Nevertheless, Ida B. Wells persisted

This morning, National Public Radio announcers read the Declaration of Independence aloud in its entirety, as they do every year. Like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is a document I read in high school and occasionally quote in passing, but it’s not something I have frequent occasion to re-read.

For this reason, today I made a conscious point to listen to the entire Declaration as I was doing my morning kitchen tasks, marveling at the foresight and bravery of the Founding Fathers in penning (and signing their names to) a document that is both radical and treasonous. The United States started as a bold experiment. Could colonists with a range of backgrounds and opinions be trusted to create a civil government by, of, and for the people? Could democracy be the noblest form of crowd-sourcing, or would mob rule rule?

Where the women are strong

Yesterday I took a day-trip to Northampton, MA, a town which boasts of its strong coffee and strong women. In a downtown card shop, I saw a retail shrine to female bad-assery. Alongside “Nevertheless, she persisted” plaques were portraits of early feminist icons emblazoned with the caption “Bitches get stuff done.” One of the bad-assed bitches included in this display was Ida B. Wells, who faced persecution and death-threats to publish a 1900 pamphlet entitled Mob Rule in New Orleans that describes a nadir in American democracy, when lynch mobs replaced civil government.

Any serious, clear-eyed student of American history can recite a litany of wrongs supported by (or at least tolerated by) the majority, such as slavery and white supremacy, the murder and relocation of Native Americans, and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. You’d have to be ignorant, deluded, or both to insist that the majority always gets things right.

Bitches get stuff done

And yet…they say arc of history is long and bends toward justice. We no longer keep slaves, women now have the right to vote, and children no longer work in factories. Democracy is a work in progress–too often, populism becomes a popularity contest, and a jury of one’s peers can fall prey to peer pressure. But compared to monarchy, democracy is infinitely preferable as long as the voice of the many takes care to hear and heed the still, small voice of reason.

Only in Northampton:  pussyhats for sale.

Given a choice between one ruler and a collective of the ruled, I’ll opt for the latter. The whole notion of checks and balances rests on the belief that when one group is blind, deluded, or self-serving, those deficiencies will be called out and corrected by others. We all have our blind spots, bigotries, and biases, so I can shed light on yours and you can shed light on mine.

What this means, then, is we need more voices, not fewer. Instead of giving way to complacency or defeatism, citizens in a democracy need to use their voices. Dissent is indeed patriotic, but it needn’t be noisy, violent, or crude. Individual conscience is a small but insistent inkling that worms it way from mind to heart to gut, and our collective conscience should be no less persistent.