Democracy or Bust

September 24th, 2006

It's all coming together.

Twenty-six years ago, as a sullen member of Princeton's Class of 1980, I failed to complete my senior thesis -- a requirement to graduate. Actually, to be totally honest, I didn't even begin my thesis. It just seemed like too big a task, I guess. My major -- after hitting the wall at calculus my freshman year and abandoning math -- was politics, and my advisor, Sheldon Wolin, was a transcendently brilliant teacher. I didn't want to let him down. But in order not to let him down, I had to think -- come up with my own thoughts, not just reflect Wolin's back to him. (A truly Socratic educator, he had no use for "yes" men or women.)

This seems a daunting task now, at 47. At 21, it seemed impossible. Plato, he had cool ideas. Locke, too. But Kornbluth? I had barely figured out how to focus -- just getting through a single, dense book of political theory without napping, without running screaming to the Student Center for another coffee, without going back to my room and cranking up the Clash, was usually beyond my abilities. To actually think, on top of that? Not bloody likely.

So I didn't quite graduate in 1980. I completed all my coursework, somehow. A mediocre student, I spent many tense hours in the waiting room of the dean of academics, Dick Williams. Dean Williams scared me. As I remember him, he was tall, with a brush-cut -- perhaps a former Marine. Time after time, I'd be sitting across from his desk, trying to explain why, yet again, he should grant me an "incomplete" (rather than an "F") on a course that I had stopped attending after the first week or two. Sometimes he wouldn't do it, and I'd flunk the course. But just enough times, he said okay -- and so I stumbled through four years of indifferent scholarship, not an official failure as a student, but close enough to feel that way.

In subsequent years, both my mother and my stepmother would get on my case about doing my thesis, about making my father (who'd been incapacitated by a stroke the summer before my senior year) proud. But I knew I still didn't have it in me.

Cut to November of 2004. I was walking back from my voting place in Berkeley, and something snapped. While I hoped that the guy I'd voted for would become president, I realized that no matter what happened in that election I still wouldn't feel as if I'd participated actively in the decision-making process. And then, in the days after the election, I found myself almost incapacitated by my frustration at the emerging consensus (at least in the media) that we had essentially become two countries, "red" and "blue," and ne'er the twain shall meet. In the '70s, there had been all sorts of divisiveness, of course, but it still had felt to me like we were one country, albeit one arguing bitterly with itself. Had something irrevocable happened since 1980, while I was attending to other, non-political things? Was America "over"?

My distress drove me to try and track down Prof. Wolin, to try to get some perspective on what was happening. I reached him by phone -- he no longer teaches, but is still a prolific writer. When it comes to democracy, he takes the long view -- back to Athens, and I hope forward as well -- and speaking with him I felt the old excitement of talking passionately about politics. But not politics as just "us" versus "them" -- I mean politics as a way to discover who I am by connecting myself to other people, across time and geography. And sometime in that phone conversation I found myself saying that I finally felt ready to write my thesis, and asking if he'd still advise me.

And he said yes. He started me on a reading list, I've been reading some amazing books with my usual glacial slowness (occasionally napping and often drinking coffee -- the difference at 47 being that I now know the important thing is to keep going) -- and just this month I got the official go-ahead from, get this, Dick Williams (who's still dean of academics; he must wonder if he'll ever be rid of me!) to do my senior thesis with Prof. Wolin. In addition, he's allowing me to submit my upcoming monologue about democracy (opening in San Francisco next May) as my thesis -- pending Wolin's giving it a passing grade, of course.

So if everything goes according to plan, by next June I will be a proud member of both the Class of '80 and the Class of '07. And when it comes time to vote in the November 2008 election, I may even have an idea or two of my own to bring to the table.

Entry Filed under: citizenship,let's digress


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