Do We Live In A Democracy?
The first time I answered this question was I was eighteen years old, and going to Harvard Summer School. I was living in sin with my boyfriend (this was 1972) about which my parents had sworn me to secrecy—I was not to tell my younger siblings. My nod to respectability was Harvard, where I was enrolled for the fall, and trying to go through in three years with my AP and summer school credits.
The class was Government 101. The paper—Is America A Democracy? My thesis—no, it is an oligarchy, run for the benefit of the few. My thinking came out of the pressure cooker of the Sixties and my own personal pressure cooker of being raised by a Marxist father while going to a conservative Protestant girls’ school, where my mother taught.
My essay was not a hit. The section man circled much of it in red, argued that the USA was NOT an oligarchy, and gave me a B. I was insulted, and then worried. Apparently the wider world was also reactionary.
I didn’t yet realize I was lucky in that section man. The professor was a notorious sexist and elitist—but I was unaware of that. The best moment in the class was when he stated “There are no happy geniuses.” A scruffy guy in the back contradicted him: ‘What about Picasso, Bach, and Miles Davis?”
Later, I found out that the full professor tended to fail the women in his class, or terrorize them with borderline passing grades. This was at Harvard, still famous for its gentleman’s Cs and as a rule rather easy on its undergrads. That B, acquired in my first class, was a triumph, not a badge of shame.
Here is what else I found out. I will always love a guy with a snappy answer. I am more interested in questions of artistic happiness than of government. Girls’ school may have been repressive but at least girls were respected intellectually. And most people want to answer yes, this country is a democracy—and are shocked to the core when signs point otherwise.