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Underground Democracy

Guest post by Aric Mayer.

New York City is one of the greatest cities of the world, and certainly is one of the most integrated and diverse.  Here you can find all cultures and all ethnicities practicing their own heritages side by side.  People who in their homelands are at war with one another here manage to find ways to coexist.  This coexistence is exhibited best in New York City’s Subway.

When the train doors close, instance and ephemeral communities are formed.  Status and power do not buy you a seat at rush hour.  On an average weekday five million riders board the train, and whether rumbling along in the darkness of the tunnels or the daylight above, community standards are created and enforced by proximity.

In an age of internet associations across geographic lines, it is becoming easier and easier for communities to form, communicate, share ideas and reinforce each other’s belief systems. The internet has the promise of a great Athenian experiment in civic discourse. Unfortunately the trend seems to be that people are increasingly able to seek out and congregate only with others who are like them, and diversity, once the great possibility of the internet and the fundamental promise of democracy, suffers, replaced by a stultifying homogeneity.

And yet, by contrast, the New York City Subway is the great leveler of class, ethnicity, and virtually any other form of difference and distinction.  It encourages the daily practice of tolerance and cohabitation among millions of users.  And by doing so  it has become a gritty sort of civic square where all, for a time, are mostly equal.

Many pictures of democracy in action will be offered over the next weeks as we lead up to one of the most important presidential elections in recent memory.  And many of these will be grand visions of power and triumph.   In the midst of this, let us not forget what a great jumble of people we are.  And democracy is a messy business, worked out in the daily act of differing peoples coming together to work out their differences — or just to live with them.

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Underground Democracy

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