Over the weekend I went with my family to a science fair on the University of Wisconsin campus. There was everything from a way-over-my-head display on stem cell research to a crash-dummy demonstration of how much force is behind those highlight-reel hits by football players, which not coincidentally was next to a multimedia presentation on concussion research. Among the highlights of the fair was a Bill Nye the Science Guy type of show put on by Lebanese-born chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri featuring lots of explosions and other neat tricks.
At one point, Dr. Shakhashiri called attention to several long cylinders containing liquids of different colors. Before making them erupt like volcanoes, he pointed to each one and asked the audience what color the liquid was. For the first, quite a few shouted "blue." When he pointed to another, children and adults alike called out "red." He pointed to another containing what looked like water and asked again for his audience to identify the color. I mouthed the word "clear," and probably a dozen others gave the same answer out loud.
Professor Shakhashiri scolded us, noting that all of the liquids were clear but this last one was also colorless and further admonished us that clear and colorless are not the same thing. I learned this weekend what I should have already known, but for my own lackluster effort that earned only a C in high school chemistry.
Just as there is a difference between clear and colorless, there is a difference between freedom and democracy. We live in what unquestionably qualifies as a free and open society. There are undeniably some troubling assaults on essential liberties that must be beaten back, but overall we enjoy a great deal of social and economic freedom, especially when compared to most of the rest of the world.
At the same time, our democracy is quite ill. In a healthy democracy, political power is widely shared. Today in America, real power is concentrated in the hands of a very few. Most people believe their voices aren't being heard and a great many are convinced their votes don't count for much.
This is the American paradox. We are both free and increasingly undemocratic. We can more or less do as we please, but we have little or no say over anything important.
This is the genius of America's ruling class. They avoid the pitfalls that regularly ensnare two-bit dictators and authoritarian regimes by allowing us substantial freedom while still exercising near-full control over the direction of public debate and public policy. They do it by owning the information and systematically propagandizing the population. And they do it by working us and entertaining us to death, keeping us free but perpetually distracted while they go about accomplishing their aims. Those aims cost us a great deal, but we either don't notice or don't care because we freely occupy ourselves with an anesthetic combination of work-a-day responsibilities and trivial pursuits.
An open society is precious. Freedom is worth paying a steep price to have. But so is democracy. Trouble is, many if not most among us aren't worrying too much about democracy's sickly condition because they don't distinguish between the freedom we have and the democracy we don't.