Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Moline, Ill.--My old newspaper, The Dispatch, has two unrelated stories that summarize the state of democracy. One headline proclaims "Democracy taking a beating in Southeast Asia." The gist of the story is that democracy is so compromised by corruption, power grabs, unfulfilled promises, and plain old human nastiness that no one in that neck of the woods seems to think it has much relevance to remedying what ails the world. The story might have added Russia to the list. And South Dakota.
In related stories, there is one op-ed piece that says the focus of the media on the constant carnage in Iraq tends to obscure positive developments. It is countered by a piece that says we don't know the truth about Iraq because the media relies too heavily on government and military propaganda in its news reports. A story by a Fort Worth Telegram writer makes the point that things are not going well at all in Afghanistan these days. The U.S. government has put itself in a position where it cannot deal with Taliban agitators causing turmoil from Pakistan.
However, a major story that can be applied to the state of democracy is one about staff meetings in the business section. It says that most staff meetings are pointless. No decisions are made, no minutes are kept, no agenda is set, and consequently no action comes out of the meetings. I have witnessed both productive staff meetings and total wastes of time.
When I worked for The Dispatch, the daily editorial conference was at 7 a.m. That is when editors made up the news budget, allocated space, assigned stories, and reviewed the performance of the previous day's paper. It was the chance for the staff to participate in the planning and production of the newspaper. Sometimes the meetings were no more than ten minutes. Other times they became long sessions of arguing and problem-solving. But they got things done.
As a professor, I have participated in both productive and valuable meetings and total wastes. Once our department realized that one of the most effective programs it offered was a writing lab to provide students with one-to-one assistance with their academic writing. We authorized a committee to come up with recommendations for improving the writing lab and making it a major resource for students. We studied, we visited successful writing labs at other campuses, we reviewed our plans with consultants. We came up with a plan that had the support of all the faculty and administrators.
The problem came when a brand-new junior faculty member was appointed director of the lab to implement it. He chose to ignore every specification that had been approved and voted on by the faculty. He wanted to do things his way, and that's the only way he would do them. He had special inside connections with the highest administrators, so he got away with blithely ignoring the plan that had been approved, and faculty complaints were dismissed and ignored.
A member of the faculty at the time was puzzled by reports from his students about their experiences in the writing lab. The lab produced weekly reports of how many people came in for help, how many special activities and workshops it held, and how many people attended them. The faculty member, who later ran the writing lab for a large eastern university, began to drop in the lab at various times throughout the day. He reported to the faculty that he never found one student attending a workshop or special session that the lab said was attracting so many students. The plans formulated and approved by the faculty were totally ignored, and the performance reports on the lab were total fabrications.
The faculty realized that meetings and planning sessions under the regime that then controlled the university were humiliating sessions that were permitted simply to give the faculty the illusion of collegial governance. The faculty was routinely deceived, dismissed, denigrated, and made fools of. So, staff meetings were regarded as group humiliation sessions, and the department realized that it counted for nothing in the academic scheme of things.
What happened to the young professor? Within two years of his first faculty appointment, he was made department chair. Then he was promoted to graduate dean. Then he found a decanal post at some unsuspecting college in the hinterlands, and he is now the president of a major institution to our north. He represents a trend. Two other academic disasters associated with the university now hold presidencies of colleges. They all prove that shameless sucking can compensate for the lack of integrity and academic ability in today's academic world.
The case studies of why staff meetings become impertinent aburdities can reveal a great deal about the ills that afflict our democracy. The same principles apply. When meetings become shams and disrespectful exercises in flouting democratic procedures and principles, people snicker at all the patriotic sloganeering behind their hands and spend their energies trying to find ways to salvage what they can of their self-respect and their lives. In such situations, the idea of a government for the people, by the people, with the sanctions of the people is an irrelevant absurdity. Everyone knows that the dishonest and incompetent little despots rule.
The department I worked in contains the microcosmic principles for failure of democracy. In such situations, you can't believe a thing you are told. You can't trust the competence and integrity of anyone. But you can preserve some sense of inner integrity in your distrust and quiet resistance.
America has been the world's last best hope for implementing freedom, equality, and justice for all into the human scheme of things. It no longer is. Democracy has been mocked and degraded by subterfuge, power lust, and essential dishonesty. The people have been betrayed in the war on Iraq. In the South Dakota Abortion Task Force. And in almost everything that South Dakota's regressive regime (nice alliteration, eh?) has stuck its perverted nose into.
Democracy has become a huge travesty throughout the world. Can it be rescued? The answer lies in whether people in places like South Dakota can reject the rule of despots and take their government back.
Personally, I don't see the intellectual resources or the will to get it done.
The people in Southeast Asia see the phony claims made for democracy. Many of us in South Dakota do, too.