There is a wonderful passage in a 1943 issue of the New Yorker in which E.B. White responds to a prompt from the now obscure Writers’ War Board, who asked, “What is the Meaning of Democracy?” Read White’s full reply here, but these are my favorite portions: “[Democracy] is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove… it is the dent in the high hat…It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere…it is a song the words of which have not gone bad.”
Since the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, I’ve returned to this passage many times for comfort and grounding, for inspiration and resolve. And all around me I keep looking for and confirming that the line still forms on the right; that even amid a global pandemic and bitter divisions we still observe stop signs, post letters, and cook for each other. We still seek out communion in the commons (masked, of course), like libraries, churches, and grocery stores. We march, we vote, we rage, grieve, and keep singing. And we experience real vitality in unsuspecting places, like in my small Southern rural town, where recent school board meetings wound, but community theatre productions heal.
If you’re still not convinced, remember the Daily Yonder. It may just be the dent in that high hat.
Maybe the meaning of democracy is the Daily Yonder, where commentary and news for rural people about rural people hold the line. Democracy is the story of volunteer medical workers bringing mobile health clinics to Appalachia; it is a Covid-19 dashboard that doesn’t sugarcoat, but arms us with the truth; it is the tale of the Snallygaster, shoring up our imaginations in a time of pandemic fatigue; it keeps watch for stories of inclusion. The Yonder is a harbor for democracy, listening rather than proclaiming, telling it true even when it’s inconvenient.
I hope you’ll join me this season in supporting the harbor, the watcher, the holder of the line, the Daily Yonder. If you’ve got a few extra minutes, I’d be interested to know what the meaning of democracy is to you, too. Just drop a note to email@example.com with the subject line: The Meaning of Democracy.
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