The thing we like to call democracy

We can’t create democracy by unilaterally burning buildings and babies. We can’t protect democracy by disempowering the the United Nations, the only major institution that could foster democracy’s international viability by creating at least one space in which nation-states work to decide things together. And we cannot make democracy evaporate by suppressing and circumventing it where it is existing and thriving, as Yale University is attempting to do right here in New Haven.

We return this week to a world and community transformed both by an unjust war that claims to uphold the democracy it destroys and by the labor movement right here which exemplifies democracy and persists despite those who try to destroy it. I am writing this because as our bombs sear through buildings and communities and families in Iraq, we should remember that democracy in its true form does not come easily. To me democracy is the genuine commitment among a group of people to self-determine their existence — at their workplaces, through their wages, through their access to training and education and health care, through their ability to retire, and all of this though their ability to vote and collectively bargain. This phenomenon does not come easily either within this country or outside of it — it requires the hard patient work of tireless individuals. This phenomenon among people, this genuine commitment to self-determination, is the only thing that can lead to sustained happiness and material well-being for families and communities. And for this reason, it should be cherished, nurtured and exalted where it does exist and where it can be found, like in the labor movement here on campus.

Even though the sun is shining these days, we should not forget that just a few weeks ago workers of every kind stood in the rain, snow and freezing cold, united from every part of Yale unlike ever before, banded together demanding the right to self-determine both as individuals and as collective units. They were there to protest Yale’s denial of their right to adequate pensions, to livable wages, to improve themselves and most fundamentally, their right to collectively bargain. They asked for the right to self-determine, for a real role in their relationship with Yale, for a seat at the table because they — like all people — deserve the chance to shape their lives.

Most people in New Haven can vote. They don’t, but they can. But most people in New Haven can’t pay for child care, health care, college tuition, or retirement; and ironically, the people who vote most can pay for at least most of these things. For those who cannot pay for these things, voting doesn’t always seem like it will matter, and so many people don’t seem to care about voting. Because the world is dominated by the interests of the wealthiest people and institutions, democracy in New Haven and elsewhere isn’t just about voting — that is only its most reduced, stripped-bare definition. It is about self-determination and the right of the people who live and work in this community to shape it.

Monday, Yale offered locals 34 and 35 supposedly good faith 10-year long contracts that make a mockery of the unions’ initial demands by increasing pensions only a miniscule amount, paying no attention to their request for a seat at the table, and attempting to diminish the unions’ power in the long term by locking them into 10-year contracts that would doom future multilateral attempts with the hospital workers and graduate students to collectively self-determine, leaving these last two groups with no union, no economic power and no way to assert themselves at all. Yale’s sustained refusal to acknowledge any of the recommendations made by the independent consultant, RAI, and refusal to acknowledge the grievances of two groups of workers within the community who are asking for union recognition is utterly antithetical to democracy.

So as we drop bombs on Baghdad in the name of this nebulous thing called democracy, everything I have learned here at Yale leads me to believe that we should not fail to protect democracy where it is thriving. We should not forget the hospital workers and office workers and dining hall workers and graduate student workers and community members marching in the cold. We should not forget Cornel West demanding that Yale live up to its maxim of “Light and Truth” and examine itself Socratically. We should not forget John Wilhelm telling a crowd covered in ponchos and umbrellas that “universities should not be in the business of lowering moral standards.” We should not forget the people who came together and demanded real democracy during that historic week that made me truly proud to be a part of Yale for the first time in years.

As we embrace the task of rebuilding the potential for democratic international governance that has fallen to our generation, we should also exhort Yale to stop waging war on democracy here at home. And we should cherish, nurture and exalt the democracy that exists here because it is the only thing that can save the world.



Shonu Gandhi is a senior in Saybrook College.


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