A few days ago NPR read an E.B. White’s letter on the meaning of democracy, and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. White’s Here Is New York is one of my favorite essays, and his mastery of words and observation are no less impressive here. After spending two weeks traveling in disillusioned Eastern Europe and coming home to our own imperfect democracy, these words, written during World War II, seem particularly poignant:
We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on ‘The Meaning of Democracy.’ It is presumably our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure. Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles, the dent in the high hat.
Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is. (E.B. White, July 3, 1943)