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democratic myths

Dear Lenna

Now the agony of the protracted American election is over. I owe you an apology. Cattiness should not have invaded in my remarks about Swedish democracy. I understand the position of your king as the head of State, not goverment, it is the common form of our British Goverment and most of the 44 Commonweal countries.

Ordinary men unschooled in the law can rise above their bourgeois predilections and fill the dreadful role of giving judgment in jury trials.

Jurors don't always perform admirably, but the myth of a jury's ultimate fairness usually inspires its members to act accordingly. A myth is useful, and the politicians who  tampered with democratic myths made fools of themselves.

The repercussions of the American election would have been different if Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican secretary of state, had risen to her larger responsibilities as simple jurors generally do. The denouement would have less rancour and litigation had she played to the myth of popular democracy rather than the lust for partisan victory. Nobody could have faulted her for making sure there was time for a full, fair and careful count.

The myths of democracy are not delusions, they may be just part of the truth, or embellishments of an inner reality in American culture's creed. Coupled with the American freedom to expose their flaws, the myths have power, they celebrate the powerful ideas that government belongs to the people, that voting is a common right, that all citizens are equal, that they are governed by the rule of law, that minority views are protected no matter how abhorrent to the majority.

A system of self-government cannot run on skepticism and conflict alone; it needs for people to believe in it. Belief is what ambitious political party adherents put at risk as they try to win instead of trying to learn the will of the people.

Democratic myths are difficult to explain their vitality depends on something intangible--not just on free speech or the separation of powers, but also on the sense of the American system is a moral enterprise. The closest thing the United States had to a state religion is constitutional democracy. It is no accident that Americans sometimes use religious vocabulary to describe their sacred right to vote and their scriptural efforts to convert other peoples according to the gospel of political pluralism.

The post-election turbulence was a Rorschach test, a democracy messy enough to invite anarchy and a democracy stable enough to ensure order, a system susceptible to manipulation and one that tries to guarantees fairness.

Countries whose myths are false lose them, sooner or later. It happened to the Soviet Union, when Communist myths were gradually eroded until hardly anybody believed them. They were then swept away by the spate of truth-telling that commenced under Mikhail Gorbachev. Left behind now is a terrible vacuum of faith that nurtures new forms of exploitation and authoritarianism.

Strength lies in disputes, which prevent one or another interest from dominating. Be scrappy and contentious without trying to destroy those who disagree. We  must remain bound together by the myths, of family, of democracy and of fairness.  We can choose our friends, we can not choose our family.  The myth that those who share either our blood or our dream make us love, even if we do not like, the members of this extended family close at hand or in far off lands.

Self-government is not only as a gritty non-fiction work of squalid facts it is also poetry.

Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ur