2011 will be best remembered as a year of popular dissatisfaction and uprisings. Lacking a crystal ball, such instability -- especially the prospective political transitions from despotism to democracy in Egypt and Libya -- can cause acute anxiety.
As we enter 2012, it's useful to keep in mind that democracy is a pendulum that forever swings from equilibrium to imbalance and back. The uncertainty and tensions associated with the political and ideological landscape of today's Middle East are also endemic to established democracies. Lewis Lapham described the workings of a democratic government in "Democracy 101," an essay published in the April 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine.
"Democracy is a dangerous business; it allies itself with change, which engenders movement, which induces friction, which implies unhappiness, which assumes conflict not only as the normal but also as the necessary condition of its existence. The idea collapses unless countervailing stresses oppose one another with competing weight - unless enough people stand willing to sustain the argument between the governing and the governed, between city and town, capital and labor, men and women, matter and mind. [...It] is the freedoms of thought that rescue a democracy from its stupidities and crimes, the courage of its dissenting citizens that protects it against the despotism of wealth and power backed up with platitudes and billy clubs and subprime loans."This description should ignite fire in the belly of all United States citizens, wherever they place themselves on the political spectrum.
In late January 2009, I wrote an essay titled "Eudamonia." The piece explored the possible causes of a "bout of optimism [that] seemed remarkable in both duration and degree." That optimism is tempered today, but it still burns, despite the growth of "triumphant pessimism" among our populace. I remain optimistic because I believe in long term improvement, in two steps forward for one step back.
Let us all be devoted, active citizens in 2012, realistic, but not cynical, hopeful, but not naive, critical, but not destructive.
Image credit: uncredited photograph ripped from Care2 Make A Difference website