Democracy Day

(Charleston Gazette, Dec. 15, 1993)

By James A. Haught

If you take time to think about it -- which most of us don't -- democracy is self-contradictory.

It means letting people vote: majority rule. Yet the heart of democracy is the Bill of Rights, which prevents the majority from ruling. It protects the individual and the minority from the majority.

If America had pure majority rule, the Christian majority could vote to ban Jewish worship, as happened in some nations in the past. The white majority could vote that blacks have no rights, that they're property, as they once were in America. The heterosexual majority could vote to imprison homosexuals, as formerly was done -- or to put them to death, as the Bible commands. The "patriotic'' majority could vote that anyone who criticizes the government -- by writing a protest or staging a rally or burning a flag -- shall be jailed. But the Bill of Rights shields the few from the many.

How did America come to protect people from the tyranny of the majority? It was largely the work of a little-known Virginia planter, George Mason.

The brilliant individualists who launched American freedom were influenced by The Enlightenment in Europe, in which thinkers opposed the despotism of kings and archbishops. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the rest drew a sobering lesson from Europe's religious wars, from the ruthless greed of the aristocrats, from the torture chambers of the Inquisition.

Among the founders, Mason became the champion of personal liberties. At the start of the Revolution, he wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, giving each person freedom to speak, write, meet and worship as desired. It also protected people from Gestapo police tactics and being forced to testify against themselves. With Jefferson and Madison, he succeeded in ending Virginia's tax support of the Episcopal Church.

At the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, Mason demanded abolition of slavery and inclusion of a Bill of Rights to protect individuals from the new government of voters. When his wishes failed to pass, he refused to sign the constitution and campaigned against it. Little interested in public life, he retired to his Virginia home, Gunston Hall, and died there in 1792.

Before Mason's death, however, Jefferson and Madison helped push his crusade to success. They backed a catalog of amendments to the constitution. Ten passed, becoming the Bill of Rights. They took effect on this date in 1791, and Dec. 15 became Bill of Rights Day. I think of it as Democracy Day. Similar codes of human rights later were adopted all around the world.

It creates endless conflict to have majority rule, plus safeguards to prevent majority rule -- but not having them would be horrible.
Now that we've dissected democracy, let's look at patriotism. Why does patriotism in America always seem to mean approval of killing foreigners? When the president designates a new enemy -- Iraq, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada or some other weak foe -- the Oliver Norths rally 'round the flag, and yellow ribbons sprout at millions of doorways. Whatever the war, patriots endorse it.

Mark Twain wrote a horrifying short story, The War Prayer, in which patriotic throngs, cheering, with banners flying, marched to a church to pray for victory over the enemy. An emissary from God tried to tell them they were praying for butchery. But they dismissed him as a crackpot.

Whenever the word patriotism pops up, I think of the Battle of the Somme. In the summer of 1918, British Gen. Douglas Haig said he devised an attack "with the Divine help.'' He marched 60,000 young Britons, each carrying a 66-pound pack, in orderly rows into German machine gun fire. More than 20,000 were killed in the first hour. Undeterred, the British, French and Germans threw in more regiments for weeks and months, losing more than 1.2 million killed and wounded for a few miles of terrain.

The patriotism of those 1.2 million British, French and German young men was supreme. It was a pinnacle of patriotism. But it seems more like insanity.

I wish America could agree on a definition of patriotism that doesn't include automatic approval of every war.