Monday, March 05, 2007

Start Something Up

Politicians not only represent us, they represent the scheme by which our changeable will is expressed. They are, as a group, the hardest working professionals; they must continually learn new masses of facts, make judgments, give help, and continue to please. It is this obligation, of course, that makes them look unprincipled, To please and do another’s will is prositution, but it remains the nub of the representative system.

With these many complex deeds and chaotic demands, American democracy would have little to show the world with pride if it were not for another aspect of our life that Tocqueville observed and admired, that is, our habit of setting up free, spontaneous associations for every conceivable purpose. To this day, anybody with a typewriter and a copying machine can start a league, a club, a think tank, a library, a museum, a hospital, a college, or a center for this and that, and can proceed to raise money, publish a newsletter, and carry on propaganda — all tax exempt, without government permission or interference, and free of the slightest ridicule from the surrounding society. Here is where the habits of American democracy survive in full force. Robert’s Rules of Order are sacred scripture and the treasurer’s report is scanned like a love letter. Committees work with high seriousness, volunteers abound, and the democratic process reaches new heights of refinement (It is not uncommon, for example, that after a strenuous debate in committee, a vote of seven to five will prompt the chairman to say, “This business needs further thought; we shouldn’t go ahead divided as we are.”)

This admirable tradition enables us to accomplish by and for ourselves many things that in other democracies require government action.

— Jacques Barzun, Is Democratic Theory for Export?



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