Band-aids for Democracy

by Wally Graves

Two recent articles in the North Coast Journal reveal telltale symptoms of a dangerously advanced democracy.

Last November, George Ringwald confessed to being overwhelmed at how many choices of Band-Aids and Band-Aid wannabes Longs Drugs stocks. "Used to be," George wrote, "you'd walk into the drug store, ask for a box of Band-Aids, and, amazingly enough, get 'em. Just like that. Now you may have trouble even finding somebody to ask."

George, in Safeway, was equally challenged at the plethora of breakfast cereal choices: "In my day ... you had Kellogg's Cornflakes, Wheaties, Grapenuts and, of course, Quaker Oats. And that was about it."

George counts himself among those "of us today who yearn for the simple life."

In the December issue of the Journal, Miv Shaaf, like George, recalled those times of half a century back when the service was better and the choices fewer.

Miv told, as a child, of sipping sodas with her mother and aunt at the mezzanine luncheon room in Detroit's upscale J. L. Hudson's department store.

Miv recalled Hudson's perfumes, and kidskin gloves and the brown beaver coat, the black Persian lamb. The white-haired women who received those coats at the thick oak cloakroom counter smiled while Miv's mother and aunt played lady in a mezzanine that not everyone had the courage -- or wherewithal -- to enter.

Miv had asked, "Why do the ones in the cloakroom always have white hair, Mother?"

Her mother answered, "Because it is the only job they can get." Miv realized, "So that's why they are smiling; they want to keep their jobs."

Both Miv's story, and George's, reminds us of a time when American democracy was -- at best -- but half-baked.

Democracy's hallmark is an accessibility to all things for all people, carrying with such privilege an inevitable redundancy of goods and services. This accessibility, and its burdensome redundancy of cars, gasoline stations, fast food joints, TV channels, Internet home pages, grocery stores, grows pervasive as freedom's bell beckons ever wider.

Earlier in our century, for example, women had yet (in the prophetic words of Walt Whitman as early as 1880) to "extricate" themselves "from the unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady" and to "launch forth as men do, amid real, independent, stormy life" and "become the robust equals, workers, and ... political deciders with the men."

Oh, how well I remember Seattle's 1930s version of Miv's mezzanine, following my mother past the uniformed doorman, through the perfumes and candies, past floorwalkers in dark suits, to ride the manned elevator to the exclusive fifth floor tea room in Frederick and Nelson's department store, where waitresses' starched white aprons protected their black, long sleeved dresses from the gathered remains of tasteless sandwiches whose crusts were always missing.

A lady's place to eat!

I hated Frederick and Nelson's fifth floor tea room. It wasn't so much that they didn't serve hot dogs, or that you were scared you'd spill your hot chocolate on the white linen table cloth. It was rather -- I realize now -- the embarrassing performance of my mother playing lady -- the only role accessible to her in a world which blunted her natural bent as engineer or architect, "as robust equal with men": a world where she trod but one short step ahead of those white-haired women in Miv's cloak room.

May Hudson's mezzanine, and Frederick and Nelson's tea room, rest in peace.

Last November, for the first time in American politics, women elected a president. It was the gender gap, stupid. Women chose Clinton. Dole drew more men, but not enough. The women commentators on TV lost their cool, laughing uncontrollably with the news that after 75 years of suffrage women at last tipped the scales.

If more than half the people bothered to vote, lord knows how Whitmanesque our democracy might become. "Political democracy," Whitman said, "as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training-school.... It is life's gymnasium, not of good only, but of all."

Which leads us back to democracy's inevitable redundancy.

Just a five-minute walk from George's Safeway lies Eureka's Bayshore Mall, housing under one roof 16 fast foods, seven jewelers, and enough loaded clothes and shoe racks in 31 different shops to refit -- it would seem -- our entire North Coast.

George's Safeway offers 171 varieties and sizes of cereals, and 26 Band-Aids and wannabes. If that doesn't satisfy, try Ray's Food Place by the Mall -- 204 cereals (including 24 needing hot water) and 35 sorts of bandages.

For the ultimate liberty junky I recommend Waremart, down the block from Safeway, with its 233 choices of cereal and 46 stick-on bandages. Lots of overlap here, but a browser drooling to validate his or her freedom can enjoy in a five-minute walk 107 options for bandages and 608 decisions about cereal.

Some time ago I lived for a year in communist Bulgaria. No malls, and precious few choices. All the cars in Bulgaria were of the same Russian stamp. Your choice of colors black or grey. All the grocery stores were government. You got one kind of yogurt, two kinds of bread, and all the cabbage you could eat. A communist committee had already decided what was good for you, within the limits of Bulgaria's paralyzed economy.

Price-Costco in Eureka reminds me of Bulgaria. If Costco forced every store on the North Coast out of business, you'd know what communism is like.

For the simple life, I recommend Costco. Costco sells no Band-Aid wannabes. They sell only Band-Aids. You can get 250, all one size, for $5.67, or 250, assorted sizes, for $5.79.

Take it or leave it.

Costco sells not hundreds, but a meager 10 choices of cereals, minimum weight, 2!/2 pounds; maximum weight 2!/2 pounds. You can enjoy lunch at Costco's plastic tables on a concrete floor if you like pizza or sausage. That's about it. Somebody else has already decided what's good for you. Call it corporate communism.

As my skin gets thinner, along with my blood, I'm delighted that Band-Aid wannabes have come so far. When Band-Aids first appeared during the Great Depression they were thick, clumsy, and either stuck poorly to your skin or stuck so well they peeled your skin off with the Band-Aid. Bulgarian wannabes are likely still that way, but in America 50 years of hurly-burly democracy have made them better.

Enjoy them while you may.

We're perishing in freedom.

Compared to that great world power communist China, 90 percent of us own cars in contrast to 3 percent of the Chinese; 98 percent of us have running hot water against 1 percent; 97 percent have phones to 9 percent; 98 percent refrigerators to 25 percent; and 31 percent of us own cats to 6 percent of the Chinese.

These statistics, along with a growing gap between America's rich and poor, foreshadow a decline of democracy rooted in today's runaway accessibility and redundancy known as "liberty."

The ancient Greeks were alerted to freedom's perils.

Four hundred years before Christ Socrates gave us a laundry list of democracy's danger signals, and Plato recorded the list in his "Republic":

1. "disregard of everything else for the sake of moneymaking"

2. "the father gets into the habit of behaving like the son and fears his own children"

3. "the son behaves like the father, and does not honor or fear his parents"

4. "teacher fears pupil ... and plays the toady"

5. "pupils despise their teachers"

6. "old men ... behave like young men themselves so as not to be thought disagreeable or dictatorial"

7. "immigrant is equal to citizen, and citizen to immigrant"

8. "great equality ... between women and men, between men and women"

Socrates theorized how democracy's freedom triggers a jealousy-driven obsession with money. Luxuries become necessities. The rich grow richer and the drones demand the honey of the rich. In the ensuing social chaos the middle class, in despair, elects a "protector of the people" whose only recourse to curbing freedom is arrest and executions. With the blood of his own people on his hands, this protector transforms himself from man to wolf.

"This, then, my friend," Socrates warned, "is the beginning from which tyranny grows, such a beautiful, bright beginning!"

California's modern poet Robinson Jeffers put it less ominously:

"While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity ... I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth ... You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly a mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic."

Wally Graves, who lives in King Salmon, writes from time to time for the Journal.

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