The Future of Democracy at the Library

by Bill Peak

Last year, I read an excellent history of Greece's Golden Age by John Hale, an archaeologist at the University of Louisville. “Lords of the Sea” tells the story of the Athenian city-state's development into the maritime super power of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and how Athens' reliance upon sea power to enforce its rule catalyzed its transformation from a traditional oligarchy into the radical, new form of government we now know by the Greek word “democracy.”

An interesting thing about reading a book like “Lords of the Sea” is that, as one grows comfortable with its authority, one slips easily into the role of unquestioning student: the author's interpretation of the forces that shaped and formed a society quickly becoming one's own. Still some small critical power remains. And so it was that, as I made my way through Hale's account of the various threats Athens faced down during its ascendancy, I began to notice a recurring, if unspoken, theme. Time after time, the power of Athens' electorate to demand not just improved conditions from its leaders but perfection, resulted in unfair and unbalanced charges brought against even the best of its leaders. Hale seemed to be leading me to the conclusion that any democracy carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, that the very instrument that makes a democracy powerful—the voice given to all its people—inevitably weighs upon and eventually throttles its life force.

I was reminded last week of Hale's book when a friend e-mailed me an op-ed piece by the conservative columnist David Brooks. Back in February, Brooks wrote in The New York Times, “Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile ... those interests, or at least a majority of them... The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It's messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less... Disappointment is normal. Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics.. They delegitimize compromise and deal-making.. Ultimately, they don't recognize other people. They ... don't accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don't recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.”

I have to tell you, Brooks's thesis, coming fast upon the heels of Hale's, depressed me. As an unabashed fan of democracy, the thought that our great American experiment might be doomed saddened me. But, luckily, I'm employed by the Talbot County Free Library—as perfect an exemplar of democracy at work as any in the land. After finishing Brooks's column, I walked out onto the library floor where I found several teenagers helping a group of pre-teens learn “Minecraft” on our library computers. I have no idea what “Minecraft” is, other than it involves the creation of a LEGO-like world full of awkwardly ambulatory LEGO-like beings, but I can tell you both teens and pre-teens were having a great time. You could see by the way the younger ones looked up at their instructors, the way they laughed at even their lamest jokes, how they idolized the older, cooler teens, just as you could tell by the avid looks on their faces, the way they leaned over their pupils as they worked, how hard it was for the teens to restrain themselves from engaging in some pretty uncool computer play of their own. And all of it so orderly, so well-behaved. Here was the future, our American future, working on futuristic computers right in front of me, and, truth be told, it looked at least as good if not better than any past I recall. These young people were most definitely showing respect for each other and their views. Together, they were learning not just how to play a new computer game, but how they might, through cooperation and attentive listening, build a new world.

Brooks may be right, Hale may be, but if they're wrong (and I pray they are), you can see the proof of their error every day at the Talbot County Free Library.