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Corn: Disorderly democracy beats authoritarian power

POSTED: March 12, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Just as a new mother cannot detect the daily changes her baby undergoes by reason of her constant proximity to the child, so those that are most grounded in their own country often miss the trends happening around them, for what shifts slowly is subtle and difficult to catch in motion.

Having lived away from my own country many years, I am frequently surprised by the changes I have encountered since my return. It would be tedious to list all the examples of this experience. However, one overall tendency is worth examination: the increasingly undemocratic feel of American institutions.

A generation of English Puritans refined a mode of institutional management that was representative, and though messily inclusive, it was one whose administration had a more communal feel than the contrary style of strict hierarchy. We owe a great deal to this 17th century generation that supplied many of our country's first colonists, who by the good fortune of arriving first were able to dictate many of America's societal norms for future generations.

It seems that today's America has decidedly more primitive tastes regarding administration, and now prefers the cold efficiency of executive fiat. The burden of individual responsibility and the tiresome argumentative nature of decision-making that comes with a representative power structure are just more trouble than they are worth.

To contrast, the nature of military conflict gives rise to a strict hierarchy in martial affairs, so that even when leaders are manifestly incompetent, their orders are devotedly carried out, at times with disastrous results.

Institutions of higher education, religion and state, however, afford the liberty of inclusion, as long as it is respected by reasonable efficiency and honest representation.

The University of Georgia is a prime example of this shift in style. It has gone from a traditional academic model of inclusive governance, where the faculty essentially ran the school, to an increasingly executive model. This may be due less to indecisive faculty members than to the corrupting inroads made by big money interests as the state has gradually ceded its control.

This influence was clearly on display at last May's commencement ceremony, where the university's elusive president, Dr. Michael Adams, spent a large part of his speech kowtowing to large donors and lauding his own executive initiatives to expand the already unwieldy conglomerate UGA has become. It may be due to its weakness, neglect or simple apathy, but by allowing large private funds into the university, the state of Georgia gradually surrenders the most important aspect of its authority over our beloved university.

Today, its president and professors must increasingly focus on pleasing these outside moneyed interests with new "centers" and "studies" and "research," which obviously detract from the delicate work of forming bright minds.

In their defense, the faculty of the largest college on campus gave Adams an overwhelming vote of "no confidence" in 2004, but the fact that their protest had no effect makes clear who runs the school. The end result is a university whose mission is ever more fragmented. Its body, having been persistently disconnected by increased specialization, is now nearly separated from its greater purpose in our society.

In religious organization one can also witness a clear affinity for the executive. It seems the old model of churches as representative institutions is outmoded today in favor of the preacher as dictator to the faithful; absolute ruler of his own earthly fiefdom.

Visit any fast-growing megachurch in the area and one is likely to be efficiently pointed to parking, acknowledged by an army of grinning greeters and seated in the anonymous enormity of a dimly-lit sanctuary. During the sermon, the relationship of the pastor to the flock becomes clear. More often than not, the pastor of such churches effectively owns its revenues, and this seems to make him inclined to direct rather than guide its members.

One may argue that this shift is minor, but he would forget that one of the central tenants of Protestantism for 500 years has been the right of the individual to read the scriptures and decide for himself the nature of their contents. The church has likewise been a collective body of these empowered individuals, and any regression toward hierarchy ought to be regarded with due suspicion.

The corruption of corporate boards, who sell out shareholders' interests for bribes or favors, and city councils whose members steer public contracts in return for kickbacks are examples that make clear that representative administration is by no means an end in itself. These committees must be kept honest by the greater bodies they represent.

Yet to surrender the inclusiveness inherent in our culture's institutions to the personal prerogatives of so many petty presidents means not only to relinquish ownership of them, but to change the very feel of life in America.

Many of us are willing to tolerate a little disorder in life, park our own cars and find our own seats, for we are awake enough to recognize compulsion, even when obscured by a smile.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears every other Friday and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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