Notes on the Atrocities Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...
Monday, May 26, 2003
Democracy, by Martha Shulman
I was in the irregular office of Mr. Michael Tuthill, owner of BridgePort Publishing, when he received the package. An iridescent blue, plastic-coated manila envelope. He allowed it to gleam on his desk for a moment before emptying its contents. Inside, the transcript of Democracy, by the well-known Wisconsin philosopher, Martha Shulman. Tuthill was ecstatic.
"Here it is," he told me, doing a truncated little jig. Outside, the trucks rumbled down Burnside.
Neither Tuthill nor I realized that similar packages were being received in similar offices of similarly-insignificant publishers in Tallinn and Dhaka. Where editors danced, much like Tuthill.
Although the packages were similar, they were not identical. In addition to the manuscripts, they contained exacting instructions about the book: dimensions, typeface, paper type, quality, and weight, cover design. These were indistinguishable. Then there were the manuscripts, superficially alike.
Each was 72,372 words and 21 chapters long. Chapter and section headings were the same, and except for minor exceptions, the indices, bibliographies, and acknowledgements were identical. It was the author's thesis wherein most of the obvious differences were later discovered.
In the American edition, Shulman extolled the triumph of democracy. Not a political triumph--that was self-evident--but an evolutionary triumph. She argued that, owing to the elegance of democratic government and its benefits, society was well on the way to being cleansed of the ills that heretofore pestered civilization: war, strife, poverty, Marxism, religion.
In the European edition, she argued the opposite: democracy was the greatest failure humans had yet perpetrated upon themselves. She compared it to alcoholism: like a drunk who is fooled into thinking that his vice is his salvation, democracy's failures were not only fatal, but the very citizens who were bound for doom were busy celebrating, intoxicated by their "success." Quite to the contrary, though, the world, she argued, was on the brink of environmental collapse and apocalyptic war.
To my thinking, the Bangladeshi edition was the most interesting. Here, Shulman argued that democracy did not exist nor had it ever. As with so many human beliefs--geocentrism, racial equality, dinosaurs--democracy was merely conceptual. She demonstrated this by example: Mexico, Pakistan, and most perniciously, the United States.
Early reviews were favorable. In the United States, Democracy was called "unexpected" (Shulman was, after all, one of the few remaining theoretical monarchists) and "surprisingly cogent" by the New York Times.
Europeans were incensed, and therefore pleased. Le Monde called it "the first bold political philosophy since Sartre--enough to erase the debacle of the tedious post-modernists forever." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung used an economy of words in declaring it "post-neoconservative."
And in South Asia, Hindus winked knowingly. "Of course Dr. Shulman is correct," wrote a Times of India reviewer, "but I am certainly surprised to find an American making the point.
These reviews had been written, however, before recognition of Shulman's maneuver had surfaced.
I met Dr. Shulman at Ernie's in Sheboygan, eleven days after Democracy was published. She was enjoying a snack of fried cheese curds. A rangy woman of over six feet tall, she wore incongruously small, steel-rimmed glasses, and her snowy hair was cropped in a modest pageboy. Clothes billowed off her long limbs like sailcloth.
For the fifteen minutes we spoke, I noticed that her eyebrows never moved, which was disquieting. And her smoking, a kind of conversational border collie, creating a physical space in which to contain words.
She began by offering a curd and asking if I had read much of her philosophy.
"No, thank you," I said, indicating the curds. And then, "Mainly reviews," I confessed to her second question.
"It doesn't matter," she told me.
Unfortunately, after that brief opening, I had difficulty directing her back to Democracy. She preferred to talk about golf (her son plays for the University of Wisconsin).
"But this is the fascinating thing about it," she told me. "Golf only has distantly to do with athletics. Nearly every player of a certain skill has the ability to hit the ball straight every time. And yet few do it uniformly."
Suspecting she was speaking metaphorically about her democracy-as-fiction argument, I responded, "I see--golf then, like democracy, is theoretical?"
"What are you talking about? It's an international sport."
She spent ten minutes describing the development of her son's game. After a few attempts to commandeer the conversation and return it to her publications, I realized it was futile. Each time I tried, she sent a jet of smoke out to keep me quiet. I listened.
"And of course, he chose to play in Wisconsin to be near his friends, who by and large are hockey players. This is a further obstacle."
"I'd imagine it is."
"He's tried to play in the winter using red balls, but it's useless."
She popped the final curd into her mouth and lighted a fresh cigarette off the end of a nearly-consumed one. Then stood. "It was very nice speaking to you," she said. "Thank you so much."
"But can you tell me anything at all about your books?" I pleaded. "Anything I might use in an article?"