1.26.2010

Ignoring the Doltish Stares, even when They have the Majority

This week I'm writing a proposal for a summer research program that will pair me with an undergraduate English major. The student and I will do related research and produce 25-page papers and get paid pretty well.

The topic I'm circling around is Melville's anti-democratic... something. Mind, maybe.

It's always difficult to think beyond the present circumstance; we think in particulars even when we are asked to think in generalities. The particular instance most representative right now is Obama's effort to pass healthcare reform including a public option and/or a mandate against public approval. Obviously, if you happen to be in the minority and support Obama's efforts, you'll want him to be anti-democratic in this case. And just as likely, if you oppose Obama's efforts on this specific bill, you'll want him to be a populist in this case.

But what about that question if we take it out of a particular context? Do we want our presidents, our leaders, bosses, etc., to be thoroughgoing (little-d) democrats generally? Or do we want them to sometimes be anti-democratic? And of course that's maybe, to coin a term, a malphemism. A more appropriate word for anti-democratic might be "principled."

The labels we use will obviously be contingent on our opinion regarding a specific case: few would call George W. Bush "principled" for continuing the wars abroad even after support for the wars dwindled... most would call him an anti-democratic tyrant.

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But with regard to Melville in particular, I see a lot of this in his work. Starting with the fact that he had a very strained relationship with the reading public ("What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, - it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."). There is an undercurrent in all of Melville's work that suggests an anti-democratic spirit--hints that there are those who "get it" and those who don't, or can't.

So this is in the "guiding question" phase, but it seems interesting to me as a project. Maybe it comes from a lingering Calvinism, which saw individuals chosen by G-d rather than choosing G-d themselves. Or maybe Melville foresaw the need for anti-democratic leadership to prevent the dissolution of the Union (Lincoln ignored democratic rule in the South for the sake of principles). And that's where I'm going with all of this: can the anti-democrat ever be the good guy? If MLK, Jr. had waited for democracy to catch up with his principles, we might all still be waiting.

Hm. Just thinkin' aloud. To borrow from Ahab, "Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends' glarings is a doltish stare!"

2 comments:

fenhopper said...

2 points, both of them pretty much unrelated to the main course of the post:

it's at least too simple, but probably even misleading to say that the majority opposes the health bill. when asked generally about the bill the numbers are against it. but when the individual parts are presented the public is in favor of about 22 individual proposals and against 5.

one of those is the delay before it takes effect.

the support of things like taxes on pharma and insurance, blocking age and gender scoring, expanding medicaid and tax breaks for small businesses, ranges from around 20-60 points in favor.

so i'm not sure it's really anti-democratic (i'll agree to keep that neutral) to ignore ignorant opposition. to simplify this point: would it be "listening to the people" to trash the bill because of the non-existent death panels, just because the people are afraid of them?

second point:
you don't need to make up the word malphemism. dysphemism is already out there.

Casey said...

That's a fair first point. I'm not committed to that as an argument, only as a convenient example... tho' I will say, it's been the Obama administration's commitment to their ideals even in the face of a supposed populist opposition that has made me wonder. Then again, I started wondering in this direction re: Melville back when Bush was insisting on waging wars all over the planet despite his 22% approval rating.

dysphemism!