Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Thought of the Day: the tension between democracy and power.
America was founded as the anti-Britain, rejecting hierarchy and elitism in favor of democratic ideals. That was the idea anyway (see the Dec. of Independence). It was part ideology, part geography--the new continent had so much more land mass that the equation of land ownership with power no longer made sense: there was enough breathing room for anybody to be anyone they wanted, own as much land as they wanted, and escape from the tight, stuffy social hierarchy of Britain. Hierarchy works better on a small continent than in an vast, untamed new wilderness. Then again, no one was stuffier or more elite than the Founding Fathers--a well-educated, aristocratic breed who valued deference, looked down upon women, and calculated slaves to be 3/5 of of a person. Egalitarian these guys were not.

Since then our economic ideals have always seemed to clash with our democratic ones--we don't really want egalitarianism--anyone being just as important, having just as much power, as anyone else--we just vaguely think we sort of want it. Otherwise we wouldn't so laud the powerful and envy the rich. Otherwise we wouldn't view the poor as an undeserving, underachieving lot that just has to work hard, the American way, in order to prosper (I would submit most of the poor are hard-working, and most of the rich are not and some of them never were). I was re-reading Anna Deavere Smith's Talk to Me and came across this quote from Hayden White, professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz:

The assumption is that the free market and democracy go hand in hand. If you buy into the free market, you have to take a certain amount of unemployment, a certain amount of exploitation, a certain amount of corruption, and so forth. It has nothing to do with democracy. ...That's been the greatest triumph of Western capitalism, to identify democracy with the free market.

Insert Enron rant here. Now, of course our economic mechanisms look good compared to the tyranny of Communist and dictator states, and I don't want to downplay that. I'm just saying that I think we value power more than democracy would suggest we would: if we really believed "all men [sic] are created equal," we wouldn't willingly play politics so much in our workplaces, our homes, our churches, heck, our softball leagues. We value seniority, putting in your dues. I was comiserating with a reporter here at the Tribune about how the mentality is that you graduate to the Tribune from other places, not necessarily that you are a better writer than someone with less newspaper experience, which some major newspaper reporters indeed are not. Then I was thinking about this scenefrom Mr. Holland's Opus the other night where Mr. Holland is waiting in the lunch line in his first day of school, and the football coach comes along and tells him to move to the front of the line: teachers don't wait with the students. "High school is not a democracy," the coach says. We value these imbalances in power, however small a scale they may be on. We function according to seniority, putting in your dues, earning it. Sometimes that has little or nothing to do with equality.

Previous Thought
Footnote:This tension between equality and elitism has throbbed through American political thought. Walter Lippman was one of the great American journalists, and yet he believed news should come from an oligarchy of elite journalists--ministers of culture. As I wrote before, do we really want everyone to vote? Similarly, look at Argentina--this creep is democratically elected, and the U.S. supports a coup that removes him (he's back now). We're saying, we, an elite few, know better than the masses--there is no inherent wisdom in democratic decisions (as I believe Tocqueville put it: the tyranny of the majority).

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