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From Liberty Street: Democracy and Its Future

Last week a friend e-mailed me a quiz about American government which has been given to a large number of high school students and also to an array of older Americans. Among the high schoolers, 96% failed, and among those over fifty years old, the passing rate was less than 50%. There are thirty questions on the test. I took it and got all of them right, which was no great shakes because the questions had to do with things like how many senators each state has and under the Constitution which branch of government is authorized to declare war. I honestly think I could have passed the test easily when I was nine years old. And keep in mind, I went to school in Georgia, which many of you probably regard as a pit of inky darkness.

What does this mean?

A theme that increasingly forces itself on my mind is the level of knowledge and interest an electorate must have in order for democracy to function. The United States is supposedly now engaged on a great crusade to democratize the world. Yet there's little evidence that the champions of this movement have given a moment's thought to what democracy requires in order to work as a sensible form of government. It's as though they think that simply casting ballots, regardless of how ignorant or bigoted the casters are, is all that's needed.

I'm starting on a series of book talks at my local library dealing with the issue of American conflicts in the 20th Century. The first book is G.J.A. O'Toole's The Spanish War. While reading it, the idea came to me that I ought to share with my audience not only my thoughts about the book itself but also the notions that came to me as a result of reading it. After all, reading is a process of sparking thoughts and more often than not these are more important than the raw information a book imparts. Sometimes, thoughts are not directly related to the contents of a book but come into being through a series of associations that are too complex to explain or even to remember. But that's of little matter. They come nonetheless.

Here are a few that visited me, helped along by Mr. O'Toole's text.

  • It would be interesting to live in a genuine democracy, a thing that has never yet been seen on this earth because there has never been a people sufficiently well-informed to constitute one. Democracy has to be seen as an ideal in progress not a reality.

  • The world has spent a terribly long time inching toward the understanding that persons of privilege don't have the right to spend ordinary lives in the interest of their pet projects and theories. We may be about a third of the way there.

  • To come closer to a world in which lives are not spent recklessly, the people who are the prime candidates for the spending must stop being  willing sacrifices. That, in turn, requires them to give up wallowing in nationalistic sentimentality.

  • I can think of no good use for nationalistic sentimentality. It is always used to manipulate  people to do things that  are against their own best interests. Consequently, those who promote it  should be seen as enemies of the nation. Until they are, democracy will continue to be severely flawed. Nationalistic sentimentality is subversive of genuine democracy.

  • Let's say a young man goes to war in Iraq, and gets his arm blown off. He comes home proud of his  sacrifice for his country, and for the rest of his life continues to feed his ego with the thought that he was a man who stepped forward to defend freedom and democracy. Does that feeding make up for the loss of his arm. From his own point of view, was it a good deal? And then factor in the truth that his being sent to a foreign country to kill and run the risk of being killed had nothing to do with either freedom or democracy. Does that change the terms of the bargain? Does it make the sentiment he bought with his arm less valuable? Who knows?

  • War empowers people I don't like to see empowered. And it reduces the influence of people who otherwise might have made valuable contributions to public discourse

  • Patience is the greatest of political virtues and the hardest to mobilize. Decisiveness is much overrated. It is usually the result of people's saying they know things they don't know.

  • I am content to live in a democracy where both the people and the politicians call things what they are. But without that simple habit democracy can become the worst form of government devised by mankind. You'll notice that the current president of the United States almost never calls things what they are.

In one way or another, these thoughts all turn back to the question of how mentally active a people must be to sustain a democracy. The point is not whether these are thoughts of quality. The point rather is, simply, that they are thoughts, starting points for inquiry. And unless inquiry is developed by dialogue induced by the thoughts that float into our consciousness, democracy isn't likely to have much of a chance to prevail -- here or anywhere else.

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