Norman Mailer on Democracy

By Shlomo Maital

      “Nachem Malech Mailer (January 31, 1923 – November 10, 2007), known by his pen name Norman Kingsley Mailer, was an American novelist, journalist, playwright, filmmaker and actor. In a career spanning over six decades, Mailer had 11 best-selling books, at least one in each of the seven decades after World War II.”  (Wikipedia).

His first novel, the Naked and the Dead, a war novel, was published in 1948.

      Here is what he wrote about American democracy.  This passage combines words he wrote in 1963,  2000 and 2006. 

      It applies with great force to current attacks on democracy in the US,  in Hungary, in Poland, in Venezuela,  and now, in my country, Israel. 

    “We, so great a democracy, have demonstrated already that we have little comprehension of democracy itself.  We don’t seem to understand that it has to be built from the ground up, from the inner midnight will of the people who live in that country.

        “No external power can offer you democracy as a gift. If you are not willing to die for your own idea of democracy, then you are not going to have one.   But democracy however, is not an antibiotic, to be injected into a polluted foreign body.   It is not a magical serum.   Rather democracy is a grace.

        “In its ideal state it is noble. In practice, in countries that have lived through decades and centuries of revolutions, in order to safeguard traditions, democracy becomes a political condition which can often withstand the corruption and power seeking of enough humans, to remain viable as a good society. 

      “It is never routine. Never automatic.   Like each human being, democracy is always growing into more, or less.  Each generation must be alert to the dangers that threaten democracy, as each human who wishes to be good must learn how to survive in the labyrinths of envy, greed and the confusions of moral judgment. 

      “Democracy, by the nature of its moral assumptions, has to grow in moral depth, or commence to deteriorate.  So the constant danger that besets it, is the downward pull of fascism.  There is not only a love of freedom, but a wretchedness of spirit that can look for its opposite which identifies with the idea of order and control from above.” 

      America was born in 1776.  Some 84 years later, in 1860, a bloody civil war was fought, essentially about democracy (do African-Americans have democratic rights)? 

      In my country, Israel,  76 years after its birth,  we too are now fighting a fierce internal conflict over democracy.   Our newly elected government seeks to destroy it, as the Confederacy sought to preserve slavery.

      They will fail.  But the conflict will be long and protracted, though not bloody.  In the end, Israel’s democracy will come out the other side of a long dark tunnel, strengthened by a new Constitution – rules of the game by which all must abide.

      In May 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, the intention was to have the first Knesset enact a Constitution. But war broke out and all attention was devoted to survival.  Several attempts were made to draft an agreed-upon Constitution, one of them led by Likud MK Mickey Eitan.  But they all failed. 

Out of the current chaos, I believe a new effort will be made to draft a Constitution, based on Israel’s Declaration of Independence (megillat ha-atzmaut).   This will happen, only after the current internal crisis reaches massive proportions, and the Prime Minister who created it has left the scene for good.