Of the People

Ranking at or near the top of any list of definitions of democracy is this one from Abraham Lincoln:  …government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The phrase was part of his dedicatory remarks at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, when twenty-five states of the Union were locked in a great civil war against eleven states that had seceded to form the Confederacy.  It was a short speech, ten sentences in length, forever after regarded as a plea for true equality for all people of the American nation.

One problem with the definition, however, is that it also aptly described the government of the enemy, which was elected in 1861—presumably of the people, by the people, and for the people of the Confederate states.

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And complicating the case further, under both governments, almost without exception, only white males were deemed citizens with full voting rights.  Where was equality for all?

The lesson I take from this is that any definition of democracy is only as legitimate as the people who profess it.

No one anywhere ever said that democracy is a form of government imposed upon a people whose traditions run to the autocratic, totalitarian model, for that would betray the very notion espoused by Lincoln, that democracy is of the people—that is, arrived at through the exercise of their own free will.

Nevertheless, many nations have tried over hundreds of years to do that very thing, and many still do so today.  It rarely takes. Until those under the yoke of oppression decide of their own volition to rise up, to throw off that yoke, and to determine their own form of self-government—as it was with the signing of the Magna Carta—there will be no democracy for them.

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Look at it this way.  If you tell me that your objective is to help me learn how to think for myself, and if together we are successful, what will happen when you realize that my independent thinking leads me to a different end-point than yours leads you on substantive issues?  Will you applaud, despite our contrarian viewpoints?  Or will you seek to correct me, to bring my thinking in line with yours?

If the latter, you will likely succeed if you are more powerful than I.  But by forcing me back into your own thinking, will you not have failed in your original objective?

Democracy is like that.  If it is truly of the people, it almost certainly will not look the same in every society claiming to embrace it—because people, despite our biological similarities, are shaped by our environment, our experiences, our learning, and our culture.  And those are distinct from place to place to place.

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Even within one democracy—our own, for example, or that of the great republic of Lincoln—there are differences among the governed people.  Because majority rules in democratic elections, there will always be those happy with their government, and those in opposition.

Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat, wrote that, in every democracy, people get the government they deserve.  I suspect that is true, even more so today, given the woefully-low voter turnout in our elections.

He also wrote, …false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.  In our democracy, we can choose what we want to believe, and we are free to espouse it.  Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie.

Being intellectually lazy, many of us choose to accept, with no critical reflection, what we are told by our democratically-elected leaders.  Or, if we don’t like the sound of that, we opt for what we are told by those who democratically oppose our leaders.  A few of us choose neither, opting instead to believe what we hear from demagogues and the lunatic fringe.

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And so, we find ourselves in a metaphorical darkness—facing each other in a circle of sorts, hunkered around the fire of our democracy—chanting our respective mantras back and forth, as if in a ritual war-dance, none of us listening to the other.  To those lurking in the dark, beyond the flickering light cast by the fire, our chants must sound like caterwauling—loud, nonsensical, and pointless.  And if those lurkers mean us harm, our brayings must also sound welcome.

In 1944, Winston Churchill said, …[the people] together decide what government, or…what form of government, they wish to have in their country.  When the people of any democracy, including our own, decide through their actions—through the exercise of their civic responsibilities, one of which is to become informed—the majority will rightfully have its way.

But we can also decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the government we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with.  In that case, we have no right to bewail the government we end up with.

In the end, I suppose, it comes down to one simple truth.  If we are to get the government we deserve, we had better be sure we represent the sort of people we want to be choosing it.

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Presidential? Or Preposterous?

As a resident of a country bordering the economic, military, and political colossus that is the United States of America, and as a highly interested, but mostly-unaffected, observer of its 2016 presidential election process, I have some thoughts about the current contenders as they portrayed themselves in the first televised debate recently.

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But let me begin with some context.

First, the American dream, as popularly understood, is that everyone who works hard will achieve prosperity and upward social mobility, unfettered by such barriers as racism, religious persecution, gender bias, and other obstacles of that ilk.  Private enterprise and capitalism will provide the means, and every citizen will provide the ambition.

This worked reasonably well for the educated, dominant white landowners and merchant class in the largely-agrarian country that emerged in the two centuries following the founding of the republic.  It worked less well for the working class (including both slaves and freemen, and immigrants), and scant thought was given to assisting those who didn’t prosper, and who fell into radical poverty.  They, it was assumed (if, indeed, anyone even considered their plight), constituted collateral damage, and could move west to pursue their dream.  Or die unnoticed.

Today, in a population approaching 325 million, inhabiting a largely urbanized country, there are too many of these unsuccessful achievers of the American dream to ignore.  The private sector tries its best to do that, however, in its endless pursuit of profit.  Getting rich has become the yardstick for whether or not one has achieved the American dream, and capitalists pursue that goal without regard for the widening income disparity between the wealthiest and poorest.  Consider the insurance conglomerates, the big banks, and the pharmaceutical industry as examples of this.

So who will look to the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, if not corporate America?  It would appear the government cannot.  Socialism is a bad word in America, ‘big government’ is anathema, and any candidate espousing an increase in taxes may be committing political suicide.  How, then, can government institute a general sharing of the wealth, drawing from those with means, and giving to those with needs?  Such a radical notion runs contrary to the American ethos on which the whole experiment in nationhood was based.  We’re not commies, son!

But somebody needs to figure out an answer, and soon, before an American Robespierre arises—angry, ambitious, and armed.

Second, the mainstream media portray (or, at best, do not question) the ‘imperial presidency’ as an office where the person occupying the role is omnipotent.  The average American voter—unaware or forgetful of the three branches of federal government, or of the separation of powers that governs their functions—tends to see the president as one who can singlehandedly fix everything that’s wrong with the country, one who can make America great again.  And the media, including the unconstrained social media, perpetuate this misconception because of their endless fascination with ratings and readership numbers—the profit motive.

As informed citizens must know, the presidency is the executive function, intended to manage the government’s functions, enforce the laws, and serve as commander-in-chief.  Congress—the bicameral, legislative branch, comprising the Senate and House of Representatives—is charged with making the law.  And the Supreme Court, the judicial branch, is supposed to ensure that the laws and their execution are constitutional.

If all voters knew this, they would be, perhaps, less likely to fall for the pitches of pretenders to the presidency.

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The two candidates for the office in 2016 present a striking contrast, and it was evident in the first debate we watched.  Voters will have to decide which of the two will be best able to manage the economy, address the issues of poverty and racism, combat terrorism to ensure the security of the nation, and deal rationally and firmly with other world leaders.

The economy is nowhere near as healthy as reported by the media—rigged numbers supposedly representing the growth rate, the inflation rate, the unemployment rate.  The only rate with any plausibility is the interest rate, and it’s so low that people (except for the very wealthy) have no incentive or wherewithal to invest or save.  They sure do borrow, though.

The poverty gap is not going to lessen dramatically, regardless of who is elected.  In an increasingly-technological society, low-skill jobs are gone forever.  State-of-the-art education and innovative entrepreneurship are of utmost importance if the situation is ever to improve.  Racism is pervasive and, it sometimes seems, part of the national DNA; there is no quick fix for that, only generational change brought about by relentless pressure and, unfortunately, oft-violent protests.

Terrorism is part of our world, like it or not, and (whether foreign or home-grown) unlikely to be eradicated; there are too many disenfranchised people in the world, with too many grievances, too much hatred, and too many weapons.

The leaders of other nations, allies and foes alike, are not so much interested in American greatness as in their own national aspirations.  And it is they, not just the next president, who will exert a large influence on the state of international relations.

So it’s obvious that neither Mr. Trump nor Ms. Clinton can ‘fix’ America’s problems, make her great again, just by virtue of being elected president.  Were I an American voter, unimpeded by party affiliation, I would try to suss out which of them is best-positioned to make the best stab at it, imperfect though both may be.

Is either of them presidential, or are they both preposterous?

I would want to know which of them (even if neither is truly altruistic) is more interested in my plight; in helping me to achieve my own American dream; in advancing the prospects of every citizen, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status.  Which of them best appreciates the differences between federal and state government functions, and has the skills to foster productive relationships between and among them?  Which of them has the most comprehensive understanding of the sacrosanct Constitution?  Which of them has the ability to talk with, and listen to, other world leaders?

In short, which of them has the experience, the patience, the gravitas to faithfully execute the onerous obligations of the office most effectively?

Given the limited choices in 2016, I know which of them I’d be voting for.

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Dilemmas and Decisions

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that your father’s dotty old Aunt Hilda—whom you haven’t seen in forty years, and who recently died at 103—left you, as her only heir, the sum of twenty-five million dollars, all in cash, and twenty-five cats who shared her last abode.

And let us further suppose that, after placing the cats out for adoption and depositing one million of those dollars in your personal chequing account to cover immediate lifestyle changes, you now needed to decide how to properly invest and grow the remaining twenty-four million.

To whom would you turn for advice?

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Would you enlist the help of reliable, established bankers, investment counsellors, financial gurus, and market analysts, perhaps?  Learned and experienced people whose profession it is to help other people make money, even while being reimbursed for their efforts?  Let us call this the elite option.

Or would you call on twenty-five of your closest friends who, in return for the chance to party with you and celebrate your great, good fortune, would come up with a plan as to how you should invest the rest?  That plan could be approved by a majority vote of 13–12, swayed perhaps by the most persuasive of the group, rather than by the most knowledgable.  Let us call this the populist option.

Another example: suppose you have been recently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, out of the blue, and that you have very little time to decide on the best course of action from a number of medical options that might, possibly, save your life, although there are no guarantees.

To whom would you turn for advice?

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Would you, in addition to talking with your loved ones, consult with your physician, specialists to whom (s)he refers you, and other experts in the field?  Would you seek second, third, even fourth opinions from people who have studied their entire lives to deal with critical situations such as yours?  Let us call this, again, the elite option.

Or would you gather together concerned family members and friends, all of whom love you and wish the best for you, to ask, by majority vote, what treatment plan you should follow—the established medical option, a naturopathic or homeopathic approach, or maybe the experimental route (which would require travel to a foreign country for procedures not recognized in your home and native land)?  Let us call this, again, the populist option.

In these examples (deliberately simplistic, I know), there are dilemmas confronting you and decisions you would have to make.  To whom would you turn in such critical situations, the elites or the populists?

Two major countries are currently dealing with such dilemmas.  The United Kingdom recently voted, in a simple-majority referendum, to leave the European Union, of which it has been a member for the past forty-three years.  The long-term ramifications of this decision have not yet been clearly enunciated, much less experienced by the people who voted.  But ramifications there will be, socially, politically, and economically.  For generations to come.

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To whom did the UK turn to make such a momentous decision?  To their elected members of Parliament, who might know a thing or two about the issues, presumably their ‘best and brightest’?  Or, as they have been described, sometimes disparagingly, the elites.

Or did they opt to leave it to the people at large, the ‘great unwashed’, to use a phrase coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton?  Or, as they are often referred to, usually reverently, the populists.

As we know, the populist approach was chosen, the people spoke (even though many of those who voted had no clear notion of what the EU is, how it has affected their country since 1973, and what its future benefits might have been), and a decision was irrevocably determined.  And it is left now to the elites, the people’s duly-elected representatives, to deal with the aftermath.

The second major power, the United States of America, is currently in the throes of a presidential election, a grotesque carnival showcasing democracy as it has come to be practiced in the twenty-first century.  Two candidates have been, or are about to be, nominated for the final run-off a few months from now.

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One is disparaged by her opponents as being from among the elite—kow-towing to wealthy, influential financiers, interested only in lining her own pockets, favouring big-government policies and programs, and inherently untrustworthy.

The other is mocked and ridiculed by his opponents as self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, and catering to the populists—seeking to capitalize on the worst instincts and fears of those who consider themselves to be, perhaps with some justification, downtrodden, ignored, and oppressed by the wealthy and powerful.

It is, indeed, a dilemma that faces the American republic.  Should the right to decide be restricted to citizens who are intelligent enough, sufficiently informed, and suitably engaged in the process to be trusted with such a critical matter?  The elites?

Or should everyone have the inalienable right to vote, regardless that a sizable number may be ill-informed to the point of ignorance of the issues, isolationist to the point of xenophobia, and armed (many of them) to the point of absurdity?  The populists?

In a faraway time when the world was comprised of isolated nation-states, interacting only minimally and infrequently with each other, a form of democracy that enfranchised every citizen might have seemed a good idea.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people, to quote Abraham Lincoln.  Few decisions made by such nations would have impacted severely on any others.

Today, however—when no nation is an island, when every nation is inextricably bound up with every other nation, when every hiccup and sneeze on the international stage has consequences—can the world afford to leave major decisions in the hands of those who know nothing of the potential aftermaths of their actions?  To those who take no steps to learn, to become informed citizens, to engage with the issues facing their country?

I confess, I do not know.

To preserve and enhance your multi-million-dollar windfall, to whom would you turn, the elites or the populists?

To perhaps cure your illness and save your life, to whom would you turn?

To preserve a peaceful, live-and-let-live world for all of us, to whom would you turn?

Dilemmas.  Decisions.

And consequences.

Is It Still?

Even at this late stage in my life, there are still so many questions and so few answers.

For example, is golf still golf if one doesn’t walk the course?  Since retiring, I have devoted countless hours to flailing away at a little white ball, following it down fairways that are too narrow, poking and prodding it close enough to the hole that I can pick it up—a gimme in golf parlance.

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But I almost never walk the course.  Instead, I ride a golf cart along paved pathways, across swaths of mowed grass, stopping too often by bunkers full of granulated sand.  The only exception is when I fail to hit a rider—more golf parlance for a shot that doesn’t travel far enough to warrant climbing back aboard the cart to ride to the next shot.

Golf is a game invented to test one’s physical, mental, and psycho-emotional endurance, and it has forever involved walking.  If one drives the course, is it still golf?

Another question concerns an issue that plagues me in moments of idleness, of which there are many.  Is it still okay for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady?  And if one does, should one expect a ‘thank-you’ as the lady sweeps through?

More often than not, I rush ahead when in the company of ladies to man the door.  Being not the most graceful of people at my advancing age, I frequently bang into someone in my haste.  Or regrettably, I approach the door from the wrong side, making it necessary to push in front of my companions to open it.  Once in a while, I’ve even been known to let go of the door too soon (usually because the strength in my arm gives out), which provides a none-too-gentle bump on the derriere of the unfortunate lady caught on the threshold.  I rarely hear a smiling Thank you!

A third example has recently become a concern.  Is it still acceptable for one such as I to look at pretty young women?  During a lifetime of doing so, I’ve gone from being considered precocious in my pre-teens, to flirtatious in high school; from admiring in my early working years, to bold in middle-age; from cute in my early senior years, to…what?  Lecherous?

Now, when so many pretty girls are the age of my granddaughters, is it still okay to appreciate their youth and beauty?

Despite the fact I’m a grandfather, I continue to be plagued by these questions.  For instance, there’s the matter of leaving one’s bed unmade after getting up in the morning.  You know, as long as no one is expected to drop by.  Or is one supposed to honour the teachings of one’s mother even now, so many years later?

Though she’s been gone many a year, I still imagine her tread on the stairs, coming to inspect my bedroom before breakfast.  The stripes on the bedspread had to be straight, from the pillow to the footboard; the hem had to be off the floor, and uniformly so, along the length of the bed; and, although I never had to bounce a dime off it in military fashion, the top had better be smooth, with no wrinkles showing through.

Is it still necessary to make one’s bed every morning?

There are so many questions!  If it doesn’t have a hole in the middle, is it still a doughnut?  Is it still correct to say one dials a number, now that there’s no longer a dial on the phone?  Is it still de rigueur to doff one’s hat in an elevator, when so many around us eat in restaurants with their hats on?  Is it still the Olympics with no truly amateur athletes extant?

I know there are folks who could not care less about such questions.  Political correctness has mandated the answers in many cases, anyway, and general indifference often covers the rest.  But how else might I occupy my time, except by considering such weighty matters?

Is it still Sunday if not everyone goes to church?  Is it still winter if there’s no snow?  Is it still cream if it’s made from petroleum products?  Is it still my car if I’m only leasing it?  Is it still democracy if hardly anybody votes?

I don’t remember having the inclination in years gone by to ponder these questions.  Or perhaps I thought I had all the answers back then.  Regardless, I now regale friends—those who hang around long enough—with rhetorical queries and enquiries, in hopes they’ll engage with me in the pursuit of answers.  I’ve chosen to interpret their glazed eyes and pained expressions as a devoted effort to help.

The greatest barrier to learning, I read a long time ago, is the failure to ask.  And so I do.  Endlessly. Repetitively.  Annoyingly, even.

Is it still okay?