Mike Ormsby - Democracy
Democracy, when it comes, does not always carry with it the bells, whistles and positives that popular culture has come to associate with the political concept. Benjamin Franklin is often misquoted as the originator of the saying, "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch." Irrespective of who coined the phrase the truth of it rings out - the tyranny of the majority against the minority is an inherent problem of the system.
Mike Ormsby's Democracy tells of a grubby residential block meeting where the residents discuss, and vote upon, such matters as salary increases, pipe blockages, the problem of the Chinese, and so forth. There is a President and a Vice President, and faceless, eternally re-elected Committee members, and then the regular people, ordinary residents, who put forth suggestions and ideas for improvements that are, almost overwhelmingly, ignored.
Democracy is written in the present tense, set in Bucharest, and written with the sharp understanding that the promises of the first world do not easily translate into tangible benefits for the vast majority. Pre-democracy, the residential tenants paid too much in salary to the figureheads and not enough to the workers or to maintenance; post-democracy the same is true. Choice doesn't matter much when what you are choosing between is a blue tie and a red tie.
Take the following, which comes immediately after the President announces a pay rise for himself and the other top-level administrators. Lumi, “just” a resident, suggests the cleaner should receive a minor salary increase as well:
'Not Tina!' [Vlaicu the Administrator] snaps, perched on the edge of his seat. His voice booms down the corridor. Tina glances up from the yard, as if she heard it. Vlaicu's chest is heaving.
'By the time she pays tax, it won't be worth her while!' he adds. A brief silence follows, while the residents mull it over. But then someone asks:
'So, why did you get a rise?'
Silence descends once more.
Vlaicu glares around the residents like he could put thumbscrews on us all. But the Resident seems to sense the wind of political change and waves a hand, saying:
'Give Tina 20 percent, who cares.'
And on goes the meeting. The “President” and “Vice-President” and so on are, of course, petty officials in a miserably small system (the residential block). And, like most such men and women, they have become inflated with their own worth, and are more than willing to loot the (small) kitty. Ormsby's skill is to higlight the flaws of democracy and strong-arming techniques with admirable economy – the story itself stretches to just three pages.
Take the following, which highlights the problems that may occur when a minority fails to have a voice during the decision-making process:
...someone asks why the rubbish chute gets blocked every week.
'Because of that Dumitrescu on the third floor,' grunts Vlaicu, tapping the VP's notepad, as if he wants it written down. Nobody objects and Mr. Dumitrescu isn't here to protest. The VP scribbles the verdict, pen clutched in his podgy fist.
Mr. Dumitrescu (or substitute: African Americans. Or substitute: Australian Aboriginals. Or Substitute: French Muslims. Etc, etc) isn't there and can't vote against the resolution or appeal on his own behalf, and thus he will become punished. Democracy has been successful – everyone agreed – but a minority has suffered.
Ormsby's story highlights the inherent problems of democracy, and particularly when that democracy is newly founded. The residents, drunk with their sudden (miserable) power, use it not to improve their lives, but to punish others and impose their will upon the weak. Good, cheap ideas are put forth and rejected while salary padding and cronyism are rewarded. The sop provided to Tina comes about purely thanks to shame - one of the few weapons the weak and dispossessed have at hand (and even then, in today's gated compounds and exclusive suburbs, this weapon is losing its effectiveness).
Satire remains one of the primary tools with which to puncture the inflated cant, hypocrisy and hyperbole of the reigning cultural idioms and political ideologies. Ormsby's story is sufficiently short and focused that almost all of its effect comes from the sharpness of the satire, and not the expected trappings of narrative fiction. The characters possess a mean sameness to them, and the dialogue exists primarily to eviscerate the idea that democracy is the answer to all problems. That said, Ormsby's style is clever and entertaining, and managers to condense a good deal of political criticism into a very small word count.
Democracy by Mike Ormsby is a short story from Bucharest Tales from the New Europe Writers series
Other stories from Bucharest Tales from the New Europe Writers series include:
---Bican, Florin - Penguins
---Lungu, Dan - Mr. Escu's Adventure
---Ruşti, Doina - Bill Clinton's Hand
---Tanase, Stelian - Zgaiba
Index of short stories under review from New Europe Writers - Bucharest Tales
Index of short stories under review from Absinthe 13: Spotlight on Romania
Index of short stories under review from The Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXX, #1 - Writing From Postcommunist Romania
Index of short stories under review
The reviews for this book were made possible thanks to a kind gift from my friend Bogdan Suceavă.