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Molly Ivins, bless her indomitable lefty heart, understands government. She says, “The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion.” Ain’t that the truth. And, Lord knows, here in the United States of Amazing, we got relish, we got mustard, we got all the democratic condiments you could possibly imagine on your governmental hot dogs. So we would seem to be the ideal place to be exporting democracy. We not only lead the league in confusion relish — no one who has ever tried to sort out a California ballot initiative could possibly doubt our ability to embrace confusion — but we also have way more democracy than we can use. I mean, we got Little Leaguers picking team captains, we got seventh-graders picking class treasurers, we got club-footed beer drinkers voting on televised ballroom dance contests, for crying out loud. We are so thoroughly saturated in democracy that every so often some of it precipitates out in the form of little electoral kidney stones. But recent events have caused me to begin to question our basic aptitude for democracy. Turns out we may not be the sharpest tools in the democratic shed. Think about it. We’ve been democratizing for over 200 years now and — near as I can determine — nobody not named Kennedy or Roosevelt or Bush or Clinton is entirely happy with the system we’ve developed. Now I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth. I am living proof that in a democracy, even those of limited native ability can go far. If you read my column regularly, you know beyond peradventure that the race is not always to the swift; sometimes it goes to whoever shows up. Me, for example. So I’m a big fan of American democracy. But maybe we became the greatest democracy in the history of the cosmos not because the Founding Dudes were geniuses but because there was so little competition. And now that we’re exporting democracy, we’re finding out our monopoly on it may have made us a little less innovative than we could have been. VOTING SOBER?! In Mexico, for example, they close the bars and liquor stores for a few days when elections roll around. How’s that for a concept? They actually think elections are important enough that people should be sober when they vote. Tell the truth: Do you really think Jesse Ventura could have been elected governor of Minnesota if all the liquor stores had been closed? Or take Iraq. My God, in terms of geologic democratic time, Iraqis have only been voting for about 30 seconds. And yet they’ve already come up with that really cool purple finger thing. Not only is it decorative and festive as all get-out, but it’s a great deterrent to voter fraud. If they’d had that in Chicago in the ’60s, John F. Kennedy would have been a footnote in the history of the Nixon administration. But the one that really frosts me is Palestine. Palestine! I mean, that isn’t even a country, is it? It’s an “authority.” What the Sam Hill is an “authority”? Is that like a port authority or a transit authority or something? Here’s the deal in Palestine. The ruling Fatah parliament was voted out in Palestine’s January election. But before leaving office, the lame-duck Fatah majority passed legislation ceding most of its powers to the president — who, sonofagun, just happens to be a Fatah member. Then it passed a new law giving him the power “to cancel laws passed by the new parliament.” As the Guinness people like to say, “Brilliant!” So of course the new Hamas parliament is now passing legislation stripping the president of his Fatah-granted power to cancel the laws it passes. And what will his response be? He’ll cancel it. After all, he has the power to cancel any laws the new parliament makes. Brilliant! How is it that all the Willie Browns, Lyndon Johnsons and Ev Dirksens we’ve turned out in 200 years haven’t thought of this mind-boggling stratagem, but a bunch of tinhorn Fatah tyros were able to come up with it between the main course and dessert their first day in the parliament cafeteria? How can they possibly be so much better at this than we are? OUR HUMUHUMUNUKUNUKUAPUAA Well, it just may have something to do with us having worn out our legislative synapses on state fish and license plates. Yeah, that’s right. State fish and license plates. We’re hip-deep in the big muddy in Iraq, we got folks who still can’t find a dry place to sleep in New Orleans, our president’s response to the bird flu is to suggest we bomb the Canary Islands, and our legislators are worrying about state fish and license plates. Brilliant. I read today that the state of Hawaii passed legislation making the — are you ready for this — humuhumunukunukuapuaa the official state fish. Honest. Why do you think lawmakers did that? Because they could? Because they lost a bet to Iowa? Because without an unpronounceable state fish name, they could not make their ports safe from terrorists? I don’t know. Maybe they’re like me: Maybe they just get a little goofy when they’re in Hawaii. I can deal with this. In fact, I’m rather fond of it. It’s like some sort of weird governmental Tourette’s syndrome that afflicts all legislatures. Every one of them periodically succumbs to the “Official State Thing” malady. I can pretty much count on stupid state animals and plants and rocks and such to provide me a column every few years. But Hawaii took it to a new low. Lawmakers sunsetted the state fish designation. When the law was passed, they provided an expiration date five years hence. I can only assume this was because they knew they’d need another colossal time waster five years down the road. So the humuhumuwhatchamacallit was only the state fish for five years. Turns out it wasn’t so much a designation as a term of office. And now — much to the chagrin of the legislature which is now dealing with new legislation to redesignate the damn thing — it’s expired. But what I like best about this little exercise? The legislation expired in 1989. 1989. In 17 years, nobody knew or cared that little Mister . . . Fish . . . had lost his government job. But now, all of a sudden, it’s absolutely essential that we have legislation to give it back to him. Immediately! And we wonder why we’re behind the Palestinians. FAMOUS POTATOES Oh, and the license plates? That’s even better. According to the Associated Press, “An Idaho state lawmaker wants to peel Idaho’s standard license plate of the legend �Famous Potatoes’ in a battle over whether the lowly spud should symbolize a state whose major export is high technology.” Well now, that certainly sounds like a worthwhile cause. Forget world hunger, forget peace in our time, forget democracy for Iraqis — let’s go for “more representative license plates.” Now that’s a hill to die on. No kidding, they’re gearing up in Idaho to do battle over whether the “Famous Potatoes” thing “no longer has resonance” for the state. “Resonance.” That’s state Sen. Hal Bunderson’s word. He’s the guy who noticed the potatoes weren’t resonating. I don’t know what a resonant potato sounds like. Much as I love potatoes, I’ve probably eaten bushels of nonresonant ones without realizing. But I know what good lobbying looks like. And I’m betting Sen. Bunderson’s suggested replacement for “Famous Potatoes” is probably something like “Famous Technology” or “Famous Livestock” or “Famous Something Else Whose Lobbyist Knows Me.” I just hope this whole money-wasting boondoggle works out just as well for him as it did for Wisconsin. Wisconsin actually started a statewide contest to come up with a new motto for its license plate. The governor cancelled it when University of Wisconsin students got the state all fired up for a parody of New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto. Wisconsin abandoned the contest rather than take the chance that “Eat Cheese or Die” would go on its plates. Be careful what you wish for, Sen. Bunderson: In a democracy — even an old, unimaginative democracy like ours — you just may get it.
William W. Bedsworth is an associate justice at the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, Calif. This article previously appeared in The Recorder , an ALM publication in San Francisco.

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