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By Lloyd Williams July 05, 2008 12:30 am — The public rarely recognizes the fact, but all human relationships are moral. That moral quality is a direct product of humans interacting with one another; it is not something that exists independently of human beings. It is not something defined principally by ministers, rabbis, priests or philosophers; nor is it a commodity over which they have exclusive control. Moral qualities arise whenever individuals or groups contact and influence one another. Most Americans associate democracy with politics, although it is a much more encompassing idea. Factually democracy describes any set of relationships of any social system where the people have the opportunity to participate in determining social goals and influencing the identification of problems and how to solve them. The key is that the more people participate, especially with informed intelligence, the more effectively democratic the system will be; conversely, the fewer people participate, especially with uninformed intelligence, the less effectively democratic the system will be. Democracy is never a finished system. It is always in process, incomplete, always in a state of change. Stability is temporary, brief; and the idea of absolute democracy is a contradiction. In interpreting democracy we often misread history, for we think we have arrived politically. After all the revolutionary war was over, independence was won, the constitution was adopted, and our "free" government was functioning. QED, we "have democracy." This is self-deceptive. The facts are what we have is an unstable, imperfect process. It is neglected by some, under attack by others. And it requires constant attention -- frequent tuning -economically, socially and politically. Nor should we forget that democracy is usually inefficient. The universe is in a state of perpetual change, our solar system is in a state of perpetual change, so understandably, our world and its institutions are in a state of perpetual change. The energy devoted to readjusting changing democracy is necessarily inefficient. It is not a question of whether, it is only a question of degree. One characteristic of political maturity is recognizing the re-adjustment process goes on ad infinitum. American democracy is sometimes self-canceling; it gets fouled-up in odd and unanticipated ways. One of these is the assumption that democracy and capitalism are synonymous, the idea that to have one we must have the other. This argument merely serves the interests of a push and pull, grasp and acquire, society. Capitalism and democracy can function quite separately. Germany was capitalistic under Hitler although violently anti-democratic; Russia under several dictators democratically elected hundreds of members to the All Union Party Congress, the Central Committee and the Politburo although communism was anticapitalistic. Complicating these relationships is the fact that -- if functioning with authenticity -- democracy is a moral process requiring concern for the rights of others; whereas capitalism -- if functioning according to the canons of classical economics -- is a system that subordinates individuals to profit. This is why vested interests, corporate wealth and privilege can and sometimes do corrupt the democratic process. Habits of neglect are among the greatest dangers to democracy. Failure to consider emotional maturity as a precondition for holding public office is a serious neglect -- especially in the Presidency. Recent misjudgments in the White House during the Vietnamese War disrupted democracy and cost hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The same emotional shortcomings caused Nixon to stumble over his own deficient ego at Watergate. And the same kind of qualitative fumbling took place in the first decade of the 21st century when the U.S. decided to maul a small country of less than 25 million people because we coveted their petroleum and because we thought they were a threat to Israel. The absence of emotional immaturity in these cases was a tragedy leading to defective judgment. We failed in the latter because we did not possess the former. There are numerous other blunders rooted in neglect. Failure to develop clear and rational objectives is serious, so we continue to stumble. We are perpetuating a society where the accumulation of material wealth is held to be the highest good; this falls short of an elevated and rational standard of the good. In earlier days we bowed to the club or the sword; later we kowtowed to caesars, monarchs and dictators. Now we obsequiously kneel to wealth.
One other neglect is helping to weaken America: failure to develop a healthy, habitual skepticism. Effective democracy calls for a critical and suspended commitment to the endless affirmations advanced by the politically powerful, socially eminent and financially wealthy. This is part of our failure to overcome the neglect of intelligence -- our willingness to rely on comfortable emotions rather than using objective, thoughtful analysis to guide us into the future. Neglect is a form of drift, and drift is likely to produce tragedy. Without careful attention to its needs, limitations and possibilities democracy drifts. This tells us why an educated citizenry is indispensable to a healthy democracy. Those men of keen minds and staunch character who founded this Republic, the Founding Fathers, were resolute supporters of learning and education. Washington in his first message to Congress urged the support of science and literature, and in his "Farewell Address" urged the American people to support the "general diffusion of knowledge." Our first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, held knowledge to be the "soul of the Republic" and its dissemination the best way to combat the weak and the wicked. John Adams said we must assure education not only for the rich but also for "every rank and class of people." And James Madison thought popular education essential for the Republic. The final ultimatum to those who oppose education was issued by Thomas Jefferson: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization it expects what never was and never will be." This sure and concise principle should be engraved in the mind of every citizen and especially congresspersons and legislators. What our forebears understood is that moral awareness is brought to light by learning, reading and thinking. Without these the Republic falls. Nothing quite so illuminates the moral foundations of a democratic society more than contrasting it with a totalitarian one. The totalitarian society is primitive; its mind is malicious. It suppresses the free intellect and therefore stands in direct opposition to reliance on intelligence. The free intellect is one that does its own thinking, reaches its own independent conclusions and rejects dictation from any source. The collective mind determines laws and standards; it is the several minds of society in interaction that carries us to moral, democratic conclusions. These conclusions are not handed down from on high; there is no magic engraving on golden plates or mysterious etching on stone. Interacting human minds chisel the "truth" into the intellectual, social and legal fabric of society. One necessary condition that characterizes authentic democracy is full participation. This includes everyone regardless of race, color, ethnic background, educational level, wealth -- or lack thereof. Our democracy has parried the authoritarian, totalitarian mind with relative success. It has worked surprisingly well in spite of many crippling flaws. Still we should remind ourselves of Goethe's counsel: "The little ... done seems nothing when we look forward and see how much we have yet to do." If we extend this insight to enriching and implementing the principles of democracy, progress may prove more than a shadowy myth or an elusive dream. Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His interest in democracy is rooted in childhood acquired while listening to his parents discuss such things as the governorships of Pa and Ma Ferguson and the evils of Jim Crow. Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.
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