My town has a dump with its very own boutique called the “swap shop”. No one is too proud to rummage around in there to find a rare treasure. I’ve found three. A vintage black leather motorcycle jacket, two boxes of original and re-pressed recordings of Delta blues, and a copy of “The Irony of Democracy”. The first two finds were obvious gems, the third a casual, last minute grab meant to complete an incomplete civics education. The book, I thought, also had a sexy subtitle – “An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics. .
The book’s premise is that the irony of democracy lies in a “government by the people, but survival of democracy rests on the shoulders of elites”.
The introduction of the book didn’t teach me much more about elites than I already knew: That they’re rich male WASP’s ; that the policies they engender reflect their concerns, not those of the masses; that there exist both public-minded and self-serving elites.
But one point truly insulted me : That elites view the masses as passive, apathetic, and ignorant. This did not sit well with what I’d describe as my own thin-skinned “inner elite”.
What luck then, that I had a chance to experience my position on the political food chain by attending a town meeting later that week. It was to be run by the “elites” of my town. But in Connecticut (also known as Corrupticut), it is the PEOPLE who “direct the selectmen” to do things. The power came from the bottom and rose like cream to the top. At least that was my naive understanding. Going with that idea, I figured if the masses did not possess something of an elite status in Connecticut, then where did they?
The issue :
The first selectman (like a mayor), who was to retire in one month, wanted the town to immediately purchase a $900,000 Victorian house which stood next to the newly restored capacious Town Hall . He said the town clerk needed a place to store “lots of stuff.” The real estate agent, who was not only going to get the commission and was to handle the sale, was also the town clerk’s husband. And what about the price? “ A steal that can’t be passed up – We need to strike now while the iron is hot”.
The Town Meeting: Dramatis Personae:
First Selectman, town clerk, her husband ( who is also the Fire Chief , head of our Catastrophe Unit and whose previous job was designing sets for Dolly Parton), the perennially chosen “moderator” complete with handle-bar moustache ( an expert on Billy the Kid and Gunslingers of the Old West); the front row of what I’d call the “demi-elite” regulars, and the masses which included myself and a gentleman.
The mildly, but obviously inebriated First Selectman introduced the issue about the house and sale in the briefest and vaguest way imaginable. Then the moderator took over and brought the motion before the public. On the open floor a number of townspeople expressed they did not know why the town was buying such an expensive house for such unclear reasons. They questioned the sale outright.
Ha! I thought. This is where the system works! We are going to sink this stink -to -high- heavens conspiracy. The gentleman of the masses, in lawyerly fashion, also asked to make a motion to delay the vote until the town had the time to deliberate and get more details. Townspeople are allowed to suggest motions at any time during the proceedings. But the moderator said “No”, and when asked why, the moderator without so much as a twinkle of self-consciousness said.
“We need to vote on the motion of the sale BEFORE we can vote on delaying the vote on the motion of the sale.
A slight electric quiver of incomprehension spread across the room. When asked again, the moderator riposted with same answer. You need to vote before you can vote to delay. And it needs to be voted on right now, without delay! He entoned it again . And again. And again. The gentleman, by now indignant, point-blank accused the moderator of subverting parliamentary procedures in accordance with “Robert’s Rules”. The moderator explained the town never formally adopted Robert’s Rules. The gentleman, quick on his feet and bold, rightfully and ethically asserted that the town can then vote to adopt Robert’s Rules right then and there to safeguard the process. As soon as he said this, a lady sitting in the front row of demi-elites turned around, faced the man, and with a “STONE HIM!!” tone to her voice hissed: “You are inappropriate !!! ”.
I glanced over at my fellow townspeople who, by now, looked as if they had inhaled too many of the Mummy’s “tanna” leaves. They sat slumped, slack-jawed and mutely entranced. The moderator kept clucking his inanities as I next looked over at the outspoken gentleman, who silently communicated to me the outrageous quality of the situation with his eyes.
Were he and I to have been in a Twilight Zone episode, I think it would have been the kind where the man and woman flee through an existentially dusty, red brick Mid-Western town; running away from hollow- eyed locals needing the couple’s “cooperation” for some sort of bizarre, annual, politically motivated Garden of Eden ritual. Feeling I had absolutely nothing to lose and with my “inner elite” pounding away in my chest, I did what any red-blooded American girl would do:
I stood up and got Patrick Henry on their asses.
I harangued, preached, polemicized, pleaded, swore, and explained . When I finished, somewhat drunk on my own language, the town was hastily pressed to vote on the issue by the moderator. The town passed the motion to buy the house. I was stunned.
That week’s paper included an editorial written by the heroic gentleman and a picture of me. Below my picture was the caption “Woman gives impassioned speech”. But the picture was not of me standing up, but sitting down, my head in my hands, and my hair covering my face in defeat.
I lost touch with the man from that meeting. But I’ll never forget the time we spent together in the Town Hall of mirrors , in the Twilight Zone of democracy.
Futility walks hand in hand with success in the democratic process. The fickle pendulum of majority vote can swing between “the masses are asses” to electing the first African American president.
What you so artfully recount is another familiar victory of deference to those in power (who are corrupt) over reason and the welfare of the majority.
All one can do is what you and the other gentleman did, sometimes reason breaks through ignorance, sometimes, not so much.
But if we didn’t try, reason would prevail far less often…and we’d be suffering through a second Great Depression right now under President McCain and VP Palin.
What I learned was to anticipate! This was my baptism. I now know to expect crazy. Not only from the denizens of this small town, but ANY small town, city, country. To be prepared for what appears to be a common way of assuming power with the “intellect” (since we don’t smite and bludgeon so much anymore), that is to say by using irrationality; thereby making the ones who are reasonable spend energy and time trying to make sense of it. In the meantime, while the sane are entranced, shocked and frustrated, the insane push through their agendas. It is seen all the time in family systems. The craziest person is quite often the one who has everyone else enthralled while the sanest one is usually the scapegoat.
The usual reason for the power is that the crazy person is able to get angry more effectively than the others. People are instinctively afraid of nutsy-cuckoo hostility. Ever see a homeless crazy person ranting and lashing out? Pretty scary!! Think about the anger of the GOP fringiacs.
To all the Planeteers who’ve already heard this one, I apologize for repeating myself. However… I have a friend at work who is now an RN after having been a Methodist minister.
She encountered the same phenomenon in the church, Q. The people who were loose cannons on deck would tend to get appointed to committee chairmanships and such (god help everyone if they didn’t) and would antagonize and alienate everyone for miles around. Confronting them very directly was considered “uncharitable,” so they were usually humored. Eventually they drove many of the sane people out of the congregation, thus leading to a condition my friend referred to as “The Domination of the Crazies.”
She was utterly stymied and could not, for all her creativity and intelligence, figure out how to fix it.
So she left. With, at least, her own sanity intact.
This is precisely what occurred. The sane people were alienated and muscled out by the crazies.
When you think about it, many of the people who rose in the ranks to be Big Kahuna Krazy started in local government. That is where they need to be nipped in the bud. Can you imagine Jeanne Harris becoming a Senator? Notice how she uses projection and anger to dominate the only sane one in the group. Those two mechanisms are to mo of the GOP crazies and Terry Jones crazies.
The selectman after the one in the story was a benevolent old doctor with a history of mental illness. How many ways can one say “dominated” and rendered impotent? The highway department ran rings around him and he eventually retired with a lawsuit around his neck. The previous selectman? Enjoying a wonderful retirement and on weekends teaching at the local Audubon…
Everything Tocqueville had warned about in “Democracy in America” has come to fruition.
First our relative obsession with religion is different than most Wester nations.
Second we do have a “tyranny of the majority” and unfortunately an ignorant majority. I’m not talking about the makeup of government but the electorate. Anytime the Democratic party is in the majority it’s almost a nominal majority because the right center majority will fights any progress.
Why are Dems caving on tax cuts?
Because average middle class and working class Americans think the Obama compromise will affect them when it won’t. They see the tax cuts ending as a tax increase now even for them.
The worst part I see is the development of ignorance on the left who think sitting on their hands during this election will somehow result in a more progressive government down the road. The biggest ignorance among progressives is always how they don’t understand they are outnumbered 2-1 by conservatives in this country so center left is the best we can get.
Well, hey there! The man who put the “q” in quark! Good to see you, friend.
It is extraordinary how easily read like a book we were by Tocqueville all those many years ago. Even with all the changes technology, and power, have brought since then (I wonder what he would have made of this whole “superpower” thing) the character of the nation appears not to have changed all that much.
Maher recently showed a clip from “Politically Incorrect” where Christine O’Donnel says, “You know what? Evolution is a myth.” To support her ludicrous statement (can we have U.S. senators who don’t even know what the word “theory” means?) she asks, with laser-like precision, why aren’t monkeys STILL evolving into humans?”
I think her goose is cooked with that, but still, it is frightening to imagine that she, for the reasons Tocqueville states above, has a chance to attain one of the highest offices in the country.
This guy actually did attain that office:
Wow….imagine the laws he and Christine might envision if she gets in. How about “Rapture Preparedness Day” (lots of moving cars without drivers; we should all be scared)?
They’re all texting while driving now, WTS, so I don’t think we’d notice a huge difference.
Thanks for bringing one of my favorite writers into the discussion, KQ. de Tocqueville was such a lucid thinker and writer.
But I think that if he saw the religious obsessions that drive the Tea Party of today, he wouldn’t even recognize that it was a part of the same country or the same religious element he wrote about all those years ago.
When you break down what de Tocqueville was saying in your citation regarding religion in America, it wasn’t really negative.
Basically that’s saying (if I’m reading his meaning correctly) that if it’s good enough for “the most enlightened and free nation of the earth,” it’s pretty damn good.
And he says that American’s tendency to associate liberty and faith comes not from dead tradition, but from living faith. I’m okay with that!
The American religious scene of de Tocqueville’s day, for all its quirkiness, looked positively healthy and benign, though, compared to the monstrosity that the TP embraces. This bullying, belligerent, intolerant freak of an alleged faith makes even the Know Nothings look open-minded.
As Questinia noted on another thread: religion, entertainment and politics have now merged. To nobody’s advantage. The religion of the far right is probably more akin to the spirit of the Inquisition than to that of 19th century America.
And — when it comes to uninformed voters — what can anyone say? There were many fewer college grads (percentage-wise) in the 1930s and the 1950s, but I’d bet that most people who voted were considerably better informed. I’ve seen archived periodicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, including magazines for women, for teens and even elementary school kids. Their fall editions always included articles about the issues and candidates in the upcoming elections. Check out mags for women and teens now (or even for general adult audiences)… Nada.
Excellent addition that. De Toqueville scared me when I read him in school. I always knew the French were consummate observers and whatever an astute Frenchman had to say about us, I knew was a reality check from the outside. Like the US is at a cocktail party burping and double dipping with chips and salsa, being unaware.
Hi KQ – nice to see you!
I do believe this is true, and the utter zealots have worked tirelessly since the Scopes trial to turn this into a nation of one view of Christianity coupled with liberty for – some. I don’t see too much evidence elsewhere, unless the missionaries of these zealots have been present, where such fervor abounds.
I am really aware as a trained historian and sociologist that these movements and phenomena have existed in this country several times over without getting much hold on the nation. However, I think it’s never been as large before – not that the majority by any means are zealots but that coupled with the desire to have a life of non-commitment, of material gain, and of someone else solving all the problems, the indifference to Christian zealotry is growing as fast as the problem. People don’t see – won’t see – that their lives are being curtailed by these people who work hand in glove with the most heinous of corporate interests. Why do these two function together? They both rest on the premise of utterly personal gain (money and souls). Then they support each other:You Christians can harvest souls, and while you’re doing it, we’ll take all the money and give some back to you to keep harvesting souls while we take the material wealth without your saying a thing. Of course there is overlap – Pat Robertson has the largest diamond mine in the Congo and profits from enslaving people, creating the rape culture and wars fueled by blood diamonds so he can circle around and use his diamond wealth to proselytize and “save” the people he has victimized. Neat!
I despair of this nation. Indifference and self interest are the dominant issues, and those with greed in their bellies seem too often to trump the honest citizens’ concerns. I’m sorry Questinia that you were so clear and they were so indifferent. Their greed and entrenched power outstripped your values. But if you have the stomach for it – keep at it. I do think good ultimately triumphs – but it’s sort of like water dripping on stone. Takes a lot of time.
Thank you for trying so well and so hard!
This sorta reminds me of the idiocy I just saw over the YouTubes this week from my old hometown – albeit without the New England blue blood flair.
I’ll think up something more profound to write later. A few hazy quotes are elusively and inconsiderately not coming to mind now. 😉
Khirad, it was a mention of the Vancouver town hall meeting vid you posted that got the discussion on this topic going last night on Vox Pop. That Jeanne Harris is really a little firecracker! Finally someone who knows how to handle conversations with dining room tables.
Oh, dear Questinia! You probably felt like anything BUT this:
If it’s any consolation, the Washington Post of about a year ago echoes your sentiments and experience:
H. L. Mencken is quoted therein:
“Some of the most idiotic decisions ever come to by mortal man were made by the New England town meetings.”
Thank-you for that excellent WP article! It was truly a sickness. I felt like I was in a cult. If one looked up the definition of a cult you would see that it conforms precisely to what I experienced. I love the Mencken quote, btw.
What is it, do you suppose that creates this “sickness”? I sometimes think it is like having an alcoholic head of household wielding inordinate amount of power from a source of derangement. Therein lies the “sickness”. The sickness gets echoed and incorporated into the group as part of its culture. It’s what the GOP/TP is all about. It certainly was the case during the Bush era.
I totally agree, Q. on the source of the “sickness.” When you factor in the numbers of people who are on street drugs (including more powerful versions of weed) and prescription meds, and add that to the number of alcoholics, you get a staggering percentage of the adult population in the U.S. who are considerably short on rationality.
Addicts are an interesting bunch, as I’m sure you know! Their specialty is, of course, creating their own reality…a (temporarily, at least) happy space where things always go their way. They can be the sweetest, brightest people around, but they lie consistently — at minimum, to themselves — usually to everybody else.
The real fun begins when they are placed in positions of power/authority, because then the choices are: a.) join them in their delusional space, or b.) fear their wrath and its consequences. (The folks addicts hate the most are the ones who see things as they are.) During tough economic times, it’s easy to see why so many people play along with the disconnected world view of Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss rather than risk joining the ranks of the unemployed, or worse.
I’ve noticed just in casual observation that most of the hard-line GOP or TP people I know came from households in which at least one parent was extremely controlling, possibly quite bright, but either addicted or otherwise suffering from mental illness. This seems to produce binary thinkers (“yer fer me or agin’ me!”), people who love the “safety” of rules and authority, and people who see their fellow humans as either bosses or servants, never peers. They seem to have a fundamental distrust of people in general, and to believe that if everyone — everyone “below” them, that is — isn’t supervised and disciplined and held strictly accountable at all times, the world will go to hell in a hand basket. Their “betters,” however, can do no wrong. They almost never believe that police officers, Marines, rich folks, or their own clergy people could ever possibly be corrupt. They defend the wealthy with a sickening consistency, even when they suffer the brunt of the punishment for the venality of their masters. It’s as if, by being the loyal cocker spaniel, they someday hope to become a real member of the family of wealth. Sigh. Meanwhile the truly wealthy hold them in contempt at the same time they exploit them — and they have that sense of contempt partly because the TP people are so willing to be exploited.
You’re right. It’s sick. It’s a cult. And I wish we could have some huge national AA program to fix it!
I like what you say about bosses and “never peers”. Because these people tend to see the locus of control as something outside themselves, and by locus of control I mean where the origin of what needs to be controlled, then they need to control the outside. They exert a “power of control”. Their senses of well-being and homeostasis are contingent upon their squelching opposition, dominating the situation and others, and exercising punishments upon those who “rebel”. I think it’s a cognitive style that gets transmitted from generation to generation. At it’s worst it is the repetition of sexual, verbal and physical abuse one sees in families.
I’m not quite sure how amenable such a thinking style is to modification. To be able to see the gray and to submit to the ambiguity of situations requires a great deal of motivation.
The obverse of the power of control is the power of influence. Perhaps I have written about this before. The locus of control is inside the person. It is naturally the more powerful of the two types because the person can truly be in control. Depending on the outside to conform to one’s wishes is more brittle, fosters resentment in those who are being controlled and ultimately can cause paranoia on behalf of the controlling person who needs to be vigilant of all the things that need to be controlled.
The fact that the First Selectman was drunk at the time of the meeting is a clue to how the meeting would be run…
I love it. It’s too perfect. We have to do these things in ORDER, which means since the motion to buy the house or not came up BEFORE someone suggested delaying voting on buying it until everybody understands the issue better, we have to vote whether to buy it or not before we can vote about putting off voting to buy it or not. No ditching in line!
Makes perfect sense to me…..not.
And what you wrote was exactly how startlingly incomprehensible the whole thing was. He was asking us to subscribe to a parallel reality where logic was thrown out and some other system of thinking was put in its place. The only way to do it was to stun. Shock and awe. Shock doctrine. Then move in with your own agenda.
In Vox Populi now and will comment at more length later but another wonderful piece, Q!