Category Archives: Uncategorized

Rumors of the blogger’s death have been exaggerated

Brett with Books

The author among his books, ca. 1990

With apologies for my months’-long silence (I will not burden you, dear reader, with excuses or explanations), and with a promise of more frequent communications, I offer this potpourri of short pieces for this Independence Day holiday. The first three were published in or intended for local and regional newspapers; the fourth, excerpted from a book review in an old journal entry.

Perry County News (Tell City, Indiana / July 1, 2019)

On the state of our nation

On and around this July 4th, perhaps we could pause from our celebrations to reflect on the actual state of our nation.

It does us no good to wave the flag and chant “USA! USA!” while refugee parents and children wash ashore on the Rio Grande; while infants and toddlers shiver on the concrete floors of concentration camps in our own southwest; while the chaos we’ve sown in the Middle East continues to spread like a cancer.

Before you dismiss me as a traitor to our republic, please know that I speak as a father and a grandfather whose heart breaks continually when I consider the future that we’re making for all of us.

When children misbehave, responsible parents don’t look the other way and pretend they need no correction. Nor should we for a nation in the throes of our more base and violent instincts. Instead of on the wings of our better angels.

Perhaps we have always been two nations, one that welcomes and absorbs the world’s downtrodden and the other that responds with fear and force of arms. One that nourishes and assists those already among us and the other who locks them up and casts them off.

Maybe it’s time we reconsider our thirst for empire. In how many countries do we need military bases? Why must we control everything and every place from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf and China Sea?

How many hundreds of thousands (or millions) have to die before we consider the 3,000 dead on 9/11 fully avenged? How many cities do we have to “liberate” by reducing them to rubble?

George Washington advised his successors to avoid foreign entanglements and wars. President Eisenhower warned us about the dangers of our “military-industrial complex.”

Yet here we are, after almost 18 years, in an ever-widening and apparently endless conflict. Who are the profiteers in these forever wars? Why have we ceded to them the power of our national wealth and well-being?

What if, instead, we brought home those trillions of dollars to pay for all the social programs that we’re endlessly told we can’t afford?While the military budget gets yet another blank check. Is the value obtained greater than the value of free public education and medical care?

What if we were to stop making machines of war and instead build the infrastructure for a new green economy?

Because yes, there is a climate crisis. We’re already in the midst of it. The science is in. The Arctic is thawing, water levels rising, and the intensity of storms increasing – all of this more quickly than science predicted.

Instead of hiding our heads in the sand, what if we were to mobilize against this threat with the same energy and patriotism that we mobilized for WWII?

Perhaps we could even empty those concentration camps and our for-profit prisons; embrace our refugees and our better angels; become a nation to truly celebrate.

June 8, 2019 (unpublished)

On control of one’s body and one’s vote

Edith Hamilton, in her Mythology, tells of a time in ancient Athens when women could vote. In a contest between Athena and Poseidon to see which would be the city’s patron deity, the women’s vote went to the goddess and the men’s, to the god. Thus ended that feminist franchise.

So it goes. Now in Indiana, rules Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court, it’s okay to force women who have miscarriages to bear the expense of burying or cremating the fetal remains. Women in Indiana and around the country have already been prosecuted and jailed for miscarriages that may or may not have been deliberately or accidentally induced.

Likewise, in both northern and southern states,the effort to make it more difficult to vote – especially for black, brown, poor, and student populations – is rampant.

All of this is about power. About who gets to exercise it over whom. Do we want to live in a theocratic republic in which 6-week-old fetuses with fictitious heartbeats have more power than the women who carry them?

I wonder what would happen if, instead of waging endless global war and padding the pockets of profiteers, we showered that wealth on those who need it. If we make women and children more secure in their lives, might the problems of abortion and feticide take care of themselves?

Perry County News, December 31, 2018

Picasso’s Guernica was inspired by the bombing by General Franco’s forces, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39),, of the town by that name in Spain’s northern Basque region.

No room at the inn?

I will be glad if our troops do come home from Syria. I will be happier if they return from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other foreign places as well. But I will truly rejoice if we give up the whole pretense of peace by perpetual war and really have a go at diplomacy, at respect for international law, and at laying the foundation for a moderate prosperity for all of our people – in a world presently threatened by massive economic inequality and by nuclear and climate extinction.

Yes, I know. I’m talking like a red-eyed liberal, a religious Utopian, even a democratic socialist. But consider that it was a Republican president and WWII general – Dwight Eisenhower – who warned us against the encroachments of the military-industrial complex that has all but swallowed our politics. And I challenge the masterminds of post-9/11 foreign policy to demonstrate how their bloody schemes have made us a more secure nation – or how the past century of wars to end all wars, or to save democracy, or for peace by show of brute force have made our world more safe for anyone.

So I agree with the President’s stated intention of bringing the troops home from Syria, if not with his murky logic. I remain horrified by the illogic of his “America First” doctrine, tinged as it is by fascist and white-nationalist history and ideology.

Let’s be honest about one thing: we cannot at one and the same time be a “Christian nation” and one that proclaims, to refugees the world over, that there is no room at the inn. How ironic that, after a century of battling the real or perceived threat of Communist totalitarianism, so many of us now clamor for the erection of our own Berlin Wall across the entirety of our southern border – migratory wolves, butterflies, and wretched humanity be damned!

The “caravans” of mothers, fathers, and children leaving places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – countries that our foreign policy, military and economic, has helped to ravage – have banded together for mutual support and as a legitimate act of nonviolent protest against the hopelessness of the lives they flee. They have never been the band of rapists, murderers, and thieves that the President and others have claimed. They are scapegoats and political distraction from the real sources of our trouble, not least of which is a military budget that serves the interests of war profiteers before those of regular citizens and our all-volunteer armed forces.

The truth is that these problems and others are inextricably related. The longer we rely on a culture of punitive “criminal justice,” race and class bias, and military adventurism, the more remote and unlikely any chance of creating the kind of social and economic security we claim to value.

As our political leaders pretend that we cannot pay for social “entitlements” that benefit our elderly, our children, and our poor – yet somehow no sum is too much to throw at an already bloated military budget – we should remember President Eisenhower’s identification of guns made and rockets fired as “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

excerpted from Personal Journal (August 8, 2009)

The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalism, by Rinku Sen, with Fekkak Mamdouh, 2008, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 248 pages.

Where we enter this world,” Rinku Sen writes toward the end of this important treatise on U.S. and world immigration policy, “is an accident of birth; where we are when we leave it is equally unpredictable” (p. 120). Which leads to this equally vital summative point: “We are all accidental Americans in some way” (p. 221).

Rinku Sen, an Indian-American woman, editor of Color Living magazine and director of the Applied Research Center, is, I gather, the shaper and framer of the book, with Mamdouh’s collaboration. He is a Moroccan immigrant and co-founder, first, of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) and, later, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC-U), the first national organization for restaurant workers. Much of the book’s narrative structure is centered on Mamdouh’s experience as an (at-first) “illegal” immigrant, and the dramatic change it took after 9/11/2001. His life, through a gradual awakening to the need for activism for immigrant workers, in particular, and for all workers, generally, becomes linked to community organizer Saru Jayaraman, a first-generation Indian American.

A secondary, but no-less essential narrative follows the political work of Cecilia Muñoz, who, while Mamdouh and Saru are working for worker and immigrant rights within the restaurant industry, is working in Washington to push immigration reform on a larger scale as the national mood takes a sharp and hostile turn against it.

Referring to Mamdouh’s and Muñoz’s stories, Sen writes in her introduction: “Together, these two stories reveal an ironic truth: even as Mamdouh’s work on the streets of New York continually broadened his community, the discussion of appropriate federal policy went the opposite way” (p. 10).

The central thrust of the book’s argument is that while neoliberalism has globalized markets, it hasn’t done the same for people. The very concept of illegal people is flawed, she argues, and globalization won’t be complete until the borders are open for people and power equalized between industry and workers.

Seem like a naive position? Read the book’s well-researched and well-articulated argument – and consider with new eyes the unsustainable fantasy of a neoliberal economy that privileges markets over people and allows for that market’s deliberate distortion by and on behalf of the most powerful and moneyed interests.

Advertisements

Vision of the Children of Evil: poetic prose from the shadow of Argentina’s “dirty war”

9781947918023Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. / From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. / Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As I contemplate Lucina Schell’s scintillating new translation of the Argentine symbolist-poet Miguel Ángel Bustos’s Vision of the Children of Evil (2018. Normal, IL: co•im•press. 304 pages), I find myself thinking of the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century artist and poet William Blake.

Not that there is any direct connection between the two poets. Bustos’s particular muses are the French poètes maudit – in particular Antonin Artaud and Gérard de Nerval, whom he specifically honors with epigraphs, and Arthur Rimbaud (not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, who by means of Baudelaire’s French translation is similarly honored).

Still. Blake was himself, after all, something of a cursed or damned poet, working against the grain of his society’s version of social and religious respectability. I am making note, merely, of a correlation. My tendency, as a reader, is always toward synthesis, toward a recognition of likenesses and even a reconciling of contraries. And that – the reconciling of the sacred and the profane, for example – is what Blake is struggling toward even in his more palatable and popular Songs of Innocence and Experience (“Tyger Tyger burning bright …”), though most vividly in his strangest and most obscure work like the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Visions of the Daughters of Albion.

Speaking of the Daughters of Albion, one more thing: another correlation, if you will. I am quoting from the editors’ introduction to the poem, as I encounter it in their anthology of Blake’s artistic and poetic work:

Although Visions is primarily a critique of constraints on love and sexuality, it also denounces the enslavement of Africans and laboring children; and insofar as Oothoon is ‘the soft soul of America,’ it symbolically condemns exploitation of the unspoiled American land, its resources, and – by implication – its native people. […] Oothoon comes to recognize oppression as an interlocking system of the sort that the Chimney Sweeper of Experience identifies as ‘God & his Priest & King.’ Liberty, by contrast, is absolute: there is no such thing as freedom for only certain people, like white men.i

Serie foto carnet 1

Miguel Angel Bustos

That is Miguel Ángel Bustos’s project, precisely. As Schell writes in the translator’s note following the bilingual text, the two books contained in this new volume – Fantastical Fragments(1965) and Vision of the Children of Evil (1967) – “represent the same grand project”:

a sweeping critique of colonialism and the horror of the postcolonial political and social situation in Latin America through the motif of divine descent. […] Bustos’s critique reverberates throughout the Americas – certainly into the United States, with our own parallel history of indigenous genocide. Innocence becomes the underlying subject of these books: repurposing biblical rhetoric, Bustos compares the conquest of the Americas to our own paradise lost. His is a quest to recuperate innocence, but also an interrogation of the false innocence implied by national mythologies of countries like Argentina and the United States that define their culture as white European and Christian – mythologies that are currently experiencing an ascendance like that in Bustos’s time. (pp. 284-85)

And part and parcel to this anti-colonialist project, Schell explains, is the poet’s linguistic task, in which he

takes up Rimbaud’s quest to discover a universal, synesthetic language. “All language being idea,” said Rimbaud, “the day of the universal language will come… This language, the new or universal, will speak from soul to soul, resuming all perfumes, sounds, colors, linking together all thought.” Bustos is aware of the violence of language as a colonial tool – but also the rich possibility of interlinguistic encounter. Like Rimbaud, Bustos is a symbolist poet, but his symbols – metals, moon, sun, night, heart, soul, earth, water, and biblical verses such as the repeated, “Why have you forsaken me” – take on different inflections in his postcolonial context. This linguistic in(ter)vention – and its underlying politics – make Bustos a very exciting poet to translate, and also extremely challenging. Across both books, Bustos experiments with different forms and voices, mixing the conversational and cutting edge with the hyperbatonii of Golden Age Spanish poetry and the high rhetoric of religion. Bustos unmakes the inherent power structures of language to create a supremely powerful language of his own. (pp. 288-89)

An important figure in the Argentine Generation of 1960, Bustos was also a literary and cultural critic and a talented illustrator, as is evident in the darkly luminous art that decorates the covers of this volume. But then, in 1976, within the first months of the existence of Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta, he was “disappeared” and promptly executed. “His physical disappearance,” as Schell writes, “was followed by a symbolic disappearance; his work was suppressed, his name erased” (p. 284).

Only in 2008 was that work fully restored, when his son, the poet Emiliano Bustos, who was only four years old at the time of his father’s disappearance, published his collected poetry. And now, thanks to Schell’s translation – she discovered the work in 2010 while studying in Córdoba, Argentina – we have in one volume (for the first time in English) both portions of this “grand project” of poetic interrogation of our imperial myths.

Bustos’s form is the prose poem. It may read sometimes like flash fiction, but its principal device is what Schell calls “the broken logic of fragment” (p. 291). Sometimes it might drift into a sort of verse: a verse constructed, nonetheless, on a scaffolding of fractured speech, never far divorced from some sliver of narrative. Other times it might lurch from thought to thought, bedeviled by that inverted syntax of Spain’s Golden Age of poetry and a more modern absence of punctuation, landing in the oddest and most unsettling paradoxes. Or its story may flow along smoothly, in perfect sentences and paragraphs, occasionally even going on for pages. But even so all the parts fit together imperfectly, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be completely solved: a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.

Such a book – even more so than a book of poems by Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson, which invite slow reading and thoughtful reflection – is not an easy read, but is at once challenging, exciting, and rewarding. It invites more than one reading. In my case, on the first time through, I would read whole passages and sequences in both languages, then go back to make careful comparisons of the original and the translation. I might suggest a similar strategy to the English-language reader: read through the whole segment or section or chapter to get the feel for the whole, then go back to puzzle out the smaller details.

Lucina Schell photo_Paul Crisanti

Lucina Schell

However you approach it, in any case, Lucina Schell is an able and perceptive guide through those subtleties and nuances. And in her translator’s note, she elaborates at considerable length on the linguistic challenges that she faced in bringing Bustos’s language through the necessary transformations into an English that can still do justice to the juxtaposition and reconciliation of Old World and Bustos’s “new and universal” language in Spanish.

As to the “divine descent” of Miguel Ángel Bustos’s children of evil, it occurs to me that all of us who have ever benefited from regimes of purported good foisted upon those who call them evil – beneficiaries, say, of White North America’s manifest destiny upon the children of African slaves and still-oppressed First Nations; or those of Milton Friedmanian economics on the willingly socialistic political children of Allende in Chile or Chávez in Venezuela; or of the Israeli State’s ongoing genocide against Arab Palestinians imprisoned in the bloody Gaza, against all pretense of international law or the morality of Hebrew prophets – it occurs to me that those children of evil are really angels of the purest light. Like mischeivous devils in the false dualism of Blakeian Heaven/Hell, angels of light whose demented blasphemies – wielded once more against all the religious and political pieties of our benighted national mythologies of conquest and subjugation – illuminate this ascendant darkness a full half century after the initial publication of these luminous books. Which, along with their author, in the shadow of Argentina’s own “dirty war,” were almost disappeared from human memory.

iBlake’s Poetry and Design, selected and edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. 2008, 1979. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. A Norton Critical Edition (Second Edition), p. 55.

iiHyperbaton: “A figure of speech […] using deviation from normal or logical word order to produce an effect,” from The American Heritage Dictionary. 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (Fourth Edition), p. 863.

Iphigenia and Her Sisters: On the Crisis of Perpetual War and Sacrifice

imagesShortly after my essay “On the Rights, Dignity, and Independence of Women” appeared in this space a few weeks ago, I received an email response from Mónica Prandi, who said that she had enjoyed it and would I mind writing another essay on the same subject for the Spanish-language journal Letra Urbana. I am happy to report that the new essay, “Ipigenia y mis hijas en los tiempos de Kavanaugh,” is online now in issue #40 of that journal (a previous essay appeared in issue #33). Those of my readers who are conversant in Spanish and would enjoy reading it can find it at letraurbana.com – just scroll to the bottom of the page where the link to my article appears.

While much of this essay is adapted fairly closely from its predecessor, I have structured it around my recent visit – with daughter, Stephanie and her wife, Rachel – to a small theater at the University of Evansville (Indiana) where we saw a production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play, Iphigenia and Other Daughters. Without going into detail here, it is a feminist interpretation of the episode of the sacrifice of King Agamemnon’s young daughter so that the winds would blow again and he and his famous crew could proceed to their bloody conquest of Troy. In this version, the men are mere shadows; what matters takes place in the private thoughts and words of the women, including those of the virginal sacrifice in the before and the hereafter of that crucial event. Iphigenia’s ultimate triumph lies in her conscious rejection – echoing her sister, Chrysothemis’s well-articulated resistance to Electra’s planned vengeance against their mother for the murder of their father – of the patriarchal logic of perpetual war and sacrifice.

A principal advantage of using Iphigenia’s story is that it brings the ugly patriarchal bullying of the Kavanaugh hearings into direct conversation with our own bloody spectacle of a now seventeen-year war against terrorism. There Iphigenia is, alongside the hundreds of thousands of murdered children in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Not that anyone over here is counting. But if we were counting, how many times over have we avenged ourselves for the three thousand dead in the crashing of those planes into the Twin Towers? If the fruits of our sowing of democracy in the Middle East is ruin and the spawning of new terrorists to replace the old (not to mention the further enrichment of our war profiteers), isn’t it perhaps time to bring our experiment in “benevolent” imperialism home? And shrink our military budget by some hundreds of million dollars – at least.

And this without mentioning all the havoc we have wreaked in Latin America, where in the name of democracy we have put down numerous democratic movements over the last century. This is nowhere more evident than in Central America, where we have intervened against democratic movements and installed or bolstered the regimes of militarists, gangsters, and autocrats numerous times over the past hundred years. Hence those threatening “caravans” of poor brown people heading for our land of promise, to save their own or their children’s lives; like the displaced Mexican farmers and their families who came, after NAFTA, to re-build their lives (or to die in our deserts).

The racism also strikes closer to the national heart, as illustrated by the Charleston church massacre in June of 2015 and the more recent murder of two Black shoppers in a supermarket in nearby Louisville, Kentucky – by a man who had just been trying to get into a Black church to shoot it up. I have just read Jesse Hagopian’s interview with Louisville teacher Michelle Randolph (for Common Dreams: “A Climate of Racism Took Two Lives at My Kroger,” 11/19/18: www.commondreams.org). One thing that startled me was the discussion of HB 169, “the gang bill,” which allows Kentucky police to classify any group of youth walking through a mall (or elsewhere) as a gang – I say “any group of youth,” but as happened in Mississippi after the passage of a similar law, the primary target (especially for the enhanced sentences that it allows) is bound to be those Black youth who, just by walking around like any of our own children, make so many white people uncomfortable just for the fact of their being.

I recommend that article to any of my readers who might still believe that we have no race problem in America. We do, and we have had it since before the American Revolution when we brought African slaves to this land. It is embedded in the Founders’ “Originalist” Constitution and has survived in changing forms, over the century and a half since the Civil War, in our criminal justice system.

Plenty of other evidence exists to establish the point, but the obstacles to knowing are great. It is not that the haters are monsters; the truth is more complex, more close to the bone. A man who was helping to save the life of the recent shooter at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh – a Jewish man, member of that very synagogue – observed that it was not evil he saw in his eyes but ignorance, fear, and confusion.

Who has been stoking the flames of that fear and confusion?

Donald Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders may call this fake news, but hateful words do have consequences. And while the Stoker-in-Chief and his Messenger are hardly alone, they bear a tremendous deal of responsibility for the deteriorating state of our present union.

On the Rights, Dignity, and Independence of Women

th[3]After the dignified, incredibly moving, and by-all-accounts credible testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning – and the obscenity of the incoherent, self-pitying, entitled rant and political performance that followed in the afternoon – it seems necessary to address the rights, dignity, and self-determination of women.

It is, in fact, necessary in this moment when a President, a majority in Congress, and an impassioned minority of my fellow citizens might be favorable to legislation (or judicial fiat) that criminalizes, not only all abortion – from the moment of conception – but also reduces or eliminates access to contraceptives.

Not the Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps, as encountered in her book or adapted on the screen, but some version or other of a Theocratic Republic of America. And this is not merely some dystopian fantasy, but the most extreme version of anti-abortion policy under discussion within the halls of power.

If our politicians really care about the health and welfare of our women and children – as they emphatically proclaim – they should consider the words of the activist Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister:

            “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

But let’s put those sermonics aside, for a moment, while I entertain you with an anecdote and some light-hearted “book talk” as drawn – and mischievously adapted – from my journal of 6/29/03.

*

th[8]Last night at Capers while waiting on Anita, I created a stir by reading Loose Woman, by Sandra Cisneros, over a sinfully rich piece of rum cake with ice cream. Given the title – it hadn’t occurred to me to concern myself  about it – they were teasing Anita: “Hey, your husband’s over there reading about loose women!” Chris, the owner, approached me in his usual jocular manner and asked me if there weren’t any pictures in that book, folks were confused, they thought I might be reading pornography. Oh, just poetry. Though Lois, one of Anita’s waitress friends and an aspiring writer, had approached me earlier and said, “Oh, I like her books!”

Well, no, its not porn, then, but her poetry is certainly erotic, and isn’t shy of the extremely intimate. Not a book for the prim and proper, or for the matronly women and patriarchal authorities in Church and State who tell girls and young women how not to behave. But the verse is splendid, as anyone who reads her prose would expect. I thoroughly liked it. In places it is quite moving, a tender glimpse at the poet’s soul. Almost always it is really funny, full of exuberance and Latina flair.

Here, among many, is a personal favorite, erotic and playful, though the real subject is not what the careless reader might originally think:

I let him take me

over the threshold and over

the knee. I served and followed,

harbored up my things

and pilgrimed with him.

They snickered at my choice

when he took over

and I

vigiled that

solitude,

my life.

I labored love,

fierce stitched

and fed him.

Bedded and wifed him.

He never disappointed,

hurt, abandoned me.

Husband, love, my life –

poem.

thGIW5PNEYIn other places Cisneros further explains her refusal to be tied down into marriage, which might ruin friendship, a fear learned from seeing many marriages of older women. The poem, superficially, might seem to be also about those women; but on the deeper level, the place of the writing’s heart, it is just the poem, which to her is husband, love, her own and sovereign life. It is perhaps both of those things, but mostly and surely the latter.

So instead – instead of good girl, obedient daughter, married and controlled and programmed woman – she’s wild. As in the title poem, of which I cite beginning and end:

They say I’m a beast.

And feast on it. When all along

I thought that’s what a woman was.

 

They say I’m a bitch.

Or witch. I’ve claimed

the same and never winced.

[…]

I’m an aim-well,

shoot-sharp,

sharp-tongued,

sharp-thinking,

fast-speaking,

foot-loose,

woman-on-the-loose

loose woman.

Beware, honey.

 

I’m Bitch. Beast. Macha.

¡Wáchale!

Ping! Ping! Ping!

I break things. (pp. 112; 114-15)

In sum: Loose Woman is a fun read, linguistically and conceptually stimulating. But not for your stereotypical Sunday School teacher.

*

And let’s be honest: some things do need to be broken. None less than the base corruption of power and the moral turpitude that dominates our political reality and discourse, in these dis-United States of America, at this moment. The spectacle of what took place in the Senate this past Thursday – while Paul Ryan and his allies in the House pushed through another tax giveway for, primarily and most grandly, the billionaire class – is sufficient to make my point. Though countless disasters come to mind that fill out the picture and clamor for our simultaneous and no less urgent attention …

manifestacic3b3n-feminista-en-nueva-york-1970[1]… the chipping away at social-welfare programs in order to pay for the continued detention of nearly 13,000 immigrant children in desert prison camps, without education or legal aid; our continual failure to confront the dark history, and present reality, of race in America; the dismantlement of every regulatory agency that stands in the way of unlimited greed and profit; the related and redoubled assault on the environment and casual indifference to the suffering of victims of Climate Change from Puerto Rico to Bangladesh to the Philippines, not to mention the melting ice cap and increasingly brutal storms, floods, and fires on our mainland; an ever-expanding military budget that supports the wanton murder of children in Syria and Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe additional and undisclosed places hither and yon; the false equation of anti-Semitism for criticism of the State of Israel for its ongoing genocide in occupied Palestine …

But I digress.

My immediate subject is the rights and dignity of women, the much-disputed principle of their sovereignty over their own bodies – even if some of them behave in ways that our pioneer ancestresses might not have approved of.

My real subject is the actual sham and political theater of Thursday’s proceedings, which was the barest pretense of “listening” to the voice of a remarkably composed and collected woman (a prosecutor’s ideal witness, according to many observers).

My subject is the afternoon’s swift descent into the dominant politcal discourse of the day:  a bullying demeanor, a shaking of fists, a refusal to give straight answers to straight questions, an obnoxious and evasive sense of entitlement – the bluster, in the end, of a tribunal of privileged and dangerously powerful white men, some particularly old and, most, abundantly crotchety.

(And I use that word advisedly, with deliberate attention to its regular usage and dictionary definition – no crotch-related pun intended.)

From Kavanaugh to Grassley and countless others (and Grassley, at 85, fits the “old-and-crotchety” characterization marvelously well) – from this tribunal of arrogant power come, drip drip drip, the requisite commonplaces (paternalistic; dismissive) about how Dr. Ford was a credible witness and that something had probably happened to her sometime and someplace; but that, obviously the Immaculate Anointed One cannot have been present at that place, at that time, on that occasion: in that role; and the armchair psychologizing about displaced memory or whatever else – while the real psychologist in the room, who has testified convincingly about issues of trauma and memory, is ignored.

patriarchy-134102395x-56aa23945f9b58b7d000f9de[1]It has been pointed out many times that when a woman speaks of sexual assault – though she is usually telling the truth – her attacker’s version of truth is almost inevitably believed over hers. And she will inevitably be dismissed with the idiotic question (just open your ears and heart and you will have your answer!) of why she didn’t make her accusation 30 years ago.

I could go on about all the lies the Honorable Judge Kavanaugh has made in the course of these weeks and in 2006 when he was interviewed for his present job in the federal judiciary, but others have covered that topic relentlessly. As for the profusion of falsehoods committed during his Thursday Afternoon Tirade – if you have time time – see the dispassionate and detailed article by Nathan J. Robinson at Current Affairs, where he is the editor: [https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/09/how-we-know-kavanaugh-is-lying]. I owe that link to my good friend, Charles Allen.

But the central fact of our political life at this crucial moment – the essential and monumental problem – is the sad state of civic discourse and the ancient arts of rhetoric (good, not mere rhetoric). Because, at the end of the day, at least in the eyes of those crotchety members of the Senate Judicial Committe (variously old or not so old), the testimony of that brave and embattled woman did not matter at all.

To those men, most of whose judgment was already set in stone, she was a mere prop, an appeasement to the liberal Democrats and unsettled masses. There was never a real intention to listen, to engage in a process of honest inquiry, to honestly strive to determine what is true or most likelely true in the matter before them.

That was clear from the moment Lindsey Graham opened his mouth and destroyed any pretense of civility and order, opening up the wave of bellicose rants and posturing that followed in defense of their man – the real bullies in the room, intent on the effective erasure of the woman who had spoken her inconvenient truth.

That entrenched and arbitrary power is the Leviathan that must be broken: at the ballot box, yes, but more importantly by an increasingly vigorous and honest practice of rhetoric – or of sustained dialogue, which requires a listening ear and an empathetic heart.

512px-Feminism_symbol.svg[1]In the face of such a fractured media and so many contradictory voices, I suspect that much of it will have to happen face to face, citizen to citizen – with our neighbors who might not agree with us, but with whom we can find common cause – the harmony necessary to sustain, or to build, the structures of a functional democracy (as Paul Woodruff argues in his book First Democracy, which I have recently discussed in this space).

So bring on those loose women and the men who support them, the ones with spirit and verve, as well as (among so many other things) the wisdom to entrust women, not a bunch of power-mongers in our state or national centers of political power, with the governance of their own bodies.

enhanced-24361-1400969325-1[1]Feed, educate, and house them and their children, too (along with a few other small matters), and imagine what forgiveness and harmony might begin to sprout.

As Cisneros also writes, in an especially tender mood:

You Called Me Corazón

That was enough

for me to forgive you.

To spirit a tiger

from its cell.

[…]

Said corazón

and the word blazed

like a branch of jacaranda.

[Poetic excerpts Copyright © 1994 by Sandra Cisneros]

On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 4)

Wednesday, September 20 – “Democracy has this advantage over other forms of government,” Woodruff writes in …

Chapter Eight: Reasoning without Knowledge:

“It is designed to work as well as possible on the basis of fallible reasoning. In democracy, there is always a critic around, always a competing leader with argumentative policy. More than that, democratic ways actually promote the kind of reasoning that we need to use when knowledge fails” (pp. 175-6).

“Knowledge does not always fail, of course. Sometimes we know very well what an outcome will be, or at least we are able to predict with a high degree of probability: Plato restricted the word ‘knowledge,’ and allowed it only for people who know something so well and so deeply that they can never be refuted. The reasoning that government requires, however, yields results that are always open to refutation, always to some degree uncertain.

“Some uncertainties are better than others…. the intellectuals behind First Democracy cultivated rhetoric and good judgment for their power in sorting out the better uncertainties from the weaker ones” (p. 176).

“Greek speakers in the age of democracy aimed at something called eikos, usually translated as ‘probability.’ Because this has nothing to do with numerical probability, I prefer to translate it as ‘reasonable expectation’” (p. 177).

“First Democracy encouraged debate. But I must admit, also, that the Athenian people sometimes shouted down unpopular views, and this is the fault to which democracy is prone, as Plato pointed out. When the majority acts like a tyrant, it is cruising to be destroyed by its own mistakes – mistakes that serious debate might have prevented” (p. 180).

“Rhetoric, as practiced in the age of democracy, brought together the main themes of reasoning without knowledge. Teachers of rhetoric aimed at achieving eikos (reasonable expectation) in their speeches, at bringing forth good judgment in their students, and at leaving them with the ability to argue both sides of a question. Plato attacked all three aims. Rhetoric was a major target of the opponents of democracy, because it was large, obvious, and easy to hit. Besides, it was widely enough practiced that the public knew plenty of bad practitioners.

“Rhetoric (according to Plato) is the art of persuasion, in any context in which words are used. Plato’s most famous attack on rhetoric is a dialogue called Gorgias, in which he shows Gorgias and two of his followers defending rhetoric and its uses. Because teachers such as Gorgias claim to teach nothing else, they isolate rhetoric from all substantive knowledge on any subject, isolating rhetoric even from ethical training. Plato shows Gorgias claiming that rhetoric is purely a formal tool, entirely neutral as to whether its uses are good or bad.

“For two main reasons, this account of rhetoric cannot be right. First, any tool invites certain uses; when you give people tools you are inviting them to use those tools. If all you do is teach your students to win arguments, you are teaching them to win at all costs. So your teaching is not morally neutral. You are teaching that winning is good, and nothing else matters. So rhetoric cannot be morally neutral, and Plato’s Gorgias must be wrong. Second, Gorgias is unusual. If we set him aside, we see many teachers of rhetoric who did not regard their subjects as purely formal. Most of them did not isolate rhetoric from other areas of instruction. Protagoras seemed to think that in teaching the art of words he was teaching good judgment. Only Gorgias claimed to teach nothing but the art of words” (pp. 182-3).

This, in fact, is why Professor Rivers places rhetoric at the center of all the disciplines, since the understanding and communication of all of them depends on the ability to use words well. The spectacle of Donald Trump addressing the United Nations this week with bellicosity and ignorance, leaving even his own chief of staff, John Kelly, holding his head in dismay, is witness to the truth of this principle. The advisability of making war or privileging diplomacy cannot be argued effectively without effective and informal (and honest) rhetoric, nor can the maths and sciences, behind which we put all our financing (or did, before the present war on science, which, in its honest forms, is in process of being defunded, hijacked by ignoramuses and ideologues – who are, often enough, the same people).

Rhetoric, as Woodruff demonstrates, does not always win the day. So, while popular sentiment distrusted fancy speaking, it did not, as the opponents of democracy feared, give an automatic advantage to orators. It “did not put special powers into the hands of wealthy people” (a disingenuous argument, anyway, as its promulgators were generally the wealthy enemies of democracy). “It simply is not a special power. Rhetoric has more to do with setting up the conditions for good judgment than with persuasion” (pp. 184-5). Likewise, Woodruff adds: “The danger of demagoguery has been overstated by the enemies of rhetoric. History shows that masters of rhetoric do not manipulate people with consistent success. Again, the main point is that rhetorical debate is not a device for manipulation. By bringing out the best points on both sides, rhetoric serves the cause of good judgment” (p. 185). Do not blame the defense attorney, who was just dong his job, if the prosecutor does not make his case, as Professor Rivers writes in context of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Likewise, Protagoras’s habit of teaching his students to argue both sides of an argument was not a matter of “making the weaker argument stronger,” as his critics said (by which they meant, “making the wrong argument win”), but has to do with what I always taught (or tried to teach) my English students: that “the ability to make equally good arguments on both sides of an issue would help them account for a wide range of factors before making decisions” (pp. 186-7).

Most importantly: “Do not confuse the rhetoric of debate with lying. But leaders often lie about what is and isn’t known, in hopes of quelling debate.

“Lies are not a consequence of debate; they usually come from fear of debate. Before a debate has developed, the authorities weigh in with false stories – for which they declare they have secret sources” (Trump, for instance, with his reckless accusation of massive immigrant voter fraud, designed to stir up  fear to allow further restrictions on the vote: the true voter fraud) “– and so foreclose the possibility of open discussion.”

“Lies in politics are an old story, but do not blame them on rhetoric. Blame them on human credulity or our tendency to believe authority. But counter them whenever possible by campaigning for open discussion. Lies act on the market of ideas as subsidies do on commodities – they undermine our ability to choose on a rational basis” (pp. 188-9).

And now we are almost done with this accounting. Next: Education. Then: An Afterword that asks the vital question: “Are Americans Ready for Democracy?”

 

Thursday, September 21 – “Paideia is the kind of education that makes for better citizens, or (as we would say now) for better human beings,” Woodward writes in …

Chapter Nine. Education (Paideia).

“To the Athenians, ‘better’ meant ‘having more arete,’ and arete meant ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue.’ Athenians believed that good education would make young people better able to use good judgment, to live reverently, and to make decisions with justice” (p. 193).

The point about “making for better citizens” is an important part of what I have tried to convey in much of my post-2000 short fiction and essays. Even prior to my studies with Tom Rivers, I think I always thought of the English classroom as, in part, a civics classroom; that is surely what I had when I taught persuasion and began by showing the kids the documentary Incident at Oglala, presenting them with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” and inviting the Greywolfs [friends at the time: neighbors and parents of one of my Spanish students: I write of them in my recent collection of old newspaper columns / essays, Confabulating With the Cows] as living representations of those ideas.

“First Democracy assumes that the community can teach the virtues that sustain it. Plato and Socrates rejected that assumption; to make matters worse, they rejected much of what Athens was trying to teach and many of its teaching methods as well. Socrates died over those differences. His view was based on a bad analogy between goodness and technical skill. A good community won’t make you a better doctor, but it can help you become a better person” (p. 195).

Protagoras, as represented in Plato’s Apology, schools Socrates on the nature of the education that Athenian children get from their community: “Starting from early childhood, and for as long as they live, they teach and admonish their children … fighting hard to make the child turn out to be as good as possible … when they send the child to school, they put much more weight on their concern that the children learn good conduct (eukosmia) than that they learn to read and write or play music.

“The teachers take this to heart. When the children have learned the alphabet and are ready to read, then the teachers put works of good poets before them and require them to learn by heart poems that are full of good advice, and stories and songs in praise of good men of old. Musicians do much the same … try to foster Soundness of Mind, and they keep the youngsters out of mischief. Then they set the poems to the music of the lyre, and make sure that rhythm and harmony dwell in the souls of the children, so that they will grow more gentle and their speech and their behavior will improve as they gain grace in rhythm and harmony, for all human life needs the grace of harmony and rhythm” (pp. 196-7).

            Continuing, after some further words on the civic instruction they get from the city, “Protagoras completes his point with a stunning analogy between language and ethics,” Woodruff writes:

“But as it is, Socrates, you’re spoiled: all of us are teachers of arete so far as we are able, and you don’t make any notice of us. It’s as if you were looking for a teacher of the Greek language [in Greece]; you wouldn’t notice a single one.”

Or, as Woodruff paraphrases: “Specialized teachers of Greek are not required because Greek children learn Greek from everyone. In the same way, the children learn Athenian standards of behavior from those around.”

Protagoras concludes his rebuke of Socrates thus: “‘If any one of us is even a little bit better at helping others advance toward arete, he should be welcomed. I believe that I am one of these, that I do a better job than others do in helping a person become fine and good, and that I am worth the fee I charge’” (pp. 198-9).

Reading this, I wondered why Plato, disagreeing so vehemently with this project, made Protagoras’s reasoning so eloquent and persuasive; generally, the figures he presents as Socrates’s interlocutors are really straw figures who are made to look foolish before Socrates’s false modesty (recognizing one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom; I don’t know the answers – yet, he sets himself up as the superior thinker). But I suppose Plato thought the whole argument, in defense of his making a living by charging people for his specialized instruction on the rhetorical arts, as self-evidently crass and self-indicting.

(Clearly, there is some irony in the fact that Protagoras “teaches only the sons of wealthy men. We do not know whether he was conscious of this irony. Plainly, Protagoras is right in what he says, though not in what he does. Education must be for all citizens” – p. 208.)

Woodruff goes on, in any case, to elaborate further on the elements of Greek education that Protagoras neglects to mention in this speech that Plato put in his mouth, but which does seem to fairly reflect his ideas. Prominent is the public performance of dramatic poets, already emphasized in earlier chapters.

Dionysius Theater in Athens

“Athenian theater was available to all citizens,” Woodruff writes. “Large numbers of citizens from all classes were involved in the production of the plays. When Cleocritus says ‘we were fellow dancers’ to the army of the aristocracy, he is speaking from the army of democracy. Poor men were fellow dancers with rich men, year after year in Athens. This sort of experience was a large part of what enabled Athens to come together after civil war. And this – not the expensive education of the well-to-do – was the real general education of Athenians” (p. 200).

“What is paideia good for?” Woodruff asks. “Consider the debate in Athens over whether to go to war. But will victory bring more good or evil to Athens? To the larger community of the Greek cities? These questions the general is not specially qualified to address. For educated debate, the Athenians needed citizens who see more broadly, more deeply, beyond the question of how to win, all the way out to distant consequences, all the way down to hard questions about good and evil.

“Years ago,” he continues, “I asked I. F. Stone whether education could ever do so much – could ever make us better citizens. After I counted the obstacles, he answered, ‘But, Paul, it should.’ He was right. It is what we need. Although experience does not encourage us, and we cannot hope for complete success, we must work the hardest for education, if we care about democracy. Like harmony, paideia is among our most idealistic goals. The two together, harmony and education, calls for us to reach beyond what is easy, beyond even what we can realistically expect” (p. 207).

A crucial obstacle, in ancient Greece, was the general population’s fear of what effect the “new learning” might have “on traditional values.” (Consider today’s “culture wars” in the U.S.A., where Zeus with his thunderbolt – in the guise of a cruel distortion of the Old Testament God – still reigns supreme in some circles!) “This,” Woodruff writes, “is the paradox of general education – that it must provide both continuity and challenge for the culture it is trying to sustain. First Democracy was committed to justice and reverence because these are essential to civic harmony. First Democracy was also committed to nourishing a homogenous culture, so that all citizens would be prepared to take part in governance. But these two goals clash with one another. The quest for justice and reverence does not end with the status quo. How to harmonize continuity and challenge? After the death of Socrates, no more philosophers were killed. Some were nervous, but Plato was left in peace to write his criticism of democracy. Athens seems to have settled into a kind of balance on this point. But the underlying question, like many about democracy, remains unanswered. How can a community maintain harmony while still inviting challenges to its conception of reverence and justice?” (p. 209)

            Afterword. Are Americans Ready for Democracy?

“What a patronizing question to ask anyone!” Woodruff writes. “Of course Americans are ready for democracy … if by ‘ready’ we mean ‘eager.’

“Suppose we give ‘ready’ a more sophisticated meaning, however. What if ‘ready’ means having a culture that can respond to the demands democracy makes? Does American culture meet the need? Not now, not entirely, not unless it changes” (p. 211).

“Pride points to the past, but I am asking about the future. Since World War II, the United States has fallen behind in the journey of the free world toward the ideals of democracy. Consider the seven ideas I have discussed in this book. The United States has not put any of them into practice with complete success, and in some cases the failure is glaring. In all cases, the United States seems to be moving away from ideal democracy. This point is not partisan; close observers of government have been warning us of slippage from democracy during several recent administrations, and under both of the leading political parties” (p. 212).

In the body of this last section, Woodruff delineates aspects of our decline in relation, one after another, to the seven ideas he has discussed. I will not list these observations here, though they are well marked in the book. I have touched on the same or related concerns, anyway, in my asides in these pages. In closing, I will only cite the last three paragraphs of his brief “Coda” at chapter’s end:

“Well it was long ago, but ancient Athens was not ‘unimaginably different.’ Modern America is dirty (it is the world’s leading polluter, after all), plagued by frequent warfare in far-off places, plagued by demagogues, its economy carried on the backs of illegal aliens and exploited workers in the third world.” (The allusion is to Louis McNeice’s lines in his Autumn Journal: “It was so unimaginably different / And all so long ago.” The truth, MacNeice went on to say, “is that Athens was dirty, dogged by constant warfare, / plagued by demagogues, its economy carried on the backs of captive slaves” – p. 231.) “The gap between our ideals and our practices is not so very different from the gap we have diagnosed in ancient Athens.

“The greatest difference is that the Athenians had ready access to ideas that could guide them to democratic reforms. They knew what democracy was supposed to be. And they did improve their democracy as they learned the lessons of failure. Few of us in modern America really know what democracy asks of us. The experience of Athens offers clues that should help us find our way – the success of the lottery in politics, the value of holding leaders accountable, the importance of curbing the power of wealth, the vigor that grows in a state when every citizen feels part of it. But Athens is not the blueprint for us. The best Athens has to give us is the challenge of its example. I do not mean the example of what it was, because it was never static. I mean the example of its dynamism, its untiring quest to realize ideals in practice.

“Are we ready to shake off the idea that we are already a perfect example of democracy? Are we ready to put the goals of democracy foremost in our political minds, as many Athenians did? Are we ready to admit our mistakes and learn from them, as they did? Are we ready to have a national conversation about democracy? Most importantly, are we ready to keep the great dream alive, the dream of government of the people, by the people, and for the people?” (pp. 231-2)

Of the Athenians’ use of a lottery to fill certain civic bodies and juries, I have had little or nothing to say, but in the body of this afterword he does propose ideas of the sorts of things we might try of a similar nature. Though exactly what they did is not something we could or should replicate. Rather, what they did is an appropriate springboard toward our own experimentation.

The notes and other materials that follow Woodruff’s text are scarcely less valuable than the text itself, but again I will not elaborate.

            As for the likelihood of our nation’s rising to the challenge, while there are some good signals in the air of possible changes, I rather expect that the most radical transformation will come after much further affliction and even the collapse of much that we consider essential to our national and global civilization. Let’s hope that the nuclear holocaust is averted, and the climate crisis mitigated enough so as not to prove the extinction of humanity itself. Our apocalyptic literatures themselves, perhaps modern texts like A Canticle for Leibowitz, more than Isaiah and the Hebrew prophets from their postures of religious certitudes. But I should not sell those prophets short; they were much more radical than we give them credit for being. If we can just put aside the doctrine and the dogma, the millennia’s weight of interpretation, we could do much worse than apply the spirit of egalitarianism and community that they preached. Theirs was not a community without its measure of diversity and tolerance. Except when the Israelites were invading Palestine and eradicating whole villages of men, women, and children, they looked with compassion on the strangers or foreigners among them, treating them with hospitality. In that sense, at least, they too have something to teach us. Though by now in my life, fed up with the downward pull of extreme fundamentalist religion, I look with more confidence to these ideas of the ancient Greek democrats. May they live again in spirit among us.

*

[Note: It has been a number of years since I read Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I am overdue to re-read it, but I offer it as a vivid and visceral memory that seems appropriate to the moment. For a discussion of the novel in terms of its theme of responsibility, I recommend my friend and fellow writer Marian Allen’s blog: https://marianallen.wordpress.com/books-i-love/a-canticle-for-leibowitz/.

One-Eyed Man and Other Stories, by Geoffrey Craig

I promise to follow in the next few days with the final segment of my First Democracy review, but first a change of pace. The following review of Geoffrey Craig’s new collection of stories is by Sandy Raschke at Small Press Book Review. A few years ago, when I was managing editor at New Works Review, I had the pleasure of editing one of these stories, “Morocco,” which I still remember with some vividness, if that tells you anything.  I have previously reviewed his novel, Scudder’s Gorge, on this blog. Beyond that, I refer you to Raschke’s review:

One-Eyed Man and Other Stories by Geoffrey Craig, Golden Antelope Press, 300 pgs, ISBN: 978-1-936135-57-8. $21.95, paperback.

Geoffrey Craig’s new short story collection contains twenty-one stories, all of them an insightful look into the human condition. The book is divided into five sections, each with four to five stories. Most concern the lives of minorities—Latino and African-American, and one segment, The Carmichael stories, which have previously been published in Calliope, are about the descendants of Swedish immigrants. The one stand alone story, “Morocco,” lingered a long while after I finished it.

The Blue Heron Lake stories are about a community of Latino workers within the general population and how one, Pedro Sanchez, rises to prominence and becomes the mayor. When, in the story “Upheaval,” he suggests making Blue Heron Lake a sanctuary city, all hell breaks loose. After various threats and a “no” vote by the Council, Pedro thinks seriously about resigning and moving away, but then with the help of his wife, decides to stay and fight another day for what he believes is right.

            The Brandon Forsythe segment is about a young African-American man who is wrongly convicted of a crime. When he is released from prison, he can’t find work and ends up in a drug ring, eventually rising to the position of drug lord. Then he has an epiphany and after the death of his beloved wife from cancer, slowly transitions into a legitimate business person and philanthropist.

The Snake stories are about a struggling black family in South Carolina and follow them over a period of twenty years, from 1919 to 1933. It is the period of the KKK, lynching and burning, and Craig deftly reveals how hard it is to survive amid a “Whites Only” policy.

In the story, “Lying in Wait,” the narrator and his wife, Mary, find one of their children bitten by a snake; they rush him into town to be treated—and are refused service at the hospital. They are told to take the boy to the “Negro” part of town where there “might be” a doctor. Unfortunately, the boy dies just as they reach the “Negro” doctor’s office and the narrator compares his child’s death to the lynching of his brother James shortly after he returned from Europe after World War I.

“Morocco” is about two women, bunkmates on a freighter to Morocco. One woman, Abigail, has lost her entire family in a terrible house fire; the other, Tracy, is a hip young woman, who likes to smoke marijuana, but is grieving over the end of her last relationship, of which there have been many and never successful. The two women, a generation apart, at first don’t understand each other, but eventually lift the veils of their own disappointments and sorrows and end up visiting Morocco together, where they develop a bond after rescuing a little boy being carried out to sea.

In these stories, Geoffrey Craig has woven a rich tapestry of narrative and dialogue, to create three-dimensional characters, who reveal their strengths, weaknesses, their triumphs and failures, each within its own historical capsule of place and time. This collection spotlights Craig’s growing talents as a writer and the depths of his understanding of the American character.

Highly recommended.

On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 3)

This should be the second segment to last of my review and response to Paul Woodruff’s First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, copied, with slight edits, from my personal journal of last year. While at all stages I have quoted rather liberally from Woodruff himself, that is even more the case in the first part of what follows, where I thought it best not to try improving on his patient development of a somewhat complex idea.

Tuesday, September 19 – “James Madison did not believe in the equality of rich and poor, and so he and the founders of the United States Constitution made sure that the rich would have greater power than the poor. Not so in democratic Athens”: So wrote Paul Woodruff in the gloss at the beginning of …

Chapter Six. Natural Equality.

“Rich and poor, Greek and Asian, men and women, all belong to the same human family. The earliest Greek poets saw the significance of this. Homer makes the Trojans – an alien race – more sympathetic than the Greeks. He does this by setting stunning scenes from family life – a baby frightened by his father’s helmet, an old woman pleading from the walls for her soldier-son to take refuge, an old man risking everything to recover his son’s body. These are not Greeks; they are Asiatics (to the Greeks) and they will be utterly demolished by the Greeks. Yet the Greek poet knows how they feel, because they are human, and because – apparently – he believes in a common human nature.

            “Homer is no democrat. But the same theme sounds in the work of the earliest truly democratic poet of Athens, Aeschylus. Aeschylus fought against the Persian invasion at the battle of Marathon. Yet he was able to imagine the grief and pain of the Persian court when they heard that their great army of invasion had been defeated by the Greeks. It is an unparalleled feat of imagination: what great American writer has made palpable the pain of Japanese leadership in 1945, when it saw the necessity of surrender? And yet the Japanese were no more different from Americans than Persians from Greeks at the time of Marathon. And the Persians posed a greater threat. Still, the poet knows how to express their fear and grief” (pp. 128-9).

“In the time of democracy, the study of human nature emerged among a group of early anthropologists.” – Democritus, Pythagoras, and others – “These early anthropologists studied cultural differences in order to identify what is common to human beings” (pp. 129-30).

“Democracy rests on the idea that the poor should be equal to the rich or well born – at least for sharing governance. But, as we all know, human beings are not equal. So in what ways are the citizens of Athens equal? They all know what it means to be Athenian, because of their common culture, but they are not equal in education. At the same time, Athenians believe that they all have the same human nature, but not that they are equal in strength or intelligence. What is left to be the meaning of their belief in natural equality? Like most democratic ideas, this one is controversial” (p. 132).

“As soon as the idea of human nature became explicit, it started to encounter resistance from antidemocratic philosophers. Philosophers have two main objections. Both miss their target. The democratic theory of nature is neither so thin as to succumb to the first objection, nor so thick as to succumb to the second. A too-thin theory would refer only to our common biology, and so leave out value altogether. On the other hand, a too-thick theory would incorporate values that are specific to one culture. A just-right theory is thick enough to include values, but not so thick as to include only the values of the person who proposes it” (p. 134). (In the margin, I refer to this as Woodruff’s “Goldilocks analogy: 1. too thick, 2. too thin, 3. just right.”)

            “Once we start appealing to nature in order to justify political choices, we are in danger of claiming too much for human nature. We are tempted to think that the way we live and think is natural, while the way other people do is unnatural. One group might claim that nature requires us to criminalize homosexual behavior, while another group does not. Or one group might wish to give political rights to women while another says it would be unnatural for men to allow women to join them in politics. Unless there is a rule that limits claims on nature, any group could thicken its idea of human nature in order to claim natural support for its own values. If that’s so, then this whole line of reasoning is useless. Bogus appeals to nature are so common that many philosophers want to leave human nature out of political discussions altogether.

“Luckily, there is a rule that limits the appeal to nature. Human nature has to be thin enough to be shared by all human groups. If you try to make human nature as a weapon in a war of cultures, you are no longer talking about nature. Nature cannot disagree with itself, but cultures do disagree with each other. Nature underlies all culture. The mistake is to take ourselves, in our own culture, as paradigms of the human” (pp. 136-7).

“In short, they know that language can weave society together, and that the weaving works because it uses discussion to sort out good decisions from bad ones. Now see what follows: We are all capable, by nature, of learning to use language to build and maintain community, through sharing in government and justice. If we are not permitted to do so, we are not permitted to realize our full potential as human beings. This argument is based on a theory of human nature that is neither too thick nor too thin” (p. 138).

“It did not escape the best Greek thinkers that the same rule that opens politics to poor citizens should open politics to women, foreigners, and even slaves. The ancient idea of a common human nature […] is as powerful as the modern idea of human rights, when it comes to supporting democracy. But even powerful ideas do not always affect the way people live. Some ideas call for greater changes than people can tolerate.

“So it was after 1776 in our era, when a group of American men signed a statement proclaiming that all men were created equal with inalienable rights, and afterwards chose to deny those rights to slaves and Native Americans. So it was in ancient Greece. Democracy came on a wave of good feeling about human nature, but that wave was not powerful enough to sweep away the most oppressive traditions” (pp. 140-41).

“To the credit of Athenians, they did on at least one occasion give freedom and citizenship to a group of slaves, to reward them for service in battle. But this was an anomaly. On the whole, slavery was proof against any argument brought against it on the basis of democratic ideals. What saved slavery, and doomed the slaves, was far simpler than Aristotle’s argument. Too many Athenians had a financial stake in slavery” (p. 142).

Orlando Patterson

“As happens all too often in Athens, wealth won out over freedom and equality.

“The protection of property, however, is not in itself an ideal of democracy” (p. 143).

This all corresponds well to Orlando Patterson’s idea of Western freedoms being built on the backs of slaves; an idea picked up by others in relation to even my freedoms being built on the back of African slaves – and now, according to Aviva Chomsky in her book Undocumented, which I am almost finished reading, in respect to our artificially created “illegals” and the impoverished around the world who provide cheap, exploitable labor.

Chapter Seven. Citizen Wisdom.

            “So all human beings – all human beings – are given a share of the ability to be citizens, and that ability is understood both as a pair of virtues and as a kind of citizen wisdom. This is the most controversial idea behind democracy: it is a natural part of being human to know how to govern your community” (p. 149).

In respect to the decision to go (or not to go) to war: “We cannot let the generals make this decision for us. To begin with, they disagree among themselves, so we must decide. If they were experts by Plato’s standards, they would agree. But even if they did agree, could we let them make the decision on our behalf? Is any human being expert enough to know what the future will bring?” (p. 151)

Here and elsewhere, Woodruff shoots the shibboleth of “expert opinion” full of holes, without discounting the need for certain kinds of expertise for different kinds of tasks. It is also worth observing here that, in our own day, we have already ceded to the executive branch (i.e., the President) the liberty to launch acts of war at will. Trump has in turn thrown it all over to “his” generals, a trifecta of men who are in charge of a great deal of oversight that is Constitutionally supposed to be overseen by civilians. A commentator I read today suggests that we are not too far removed from the conditions that would allow the rule of a military junta, as earlier in Argentina and Chile, among other places.

“These people who speak to us claim to be experts,” Woodruff writes, “but they are not telling the truth. No doubt they are experts on their own line of work – tactics in war – and they would agree on how best to conduct a siege.” (Some, the civilian neo-cons like Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration, are not even that: they are mere ideologues, who keep singing the same song however bad all our wars go.) “But no one is expert on what the future will bring from a decision like this one. So these speakers are deceiving us, and perhaps themselves as well, when they think this mastery of tactics gives them the authority to tell us what to do in foreign affairs. Worse, some of them are investors in the import-export scheme that looks to make money from the war. Their personal self-interest clouds their judgment, and they are not thinking for the good of us all” (pp. 151-2).

In this context Woodruff addresses the “antidemocratic metaphor” (as the ancients understood it) of the “ship of state.” “Some modern writers use the ship image as if it were innocent. But it is not. Most political decisions are not at all like the ones made aboard a ship” (p. 153).

            “Citizen wisdom is what we exercise, as ordinary educated citizens, when we judge a contest of experts. It is not the same as ‘folk wisdom.’ Folk wisdom has many virtues, and it is the root of citizen wisdom. But it needs to be seasoned by education. Citizen wisdom is capable of learning from experts, when it recognizes them.” (Climate scientists, anyone?!!) “Citizen wisdom is what the citizens in a well-run democracy ought to have. It builds on common human abilities to perceive, reason, and judge, but it requires also healthy traditions and good education for all” (p. 154). This “ability to make good decisions without knowledge was called euboulia – good judgment” (p. 153).

(“Any government is government by ignorance. No one knows the future, but luckily, knowledge is not everything.” – p. 153)

Aviva Chomsky

Ancient Greeks knew “that expert knowledge can lead to hubris, the outrageous behavior that comes from pride in success. Experts often think they can do without citizen wisdom altogether. If sea captains try to assume political power on the strength of their success in navigation, that would be a good example of hubris at its destructive work. Hubris shows up when success leads to pride and pride leads to outrageous behavior, in this case, to taking more than your share of political power” (p. 155).

An aside: in the context of the “ship of state” metaphor, I am struck by Walt Whitman’s great tribute to Lincoln: “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman, of all people, did not intend an antidemocratic message. I will not take the time, right now, to pursue that paradox to whatever rich territory it might lead.

“In democracy, every adult citizen is called upon to assist in managing public affairs. Therefore, the democracy should see that every citizen has the ability to do so. Citizen wisdom is common human wisdom, improved by education” (p. 156). General, not vocational education, but I’ll save a deeper exploration of that to the appropriate chapter (of course, all of these chapters, woven together, are intertwined at all points, as is already clear from the constant overlapping of those seven big ideas).

“Education is the hope of democracy. And though democracies often fail in education it is imperative that we do not lose faith in the potential of the people to make good decisions when they are decently informed. Politicians who lose that faith tell lies to the people. Lies are fatal to democracy. When you lie to the people you take the decision out of their hands.

“The people must be able to hear expert wisdom, however, and they must know enough to make good use of it” (p. 162).

As a good example of what happens when politicians lie to the public, Woodruff brings up the Vietnam War, in particular, LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin. From that rich discussion comes a bit of advice to leaders who think the people are too ignorant to take the truth: “And if they really do not understand you, whose fault is that? How well have you explained the matter? Further back, what have you done to support education?” (In the days of privatizer Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, we must emphasize the word public in education.) “If you really cannot expect your fellow citizens to understand the situation, whose fault is that?

            “The great failure of Athenian democracy, in my view,” Woodruff writes at chapter’s end, “was its failure to extend education beyond the moneyed class. Athens’ killing of Socrates is unassailable testimony to the ignorance of its people. Ordinary people had lethal suspicions of the new education. But they ought not to have been left knowing so little about it” (pp. 168-9).

Which leads us to the present moment, in which religious, private, and online education – as well as home-schooling – are leading to a continually and precipitously further dumbing down of the American citizenry. The mass of American people know nothing about Darwinian science or about climate change, for instance, and are kept ignorant of far more by gigantically lying politicians and by the corporate media, with Fox and Breitbart News at the head of that class. I’m not sure that a democracy can afford to let our children be educated at home by ignorant and superstitious parents with inadequate, privatized scripts and programs. If they only know what the fanatics (or just plain duped, ignorant, unschooled) teach them, how can they participate responsibly in a civic process that depends on both sides being heard and on a tolerance that extends to harmony?

But, that they’re ignorant is not an excuse to write them off. If the people are ignorant, I think Thomas Jefferson said, the solution to the problem is education. Because, without the people’s informed voice, there can be no government of and by the people – no democracy.