ON: democracy by Meredith Grace Thompson
In this final instalment of their ON____ series (read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 here), Meredith Grace Thompson sifts through her recently consumed media, picking over concepts of freedom and democracy as they go, and seeking something to hold on to during a lockdown shift in a sandwich shop somewhere in Canada.
I watch the second series of Fleabag all at once, for the third time, buried deep in a mountain of duvet and pillows and a wool blanket woven on an inherited loom. The moment in the confessional booth — the moment which caused such a hailstorm of fandom hysterics over Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest — but not quite; it’s the monologue just before: Fleabag’s monologue:
I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about; I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to... tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong. And I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do and what they’ll get out the end of it, and even though I don’t believe your bullshit and I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared; why am I still scared? So just tell me what to do. Just fucking tell me what to do, Father! —(Fleabag, series 2, episode 4)
That’s what gets me.
I think I want to be told what to do as well.
What is it to be told what to do?
Fleabag is speaking about religion, or spirituality, or faith. But I am thinking about governments and regulations and the systems in which we live. Systems of power and repression and uplifting, all intertwining throughout each of our lives. Systems which the pandemic has made tenuous and strained.
So I ask myself — as a non-religious person, without Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest making me question my religiosity — who tells me what to do?
What is democracy?
I say the words, and you immediately think of a thing — what is it? An amalgamation of things? Both concrete and allegorical; both imagined and real; this mug and all it represents. Something about the voice of the people and freedom and voting and elections, and maybe recent elections, and leaders who said one thing and did another almost immediately; Nobel Prize winners who claim the voice of freedom and then turn the other cheek to genocide; whether they represent democratic values, or ever did; how people communicate. Words that fall into meaninglessness.
What are broken promises? Just words? Is there any such thing? What is your love language?
Democracy is a system for choosing representative governing bodies, which in turn create laws for the electorate that has chosen them, as well as for themselves (ideally). Democratic countries tend to hold a certain moral value system, or such moral frameworks are arguably imparted within the democratic system itself: the voice of the people is paramount in the choosing of the government and this, in and of itself, implies what we today view as so-called ‘democratic values: Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, universal suffrage (with tentative definitions of ‘universal’). We think of Democracy (capital D) as freedom (grand sweeping) and of freedom as being the only thing that truly matters.
What exactly are we choosing when we vote in a democracy? The government who will choose our laws, based on their purported value systems, which are based on campaign promises, which are based on systems of elite education and white privilege and capitalist hierarchy, which all follow the unspoken norms of our society — but the 2010–20s have proved that norms can change with nauseating speed, and words mean closer and closer to nothing, if allowed. So what exactly are we choosing? The laws themselves? Our voice is only in who leads us as if voting for a king makes him any less of a King. And we cannot languish in the mud, waiting for the benevolent monarch to condescend to our level and scoop us up. Although those mud farmers in Monty Python do seem genuinely happy.
In James Ivory’s 1985 film adaptation of E.M. Forrester’s classic novel A Room with a View, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Cecil Vyse unknowingly arranges for the two romantic leads of the novel (one of whom is his fiancée) to meet one another again after their brief acquaintance in Florence, Italy, when he offers the rental of a house in Summer Street, Surrey, owned by the snobbish Sir Harry to George Emmerson and his father. Cecil feels he has done a righteous and revolutionary thing by giving Sir Harry lower-class tenants with which to contend. ‘Scoring off Sir Harry,’ as Lucy, the protagonist, calls it. The scene is practically identical in book and film, although there is something alluring about how detestably yet endearingly Cecil is portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis — the completely un-self-aware Cecil; with his stiff white collar, tiny moustache, tinier glasses, and nose tilted up as if pulled by a string. Following Lucy, his fiancée, up the stairs, Cecil claims: ‘It will teach that snob Sir Harry a lesson...no, Lucy, the classes ought to mix. There ought to be inter-marriage, all sorts of things, I believe in democracy!’ — finishing with an extravagant flourish of his hands to accentuate the word and pausing on the stairs for effect. Lucy, played by an almost unbelievably cherub-faced Helena Bonham-Carter, laughs immediately with indignant mirth: ‘No, you don’t. You don’t know what the word means!’ she chides. And the viewer is bound to agree, although unsure precisely with what they are agreeing.
What is this democracy Cecil speaks of? This is not democracy within the political system but rather within a system of social order. The common (white) man must have his voice. But what of the common non-white non-man, making up the vast expanse of the world’s population and silenced for aeons; the ringing silence of so much wasted human potential; how many bodies in the ocean — in the mud — because they did not conform? And Cecil speaks of two identical men, save for a variance of income and class bracket. Classism, racism, sexism, all these things exist happily in a democracy. So what exactly does Cecil mean? He seems to be referring to the optics of democracy. That moral value system which makes Western colonizers believe in their own superiority and, most importantly, in the superiority of their own freedoms. Cecil is free to ‘score off Sir Harry’ because Cecil has nothing to lose. He lives comfortably, speaking of democracy, with his tiny glasses and his half-read books. His morality is flawed because his position is secure. Those who have nothing to lose can safely demand change.
But democracy is not a moral framework.
The next day, I am standing behind the counter of a restaurant with no people and soft music playing. There are stapled-shut bags with labels and receipts in rows behind me, waiting for their future owners to come to claim them. I feel sleepy and somehow mournful. I am still thinking about Fleabag.
We are in lockdown again. The restaurant is doing take-away only. My face is covered by a soft black mask. It smells unavoidably of olive oil soap and my own face. It’s as if my face were somehow inside itself — but my skin has never been softer. Must be all the olive oil soap from daily washes. I should probably have two black masks...
And I think about the people I can see through the large, bright window, standing together, laughing, not wearing masks. They have met as they walked, I think. I narrow my eyes. Masks, now a social signal of solidarity and empathy, say openly and plainly that the wearer cares for the people around them. Their absence has become an easy Fuck-You of the anti-social, libertarian-minded souls who believe being told what to do in any way is an impediment to their freedom and that any impediment to their individual freedom, no matter the consequences for the freedom of others, is the worst thing in the world. And I start thinking about freedom. Freedom as an end in and of itself is not a good thing. It becomes nihilism, and nihilism becomes (my mediocre understanding of) a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ wherein every MAN (there are no non-men in a Hobbesian state of nature, except possibly as broodmares) just wanders around...trying to fight? Other men? For, like, meat or pointy sticks or something? Maybe there’s a rock or some fire involved? Anyway, it’s gross and horrible.
And I think about being told what to do.
I am frightened, and I want to be told what to do. The pandemic has frightened me.
It’s so easy to just be told what to do.
But I hate being told what to do.
Socrates didn’t like democracy. He saw the inevitable rise of a demagogue who would trick the uninformed masses, the voice of the people, into voting for something that was not in their best interest (**cough**Trump**cough**). The metaphor used in this School of Life video is of a sweet shop owner and a doctor. You don’t always want to vote for the doctor who is like, don’t eat candy all the time, wear a face mask in public so you don’t spit on the people around you with your mouth air and give them all a highly infectious disease, while the sweet shop owner is all candy for everyone! Who cares about masks or disease, or what we owe to each other, so long as you’re are all fired up in this exact moment! But that’s not sustainable. Your teeth will fall out, and you’ll definitely have Covid. So what is to be done?? (little Lenin/Chernyshevsky pun for all the Marxist revolutionaries out there.)
What do we owe to one another? What is our responsibility as human beings existing on a pluralistic planet who have no choice but to co-exist?
Religion gives us moral codes to follow and abide by. Don’t do this. For sure, do that. But religion has been perverted in our contemporary sense. It creates a system of hierarchical validation: I am better than you because I have the approval of a church. Would there be an environmental crisis right now, if the sweeping religions of the world were ones of nature and respect for the natural world? As religion recedes into the background of our collective conscience — except for the Hot Priest — so-called democratic values have taken its place. We believe we are rational, and therefore we are able to think our way into morality rather than be trained by mythology. But we are not really that rational. And freedom has become a cult-like obsession in our western democracies that see only the individual and never the collective.
Democracy is loose-fitting communities living together under a collective system of deciding and sharing similar values. The most votes win the argument, and you have to go along with what is decided by the group. You cannot scream tyranny if you do not like the outcome of a democratic vote. Democracy is, in and of itself, a good idea: everyone gets a say in the running of a system. But a good idea can only get you so far as many countries attempt to bring together millions of people under a single government, maintaining coalitions with so many different interests. Democracy risks becoming streamlined for the sake of efficiency, and streamlined democracy risks becoming less and less free, paying lip service to democratic ideals while upholding systems of deeply entrenched politics, and politics are becoming less and less free.
While not absolute freedom, democracy is dependent upon freedom of opinion and information; Vladimir Putin was voted into his fourth presidential term in 2018 with a shocking 77% majority of the vote, and no unbiased observer would ever claim contemporary Russia as a free and fair democracy. Putin is a Mafia Tsar — and while a pretty sweet villain in a John Wick movie, a terrifying individual to take up so much space on the global stage without Keanu Reeves to dethrone him.
And I hate being told what to do.
And why is the Priest in Fleabag hot? I mean, he’s Andrew Scott. Andrew Scott is very sexy. His whole being is sexy. Even when he plays a villain. But there’s more to it. It is perhaps in the sensuality of transgression where Fleabag finds its eroticism. Tara McGowen-Ross writes beautifully about this in her 2019 poetry collection Scorpion Season.
To answer your question, the erotic is by definition transgressive. It crosses over. It opens up the possibility of some other thing. Transgressive is a moving target.
Does transgression, then, feel more liberating than freedom in certain moments? Or perhaps the elation of the erotic transgression is confused with the elation of freedom, begging the fundamental question: do human beings truly desire to be free? Can desire even be a part of it?
Democracy cannot mean only freedom.
At the beginning of the first lockdown in March 2020, I was frightened. It was unknown and isolating. It still is. I just wanted to be told what to do, where to go, where not to go, and how to stay safe. Mostly I wanted to know that the government was taking my health and safety seriously and had some sort of plan. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the country every morning, and I listened, nervously and needily. He spoke calmly. He assured us that something was being done, even if that something wasn’t totally clear yet. But I felt assured. I felt as if the country was listening with me, and we were all facing this together, although this sense of solidarity was quickly proven to be an illusion. But for the first time in my life, I understood completely why frightened people fall so easily into autocracy. They become vulnerable, and they open themselves up. And while I do not believe Trudeau to possess any personal dreams of autocracy, I see where a country or an individual may be taken advantage of. Fear does strange things to the human brain. I distrust and dislike a system that is so precariously perched on the personal morality of leaders within a system that does not reward such morality.
Today, over a year later, I stand again in a barricaded restaurant, filled with bare tables which have now become homes for plants that frame a snaking series of red arrows on the floor, leading customers to the counter and then back to the door. Stand here. Stand apart. Move forward now. Do not touch your mask, your face, your hair. Keep your hands in your pockets until absolutely necessary. Sanitize everything twice. Use a stylus to touch any screen or card machine.
There is an angry ox of a man standing in front of me, having just finished paying, unhappy about standing on arrows and having the card machine sanitized after he touched it and wanting his sandwich quickly. After the usual niceties are shared over the strangeness of the times in which we live, he says, ‘Well, this is what it’s like in Trudeau’s Canada.’ I am grateful for my mask because I am unable to stop my lips from floating into a smile. I’m not sure if it is a smile of pity, or horror, or genuine amusement from the absolute absurdity of his statement.
Western democracies have sidestepped truth. We have allowed ourselves to be pushed and frightened and to sidestep that which is true in the world. Now, I am not going to even begin to get into ideas of objective reality, or simulation theory, or metaphysics in that sense of the word. Because for our purposes, none of it matters. We are here. And we are making ourselves and one another sick because it is too effortful not to. In war, there is a clear enemy. In a pandemic, we are all being traumatized, collectively, by one another, constantly. My freedom ends where your freedom begins and is then subsumed under our freedom. Our freedom is all of our responsibility.
So what is to be done? About all this bubbling of social unrest and change of late. Pandemic, democratic backsliding, violence in the streets, police brutality, the potential of future socialism in current western democracies, the return of big cats and big-horn mountain sheep to cities... can something new emerge from the old? Something more valuable?
Canada has chosen to use suggestion rather than enforcement during the pandemic, which has culminated in a second and a third wave, each more intense than the last with less and less interest by the public or provincial governments. We seem shockingly willing to accept risk when it is an individual choice between hypothetical risk and a moment of inconvenience here and now. Suggestions of mask-wearing and border closing without any real enforcement mechanism have meant that people are still traveling and sitting on trains without masks and that there are still nearly 1,000 cases a day with new variants rising. We are wasting our energy on claims of metaphysical freedom when our healthcare systems are being overrun. The choice, the desire to allow people to maintain some sense of freedom, is killing us.
Democracy has painted a picture of equality which uses large strokes to create the world as equals, all wanting the same things. But equality and equity are not the same thing. You can’t be equal and fair-minded when power is the goal or when you are trying to win a popularity contest. Sometimes, the sweet shop owner has to lose. And what we owe to one another is the same as what is owed to us: Respect, compassion, and solidarity.
Text: Meredith Grace Thompson