Harvard Square Observer: The Nature of Democracy

Ernest Cassara


My wife undertook the daunting task of cleaning out my bureau drawers the other day.  Can’t say when I did it myself last, if ever!  Aside from discovering about 26 pairs of heavy socks, which must stem from the days when we resided in a clime well north of Harvard Square, among the things she did not give the old heave-ho to were the certificates attesting to my academic accomplishments.  I, apparently, have never figured out the best place to preserve these impressive parchments.

Then, we came across the program of the farewell luncheon my history colleagues treated me to, along with a poem re yours truly.  A lot of fun to see it again.

As you can imagine, this brought back memories of the classes in history that I enjoyed teaching over the years.  Mind you, I am saying I enjoyed them; can’t speak for my students.

I found it useful in my lecture course on historiography to begin a semester with definitions.  For instance, clarifying why history is divided between B.C. (before Christ) and - ah, a student invariably called out that A.D. stood for “after death.”  Well, no.  It stands, I explained for “Anno Domini,” that is, “the year of our Lord.” 

It was always fun to point out that the division was made by a monk - whose name slips me for the moment; after all I don’t have my lecture notes in front of me! - who, allegedly did his work while riding a horse.  Or was it a donkey?  In any case, he got the date of the birth of the Savior wrong, either through ignorance, or because the donkey was jogging his writing hand.  It is believed by scholars that Jesus was born in 3 B.C.!  Perhaps.  Also, it is useful to know that there is no year zero. So, on either side of the dividing line, according to our monk friend, we are given two years ONE.

I always enjoyed asking my history students what kind of government we have.  Invariably, the answer would be “a democracy.”  But, of course, that is not true.  We then discussed the difference between a “monarchy,” where rule is by a sole person, and “republic,” from the Latin “res publica,” “a  public thing.”

The democracy (rule by the people) inevitably came up, but that form does not apply to the U.S. government, for most of our Founding Fathers were very suspicious of rule by the people.  Thus, the form we ended up with, a representative democracy.  They allowed the lower house of the Congress to be elected by the people; the upper house - which was supposed to restrain the people’s house - by the state legislatures.  Of course, the Constitution was later amended in the Progressive Period to allow the public a say in choosing the two senators from each state.

Our Mother Country has a mixed government.  It retains the monarchy, but one reined in since the days of Magna Carta by a Parliament.  I realize there is a republican movement in the U.K. that would like to do away with the monarchy.  Personally, I think this a mistake.  Economically, that is.  It would cut the tourist trade down by a wide margin.

The republican movement in the American colonies was the result of the governors appointed in London, with whom, inevitably, the colonial legislatures wrestled.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence in days of yore was an inspiration to a fair chunk of the world  that aspired to imitate us. 

In the Anglo-Saxon world, democracy  evolved. It can’t be imposed on a people who have never had traces of it, and may not want it.  It certainly cannot be imposed at the point of a gun.

Ah, you knew that, sooner or later, I would get around to G. W. Bush and Iraq.  Rather than test your patience with still another denunciation of our president, I will end with some words of T.S. Eliot that I ran into the other day.

“Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm but the harm does not interest them.”



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Harvard Square Commentary, January 22, 2007