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.