As the winner of a 1965 Nobel Prize in physics, Richard P. Feynman was once asked what winning the prestigious award had meant to him.
“It means,” he replied, “that I no longer have to go to meetings.”
Anyone who knows his job and knows how to do it may smile in agreement with Feynman’s only half-humorous response. For the informed and competent, meetings of longer than 10 minutes relate as much to ego as they do to substance. Meetings may not rise to the level of a crime against humanity but they certainly have something in common with being buried alive in a casketful of eels.
What brought this crabby train of thought to mind was a March 29 article in the Gazette which noted that 17.5 percent of Amherst’s 19,840 voters approved the creation of a Charter Commission to snoop potential revisions in the current Town Meeting format. The commission was given two years to investigate, formulate and suggest.
Oh boy! A meeting about how to hold yet more meetings: My snark-o-meter went into overdrive.
But some things are unavoidable in life – and meetings, like death and taxes, may be one. Since I do not live there, I cannot and do not pretend to know all the facets of the issues Amherst will confront as it studies the possibility of a revised charter.
I do know that the age-old tug-of-war between the Greeks’ “demokratia,” or rule of the people, and “aristokratia,” or rule of the elite, will require meetings and more meetings and still more meetings. Each persuasion will tug at his or her end of the same rope.
Too little democracy and the least among us will be shamelessly overlooked. Too much reliance on the will of the majority and lynchings, both literal and metaphorical, become possible. Too little elite leadership and the ability to get things done will founder. Too much focal-point power and the guys wearing American-flag lapel pins will continue to bamboozle the rest of us.
Meetings simultaneously exemplify both the idiocies and the wisdom of our species: On the one hand, “many hands make light work;” on the other, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” On the one hand, “strike while the iron is hot;” on the other, “look before you leap.” “Democracy,” like “love” and “pornogr aphy,” seems to have as many meanings as there are people to use the word.
English Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, approximately, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.” And it’s hard to take issue with his observation, in Amherst or anywhere else. But what irritates me more than Churchill’s aptness is the recognition that there is bitter medicine that comes with his conclusion. That medicine, in Amherst as elsewhere, is spelled, “m-e-e-t-i-n-g-s.”
Yes, those who participate under whatever charter will have to sit through the thinly veiled orations of people in love with the sound of his or her own voice. Yes, there will be another plea for the lowly salamander. Yes, someone will propose a vote on whether everyone hates war. And western Massachusetts, being what it is, is bound to want to discuss another roundabout.
Is there any escape, any way that each and every democratic voice might be awarded a Nobel Prize and thus be exempted from get-togethers that conflict with everything from the kids’ soccer game to favorite TV shows? And once exempted, is there any real chance that the one-(wo)man-one-vote voice will still be heard?
I doubt it. The make-believe “connectedness” touted on Facebook simply cannot hold a candle to a flesh-and-blood encounter. I may hate and grumble about the contrived sluggishness of meetings as much as I like.
But simultaneously, I take my hat off to those who can get off their stupid cell phones long enough to sit down with their neighbors and forge – however imperfectly – a bit of what actually counts.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.