Now that I’m older and have spent a decade or so in the real world and observed the last couple of presidential elections, I think I know what he was talking about. The problem with democracy is an uninformed electorate. The cretinous mob. The ignorant majority who by sheer force of numbers marginalizes and frequently alienates the subsequent minority of different, independent, and often enlightened individuals who inhabit the fringes of the culture. Fringe-dwellers almost inevitably suffer at the whim of the mob or majority because that mob or majority comprises a gullible, skittish, easily manipulated herd.
That’s what we’ve become. A gullible, skittish, easily manipulated herd. There may be two political parties and therefore two different trail drivers, but they’re driving the same dimwitted herd. And we – the herd – are bovinely trudging down so many malevolent paths that peril and ruin seem a foregone conclusion.
Religious fundamentalists say what’s happening in the Middle East is a sign of the “end times.” Environmentalists are saying the ecosystem is being sabotaged so quickly that human life will be unsustainable in an evolutionary blink of the eye. Conservatives claim that the negative characterization of anything President Bush says or does is just a subversive conspiracy perpetrated by the Liberal Media. Liberals believe conservative values are at least borderline fascist and charge that conservative motives are tinged with prejudice, greed, and ruthlessness.
We are constantly barraged by a dizzying spate of calculated political grandstanding and corrosive, polarizing rhetoric. We find ourselves scurrying into any and every rabbit hole of distraction and escapism to achieve a detached complacency – and that’s the closest we get to peace and happiness. Proverbially speaking, to think is to undermine, ignorance is bliss, and the meek shall inherit the earth.
The problem with ignorant bliss, detached complacencey and meek heirs is that they make us accomplices. Accomplices to the greatest crimes in history, conspirators to the darkest treacheries, complicit in the end even to our own distress, downfall, and possibly avoidable demise. Better stated, then, ignorance is bleak, complacency is a dangerous trap, and the meek will not inherit the earth – they’ll either render it uninhabitable or destroy it outright.
If the end is near, if catastrophes and calamities (human-made and otherwise) lie ahead, they’ll come because we succumbed to the whisper campaigns of think-tank operatives or swore by the party lines of profit-serving political agents or contented ourselves with the finely spun dicta of partisan apologists like Ann Coulter or the inflammatory celluloid bombast of Michael Moore. We have become the undiscerning choir of preachers, priests, professors, politicians, radio personalities, talk-show pundits, and fashionable causes celebre. We allow ourselves to be stuffed with opinions, positions, and perspectives like hapless Thanksgiving turkeys, and if destruction befalls us it will most likely be because we were too busy and/or too lazy to educate ourselves, stay informed, and think independently.
For a representative democracy to work, its constituents cannot be programmable automatons. They must be sentient and reasoning. They must be conscientious and – probably most important – curious. Every election – especially these days – is a trial. Every voter is a juror. Rendering a verdict or a vote without due process and due diligence is dangerous, dishonest, and disgraceful.
Where to start? Probably wherever you haven’t been looking. Perhaps with whomever you ignore. Certainly whatever you refused to consider before.
There are no important lines to read between in the sports pages. There is no profundity in high fashion. There is no logic in blind faith. There is no objectivity in a party line. There are no ethical or moral principles in a checkbook vote. It won’t be easy, and it may not be fun. But it makes you a valid participant in the democratic process.
According to 19th-century American theologian Tryon Edwards, “Hell is truth seen too late.” I think many of us – even after being stuffed and obligatorily chirping along with whatever limited choruses we’ve been exposed to – have some sense that the times we live in are increasingly hellish. This won’t change unless we can transcend our close-mindedness, our contrariness, and our prejudices. Democracy is not a passive right. It’s an active privilege. It’s a responsibility.
We have been irresponsible and remiss. We are an ignorant mob. That’s what makes us gullible, skittish, and easily manipulated. Only you and I can change this.
I’d like to say Goethe was an effete cynic with no faith in humanity. But what passes for democracy in this country these days makes him look like a prophetic sage.
E.R. Bills is a Fort Worth-based freelance writer and construction worker.