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The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated
You don't hate democracy, do you?
Commencement 2002

If one were to poll the 1200-plus seniors who will be graduating from Yale this weekend, one would probably find an almost unanimous view of democracy as an unquestioned good, and end in itself. This misunderstanding of democracy creeps into the everyday rhetoric of the average Yale activist who labors to make Yale, New Haven, America, or the local Dairy Queen more democratic. Few understand the implications of the word.

With each new generation since the days of Andrew Jackson, Americans have felt more and more entitled to “democracy” without understanding what it is. Most believe that democracy automatically implies justice. The only measure of the goodness of an institution, whether it is the United States government or Yale University, is how democratic it is, whatever that means.

Democracy is a political institution, a method by which decisions are made. Whether a decision is good or bad, just or unjust, is a judgment entirely separate from whether democratic means produced it or not. A society that enslaves a third of the population because the other two-thirds voted in favor of this policy would hardly be considered just. Taking the ideas of the democracy-equals- justice crowd to their fullest conclusion, this society would be about as just as they come.

This is the rhetoric behind the campaign to put the Rev. W. David Lee into the alumni seat on the Yale Corporation, the move by United Students at Yale to unionize Yale undergraduates, and the drive to unionize graduate students through the Graduate Employees Student Organization. All of these groups, in attempting to get justice on their side, have invoked images of democracy to lull people into supporting their goals.

Lee’s campaign is based on democratizing Yale and making the Corporation more directly responsive to the wishes of New Haven residents. It is not clear what this means. Perhaps in a truly democratic Yale, each member would get one vote, or perhaps the endowment would be divided among Yale’s workers. In this issue, readers will get a glimpse into what democracy actually means for the Rev. Lee and his supporters (“A Partnership Made in Heaven” by Nikki McArthur, pg. 6).

This lack of understanding of normative claims becomes clear when one examines the rhetoric and platform of United Students at Yale. This group of undergraduates recently delivered a petition to President Levin with 3,017 signatures, demanding that the university allow greater input from Yale students. USAY was able to convince more than 3,000 Yalies to sign their document by making the familiar appeal: “You don’t hate democracy, do you?” With tears in their eyes the people signed. No one knew which organization was behind the petition. The mere mention of the term “democracy” seems to have blinded these students into signing a document without knowing the positions of its proponents. Few knew what USAY actually wanted, what the words they used actually stood for and how it would get its way. Few knew that USAY, besides wanting a greater student voice, also functions as the undergraduate arm of Yale’s unions, GESO, and the Lee campaign.

The same holds for GESO. In their cries to make Yale live up to its promise of being a democratic institution, the GESO organizers have demanded that Yale respect the voice of the majority of graduate students, who GESO claims have signed cards indicating their desire for a union recognized by the University. Even if this is true, it does not matter. What happens to the 49 percent who voted against a union? They must join the union or have to leave Yale if GESO gets its way. This is antithetical to the idea of a university, where students should be encouraged to think for themselves and not be forced to joinThe misuse of the term democracy in modern political discourse has lead to confusion and obfuscation. Process is important, as the Right so often points out. However, it is at best naïve and at worst ludicrous to concern oneself only with process and throw any conception of good ends out the window.

The equation of democracy with morality has led to a diminution of the good. If democracy is the main standard by which an institution is considered to be just, then it allows all sorts of undesirable things to occur, as long as the majority approves of them. This is how the activists want Yale to be run. They want Yale to be judged not by the quality of the actual decisions it makes, but rather on the number of New Haven residents it consulted before making each decision. This changes the role of the University. It is no longer the guardian and advancer of knowledge, but rather a dispenser of social welfare: a glorified United Way with lots of Gothic buildings and trendy people reading Derrida.

One sometimes wonders whether this misuse of democracy is deliberate or not. It is probably a bit of both. The people are either guilty of an error of knowledge in misunderstanding political philosophy, or of a moral failing in not disclosing the motives lurking behind their rhetoric. The university is not a democratic institution responsive to the will of its constituents. Rather it is an institution dedicated to fostering a community of knowledge and learning. That is what the diplomas the graduates receive this weekend will signify.

Yevgeny Vilensky is Editor-in-Chief.


 
 

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