November 7: An Anniversary to Remember, Not Celebrate

Long Ago, on a November 7 Far Away . . .

Long ago in a distant land, a new social and political order arose. Many in the United States and around the world celebrated its appearance and subsequent development. It was such a modern thing. It was clear and promising evidence of human progress. It was cause for hope for the world at large.

That this new order arose in blood and horror scarcely merits mention; what new order has not risen that way? Granted, the violence probably seemed like more than a footnote to the millions whose lives were taken by bullets, bombs, and famine, and to the many millions more who loved and mourned them as sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, spouses, parents, neighbors, teachers, students, and friends. (I prolong the list advisedly.) But that wasn’t enough to disillusion Western intellectuals, among other idealists.

It Got Worse

Not many years passed before a great butcher replaced the brutal theoretician who led the Revolution in its early years. This butcher was ruthless and paranoid, and his reign gushed rivers of blood. In a sick parody of bureaucracy’s worst tendencies, he extinguished every leader, especially military leaders, whom he thought capable of becoming a rival. Every loyal subordinate with any ability was a potential traitor.

graveyard

What Is Socialism?

Author's Note

The Debate

I’ve held forth at some length recently on the meanings of the words republic and democracy, which are of interest to Americans generally, and which have also, here at home, been at the center of heated debate in recent years, over the Alpine School District’s official statements of its mission, goals, and values. The debate is confusing and off-putting for many, in part because it sometimes takes a combative tone, but also because one side has directed a great deal of energy toward artificially narrow definitions of democracy and republic. We are told that a republic is good and a democracy is bad — end of story. Neither concept is that simple, and the part about democracy being bad rings false to a lot of people who love both their country and their freedom.

If the activists were more careful with their terminology, they’d say that a certain kind of republic (our kind, the democratic, constitutional republic) is good, and we need to understand and preserve it; and a certain kind of democracy (our kind, the liberal, constitutional, representative democracy) is good, and we should understand and preserve that, too. They’d say that we should be careful not to be diverted to either direct or social democracy, both of which really are bad — and one of which is a major feature of the Alpine School District’s official goals and values.

The movement could put itself on a sound theoretical footing by adjusting its arguments in two ways: opposing social democracy specifically, instead of insisting that all democracy is evil; and explaining social democracy without calling it Marxism. Besides sounding too extreme and too alarmist for the circumstances, Marxism actually is a different road to socialism. The movement’s alarm over socialism is at least partially justified, but its influence is compromised by imprecise and incorrect terminology.

What Is a Democracy?

Author's Note

An American Thing?

In its simplest definition, democracy is rule by the people — in Greek, the demos. On the face of it, you’d think that this would be not only a very good thing, but also a very American thing. The famous first three words of the Preamble to the United States Constitution are a statement of the people’s authority to establish a government and its Constitution. “We the People” sounds very democratic.

Then there’s that short, most celebrated speech by President Abraham Lincoln. In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the famous battlefield on November 19, 1863, he speaks of “a new birth of freedom,” and the desire “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That sounds pretty democratic too, doesn’t it, especially the words “by the people”?

So democracy must be a good thing. Or maybe not . . .

Our Use of Words Matters

Author's Note

Words mean things, and many of the most important words mean a range of things. Consider, for example, that love can mean anything from a selfless, divine love to something only barely on the happy side of animal lust. A five year old who declares his love for his mother means something much different from what his mother means when she says she loves him.

A man and woman who discover that they love each other would do well to explore what they mean by love long before they order the wedding invitations. Likewise, we must be careful to define our terms anytime we engage in serious discussion, legislation, or decision-making which turns on the precise meaning of words.