Is This It?

I recently finished re-reading George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical. It’s an amazing book and once again proves Eliot’s mastery of her craft. She was a wise woman in addition to being an exceptional writer. In this novel she is addressing the complex question of the extension of suffrage in England in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a thorny issue, as it involved the willingness of the wealthy and privileged to allow the poor to vote and help determine political events.

We no longer deal with this particular issue, but we do need to think about the central issue of whether or not everyone should be allowed to determine who holds the reins of power. In this regard, we have recently been made aware that something has been rotting in the political cellar for many years: there are those who feel they have been excluded from the political process and they have risen up and spoken out loud and clear in voting for a man who is clearly unqualified for the job but who, they think, speaks for them. I have tried again and again to fathom how this could have happened and nothing ago posted a guest essay by Jerry Stark who was nice enough to comment at length on my suggestion that the revolution we are living through is an expression of what the French call “ressentiment.” I think the discussion that followed that post helped to clear up some of the problem; but in reading Felix Holt I came across a passage that may help even more.

In the novel the hero is a bright and well-educated man who chooses to become an “ordinary” craftsman, a watchmaker as it happens. He is also dedicated to teaching and helping the poor become eligible to vote. Eliot was clearly influenced by Thomas Carlyle whom she greatly admired and who spent much of his life trying to make room for the poor in the political arena. He, in turn, was motivated by the fear that England would suffer a violent revolution much like the French and there would be chaos. Eliot, however, insisted, in the words of her hero, that the key was not the extension of suffrage to all and sundry, but education for all in the hope that as suffrage was extended the voters would make wise choices.

In the brief passage mentioned above she has another speaker voicing his ressentiment in making an impassioned plea for universal suffrage on the part of the disenfranchised who, he insists, have been held down by those with great wealth and position far too long:

“. . .these are the men who tell us we’re to let politics alone; they’ll govern us better without our knowing anything about it. We must mind our business; we are ignorant; we’ve no time to study great questions. But I tell them this: the greatest question in the world is how to give every man a man’s share in what goes on in life –.”

This brief passage, along with some comments made to the guest post I mentioned above, have helped me to understand a bit better the frustration many in this country have felt for years because they have been displaced by those they regard with suspicion: those with wealth, education, and status who have refused them a place at the political table. They identify this group as “liberals.” In a democracy, no matter how flawed it night be, it is everyone’s right to have a place at the table. But as Eliot insists, and I couldn’t agree more, those who take their place must understand what’s involved. Again, education is the key.

Because we have failed to recognize this important truth we now find ourselves in the midst of a moral revolution, as Jerry Stark suggests, in which black is white, right is wrong, and truth is falsity. We are led by a man blinded by his own self-interest and sense of self-importance coupled with a twisted view of the world because a great many people in this country who do not feel themselves a part of “what goes on in life” have spoken up in angry self-righteous indignation. And, unfortunately, those with legitimate complaints have brought with them the lunatic fringe who wallow in fear and hatred.  It is important that the disenfranchised have a voice. But it is also important that they have the capacity to grasp the “great questions” a capacity that is only possible with an education that involves both civics and history — at the very least. Otherwise, as Eliot would have it, we shall be governed by “men [and women] whose mental state is a mere medley of appetites and confused impressions.”

As Felix says in a lengthy speech to a gathered throng at a political rally:

“. . . all the schemes about voting, and districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam — the force that works those engines — must come out of human nature. . . . Whether the engines will do good work or bad depends [on the wisdom of the voters]; and if we have false expectations about men’s characters [whom we vote for], we are very much like the idiot who thinks he can carry milk in a can with no bottom. In my opinion, the notions about what mere voting will do are very much of that sort.”

In a democracy no one should be excluded from the seats of power, but all who take their place must know what they are about.

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Who Should Vote?

As the election nears — you can smell it a mile away! — I thought it appropriate to repost a piece I wrote two years ago that deals with the question of whether or not everyone should “get out and vote.” The push will soon be on, and there are solid reasons this year, especially, to get folks off their butts and into the voting booths (where, we will hope, all will be Kosher). To be sure, the vote this November may determine whether or not this Republic is capable of being saved! But there remains the question about the qualifications that ought to be demanded of those who determine the folks that are given the reins of power in this country. And that question is worth pondering.

The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of extending the suffrage.

One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:

“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government — or at least how many Senators each state has. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.

The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for  good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.

The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country and are of age or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.

Pay The Piper

I am reluctant to use worn-out phrases like the one in today’s title. But I have used this one before and I want to expand on the ideas that lie behind it, especially as they relate to today’s educational plight.

When I first started college teaching back in the Dark Ages I taught logic at the University of Rhode Island. One of my tasks was to go from Kingston to Providence once a week to teach an adult extension course in logic to hard-working adults who were trying to get a college degree after work. On the way I picked up one of the students who was the Chief of the Jamestown Police and we had some interesting talks driving to Providence and back. He complained a number of times about the format of the New England Town Meetings where citizens met on a fairly regular basis and discussed and voted on the pressing issues of the day. His frustration usually centered around the fact that the people wanted such things as improved police and fire protection but they didn’t want to raise their taxes. In a word, they wanted to hear the tune the piper played, but they didn’t want to pay him.

We still do that on both a state and a national scale, don’t we? We want something for nothing: we want a good educational system but we don’t want to have to pay for it. In Wisconsin recently the citizens of that great state attempted to break up public employee unions on the grounds that it will save them tax money and at the same time they are outspoken in their criticism of the job the public employees do — especially the teachers. Give me a break! Are we really that stupid?

I think it was Churchill who said Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others. I gather that he was poking gentle fun at the folks who run around like the creatures in the caucus race in Wonderland trying to figure out how to make things work; Churchill knew that the process, while flawed, is the best humans have come up with. Plato preferred philosopher Kings, but there aren’t many of them around these days. And it’s not clear philosophers would make very good kings anyway!

But it is the case that a well-educated citizenry is of central importance to any democratic system. If the people are not well informed, how can they make intelligent choices? George Eliot dealt with this question in her brilliant novel Felix Holt, Radical at a time when England was struggling with the issue of extending suffrage. How can we expect people who know very little about the world around them, who are daily forced to work with their hands instead of their heads, to make informed decisions? Felix wrestles with this question throughout the novel, and it is a very important question. Our founding fathers wrestled with it as well and I am not sure we have answered it yet.

We had better figure out how to make it work, however, or future historians will conclude that our democracy was a failed experiment. Ours is not a pure democracy, of course, but it requires enlightened, well-educated legislators and leaders — and a citizenry educated well enough to separate the fraud from the friend. As stated, in any democracy the entire experiment hinges on an educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson knew this, of course, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. If people are unwilling to spend money to have their young well enough educated to become informed voters in a democratic nation then the experiment will indeed have failed. We really must pay the piper.