I meant to post this before the holiday, but perhaps it's more meaningful to continue to reflect on the meaning of democracy in the days following the Fourth of July. I spend quite a few hours each week contemplating "democracy," because it was such a central principle of the Jewish Community Center during the the 1940s and '50s. The Center devoted itself to helping Jews belong both within their Jewish community and within American society. By coming to the Center, Jews affiliated with their ethno-religious group but separated themselves from non-Jews. How un-American! Centers resolved this tension by instituting democratic processes for decision making and by teaching the values of collaboration, pluralism, and individual self-determination. When Jews left the Center, the thinking went, they were prepared for democratic citizenship and participation.
Defining "democracy," however, has never been easy--not then and not now. My favorite attempt was made in 1943 by master wordsmith E.B. White:
When I first read this, in my first year of college, I was less cynical and more enamored of the patriotism in White's "mustard on the hotdog" or "score at the beginning to the ninth." What continues to resonate with me, however, is this line: "Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time." It speaks to the trust that's inherent in collaborative decision making, that's necessary for communalism in the face of authoritarianism. Perhaps that's why I'm so attracted to studying mid-century JCCs. Jewish Center workers organized youth and teen members into clubs and asked each club to discuss and vote on all major decisions affecting the group--from their club name to their daily activities. These were low-stakes rulings, but it modeled the benefits ("the line that forms on the right") and frustrations ("the hole in the stuffed shirt through which sawdust slowly trickles") of the democratic process that members would encounter, greatly magnified, for the rest of their lives.