RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Democracy Isn’t Pretty

But It’s All We Got

Imagine a scribbler, maybe one of those horrible scribbling women Nathaniel Hawthorne was always complaining about, sitting at her computer and blasting out a screed headlined, “The End of Democracy!” or “Where’s the Outrage?” and then poofing it off to a list of five of her closest friends. One opens and reads it. One opens it, reads it, sends it on. The other three delete it.

The forwarded piece is forwarded over and over again, giving one out of five readers enough of a poke of adrenalin to push the button and send it on, send it on, send it on...

This, in 2010, is what democracy looks like. No posters, no marching, no blue jeans. Democracy in pajamas. Action, when it happens, is just a squeak. Action is awkward. E-mail is convenient.

If there is ever an award for courage and foresight in this confusing time, please let it go to Dr. John Covington, the relatively new superintendent of the Kansas City, Mo., school system. Dr. Covington arrived in a crisis, having found the school system bleeding money and students, and spent five months in deep study, emerging with a plan for a “right-size” system. The plan shuts down nearly half the schools, but the School Board hopes it will result in better education, sooner rather than later, for the city’s mostly poor, mostly black students.

This, for the K.C. schools, is what democracy looks like. Longer bus rides to, we hope, better schools. Maybe, in the long run, the resurgence of the neighborhood one-room schools where a handful of siblings and neighbors in grades one through eight learned together.

Anyone interested in the fate of America’s mid-sized cities should be immersed in study of the City of Jazz, BBQ and Beyond. Well-intentioned people have struggled for decades around the future of their schools, especially the racial integration. Some called the Boards of Education incompetent, or in denial but the school boards tried neighborhood solutions, built magnet schools, sued to force bussing across city lines and even state lines. Nothing stopped the flow of privileged kids away from the city or, if they were in the city, into private schools and charter schools.

In the last ten years, 18,000 gone, leaving 17,400.

Half the students gone means half the buildings redundant, and if we were prognosticators we’d say that the promotion of charter schools in all cities could change perfectly healthy systems into struggling systems in the same way. And there are plenty of angry e-mails tracking through the internet saying “Where is the outrage?” If public schools provide the basis for culture, education, democracy, this is Kansas City’s last-ditch, messy effort to preserve those also.

Government departments of all stripes are involved with budget this year. One day has been set aside for the General Assembly to do nothing but look at citizen ideas sent over the Internet on how to save. “Ground the Governor’s plane,” says one blogger, “Freeze the salaries of the big wigs,” says another. “State agencies scramble at the end of the fiscal year to spend their General Revene funding. WHY? Because if they don’t SPEND it they won’t GET it the next year! Why not reward agencies for being thrifty, not wasteful?” “Stop paying for phones, cars, gas, hotel rooms, luncheons and all the other money-sucking things that go on (of course again this is going on in the upper levels of our agencies ...) Obviously it is not the worker bees who are getting those kinds of perks!”

Meanwhile, the Missouri capitol has been buzzing like a beehive this year, with stress over the expenses that human citizens want to put on corporate citizens. Here’s a good one: More tax on agri-chemicals.

Explanations: Chemical companies pay license fees. Most states ask $150-$1,500 per chemical. Our state asks $15. One senator wants to raise that, and use the funds, over $1.5 million, to make up for the shortfall at the Department of Ag.

Testifying in favor? Independent farmers and consumers.

Testifying against? Monsanto, Farm Bureau, the Soybean Association, Missouri Biotech Association (“We stand up for Missouri’s life science industry”), Missouri Agribusiness Association (“We work with the Department of Agriculture”); these are the sons and daughters of the corporate persons. Democracy in 2010.

Missouri has more plant scientists than any other state in the union, said one of the proud testifyers. More independent farmers, too, except for in Texas, but nobody expects the new license fees to pass.

In another part of the capitol, at the same time, there was a rally to end the death penalty. Replacing the death penalty with life sentences would save the state millions on each case in appeals costs, say the promoters. They report that the families of victims do not feel relieved after a state execution, nor is there a sense of closure. And the United States is one of just a few nations that allow executions at all.

The death penalty rally was awkwardly quiet. On the third floor, to make up for their less-prominent position, there was an extremely loud rally in favor of “state sovereignty.” This is a group of geniuses that insist that if there is a US health insurance plan, we’ll opt out. Several of the senators spoke, saying they’re big on state sovereignty “and securing our borders.” Not sure what border a state senator means when he says that ... Kansas? Iowa? Arkansas?

This is what democracy looks like: Messy, loud, awkward, inconvenient. And, sometimes, absurd.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: (And don’t blame her for the bad grammar in the subheadline.)

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2010

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