Saturday, April 28, 2007

Forty Years in the Desert

They keep telling us that this democracy of ours is supposed to be a light unto the world. But it’s simply not a replicable model. I'm not talking about the structures; structures can be copied. You can move into someone else’s country and set up all the offices and systems and procedures you want. But that’s not an authentic democratic system. An authentic system is one that grows organically from a people's experiences and desires. And our colonial experience—the one that led us to whatever passes for democracy here—will not be copied by others, ever again. It simply can't be.

Democracy takes time—not just to grow, but to implement, day by day. Democracy as a method of governing and solving problems is slow and cumbersome—even if’s a modified. republican sort of democracy, not demanding terribly much of the ordinary citizen. It’s aggravating. It’s inefficient. Let’s face it—it’s a pain in the ass. Even we don’t respect our more cautious and deliberative representatives. We ridicule them for being policy wonks or for being wishy-washy.

And whom do we applaud? The people who Know Without Thinking. The people who trust their guts. Well, people who Know Without Thinking do not tend to engage in democratic conversation. When they talk about “compromise,” they mean, “do it my way.”

Even with all the ridicule and exasperation, though, we generally think the system we have is worth the time and effort. We make fun of it, but we wouldn’t want to get rid of it (well, most of us wouldn’t). But that’s only because we’ve had hundreds of years of experience with it. It has weathered numerous storms. Sure, it’s a little tattered and frayed sometimes. Sure, we betray it sometimes—especially when we’re scared of something. It may not be what Jefferson and Franklin planned for us, but then, they couldn’t have predicted the world we’ve had to navigate lately.

Okay, so much for us. How can we convince other people that a representative, deliberative system is one they should embrace—that it will see them through the storms they have to face? Saying "it works for us" is not enough. Especially during times when it only kinda sorta works for us.

Making revolutions is easy. Every kid knows that it’s easier to break stuff than make stuff. Ongoing governance is hard. For a group of people to abandon one political system and adopt another—and for that change to keep—the people have to feel that the new system has legitimacy—actual, practicable legitimacy. The bad old regime, whatever it may have been, had legitimacy, even it if was corrupt, weak, stupid, or evil. It may not have been the best way to run things, but it clearly was a way, and a way that worked. Compared to that, what is the new paradigm we bring? A nice idea? A theory? What’s going to happen when that theory confronts its first set of crises? What are the governed naturally, inevitably going to think? They're going to think, "Crap—this doesn't work. If only [insert name of tyrant] were here."

This is no contemporary insight, by the way. Accoring to the Bible, the ancient Israelites started bitching about their freedom mere days after they got it. Remember all that stuff about “the fleshpots of Egypt”? All they could think about was how soft they had it, back under slavery. “Sure, it was rotten,” they kept telling Moses, “but at least we ate!”

The crossing of the Red Sea wasn’t just an easy way to escape an advancing army. It was a necessary ingredient of freedom—a very clear message that there was no going back—ever. And even that turned out not to be enough. Slaves carried slavery in their heads, even across the open desert. The Israelites had to lose every single member of that slave generation (except for two) before being able to enter “the promised land” and live free. You can accept the story as literal truth or as poetry, but either way, it's instructive.

If King George had had the ability to intervene instantly in the affairs of the colonies—if he had been able to send troops at the drop of a hat, broadcast propaganda at us round the clock, blow up our citizens in our public places and vanish into the night—would we have held onto our relatively new, republican system? Would the Continental Congress have been able to do what it did if every day brought a new crisis right to their doorstep—one that had to be solved immediately, not just that day, but that minute?

We were blessed with growing up in a slower time, when the mother country lay months across the Atlantic. We got our forty years in the desert. In fact, we got more than a hundred years to figure things out for ourselves, long before the revolution even started brewing. Let’s face it—this country was already free, already self-governing, long before the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Lexington. We knew how to discuss our way to rational decisions—most of the time. And when crises came, we generally had time to anticipate things to come and discuss how best to meet those events. We grew up in a world, in other words, that was conducive to democracy.

We do not currently live in such a world.

How many years in the desert have the Iraqis had? What uncrossable sea closed between them and the Pharaoh they left behind? What time and space will they ever be given, to learn what it means to be free? It seems to me they’ve been given no time and no space at all. And they never will be. Not in that neighborhood.

In most cases through history, revolutions have turned all the way back to the starting point, and a new tyrant has taken over to calm the cities, feed the hungry, and restore order. It has taken hundreds of years, not a simple revolution, to transform authoritarian cultures into democratic ones. Hundreds of years. It’s a shame our glorious leaders didn’t look to France, Russia, Cuba, or any of the other revolutions of the world as their models of likely outcomes, rather than our own, bizarre, quasi-revolution.

But then, they Knew Without Thinking, didn't they? So models weren’t really all that important.

Friday, April 27, 2007


My grandmother died last week. She was 93 years old. She died in Seattle, where she had moved last December after my wife and I decided to decamp from New York and head West to Tucson. After living in New York City for 92 years—first in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan—she decided to do what her son had been begging her to do, and move close to him. So he was able to be with her and take care of her at the end.

Good timing, I guess.

My grandmother scared the crap out of me when I was a boy—although in retrospect I realize that it was really my grandfather who scared the crap out of me. At the time, I didn’t distinguish between the two of them. They were a team—unified and impenetrable, sour-faced and judgmental. When my grandfather died—he was 14 years older than my grandmother—I discovered that my grandmother was actually a separate person from him, and that phrases like, “what on earth is the purpose of buying the boy a puppet?” were not things she was ever likely to say on her own. It took a long time for me to discover this.

It wasn’t only my discovery, though—she had to discover it as well. She had moved from being The Doctor’s Daughter as a child to being the Doctor’s Husband as not-much-more-than-a-child. And she was The Doctor’s Sister to boot. She was surrounded by know-it-alls, and they pretty much ruled her world and her mind. Once she was widowed, though, she began to emerge from that cocoon. She moved to Manhattan and became something other than Mrs. Doctor. And she and I began to have a real, adult relationship.

It was because of my grandmother that I was able to move back to New York after my divorce and start life over again. She gave me a place to stay and the warmth and comfort I needed to pull myself together. I would come home from teaching and attending theatre rehearsals and sit at the edge of her bed with her, watching TV and talking about the day. I remember one evening when we were watching Seinfeld, and the characters began discussing faked orgasms. My grandmother launched into a monologue about what things were like in her day, and how little she and my grandfather knew about sex when they first met, and on and on like that, until I screamed for her to stop. In some ways, my grandmother was far hipper than I.

And she had every right to be. She was the epitome of the hard-core, sophisticated, New York Jewish Grandmother. She saw every play, attended every museum show, went to lectures, took classes, and collected and disseminated opinions about everything. As a younger woman, she had helped to start Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn, or at least had sat on the board during the early days. She did not give herself credit for much, but she was plenty tough. Tough enough to lose her husband, her daughter, her neice, and most of her friends—many of them far too young to be taken—and still endure. She was a young woman during the Depression, raised her children during World War II and its aftermath, and had to watch her children enter adulthood in the turbulent 60s and 70s. Yes, sometimes she was sour-faced and judgmental. But there was a lot swirling around her that deserved sour-faced judgment.

And yet, as the years went on, I think she became far less judgmental and far more accepting of the world around her--its variety, its craziness, its refusal to sit still and behave. She even, I think, began to enjoy it. The world was as stubborn and fierce as she was, and ultimately, she had to respect that.

I wonder what my parents’ generation will look like in their 80s and 90s. I wonder what my own generation will look like. Will we be open to experience, still—or will we think we already know everything, and force the world to conform to our vision of it? Will we use our later years to seek wisdom rather than teach it--and to give love without qualification? Or will we simply keep seeking possessions—more of them, even at the end—and give back to the world nothing but excuses?

I just wonder.