Hawthorne Hill: Of Garlic, Onions, and Majority Rule

Up On Hawthorne Hill by Richard DeRosa

Of garlic, onions and majority rule

Took down the garlic the other day, trimmed it, and shifted it to trays for winter storage. On the same day tied up the red and yellow onions, and hung them along the barn rafters to cure for a few weeks. These are two of my favorite pastimes up here on the hill. One would assume that such tasks are rather mindless. Not so, at least for me. Focusing on an ostensibly simple, repetitive task frees the mind from the burden of forced thought, leaving it free to go where it pleases. There are times when time passes and yet seems not to have passed at all. It is as if one is suspended in-corporeally in a separate reality. Normally, my mind wanders in and about pedestrian yet pleasing byways. Not so the other day. For some time now I have been troubled by what Walter Lippmann characterized as the tyranny of the majority.

Lippmann writes of Washington’s worry that despite all the best intentions, “… there was no guarantee that the rule of the people would not in its turn be despotic, arbitrary, corrupt, unjust, and unwise. … They, too, had to be raised above their habitual conduct. Because their power, when passionately aroused, was overwhelming, it could be fearfully abused.” Sound familiar? Lippmann goes on to warn “That the majority is bound by no laws because it makes the laws.

It is itself the final judge, from whom there is no appeal, of what is right and what is wrong. This doctrine has led logically and in practice to the totalitarian state — to that modern form of despotism which does not rest upon hereditary titles…but springs directly from the mass of people.”

Over the past several months in particular we have been inundated with dire warnings about democracy’s imminent death. After finishing with the onions, I sat down and mused about these words, as well as others of a similar tone. I tend to be a glass half-full kind of guy, so I always tack that pathway first when confronted with worrisome thoughts.

Still see that half full glass, but there are days when trusting in our better angles seems a bit of a stretch. But I always come up with the same conviction: things will get better. There certainly is some rot eating away at the republic’s vital core. And there is no shortage of media attention paid to our collective ailments. A true believer in an independent press, an essential adjunct to any healthy democracy, most of the major media outlets appear to be fatally attracted to the darker undersides of our collective nature. That is not to deny that such malignancies exist. Color me naïve, but there are reassuring trends that augur well for us in the long term. I do feel that there needs to be an overhaul of ways in which we make decisions about one another’s lives. As Lippmann points out, our system of majority rule bespeaks of an unfairness to both sides, as well as those factions that travel with neither. Madison warned us about that a long time ago. I do not claim to have the answers. What I do know is the present system of winner take all is neither fair nor working. I miss Gabby’s always wise counsel.

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