The roar of democracy

An Independence Day outing serves as a reminder that in a democracy, some things are worth shouting about.

No doubt about it, Boston is a great place to celebrate the Fourth of July. Holiday traditions benefit from a little tweak in the program every once in a while, though, and this year I was pleased to do something a little different: debate the tax on tea.

Or more precisely: I attended a reenactment (loosely speaking) of the great debate at the Old South Meeting House of Dec. 16, 1773. This was the debate that led to the Boston Tea Party, in which 45 tons of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor. This protest by the Sons of Liberty against the hated tea tax helped spark the American Revolution.

Some 5,000 colonists descended upon the meeting house, the largest building in Colonial Boston, for that original debate in 1773. Only property-owning males over 21 were allowed to have the floor. Last week's reenactment had a smaller but more diverse crowd of debaters, since the moderator, in colonial costume but equipped with contemporary amplification gear, suspended those rules.

Entering the hall, we visitors were handed slips of paper assigning us to either the Patriot or the Loyalist side and giving us a role in the community as well. (I was cast as a Patriot and a merchant.) Each sheet also listed several talking points for each side.

Men, women, and children took their turns being recognized by the moderator and speaking from the talking points or making their case in their own words and in their own voice. The kids' participation was endearing; the larger debate was enriched by those who really knew their stuff and could argue in terms of centuries of British constitutional history.

Those of us too diffident to ask for the floor were nonetheless encouraged to cheer or jeer those who did want to speak their piece. To keep our exuberance historically correct, we were instructed to yell "Huzza!" to signify approval, or "Fie!" to register disapproval. It didn't take long at all for everyone to get into the spirit of the moment.

It was the kind of political audio track we don't get much of anymore in the United States. However polarized the contemporary political environment is, Congress is pretty decorous. Members of parliaments, on the other hand, continue to cheer and boo one another as the spirit moves them.

American listeners heard just a bit of this a few weeks ago when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought approval from the House of Commons to extend the period a terrorism suspect can be held without charges to 42 days. He managed to win a narrow victory, but in the face of jeering opposition clearly audible in the background of the National Public Radio report I heard.

The general roar of a Westminster-style parliament is as distinctive in its way as the sound of a baseball game carried on the radio. When I was posted to Toronto for the Monitor a few years ago, that roar was always part of the background of parliamentary reports from Ottawa.

In the United States we have talk radio and talk shows on TV in which people rant at one another, but we don't have a mechanism for the congressional opposition to confront the executive. That's why Gerald Ford's voluntary appearance before Congress to give sworn testimony to explain his pardon of Richard Nixon was so remarkable. Yes, there's the State of the Union address, but that's more of a group hug.

And, of course, a popular debate – even the original 1773 one, let alone its latter-day simulacrum – isn't the same thing as a parliamentary debate.

Still – the roar of democracy is sometimes something worth shouting about.

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