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Itís Not Where Democracy Is, Itís Where It Might Be Found

By Gary Gordon
July 1, 2002

Perhaps it is a waste of time to talk about thinking about independence on Independence Day. But perhaps the notion that it is a waste of time will make it appealing, as we are prone to waste so much time and desire more time to waste. So letís give it a shotÖ heard Ďround the world.

After all, thinking about independence on July 4 is like thinking about the Pilgrims and Indians on Thanksgiving or war battles and veterans on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Sometimes some of us take it seriously and actually ponder the weighty issues that lead to the idea that something is so worth remembering that thereís a day for it.

Mostly, we party.

And maybe thereís nothing wrong with that. I used to climb on that high and mighty horse and insist the guys who stormed Omaha Beach or who braved the English troops on Lexington Green were fighting for something noble. But knowing what I know about guys, it could very well be they were fighting for the right to party.

I think Ken Burns just left that part out of the documentary.

Oddly, partying is one of our strengths. I admit feeling vulnerable when those assholes flew into the towers. But within weeks I saw huge crowds at baseball games and concerts and it dawned on me that they have no comprehension of the strength of this country. The sheer size of our parties-The people, partying, cannot be defeated.

I recall a scene in a second-rate movie titled Battle of the Bulge, where Robert Shaw, playing a German tank division commander, discusses items seized from captured American soldiers. He remarks accurately that the Americans will win. Why? Because, he points out, there is a box of fresh cookies sent from America among the items. They are able to send fresh cookies across the ocean to their boys at the front lines and we canít find petrol, he explains, unable to reconcile himself to the coming defeat.

So we are strong. And we can party.

But what do we stand for, and are we independent?

On July 4, 1979 I was handing out leaflets in my hometown plaza during the Independence Day Goings-On. They were anti-nuke/safe energy leaflets. The thrust was not only that nuclear power was environmentally dangerous and the corporate machinery behind it was financially corrupt and the government was deceitful, but that there were alternatives that could, if pursued, get us off it and foreign oil. Solar power, cars that got many more miles to the gallon, battery operated cars that didnít even run on gas: a non-Bladerunner future where solar-powered androids really did dream of electric sheep instead of nuclear sheep.

There was hope, given the Carter Administrationís awkward but forward push for safe energy, that major achievements could be accomplished in a decade, accomplishments that would prevent the damage of another oil embargo and virtually eliminate the need to go to war over oil.

Reagan beat Carter in 1980, tore the solar panels off the White House, and instead of achieving the energy equivalent of landing on the moon in a decade, we went to war over oil.

Although we said it was to save democratic Kuwait.

Democracy deserves better rhetoric.

When I was in high school my chemistry teacher tried to explain the make-up of an atom. He said he could not tell us where neutrons and electrons are, but he could tell us where they might be found.

I never understood the principle as it applied to chemistry, but I understand it as it applies to government, society and culture.

Democracy does not exist. It is actually an expression for the establishment of laws, conventions, processes, and institutions that, together, create the possibility of democratic decision-making. Representational democracy, a common derivative of the democratic ideal, is a mix of laws, rules, procedures and personalities that creates the possibility that the interests of the people will be served.

A possibility. Not a guarantee.

There is a debate in Santa Monica right now about municipal government, whether or not it is as democratic as it could or should be, whether or not districts should be created, whether or not there should be term limits, whether or not there should be direct election of the mayor. Both sides argue aggressively that their application of the system will best serve democracy. It is a question of what you think best represents the possibility of you being best represented.

At least none of them is insisting we install a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family.

Celebrating independence? Thatís trickier. Independence to do what? Anything? Hardly. In this country independence really means having the freedom to participate in decision-making, and having freedom of choice in a variety of areas. No slavery. No second-class citizenship. No state religion (despite the efforts of some). No caste system.

As an advocate of democracy, I have little interest in cultures whose idea of independence is to impose a single religion or let themselves be run by a dictator, benign or otherwise. Royalty and the Divine Right of leaders belongs in the past.

Celebrating that we have the independence to pursue democracy is a wonderful idea. But there are many among us who question not only how much democracy we have, they question how much independence we have. And it often aggravates folks who simply want to wave the flag that people would have the audacity to question their own government.

My father tried to teach me that rebels must deal with the consequences of their actions. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives and honor, and it was not just a portrait moment. They really were risking their lives.

Those who anger Ashcroft risk his wrath (saith the Press Secretary).

When I was in grade school I was taught that the thing that separated us from the Russian Communists and the Red Chinese was that we valued life. The fact that I could look out the window and see how Blacks were relegated to second-class citizenship was the beginning of my education in hypocrisy. And when I learned about what we did to the IndiansÖ Well, itís understandable I think that so many folks my age opposed U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. If we indeed really wanted to distinguish ourselves from the bad guys, we needed to stop bombing villages and dropping napalm on peasants.

Itís a wonder Lt. William Calley doesnít have a radio talk show, like Liddy and North.

And many of us doubt that dropping bombs on Iraqi civilians will bring about democracy just as much as we doubt suicide bombers represent the democratic ideal.

Recently Bill Maher lost his TV show for saying pilots who drop bombs on civilians from the safety of great height are cowards. In time of almost-sort-of-but-not-quite war, is this free speech or treason?

As many have observed, freedom, independence, and democracy are difficult propositions. I think this country is one of the places where the laws, procedures and institutions exist that allow for the possibility of achieving democracy. Itís not where democracy is, itís where it might be found.

And it knows how to party.

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