The best time to say something that might be taken as hysterical is when one is feeling rather calm. And for me, this is just such a morning -- a mild, sleepy summer's day, and with the usual sort of news: a smiling, electioneering Jimmy Carter sidling up so close to the pope as to almost be able to climb into that white gown with him; the member of Congress saying, as usual, the public be damned, and they will have their National Airport no matter what the citizens think; millions of Americans being thrown out of work and, with that, madness and grief; intelligence sources suggesting that Mount St. Castro is about to belch forth another eruption of undesirables, while political sources opine that this rich, comfortable administration will probably end up showing as much "compassion" as heretofore -- with the working man's money, of course -- and let them in wholesale.

In short, it was the sort of news that ordinarily might be somewhat upsetting. But in three whole newspapers, I could find only one word to object to: "democracy," a word that the president, in one of his European speeches, used in referring to our country.

Now, perhaps there are good reasons for calling America that, in the same sense that there are good reasons for calling a refrigerator an "icebox" -- in that the thing that had preceded it had actually been the thing that you were calling it now. But what was an amusing quaintness of speech when it came to kitchen appliances seemed a damnable impertinence when it came to what the score was. And so, while one had long ago become resigned to the fleering arrogance, self-serving unction and wanton social destructiveness of government, it was no more tolerable to hear it call itself a democracy than it was to hear Idi Amin refer to himself as a "benefactor." It all seemed so gratuitous. Untruths, after all, are useful only when there are those who will regard them as plausible, but we have not had a democracy in our country for a long time, and it is unthinkable that we will ever have one again and, what's more, we all know this. In spite of that, however, politicians of all stripes keep using that honorable word, "democracy," as if to taunt us.

What we have instead, and we all know it, is a new fuedalism, a powerful, many-chained system of bondage that is far more gripping, and far more oppressive, than the old. We do not tell the government what to do. It tells us. By government fiat, we are marched into senseless wars. By government fiat, too, millions of us are thrown out of work. This, we are told, is for our own sakes and, if we protest, we are contemptuously ignored as those who do not understand economics. The inflation racking the country, too, has been largely caused by government, whose ruthless "compassion" is about equal in its effects to that of Attila the Hun, and whose rapaciousness keeps the average American working from January through May just to pay his taxes. In fact, one out of every seven working Americans is a government operative now, and that number is continuing to grow.

Under the circumstances, what use would democracy be, anyway, some social scientists want to know. After all, as a few of them have pointed out, the old American system was designed for a society of free men, and the America of the Constitutional Convention had been one in which 95 percent of the workers had been free -- their own bosses, with their own farms and shops. Whereas in this America of two centuries later -- where 95 percent of the workers were employees who got their livings by doing as they were told, all day long, every day -- what you had, some suggested, was not even men, let alone free men, but -- dare one say it? -- a nation of children. With almost everybody requiring guidance, then, not even the massive federal government was up to carrying out the wet-nursing and assorted supervisory chores, and what was needed was big labor, big business and big crime to take up the slack -- jobs currently being prosecuted to their fullest extent.

Those with a taste for administration seem to have come to grips with the notion that disturbed, passive children are not able to govern themselves. After all, besides being docile and obedient (how else could we hold jobs if we weren't?) increasingly larger numbers of us Americans are mentally ill, an those who aren't are showing the strain, with the drugs that have already run rife through the junior high schools getting down into the grammar schools, with a significant part of the armed forces likewise zonked to the gills, with a third of suburbia tranq'ed or drunk; with those who prefer to get high electronically so influencing the national averages that the typical American now watches television more than he works; and with those who really want to get whacked-out all the way abandoning reason altogether to join the scatological, evangelical video miracle cults by the millions. While others of us, who are saner, go by the name of "consumers" and merely want to play with our toys.

Some sentimentalists, of course, maintain that we do have a residuum of democracy because we have got freedom of speech. To which others reply that a schoolyard full of screaming children has freedom of speech, too, with about an equal significance.

Even so, it would be trite, and inexact, to say that democracy is dead. But it does seem to be like a rare and beautiful mountain flower that can exist only at certain elevations and under a narrow set of conditions. And, these conditions having ceased to obtain, it is fully dormant now, and possibly will continue to be so for millennia to come. For the natural form of human government seems to be some kind of despotism -- which is what has attained in most places, for most of the time. And which is what we have now.

And to allow this awesome ratcheting machine -- that we all live under like a nest of rats under the floor of a speeding subway train -- to be thought of as "democracy" would be the true hysteria, it seems to me: final acquiescence in despair. On the one hand, "democracy" is only a word. On the other hand, however, that's my point.