July 13, 2010

Democracy afloat

A SAILBOAT AT SEA is the perfect example of a working democracy.

(And what, you might ask, set you off on this tack? Never mind that now. Just listen, if you don’t mind.)

Imagine you are a molecule of fiberglass at the waterline in the bow of a boat. A wave comes along and your natural response is to rise. And naturally, you believe in every atom of your fiber that the whole boat should rise with you.

But back aft, another molecule feels the water falling away from him. His reaction is to drop in obedience to gravity, and take the whole boat with him. But the trouble is that both of you are solidly fixed to other molecules along the whole length of the boat, and neither of you has the power to control the movement of the whole boat.

Now this is not a new discovery. It has been going on for ages. And, to resolve the problem, the fiberglass molecules long ago formed political parties in the ancient Greek tradition of democracy.

When members of the right-wing Fore Party want the whole boat to rise with a swell they threaten the Midships Party with break-up unless it follows suit. But the Fore Party, while rich in rhetoric, lacks political clout. In fact, much to the distress of the other two parties, the middle-of-the-road Midships Party is the real dealmaker here. Naturally, the liberal-leaning Aft Party tries to influence the Midships Party with promises rather than threats, but all these parties merely react to events over which they have no control.

Nevertheless, what happens to the ship as a whole is governed largely by the Midships Party. Occasionally, the Fore Party might win and throw the bows high in the air over a passing crest. Similarly, the Aft Party might score a rare victory by dipping the stern in a deep trough. But in true democratic fashion it’s the middle that wins most of the time, proudly flaunting its election slogan: What’s Best for the Middle is Best for All.

On a quiet night at anchor, you might catch a hint of some of the incessant argument and jockeying for power. You might hear futile requests to stop making waves, and heartfelt pleas to recognize that we’re all in the same boat here. Someone’s wind will be taken out of his sails. Someone else will be taken aback at a new tack proposed by the party leader.

If you listen carefully, you might hear little groans from the hull as the boat rolls gently and the Fore Party slaps its collective forehead at the obduracy of the other stupid idiots to whom it is linked.

I can only hope this democratic movement lasts a long time. It is little understood and little observed but I have no doubt it has its own set of spokesmen, pollsters, and lobbyists. I hope, too, that the lobbyists never gain as much power as those in present-day Washington have. It would be nothing less than a disaster if those troublemakers up forward turned into a breakaway party.

Today’s Thought
The struggle is confused; our knight wins by no clean thrust of lance or sword, but the dragon somehow poops out, and decent democracy is victor.
— Norman Thomas

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #69
Exhaust-line pitch. Engine exhaust piping that is cooled with water must, of course, run downhill. The rule of thumb is that it should have a continuous drop of 1 inch for every two feet of run.

“Have I told you about my latest trip to the North Pole?”
“No, and I much appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

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