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Democratic Heroism
Peter Meilaender

On January 8 of this year, US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, was shot in the head while conducting a public “meet-and-greet” event with constituents in a supermarket parking lot. The shooting provided an opportunity for much hand-wringing and hyperventilating among pundits eager to bemoan the sad state of American public discourse, which many, however implausibly, eagerly identified as a key cause of the attack. Indeed, in the weeks following the shooting, the hand-wringing often seemed to claim more public attention than the tragedy itself.

Often, but not always. Obviously, we heard a great deal about the fate of Rep. Giffords, whose life hung in the balance and whose continued recovery is nothing short of remarkable. What also struck me, however, was how much I saw and heard about the other, less “important” victims of the shooting. Numerous other spectators were also shot; six of them fatally. One, John Roll, was a federal judge and thus a newsworthy public figure, but the others were simply ordinary citizens who had the misfortune of being in attendance at that particular public event.

One of those victims immediately caught the nation’s imagination: Christina Green, a little girl of only nine years with an interest in politics. She recently had been elected to her school’s student council and was eager to meet the congresswoman. In his memorial speech for Giffords, President Obama paid an emotional tribute to little Christina, saying, “I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.” Other victims included Gabriel Zimmerman, a young staffer from Giffords’s office who was planning to marry next year; Dorothy Morris, whose husband George was also shot but survived; and Phyllis Schneck, known for the quilting and needlework projects she liked to donate to raise funds for local charities.

But perhaps the most moving story of all belonged to Dorwan Stoddard, who attended the Giffords event with his wife Mavy. Dorwan and Mavy had been high school sweethearts but had gone their separate ways. Then, fifteen years ago, each having survived the death of a first spouse, they both moved back to Tucson, where they were reunited and married. Active in their church, they were well known in the neighborhood for their kindness toward the poor and those down on their luck. When the shooting started, Mavy first thought that someone was setting off fireworks, but Dorwan recognized the sound, pushed his wife to the ground, and covered her with his own body. Mavy took several shots to the legs. Dorwan was shot in the head and died ten minutes later, giving up his life for his wife. Mavy had the chance to say goodbye to her bleeding husband, but Dorwan never spoke again.

We expect to read about our congressional representatives in the newspaper, perhaps even about our federal judges. But not about the Stoddards, or about Christina Green, Gabe Zimmerman, Dorothy Morris, and Phyllis Schneck. Still, these people, in their own ways, all exemplify the community service and participation in civil society that make American democracy flourish. So it seems appropriate that we should recognize them, also, after the tragedy in Tucson.

I was recently reminded of these stories by an event, or series of events, of an entirely different (or at least apparently different) sort: the string of uprisings against authoritarian governments in various Islamic countries across North Africa and the Middle East. In a chain reaction whose only real parallel in recent decades is the fall of the Soviet Union, democratic protest movements have sprung up in one country after another—first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then Yemen and Bahrain, and most recently in Libya. Not all of the uprisings have, at this point, succeeded. In Tunisia and Egypt, largely peaceful protests succeeded in turning out the current rulers, while governments in Yemen and Bahrain proved more willing to meet protests with force. The outcome in Libya hangs in the balance: as I write, the US, Britain, and France are launching airstrikes to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians as approved by the UN Security Council.

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Even if it is too early to predict an “Arab spring,” the democratic wave sweeping the region is impressive. The uprisings are genuinely popular movements. They appear driven more by a commitment to democracy than by any uniquely Islamic commitments. Huge crowds of “ordinary” men and women have gathered bravely in city centers to express their ­weariness with ineffec­­tive and authoritarian rule and their longing for a government that is accountable, gives them a voice, and responds to their needs and desires. Though I hesitate to embrace the more extreme techno-utopian claims about the revolutionary potential of social media, all of these uprisings demonstrate how the Internet’s new potential for rapid communication, information sharing, and social coordination enable citizens to engage in mass political action.

But arguably the most important element of these uprisings is the further evidence they provide that in the contemporary world, in which no form of government other than democracy can claim public legitimacy, men and women everywhere are increasingly dissatisfied with regimes that treat them as less than full citizens. Oddly, one has seen little media discussion suggesting that perhaps President George W. Bush was onto something after all. But surely he must be feeling at least some vindication as he watches events unfold. In his 2002 commencement address at West Point, President Bush said, “When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations.... The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation.” Current events in North Africa and the Middle East illustrate that the foundational moral norm of the modern world is the equal human dignity of all men and women, what Bush called “the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.”

This is what links those events to the obituaries that were written after the Giffords shooting. Media reports on the shooting reveal something about our own values, about what we consider important. That Congresswoman Giffords was shot is clearly important, but we also think it important to remember Dorwan Stodd­ard. Though he may have operated upon a smaller stage than Giff­ords, he too touched many lives, and his own was of equal dignity and infinite value. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya—all these countries are filled with their own Dorwan Stoddards. Indeed, it is arguably democracy’s greatest moral achievement that in it there are no “ordinary” citizens. From Gifford and Judge Roll; to Stoddard, Zimmerman, Morris, Schneck, and Green; to the nameless victims of oppression throughout the mid-East, each of these men and women has a story to tell, each is bound up with the lives of many fellow citizens. Almost two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville gave us our most penetrating analysis of this feature of the modern world. “A great democratic revolution is occurring among us,” he wrote. At the heart of this revolution was the onward march of equality, which Tocqueville saw more and more as the fulcrum of social relations. “When one searches through the pages of our history, one comes across almost no great events during the last seven hundred years that did not turn to the profit of equality.” The love of equality, Tocqueville argued, is the dominant passion of people in a democratic age.

The Tucson obituaries show this egalitarian norm at work in our own society, even as events demonstrate its growing power and appeal across the world. Our heroes today are not only the Napoleons or Washingtons of world-historical importance. They are also Bill Badger, the ­seventy-four-year-old retired colonel who, despite being shot himself, tackled Jared Loughner after he had begun shooting; or Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman who was killed during the 2009 post-election protests in that country and who became a martyr after the graphic video of her death spread across the globe via Facebook and YouTube. We continue to inhabit the egalitarian modern world whose outlines Tocqueville so brilliantly analyzed.

This democratic belief in equal human dignity is, surely, grounded in Western culture’s Christian heritage. Democracy, needless to say, predates Christianity. Ancient Athens was in certain respects radically more democratic than any modern society, but ancient democracy co-existed easily with sharp distinctions between, for example, Greeks and barbarians, or citizens and slaves. While similar distinctions survived into the modern world, they have been eroded by the pressure of egalitarian norms. Tocqueville himself, though he worried about equality’s dangerous effects, saw the hand of Providence at work in its spread. Equality, he suggested, is pleasing to God; though “perhaps less elevated” than aristocracy, “it is more just, and its justice makes its grandeur and its beauty.” It seems that wherever we look, from Tucson to Tunis, we see reminders that we are Tocqueville’s heirs.

 

Peter Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.

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