spirkin was exactly as obtuse as one would expect a Marxist philosopher to be. He must have felt that he was on a shaky ground, because in the very next sentence he attempted to provide incontrovertible proof of this atomic theory:

Really, had it not been so, how could the atomic icebreaker Lenin roam the oceans of our planet?

There is no question that the existence of an atomic icebreaker implies the existence of atoms. However, this shouldn't lead you to conclude that the designers and builders of the Lenin acted on a hunch, without really knowing, but hoping with all their hearts, that everything around them was made of atoms; because if it wasn't, their creation would never be able to sail out of the shipyard. Besides, the Lenin wasn't the first atomic thing we had heard about. Every Soviet citizen knew that the Soviet atomic bomb was the only thing that stood between the continued existence of our planet and a nuclear holocaust that would be, at the very first opportunity, gleefully unleashed on us by American warmongers. And the atomic bomb, let's face it, is a more convincing proof of the atomic theory. Not only it, just like the icebreaker, is made out of atoms, but it also has the frightening capacity of reducing to atoms everything within an impressive radius around ground zero. For some inexplicable reason, Comrade Spirkin failed to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice made to the edifice of Dialectic Materialism by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

In order to avoid the sin of omission, I have to remind you that Comrade Spirkin wasn't the very first philosopher who was interested in atoms. Approximately 2 1/2 millennia before him, a Greek by the name of Democritus ( concluded, without Comrade Spirkin's help, that everything around us was made of atoms. Here's how Encyclopedia Columbia, 6th Edition, summarizes Democritus' views on the subject:

He held that all things were composed of atoms; these he asserted to be tiny particles, imperceptible to the senses, composed of exactly the same matter but different in size, shape, and weight. They were underived, indivisible, and indestructible.

We know today that the concept of shape is as inapplicable to atoms as odor or gender; that atoms are composed of subatomic particles, i.e., "derived", and that they can be divided, with or without a bang. However, Democritus was pretty much on the mark with the rest of his assertions.

Don't forget that he came up with his idea many centuries before science - any science - first emerged in its most embryonic form. He lived before microscopes, telescopes, and particle accelerators. Hardware, software, and even underwear had not yet been invented. He did not and could not conduct experiments that would confirm or disprove his theories. I doubt he even suspected that experiments could be that useful; he actually believed that thought alone could apprehend the nature of things. As we can see, his thought most certainly could.

But, folks, he didn't discover atoms; he only thought they existed. Before atoms could be discovered rather than guessed, quite a few things had to happen (htp:// These things included several centuries of chemistry and physics, all of the math developed from Pythagoras to modern times, and an event without which not only the atomic theory would have never emerged, but our lives today wouldn't have been really different from the lives of Arab camel herders during any era throughout history. That event was the Industrial Revolution (

Most of us, and that includes me, are not history students and take the world around us for granted. It's hard for us to fully appreciate the importance of the Industrial Revolution. The fact is our world was, essentially, created by it. The emerging capitalist greed demanded inventions. Invented things needed to be manufactured. To manufacture them, factories were built. With factories, came a completely new organization of labor, and that changed relationships within our society forever. What emerged as a result was modern capitalism; and capitalism has elevated money to the rank of the universal un-equalizer. Aristocratic or plebeian birth was no longer the major determining factor of a person's place in the societal hierarchy; wealth was. And, since wealth breeds wealth, that made democracy not only possible, but also beneficial for the entire society. Now, this is extremely important: democracy, the way we define it today, could not, even in theory, emerge without the Industrial Revolution.

At this point, someone must remind me of the Athenian democracy that existed more than 2 thousand years before the Industrial Revolution. I am afraid, however, that the democracy that emerged in Athens resembles what we denote by the same term today about as much as Democritus' atoms resemble those little things that made the atomic icebreaker Lenin break ice in the Arctic Ocean. We still use the term they coined, but any similarity ends right there.

Here's why. The population of Athens included, in the very first approximation, three classes of people: citizens, slaves, and non-citizens who weren't slaves. The non-citizens, by the way, weren't immigrants; their families had lived in Athens for generations; they were just neither citizens nor slaves. Only citizens, by far the smallest of the three groups, were entitled to participate in the government.

You might ask, what stopped them from freeing the slaves, granting citizenship to non-citizens, and giving everyone equal rights. Really, what? It seems such an obvious thing to do.

For the ancient Athenians, freeing the slaves was absolutely impossible. You see, for the greater part of human history, when you needed milk, you didn't go to a grocery store to buy it. Grocery stores, in order to function, need well-organized transportation, a well-established currency, and a lot of other things that did not emerge until after the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution, if you needed milk, you went to the shack behind the house and milked your goats. When you needed bread, you baked it. When you needed clothes, you made them. Specialization was not yet invented. People did not have professions. They spent their lives manufacturing things necessary for their personal survival. And that took time. In the United States today, approximately 5% of the population are farmers. Essentially, that means that one farmer feeds about 20 people. At the time when Athenian citizens enjoyed their democracy, as well as for many centuries afterwards, one person could barely produce enough food to feed himself. Slaves - unpaid, underfed workers - provided a solution. They produced more than they consumed simply because their consumption was ruthlessly limited. The Athenians could not free their slaves for the same reason we cannot shut down our power plants. And since slaves were a necessity, the noble citizens of Athens didn't feel bad about owning them, just like we don't feel bad about slaughtering domestic animals for food.

It wasn't because the ancient Greeks were cruel or stupid. I assure you they were no crueler and no less intelligent than you or I. The life of a society defines its ethics and mentality everywhere humans live. This was true in the distant past when we lived in caves. This is true now. This will be true in the dustant future, provided we have a future. And since their society was so drastically different from ours, deep down they were, contrary to what kind-hearted liberal pacifists would make you believe, drastically different from us. They didn't consider the same things good. They didn't consider the same things evil. They didn't dream the same dreams. They didn't want the same things for their children. And because measuring all things against one's own beliefs, prejudices, and misconceptions is one of the few truly universal human traits, the odds of achieving any meaningful understanding with a person from ancient Greece, if by some miracle, you managed to run into one, would be negligible, even if you managed to overcome the language barrier.

Democracy, in our modern understanding, was impossible in Athens for the same reason Democritus, despite all his incredible brilliance, could not possibly discover atoms: due to the lack of the necessary economic conditions, technology, societal organization, and mentality that took millennia to develop. Suppose we had a time machine. Would it help? Let's see. A newborn baby stolen from ancient Greece and raised in the 21st century United States would grow to be a normal 21st century American with absolutely no trace of ancient Greece in his or her personality. But an adult person, even as brilliant as Democritus, snatched from his home and transported to modern times, would never be able to function among us on an equal basis. There is too much in our social environment we take for granted, although a lot of it is neither universal nor even historically necessary. The Industrial Revolution itself, by the way, was neither universal nor inevitable. It was a result of a unique combination of factors that the majority of humankind have never experienced.

But what if our time machine was powerful enough to maintain a permanent, stable tunnel through time between the two worlds? What if we could freely travel back and forth and bring goods with us? Would we be able to help the Fourth-World Greeks join our glorious civilization? You betcha, especially if they allowed us access to something they had absolutely no need for - their untapped oil fields. What would we give them? Books and antibiotics seem like a good beginning, but how would you distribute them among the locals? Every time we send billions of dollars worth of food and medicine to some disaster-stricken country, most of it either rots uselessly or gets stolen by local crooks. If you think ancient Greeks were any better in that respect than modern-day Somalis, you must be a very naïve racist.

And yet, our civilization has managed to produce some goods even savages can use. Think about the M-16, the AK-47, and all other easy-to-handle murderous toys. There would be no distribution problems, and the learning curve would be minimal. What do you think would be easier: to train a few bright, healthy kids from 5th century B.C.E. to pilot the F-16 or to explain to them why the United States, after the first terrifying success, never used its nuclear arsenal? Our ability to destroy is a matter of a few inventions. Our reluctance to destroy is the product of two thousand years of painful progress. Do you think anyone can sit down and learn our ethics? Or do you believe that democracy can exist independently of our imperfect ethics?

By the way, such a tunnel in time does not exist in my imagination only. Each of the several civilizations that share our planet today exists in its own timeframe. Having accepted its homegrown version of Hitler as the ultimate prophet, the Arab world has forever frozen itself in the 7th century. There has never been an Industrial Revolution there, and judging by the historic record of Arab achievements in every area of human endeavor, never will be; but their oil, mixed with the suicidal dishonesty of Western politicians, gave them access to some of our most murderous inventions long before they had a chance to develop a reluctance to kill. We are about to learn that Sharia and democracy do not mix, that honor killings and democracy are incompatible, that genital mutilation and democracy are mutually exclusive, that religious intolerance and democracy can't coexist, that Islam and democracy are antithetical.

Thanks to the cowardice of our leadership, we are going to pay for these lessons with our blood.

Zack Lieberberg is a mathematician who works in the computer field. He was born in Russia and now lives in the United States.

This article was translated from the Russian by Yashiko Sagamori. It originally appeared on


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