I never met him. But, for a moment in time, I got to know him.
George Bernard Shaw, one of the 20th century’s great playwrights and critics, wrote me a tiny note in 1948 and I treasure it.
Back in 1948, I was traveling through Europe on a scholarship and decided, for the purposes of writing a magazine article, to reach out to well-known people asking each to define the word “democracy.”
Most of those I wrote to didn’t reply. Some sent copies of their past reflections on the subject. But I was delighted when a letter came to a Rome office of my temporary employer, Overseas News Agency, from the famous Irish playwright.
George Bernard Shaw’s curmudgeonly personality came through in his crackly reply to my June 22, 1948 request. He wrote it in red type on the bottom of the letter he had received. His words:
“Democracy may be defined as a word that all public persons use and none of them understand. In the mouth of an election candidate it means his own particular party or personal views, if he has any.
“In the U.S.A. it means government of the people, for the people, by the people. Used by persons with practical administrative experience it means government of the people, for the people, but most decidedly not by the people. It does NOT mean that very undemocratic institution the British Parliamentary Party System.
“Competent government is possible only when it is exercised by rulers gifted with the specific talent for it. It can be democratic only when the people at large has the power at sufficiently short intervals to choose between the candidates so gifted.
“The difficulty so far is the lack of a trustworthy scientific test for ascertaining and impaneling the qualified.”
And the note was signed: G. Bernard Shaw, 7 July, 1948.
I was delighted that the great man had sent a note to a lowly 24-year-old American. Looking back on that day, I am struck by the fact that much of the turmoil in the world still involves that word democracy, how it’s defined, how people fight for or against it.
Democracy can be traced back to the ancient Greeks in the 6th century B.C. They forged a system in which each citizen had one vote. And they voted on every issue. The voters comprised only 50% of the population. Women and slaves were not considered citizens and were not allowed to vote.
The Romans put their own stamp on the evolution of democracy, developing a government in which representatives from the nobility formed the Senate and the commoners selected members of the Assembly.
The Magna Carta in England created Parliament in the 13th Century. Two philosophers, John Locke of England and Jean Jacques Rousseau of France helped pave the way for the American and French Revolutions and the Declaration of Independence.
In our own generations, we’ve seen the downfall of dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin -- and the shattering of apartheid in South Africa, the falling of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring, the movements toward democracy throughout the world.
Yet, in view of the bloody setbacks to democracy and the phony claims made by some rulers about believing in a people-first government, the road ahead will not be smooth. But the world still seems pointed in the right direction.
George Bernard Shaw won fame for brilliant plays like Caesar and Cleopatra, Pygmalion, Major Barbara and St. Joan. His wit made people laugh. His words could be searing. His criticisms usually found the mark.
In other musings he once wrote: “Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”
And one of his darts, which could easily be appropriated by a right-wing conservative in today’s America, read: “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”
But, lest we sell democracy short, let’s recall what a distinguished New Yorker, writer Norman Mailer, said in 2002:
“Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of government we have yet evolved.”