Democracy in the Stacks
As much as I enjoyed writing News from the Stacks no. 7 on the love of books, I dread now writing this one, no. 8, for it deals with politics. These days, politics brings out the worst in Americans, grows them fangs and claws, makes their throats heavy with growls, their faces dark with scowls and like vampires versus werewolves they attack each other with fury, slipping into name-calling and death threats, and all sort of indecorous activities that should shame the people who are guilty of it, and yet, incredible as this may seem, they revel in it. I think they feel courageous in stepping up to defend their political beliefs but, lacking the proper words to repel their adversaries, they revert to childish behavior. They should be saying, “I believe you may be mistaken, sir or madam, social services offered by the American government are unfortunately not good for the country, for they create a passive population whose incentive to go out and get gainful employment is diminished by the very institutions that were set up to help them. If you want a man to eat, don’t give him a fish; teach him how to fish.” Instead, they sputter out, “Ya pinko commie sonovabitch, ya traitor, un-American piece of shit bastard, why don’t ya go back to your country!” My word, in that light the non-American Tom Paine should have gone back to England and kept his mouth shut. Instead, bully for him, he showed up at the French Revolution for a do-over, although he was almost guillotined to death for his concerns.
But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks,—and all it wants,—is the liberty of appearing. The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness; and no sooner did the American governments display themselves to the world, than despotism felt a shock and man began to contemplate redress.
The independence of America, considered merely as a separation from England, would have been a matter but of little importance, had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of governments. She made a stand, not for herself only, but for the world, and looked beyond the advantages herself could receive. —Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Part the Second
Tom Paine’s concerns were universal, not just American. As a matter of fact, the generation that claimed independence from their tyrant colonial mother knew that they were on a world stage and that what they were about to create was a political experiment that was being closely observed and evaluated by other nations, from South America to Russia. The nascent states’ agreements to live together under one Constitution were not free from contention, and the observation that there were quarrels among them is an understatement, but I’d like to think that they all thought about, and all accepted, a common principle: progress. They had to jury-rig fundamental principles until they were, minimally, accepted by all thirteen states, and they had to compromise and concede and yield to each other until their bonds were barely held together by gossamer threads. Why, Rhode Islanders almost caused a civil war they were so against the Constitution. Imagine the rest of our history blocked because of recalcitrant Rhode Islanders, but you gotta love them: they were knee-deep in these ideas of progress: how best to proceed to allow landowning males to be regarded as equals in every way and to be treated the same by the law that would unify all thirteen states.
Landowning males, is this what I said? Why, you thought that women, from all classes, and the poor and the servants and the outcasts and the discarded, to say nothing of the slaves and other unfortunates, you really thought that they were being asked to partake in this merry bonanza of liberty for all? Sorry, this dance was just for a choice few. You see, even the Foundering Fathers could not see far enough past their spectacles. Perhaps it was just the inventor of the bifocal spectacles who could see past them, insofar as the slaves were concerned. Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society would have preferred to put an end to the shameful practice of slavery from the very beginning, but the Southern states were so adamant about keeping the state of their economy intact, powered as it was by such cheap labor, that they threatened dissolution of the fragile union.
By Jove, slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, therefore it was good, ran the Southern States’ way of thinking. Southern Congressmen further stipulated that the two races would never be able to coexist on equal terms, that it would be inhumane to free them, for then they would, in their indolence and torpor, die from hunger, or turn on each other for the dwindling necessities of life. Moreover, just like England could not deprive the Colonials of their liberty, the Northern States could not deprive the Southern States of their property.
Today we have made great inroads, to be sure, for we have no more slaves. The false reasonings of the past, then, those used to justify subjugation and oppression, those must lie on the ground like rusting chains and shackles, right? Sorry again. Those still exist, more or less in their previous form, in order to justify a new subjugation, a novel oppression. (We never seem to run out of ways to own other people’s lives!) Today, we prefer to power our world economies with child labor in faraway countries where little fingers stitch our clothes and, at times, unfortunately, their little fingers. What held for the African slaves holds for these overseas commodities now: they’re too stupid and lazy to go to school anyway. Better that they be gainfully employed. They’re like children, they have to be told what to do. Oh, yes, pardon, in this case, they are children. All the more, you see!—they have to be told what to do.
Please notice that hardly anything is ever said about sex slavery: but we don’t see it (much) at home, so out of sight, you know. Yes, of course, you know: out of sight, out of mind. Outta sight! Everything cool. If it don’t affect us, we don’t have to think about it. We matter, but as for the rest of the world, well, they need to deserve democracy, if they ever expect to get it. Democracy begins at home. Let the rest of the world figure it out for themselves.
(Perhaps the rest of the world observes what goes on in this country, and are horrified to learn that this is how Democracy works, or rather, doesn’t work. Stalemate and stagnation, bickering and blaming the other party, and Progress is what is held hostage. When nothing moves, that is considered a good day in Washington.)
The Foundering Fathers wanted to leave their children better off than themselves, and provided for this eventual event. Their arguments, their debates, the differing priorities of the different states, it is all there in full view for every citizen to see. I don’t see any American schoolchildren being made to read these texts in civics class (does that even exist any more?), and I don’t know how many adults are aware that they exist, either. Funny, immigrants who want to be naturalized are made to learn a whole buncha things about U.S. history and government that those born here never have to trouble their noble neurons about. I know this is so because one of my sisters is in the process of becoming a naturalized citizen. When I went through that process, back in the late 70s, it was rather easy. I was asked only two questions: How many senators are there from each state? (2) Who is the Vice President of the United States? (Walter Mondale) And presto, I was a citizen. My sister, however, needs to know who the Supreme justices are and who the Speaker of the House of Representatives is; be able to identify Susan B. Anthony, and the authors of the Federalist Papers; describe the Bill of Rights, the Louisiana Territory, and the system of checks and balances; identify the symbolism in the American flag; know the number of Senators and Representatives; define the roles of the three branches of government, and the Constitution and its amendments, plus know the number of amendments. If you are a native-born American, do you know the answers to these questions?
So I’ve been a citizen for a much longer time than some other Americans who wish me to go back to my country as punishment for exercising my constitutional right to speak my conscience, mind you. One would think that speaking one’s conscience has now become a sin, and a crime. Nope, sorry, not in this country. Tolerance for each other’s beliefs has been written into the very fabric of our laws, and has been reinforced by the blood of sacrifice in order to ensure that our liberties not be revoked.
My heart goes out to Piers Morgan who was voluble in his stance against the wide proliferation of guns in the U.S. His enemies were even more voluble about sending Mr. Morgan back to his country, Great Britain, but in a box. There must be laws to protect people who exercise their right to free speech, don’t you think? Oh, we have them already, you say? I’m sure there are gun people who are responsible and sane and wish to have guns for protection. But a casual observer of crime in the U.S. would reach the conclusion that many gun owners find that their enemies are their own neighbors. Who needs foreign-born enemies, when your worst enemies are other Americans? And for every victim who’s blasted away, there are countless others whose lives are shattered, never to be the same. Mr. Morgan had valuable things to say, but all he got for his pains was that his program, Piers Morgan Live, was canceled.
This is what I wish: when I speak my mind, I should not incur the wrath of others, nor should I have to be exposed to their attacks. I, too, should grant those who disagree with me their time to speak their own minds. The only place and time where we should allow our conflicting views to boil over is in the sanctity of the voting booth. There you may growl (in silence), unsheathe your claws, bare your fangs, and with the stroke of your pencil or pen or computer key, unleash your antagonism against the monster, your opponent. That is how our Foundering Fathers meant for us to wage our political wars. Bless ‘em, for they were not the ideal models, either. Tolerance for the conflicting opinions of one’s political—and religious—opponents is not easy, but the harder it gets, the more we should remember what Democracy is supposed to mean.
Many things have been written about Democracy, but, given other political categories, it seems Democracy has the best chance at taming homo sapiens’ inner beast and letting us live in (relative) peace with one another.
We must truly care for each other’s rights, right here at home. We’re supposed to be the model, the paragon, for other nations to follow. How can we say that those others are perhaps not ready for Democracy, when we ourselves are not quite living up to its standards?
As usual, one finds many answers to today’s problems in books. Here’s one from a 1970 book by John R. Rice, Some Serious, Popular False Doctrines Answered from the Scriptures, in which the Baptist evangelist comes to the defense of Protestant beliefs against what he calls “errors of Romanism.” Even though I do not believe what Pastor Rice defends in this book, nor do I believe what his opponents consider to be true, I nevertheless was struck by a paragraph he wrote in response to a letter from a Catholic priest.
“I should like to answer briefly some of the questions raised by your letter, and I do it, I trust, in the spirit of Christ. Our viewpoint is not the same, of course, and you do not see things just as I do; yet it is only fair to give you an honest, intelligent and kindly answer.” (p. 60)
What class, what grace, what dignity, what a Christly answer! If the rest of him reflected this way of being, then this is a man with whom I could have shared a table and a conversation. Neither one of us would have convinced the other of our belief system, but we surely could have come, sooner than later, to common ground, based on decency, equanimity, perhaps even generosity that could have led to compromise.
Intolerance, antagonism and contempt are surely not getting us anywhere.