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Democracy Redefined
September 10, 2002
By Margie Burns

E. B. White (1898-1985), best known as the author of Charlotte's Web, also worked for years at the New Yorker magazine. His stint there overlapped with World War II (he had already been in the Army, before going to college), when Uncle Sam requested him to contribute a writer's stock in trade to the national effort. His reply follows:

We received a letter from the Writers' War Board the other day asking for a statement on 'The Meaning of Democracy.' It is presumably our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure. Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles, the dent in the high hat.

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is. (July 3, 1943)

Even if one flinches a little at a War Board's asking writers to produce appropriate sentiments, this is a moving paragraph. Could there be, on the whole, a better critique of the Bush administration? Contrast Bush during the "recount controversy" to "It is the line that forms on the right," and recall those fist-waving, shouting white-collar GOP staffers who physically disrupted vote counting in Florida.

Take a look at commentators like William Kristol and George F. Will, placing American presidents in danger by calling openly for a "regime change" of a foreign dictator, and then run your eyes over "It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles, the dent in the high hat."

Remember former authority figures like James A. Baker and Antonin Scalia obstructing a presidential election in the United States of America, and look at "Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time." Now remember the commentary and "news analysis" that legitimized discarding thousands of votes on grounds of a (fictional) "statistical tie."

Recall President Bush's new TIPS program for spying on your neighbor (counter that one: join up), the gestapo-named department of "Homeland Security," and Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's suggesting that Americans should "watch what they say"; and re-read "Democracy is the letter to the editor."

Now look at those opinion polls that ask your income, your age, your religion, your political affiliation and your race; look at the investigations of libraries; look at the discouraging sameness of newspapers (which, like newspapers under the Third Reich, have lost half their readers). Contrast that to "It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere."

It is entirely conceivable that Nazi apologists might have been asked to come up with a new definition of democracy. But no one defining democracy for the Reich would have come up with "It is the don't in don't shove." Neither would anyone writing for this administration.

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