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Thursday, October 09, 2003

Democracy at work

Some things just don’t add up. For years, the media has told us that voter turnout is too low, that citizens need to become more interested in electoral processes and legislative agendas, that we all need to vote. “Whatever it takes to bring voters to the polls, that’s what we’ll do,” has been a common theme.

In California, over one hundred citizens took this message so much to heart that they didn’t just vote, they ran for governor. So, how did the public patrons of voter participation describe this response? “One of the most bizarre episodes in recent U.S. political history” warned CNN. “A circus”, bellowed ABC. “Absurd,” cried political commentators across the nation, both liberal and conservative.

You can’t have it both ways.

In a highly individualistic society where everyone is politically active, we would expect to have dozens, if not hundreds, of candidates for every particular office. In fact, if we were really interested in raising voter turnout, we would rig election rules to encourage multiple candidates.

It would be easy to do. The American marketing machine has told us for years that we have a right to have every product exactly the way we want it. Indeed, even our babies have become products; IVF parents now shop around for specific genetic traits. So, why is the ballot box the only place our choice consists of spam or meatloaf? Americans do not shop where we cannot choose. You want people to shop? Then give them what they have been conditioned to expect: endless choice. The California experience brought the highest turnout in years.

In another sense, the recall election was actually rather close to the founders’ vision. For the founders of the country, Cincinnatus was the man to imitate. In 458 B.C., an army was preparing to besiege Rome. Frightened citizens promised to give Cincinnatus dictatorial powers if he would only rid Rome of the threat. He agreed, left his small farm, destroyed the opposing force and returned to Rome where he immediately resigned his dictatorship and got back to farming. He had been in office for all of fifteen days.

He didn’t have to resign. He could have stayed in power and had a formidable political career. He didn’t. That is the kind of selfless service the earliest Americans expected from their leaders. Indeed, that’s why Ohio named one of their towns Cincinnati – as a reminder that his example was supposed to be followed in public life.

America’s founders intended political service to be public service, not self-service. It was never supposed to be a career for anyone. People were supposed to volunteer to serve in much the same way that people gave time to their local church or soup kitchen: not because they got anything back personally, but because it was expected and somebody needed them. Like Cincinnatus, Americans who had useful skills to contribute to a problem were expected to help out by contributing the necessary skills. But they were also expected to return to their real work in a relatively timely fashion. This attitude of service explains why many of America’s early Presidents died either penniless or reasonably close to it. They were away from their real work, and their income suffered accordingly.

Can you remember the last time anyone died penniless as a result of being elected to political office and serving honorably?

Me neither.

Yet, instead of promoting the idea of regular people running for office, the “powers that be” vilify it. The government/media chatter on about diversity being the source of our strength, but they attack it when they see it. Why? Because our educational system, our media, our political system, all of it, is designed to crush real diversity and force conformity. John Gatto’s recent book, An Underground History of Education in America, shows how the field was planted. A century later, we reap the harvest.

Catholics should be concerned. We know how diversity stacks up against conformity. As G. K. Chesterton points out, hagiographies – those remarkable stories the medievals wrote about the lives of saints - had a very practical purpose. By writing them, Christians were attempting to outline a science of holiness. They compiled saint stories for somewhat the same reason the FBI now compiles criminal profiles. The hagiographers were looking for common lifestyle and cultural patterns in the lives of the saints, patterns which ordinary people could use to become holy. Their results were surprising. The only pattern they found was attachment to the sacramental life. Apart from that single thing, the lack of uniformity was stunning. They discovered that holiness is wildly unique and diverse. No two saints are precisely alike in how they achieved it or in how they lived it.

The FBI’s criminal analysis, on the other hand, has discovered quite the opposite. Crime, that is, sin, is banal, common, uniform. Simple observation of a major crime scene is often sufficient to tell us the economic, social and political culture in which the criminal moves, even detailing age, sex, race and personal habits.

So, what the media and the government point to as generators of diversity are exactly the reverse of what really does generate diversity. They point to skin color, economic condition, age, sex. In fact, as the medievals discovered, diversity is actually found in our individual responses to grace, our drive to reach the individual perfections that God enables each of us to achieve by the gift of His grace.

But, since both the media and the government reject theology, they are forced to settle for anthropology, the study of man. Ironically, precisely because they don’t have theology, they not only do not understand God, they cannot understand man, for Christ is the One who reveals man to himself.

Thus, they aren’t really competent in anthropology either. When faced with their own artificially generated diversity – the diversity of over a hundred “Joe Sixpack” candidates for office – they mocked and attacked it. And that clarifies the situation enormously.

They don’t want diversity. What they want from us is banal conformity. We are supposed to know our place, bow to their expertise, and allow them to create their idea of a perfect world for us. After all, if it’s their idea, it must be perfect.

If the California election proved anything, it proved that neither the media nor the government really want voter participation. It’s too dangerous. If real, unique individuals got involved and reached positions of power, they would brand their very uniqueness upon society. That is, they would begin to mend and re-create society’s human law, basing it on the natural law common to every man's heart. As these categories of the divine law were enacted and followed, the sacraments would be more greatly frequented. Grace would flow. Diversity would break out everywhere. And that kind of diversity just isn’t tolerated around here.

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