What I'm doing these days
There is a story that when Alexis de Tocqueville was making his two-year tour of America in the 1840s, he attended a New England town meeting.
As you might expect, he saw a lot of petty bickering, nit-picking over not very important points, and of course long speeches by the kind of people who have to have their say on any subject, whether they actually have anything to say or not.
So he returned to his boarding house that evening and wrote a journal entry, full of Gallic scorn for these American rubes.
That night he awoke, sat bolt upright in bed and exclaimed, “Mon Dieu! They are governing themselves!”
That was the “Ah-ha!” moment that led to him writing Democracy in America, perhaps the most perceptive book on our country ever written by a foreigner.
As the new city reporter on a small town paper I have to attend a lot of meetings: City Commission, School Board, Development Corporation, etc.
I find it fascinating.
“Oh wow,” I hear you say, “he must be the kind of geek who uses Robert’s Rules of Order for bedtime reading - and doesn’t fall asleep.
Well, there was a time when I’d have thought the same. Civics classes in high school didn’t really grab me. I took the required poly sci course in college and no others, and though I’m sure I must have been exposed to The Federalist Papers at some time in my education, I probably forgot it as soon as I finished it. If I finished it.
Then in 1991 I moved to Eastern Europe.
My first years there were a series of “Ah-ha!” moments, “So that’s what they were talking about!”
Americans take for granted that our government powers are distributed right down to the local level. If we want a stop sign at an intersection, we don’t take our petition to congress, we take it to city hall.
In communist Eastern Europe, governments of the cities and towns functioned as bureaus of the national government. When I got there, they were building all of the structure of democracy from the ground up. Poland for example, has only recently instituted elected mayors and town councils.
Even in Western Europe, government is not nearly as local as in America. In England, for example, firemen are employees of the national government.
And about those Robert’s Rules of Order I mentioned? Nobody I knew in Poland had ever heard of them.
“You mean there’s a book you can go out and buy that tells you how to run a meeting so you don't have to write your own? Wow!”
On returning to America after thirteen years, I have found this country to be quite the most interesting foreign country I’ve lived in so far. And seeing my wife experience it for the first time has given me new eyes to see it with. She has enthusiastically plunged into that most characteristically American institution, the volunteer organization. Nowhere else in the world are there so many private, voluntary organizations as in this country.
“Oh yeah? Well wait until you’ve had your fill of all the bickering, pettiness and anger.”
Listen, I know all that.
“Those who love sausage and revere the law, should never watch either being made” as Bismark said.
Human being are, well human. And human institutions are not run by angels but by men and women remarkably like you and me.
Bickering? Disagree is what free men do.
Pettiness? If our concerns seem small, perhaps it’s because free men tend to mind their own business.
Anger? Perhaps we ought to be thankful that there are public matters people feel strongly enough about to get angry about.
“But wouldn’t you rather be covering really important things?”
Important to whom? I assure you that how the local elementary school goes about getting a new roof is important to me. My son is under it several hours a day.
And, I’ve covered events in Congress and watched how a great republic works. It’s interesting too, but small towns are where democracy happens and watching how it works is fascinating, warts and all.