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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]

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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.

On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 2)

This continues the review, copied and slightly edited from my personal journal, of Paul Woodruff’s First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. Slight editing aside, this remains (as journal entries often are) a bit rough around the edges, so I hope the reader will continue to look past those rough edges to the ideas under discussion.

Thursday, September 14 – Chapter Two: “The Life and Death of Democracy.”

I will pass over the historical primer and “reference guide” that occupies the latter part of the chapter, as well as the specific “tools” of Athenian democracy, and focus on the central point about the “purity” that Plato’s Republic insists on, but that is divorced from reality and unrealizable in real life. Aside from foreign armies and war, Woodruff writes, “there are other enemies of democracy” and “they have a better weapon than the sword. Instead of killing Demosthenes [the scandal-ridden democrat who warned Athens about the danger Macedon presented, and whose warnings they ignored “until it was too late”], they write about his flaws, his ambition, his corruption, his flirtations with the old aristocracy. Or they write about the failings of Athenian democracy. Demosthenes’ career is as messy as the democracy he defended – gloriously independent, powerful and ineffective by turns, sometimes corrupt. Democracy is like that.

“Remember this as you read what follows: You can’t kill democracy by killing its defenders, but you can kill it by insisting on perfection, by rejecting everything that is human and flawed. No democracy we find in practice is ever perfect. Still, every step toward democracy is a step in the right direction – it makes things better for at least some of the population. Other, more utopian ideas work the other way around; they draw us toward making things worse.

“Plato’s dream of a philosopher kingship illustrates the point. His ideal city makes no concessions to human imperfections. Plato does not claim that such a city is possible; he presents it as a shining ideal. But unlike the ideal of democracy, Plato’s ideal leads us the wrong way. Every step we take towards his philosopher kingship would curtail someone’s freedom” (pp. 23-4).

That said, Woodruff does address democracy’s dark side before launching into his historical guide, “but,” he adds, “your own good sense should lead you to take [what he says about that] with a grain of salt.To dwell too heavily on the failures of Athenian democracy is to join the chorus of anti-democrats, who tainted the idea of democracy with these examples for many centuries. By doing so, they held back the cause of freedom and committed an error in logic. The ad hominem fallacy (against the man) is to reject an idea simply because of the character of someone who holds it. In this case we should call it ad urbem (against the city); rejecting Athenian ideas merely because of Athenian bad behavior. The ideas should be judged on their merit.”

But: “To ignore this part of the story is also harmful. Anyone who takes the road of democracy must be acutely aware of the moral hazards along the way” (pp. 37-8). I will pass over this brief accounting of those moral hazards, as they are not themselves the point of this study.

Chapter Three. Freedom from Tyranny (And from Being a Tyrant).

“A tyrant,” Woodruff writes, “is a monarch who rules outside the law, who came to power without the support of law, who is afraid of the people he rules, and who is therefore unable to listen to advice. A tyrant may not always be abusive of the people he rules; he may have their best interests at heart. But his fear prevents him from deliberating freely; it warps his judgments, and the bad decisions he makes out of fear may destroy him or weaken the city. That is why the democratic poets of Athens [the dramatists: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides] present tyranny almost as if it were a form of mental illness. Plato, a generation later, will do so explicitly” (p. 64).

It happened in Athens, particularly in democracy’s first century (before the people had taken this lesson to heart), that the party of the many, the people, would in turn act tyrannically: “In this way, two-party government collapses into an oscillating tyranny, as each side brings out the worst in the other, by frightening the other into acting tyrannically” (p. 65) – hence, the problem with majoritarian rule, which, by excluding all other voices and arguments, becomes the “tyranny of the majority” (or the mob), which is what minority groups (Mormons in 19th-century Missouri; LGBT; immigrants; etc.) have to guard against. Whether by the many or the few (whoever is in power at the moment) – let’s say, Christian theocrats like Senator Cruz and Vice-President Pence – the results are the same for those vulnerable to their edicts.

Anyway, “If you observe any of these symptoms in your leadership [and Trump and his wrecking crew do come to mind], be wary. A plague could be on the way, and it could fatally weaken your freedom:

  1. A tyrant is afraid of losing his position, and his decisions are affected by this fear.
  2. A tyrant tries to rise above the law, though he may give lip service to the law.
  3. A tyrant does not accept criticism.
  4. … cannot be called to account for his actions.
  5. … tries to prevent those who disagree with him from participating in politics” (p. 66). In respect to that last point, consider the President’s and many Republican members of Congress who are so intent today – in the name of protecting us from the imaginary scourge of voter fraud – on harnessing fraudulent “evidence” to suppress the votes of black and brown, young (students) and old, any Democratic-leaning community!

This paragraph is especially pertinent to our moment, and not just starting with Trump: “The story is simple and has often been repeated in history. A troubled people welcome a strong man to power, because he promises order and comfort. But the cost of tyranny is exorbitant. Order and comfort without freedom – that, after all, is the condition of sheep that are being fattened for slaughter. Ordinary Athenians understood this metaphor very well, and some came to see that it perfectly reflectied their condition under the tyrants” (p. 70).

Prometheus Bound

One final point, though there are others: “Freedom lets leaders be wise, while tyranny declares war on knowledge. This theme is dramatized in a fairly early Athenian play, Prometheus Bound, in which Zeus is frightened of the future and believes he can save himself only by forcing knowledge out of Prometheus. He orders Prometheus to be chained to a rock. Force does not work, however, and we must imagine, that later in the play now lost to us, Zeus relents from tyranny and works out an arrangement with Prometheus” (p. 72).

Oh, one last point: courage is the antidote to fear; “we risk a tyrannical solution unless both sides can set aside their fears and bring courage to the negotiating table” (p. 79). Among so-called progressives today, it is figures like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, in the Congress, and Hillary Clinton, whose new book spends a lot of energy attacking the “foolish” idealism of Bernie Sanders, who must put aside their fears and get behind, for instance, that democratic socialist from Vermont’s newly introduced Medicare for All bill, which increasing numbers of Congressional Democrats – and increasing percentages of the population – are coming to peace with. (I was somewhat encouraged today, after reading another critical take-down of Clinton’s foolish book (What Happened), when I read an extremely enlightening argument that spells out and justifies the proposed measures in that bill. Even if not by this Congress, passage of such a law, until very recently considered (as the clown in The Princess Bride kept saying) “inconceivable,” may very credibly happen sooner than we imagine.)

Now, rather than give short shrift to the very important arguments that follow, it is time that I quit for another evening.

Saturday, September 16 – Chapter Four, Harmony.

Without harmony,” Woodruff writes, in the little gloss that heads the chapter, “there is no democracy … without harmony, the people have no common interest. What could ‘government for the people’ mean, if the people are so badly divided that there is nothing they want together?” (p. 81; emphasis in original).

And here is the problem that most threatens: I would like to think that we might agree, as a people, on basic values; but I am forced to acknowledge that a good many Americans (too many of them in political office, but not them alone) do not believe that every human being has a common right to shelter, to sustenance, to a free or affordable education and medical care. Only from such agreement on values can we examine, honestly and united, the facts on the ground that must inform our decisions. And it is not a given, it is not self-evident, that this unruly populace can be brought to agree on enough things to save us from the disintegration of life and civilization as we have known it. Every good sign is matched by two (or more) bad signs. We will not be able to pull off a fair national economy, let alone an international one, if we can’t see the light on climate change and war and peace. And even if a majority of Americans are brought to their senses, the forces that must be confronted within government and society are overwhelming in their amassed power: the military-capitalist-industrial complex, for starters (does itself encompass the main force of darkness?).

Woodruff discusses three metaphors that were current among the Greeks, three images or metaphors of harmony: 1) the bundle and stick; 2) a woven fabric; and, 3) music. While each has its point, the second is better than the first and the third, than the second. In Aesop’s political fable of the unbreakable bundle of sticks – “So it is with you, my sons. If you are in harmony, you will be unconquerable by your enemies; but if you quarrel, you will be easily taken” – it is suggested that we must all “fall into line with each other, as if they have to agree about everything. And it also suggests that the reason to fall into line together is military”; “but being rigid, as the poets of democracy knew, is not a good thing:

If they bend, they’re saved, and every twig survives,

But if they stiffen up they’re washed out by the roots.

“So says a young man in Sophocles’ Antigone, trying to talk sense into his father, who is a rigid older man with leanings toward tyranny” (pp. 85-6). The old man, of course, is Oedipus’s successor, Creon, who not only ignores his son, Haemon, but accuses him of a treasonous sympathy for a wisp of a girl over his father, king, and state. And when he is finally brought to his senses, both the courageous girl, Antigone, and the son who does love her, are tragically dead – as is Creon’s authority. This is the kind of “harmony” that politicians like Dick Cheney and Donald Trump speak of. It is a harmony that must be coerced, and any dissenter is the enemy. So it is a false harmony, a cheap illusion.

The image of the woven cloth comes, naturally enough, from women’s voices, which in Athens’s limited democracy are not to be heard in public, though the poets have made them speak. In Aristophanes’s comic play, Lysistrata, in which he imagines what might happen if women took over the government, their spokeswoman speaks of, after “scrubbing the gobs of sheep shit off the city”; “spreading it out and flogging it to get rid of the bad guys – / The sticker-burrs and those that organize themselves into a tangle to get elected” –

After that, comb

Good common will into a basket, mixing everyone

Together. Residents, aliens, foreigners (if you like them),

Mix them all in.

And for the god’s sake, these cities that are colonies of ours,

Understand them as separate balls of wool, off

By themselves. Take of these and bring them together

And join them into one, then spin them onto a huge

Bobbin and weave that cloak for the people.” (pp. 86-7)

This feminine metaphor is a great improvement on the first one, but the music metaphor is still better. “Weaving brings together only two kinds of thread, the vertical and the horizontal. But musical harmony can accommodate all sorts of difference in pitch and tone quality and rhythm. This,” Woodruff concludes, “is the best image for the kind of agreement necessary for democracy. Plato uses this image, too. In the Republic Plato writes of the harmony that brings every element in the city together, so that they ‘sing one song.’ The ‘one song’ that Plato wants to hear is not the least bit democratic – it is a general agreement that only a philosopher-king should rule. So this is a far cry from democracy” (pp. 87-8).

But the Athenians learned that “a harmonious group of citizens can disagree about almost anything – so long as they agree on the rule of law.” Woodruff elaborates: “If anyone is allowed to rise above the rule of law, that breaks harmony. When you put yourself above the law, you separate yourself from the other citizens, you take advantage of their good behavior, and in doing so you plant the seeds of conflict between those who can get away with breaking the law and those who cannot. Demosthenes says that it is a thoroughly democratic principle that no law be passed unless it bears on all citizens equally, since ‘each man shares equally in the system of government.’ After the rule of law, two more rules: First, citizens must agree to pull together on civic education and festivals, so that all of its citizens are, as Cleocritus said, ‘fellow dancers.’ Second, they must not create unnecessary discord by trying to force each other to sing the same note; they must accept a harmony of differences. I shall say, then, that living in political harmony means three things: adhering to the rule of law, working together for the common goals, and accepting differences” (pp. 89-90).

This is to have barely scratched the surface of this essential topic, but I cannot go on. A couple of very important parts of the chapter involve discussions of the failure of tolerance that was the trial and execution of Socrates, a failure of democracy that, for all Socrates’s provocative antidemocratic talk, has been a stain on the idea of democracy ever since: the mob that killed the great philosopher, and a detailed account and interpretation by the historian Thucydides of the ravages of ill-considered military action, his “brilliant essay on how human beings behave under the stress of war, on what drives them to war, and on the excuses they give to each other for the monstrous violence that people at war are inclined to think necessary.” (“‘War is a violent teacher.’”) (p. 104) Key passages on those are cited here at some length; what they have to say is sadly prophetic of our miserable times.

*

            Chapter Five. The Rule of Law.

There is Aesop’s fable about the frogs and the snake: the frogs wanted a more secure life and asked Zeus for a king. Seeing that they weren’t a bright lot, he stuck a piece of wood in the pond, but they treated it contemptuously and asked for a better king. Zeus, in his anger, sent a snake which dined on them.

“And so it was – and still is – when people are frustrated with the law’s stupidities and delays or inconveniences,” Woodruff writes. “If they wish for a ruler who will rise above the law, they are offering themselves to be devoured” (p. 112). So here we are with Trump, and Jeff Sessions, and all the other disrupters of law and order (in its name, of course) lined up with them to ravage the rule of law.  With tanks and tear gas and guns, we will put down the petty criminals and protesters with their slingshots.

I like the discussion, here, of civil disobedience, which is not a contradiction to the rule of law:

“Ordinary citizens also sometimes come out against the rule of law,” Woodruff writes. “They do this not simply by breaking the law, but by arguing that the law they have broken is wrong, and that they ought therefore not to be punished for violating that law. The modern principle of civil disobedience is that one should accept penalties for breaking laws even when the laws are bad, and the point of this is to uphold the rule of law while giving people a way to show how bad a statute is.

“Civil disobedience was never explained in ancient Greece, but the idea behind it seems to have been well entrenched. Socrates was expressing a widely held view: either accept the rule of law – and take whatever penalties the law prescribes for your actions – or leave the city and go into exile.

“The idea of the rule of law seems simple, but it has been hard to live by. Exceptions look very attractive from time to time” (pp. 115-16).

In this context, Woodruff also mentions international law, which both our present-day U.S. empire and the Athenian empire have thought should not apply to our exceptionalist states. But to return to civil disobedience:

“The old attack on law did not distinguish between two principles: supporting the rule of law on one hand, from obeying every law all the time, on the other. It’s easy to gain sympathy for breaking silly or immoral laws, but it is another thing to understand the rule of law altogether. The distinction has been well understood in modern times since Henry David Thoreau chose to break the law on taxes, while supporting the rule of law by going to jail. This distinction is what makes civil disobedience possible.

“Supporting the law means not trying to put yourself above it. It means that when you find yourself in violation of the law, for whatever reason, you do not try to corrupt the system to your benefit” (pp. 120-21).

Antigone, it bears pointing out, even though the concept did not exist explicitly in her time, was a worthy practitioner of civil disobedience. In Thoreau’s case, of course, the refusal to pay his tax is made noble by the context: his refusal to put his money behind the immoral war of aggression against Mexico, by which we ended up, essentially, stealing the very Western land from which we presently want to exclude Mexicans and other alien races.

Woodruff mentions one more essential reason for defending the rule of law, and that is the link between law (and the civilization that it upholds) and language: “Without language, we could not communicate, but we have to communicate,” he writes. “Without law, we could not abide in orderly communities, but we cannot survive apart from communities that maintain certain levels of order. Human beings naturally develop some sort of law, just as they naturally develop some sort of language. But there is no one set of law that all must have by nature, any more than there is just one language that human beings naturally speak” (p. 121). This concept of language and its link to law and civilization is important to principles of rhetoric, as elucidated by Isocrates, among other Greeks, and the Roman, Cicero, both of whose texts I came to admire under the tutelage of Professor Rivers.

Now, once again, I must stop. This is a time-consuming venture, but it seems to me that the task deserves a long, patient treatment rather than the briefer summation or sampling. Why rush, in any case? If you’re going to do a job, do it well, as the maxim goes. Though perhaps it might still be possible to deal with what follows more succinctly?

“And so it was – and still is – when people are frustrated with the law’s stupidities and delays or inconveniences. If they wish for a ruler who will rise above the law, they are offering themselves to be devoured.”. — Paul Woodruff

On the Ideal and the Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 1)

The text that follows comes, with slight adjustments, from last year’s personal journal of September 12, 14, 16, and 19-21. The fact that I spent so much time reporting and commenting on this book (Paul Woodruff’s First Democracy) attests to the importance I gave it at the time and that I still give it. I hope my readers find my notes – excerpted over the next few weeks – useful and provocative, in the best sense of the word.

Paul Woodruff

 

Tuesday, September 12 – Aside from the series of translated texts that my friend Charles Allen gifted to me (gifted, as a verb, though until recently I have sneered at the usage, does have its utility), a few months ago he unloaded on me a few texts of a political nature. Out of the ones I selected from the stack he showed me, First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, by Paul Woodruff (2005. Oxford University Press. 284 pages, with notes and index), is the one that stood out in my mind as a priority, should I only get around to reading one of them. Last night I completed my reading of it. It contains so much that is both timeless and painfully pertinent to the moment’s decline of our democratic ideal, that it is certainly one of the most (if not the most) important politically-focused books that I have ever read. If anything can get me focused enough, in the general principles that our nation’s and world’s future depends on, to pull me out of the despair that I am so often on the verge of spiraling into, this would be the book.

Another of those books, with its focus on Classical rhetoric and the wrongly-maligned sophists who were so important to the practice of “First Democracy,” as Woodruff calls the ancient Athenian model, is the investigative journalist I. F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, which I borrowed from the University of Southern Indiana’s library for a report in Professor Thomas Rivers’s “Contemporary Issues in Rhetoric” course in the summer of 2000 and, so, do not have a copy in my library. It is a book that revolutionized my perspective on the old aristocratic philosophers Plato and Socrates, with their anti-democratic bias. Since then, I. F. Stone’s name has come up here and there, recently on Charles’s tongue. The first thing that caught my attention when I finally sat down to read this book not too long ago, was Woodruff’s two-page dedication to Stone. One thing Woodruff does is to give a more balanced view of Plato and Socrates, what they got right as well as wrong, but he makes it equally clear that they were, indeed, enemies of democracy, however legitimate some of their concerns may have been.

“I cannot pretend that mine is the kind of book he would have written,” Woodruff writes in that dedication. “It is too short on detective work, too long on theory, for him. But not, I hope, too short on idealism. During the year that I saw him almost daily, I would sometimes despair about American democracy, or about human educability, or about anything, really. Then he would gently pull me back. ‘It should be,’ he would say, reminding me not to let my dreams be trimmed to fit our current failures. Democracy should work, he meant. Education should support it. And so on” (p. vi).

In the preface that follows, he continues this thought about democracy:

“Democracy is government that tries to bring a specific ideal into practice – the ideal of government by and for the people. I call it an ideal because I do not think it has ever been fully reflected in an actual government” (p. ix).

In his introduction (“Democracy and Its Doubles”) Woodruff posits that democracy, “like many beautiful ideas,” “travels through our minds shadowed by its doubles – bad ideas that are close enough to be easily mistaken for the real thing.” The ancient Athenians “tinkered with the system for nearly 200 years,” he continues,” “and it was working smoothly when the overwhelming power of Macedon brought it down. Alexander the Great inherited despotism from his father Philip, and he passed it on to successors who maintained it for generations. It was this despotism that killed democracy” (pp. 3-4).

The Athenians knew what democracy was, and sustained an ongoing debate about the ideas – central to the book’s focus – on which it was built. But we Americans, even the most educated among us, do not understand it – and are “complacent in [our] ignorance.” Sometimes, in our attempts to define it, we fall back on the Constitution, “forgetting that this was written by men who feared government by the people and were trying to keep it at bay.

“The Constitution,” he writes, “is a magnificent solution to the problems faced by the founders but it is not democratic in itself and the virtually scriptural authority that it now enjoys is a drag on the evolution of democratic processes in the United States. Perhaps that is a good thing,” he adds; “the founders may have been right to insist that republican institutions would serve us better than democratic ones. But we should call things by their right names, if we are to avoid confusion. A republic is not necessarily a democracy. The Athenians were not held by by a written constitution. Instead they had an oral tradition that served mainly to preserve a handful of essential ideas, while the system itself could evolve through democratic processes” (p. 4).

The Athenians knew what democracy was, and sustained an ongoing debate about the ideals on which it was built..

“When Athens was true to democracy,” Woodruff writes, “it was gloriously successful.” And the Athenians tended to learn from their mistakes, making adjustments that improved it, though its failures were dramatic. “Athens’ failures frightened many thinkers away from democracy. Historians and philosophers of the time saw the dark side of Athenian politics more clearly than the bright, and they tended to blame the dark side on democracy. They passed their judgments down to succeeding generations of thinkers, with such success that democracy carried a bad odor for over 2,000 years” (p. 5).

So here we are today, in an age where we are keen on exporting our own freedom in the name of democracy, while our presidents “often take cover behind executive freedom – even though this belongs more to monarchy than democracy” (pp. 6-7). Woodruff admits, again, that its enemies have a powerful case against democracy, but his “hope in this book is to bring democracy out of the shadows of complacency and suspicion, and into the light where its essential ideas may be debated” (p. 7).

Those central ideas, which occupy most of the book, are seven: 1) Freedom from Tyranny (And from Being a Tyrant); 2) Harmony, which in a sense might be the most vital; 3) The Rule of Law (these three being present in all ancient concepts of government, the others pertaining strictly to democracy, and thus more controversial); 4) Natural Equality; 5) Citizen Wisdom; 6) Reasoning Without Knowledge; and, 7) Education.

The three of democracy’s “doubles” that Woodruff focuses on in the introduction are: 1) Voting; 2) Majority Rule; and, 3) Elected Representatives. The problem with voting is that it is a process that can be manipulated, leaving many feeling that they have no real voice; “what is crucial to democracy,” he writes, “is how issues and candidates are chosen and presented for voting” (p. 10); this is why Professor Rivers always said that civic participation and discussion are the supreme civic virtues, not voting. As for majority rule, it often is no more than mob rule; and, in a two-party, winner-take-all system like ours, only the winners feel truly represented in the resulting governance. Likewise, while some representative bodies were necessary in Athenian democracy, the Athenians severely restricted the powers of elected officials and filled representative bodies by other means that prevented bribery from entering into crucial decision making – this in the interest of keeping an excessive power out of the hands of the wealthy.

Underlying the seven virtues are others “such as justice and reverence” – reverence having more to do with humility than anything, a knowledge of the limitations of human knowledge and, thus, a check on excessive pride, or hubris – “but these are so widely admired that they do not pick out a system of government” (p. 15).

In the end, this introduction comes back around to the notion of idealism that Woodruff attaches to the example of I. F. Stone. And here lies some really beautiful writing.

“Call democracy a dream, if you will, but keep dreaming democracy,” he writes. “I admit that visions are unrealistic; they are supposed to be unrealistic. ‘Being realistic’ leads to stagnation and an easy accommodation with failure. We should always want to work out better ways of being democratic. We should always be looking for systems that engage more citizens in decision making, for public education that gives more people the tools of self-governance, and for courts that deliver more credible justice. In short, we should want to move closer to the ideal. But how can we do so without a vision of where the ideal is?

“We can’t. And in the absence of vision, we are not making progress towards democracy. Quite the opposite. As I write this book, the United States seems to be edging further away from the essential principles of democracy. The growing political power of wealth undermines equality, the retention of prisons abroad on a base on Cuba threatens rule of law, and the rising number of electoral districts that are safely in the hands of political parties reduces the value of people’s votes. You may wish to defend these trends, but you should know what they mean.

“The enemies of democracy are fear and ignorance. Fear feeds on ignorance, and fear leads to ignorance. Frightened by the many dangers around us, we may be tempted to trade our freedoms for what look at the time like safety. Lacking a clear vision of democracy, we may not realize that when we traded away our freedoms we were trading away part of democracy itself, since freedom and democracy are inseparable. Or, in the excitement of winning an election or a lawsuit, we may forget that democracy is for all the people – for the losers as well as the winners in the latest contest.

“I concede,” Woodruff writes in conclusion, “that a vision of democracy is not realistic, because it cannot be put fully into practice. But it is practical nonetheless, because it can guide us towards reform or, at least, it can keep us from circling back the way we came. We can follow the North Star, traveling north, with no hope of reaching the star itself. But we do need to know the difference between the star and all the other bright lights twinkling overhead. The doubles of the North Star would lead us in circles. And, even when we know how to identify the North Star, we must have a clear night if we are to use it as our guide. On a cloudy night, we might be tempted to paint an image of the North Star on the back of the traveler ahead of us. But following other travelers could lead us astray. We must see the star with our own eyes if we are to follow it truly.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This last line puts me in mind of what our great national philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, of the American Transcendentalists, meant when he spoke of self-reliance. To be a man, he said, one must be a nonconformist. The true “American Scholar,” to borrow from another of his most brilliant essays, is the one who depends on his own seeing, and who is not hide-bound to either the light of others or the lights as he saw them yesterday. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of petty divines and small politicians. We are beholden, Woodruff would add, to the former vision of the ancient Athenians not so that we can duplicate and mindlessly follow them in a completely different political and cultural environment, but so that they can suggest to our minds the great applications of those seven basic ideas to the particular circumstance we face. And this, I believe, is a good place to leave this discussion for the night.

“The Sweetest Dish”: On the Healing Magic of Storytelling

51BBuzGzKIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Forgive me my absence of these several months. By way of apology, rather than excuses or explanations, I offer the following pages – on the art of storytelling – from last fall’s personal journal. It is only lightly edited.

Saturday, October 14 – It is arguable that the lead character in my friend Marian Allen’s book Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage (2016, Corydon / New Albany, Indiana: Per Bastet Publications. 125 pages) is Farukh, the storyteller, “from the distant land of Sule” (p. 54). He does make an appearance in five of these thirteen stories, and dominates the two mythic tales (“The Mountain Who Loved the Moon” and “How the Tortoise Got His Shell”); that’s more than the next two in line, the members of the Festival Players’ acting troupe. But while Farukh’s presence is made explicit in only two of those five instances, one must imagine that he or someone like him is implicitly there in the others from which he is apparently absent or invisible. Because, at its heart, each of these tales is, in its own way, a study of the art of storytelling. Now that I finally sit down to read them through in their final form – I remember several from her reading of the drafts at our writers’ group meetings – I really take the measure of Marian Allen as a specialist in that art. This only makes me more determined, someday, to read the Sage trilogy of fantasy novels from whose world these new, shorter tales are spun.

“Hear! Hear!” Farukh exclaims at the outset of the second and shortest tale, “The Mountain Who Loved the Moon.”

“Yes, it is I, Farukh Suria’ Apa-Dan , storyteller extraordinaire. Settle upon the cobbles of the marketplace, here, around my rug, and listen.”

And then, his story told, the request for coins: “Please toss them into my hat. If I find enough in there to buy something to soothe my voice, I’ll tell you another” (p. 18). He emerges as something of a rascal, a personality, a presence as permanent as the towns and countryside through which he travels, as vital as the bigger actors who populate the different tales.

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Marian Allen

“There are two people who are always welcome in any village in rural Istok,” we read at the beginning of “The Sweetest Dish”: “a good cook and a good storyteller”; and, further: “Some say that feasts attract storytellers – pratiers, as they’re called in Istok – the way honey attracts badgers, but truth is, when a pratier shows up, forehead crossed by colorful beaded band, a reason for the feast is found” (pp. 85-6).

And, at story’s end, this wonderful line: “Everyone agreed that the sweetest dish is one that comes with a story” (p. 90).

At the end of the brief introduction to “The Warmth of Midwinter,” second to last story, these two paragraphs, which end with a similar sentiment:

“‘This story,’ said the storyteller, ‘ takes place in the land of Layounna, not far from the capital city of Kadasad, on the bank of the Fiddlewood River. The time was in that lean and cheerless passage of the season, and the year was such-and-such.’

“The audience chuckled. Who cared what year a story happened? In the mouth of a good tale-spinner, a story took place around you – to you – even as it was related” (p. 102).

The itinerant acting troupe, in their consecutive tales (“Heart’s Desire”; “The Planting of Evidence”; “Command Performance”) serve a similar function, with their theatrical productions. Though, like roving Gypsies and circus or carnival crews, they were not always trusted after certain hours: “A city supper and beds in an inn were rare treats,” we read early in the latter of these stories.” “Only large towns were sophisticated enough to risk allowing such rascals as actors to linger overnight” (p. 49).

But the open road, the freedom and the risk of the unknown path, are themselves fruit of much popular and even literary narrative. This is certainly the case in these tales, which often bring the protagonist up against the known borders of their worlds, landing them in mortal danger. Will they have the qualities of strength, imagination, and determination necessary to meet and prevail in the face of the uncanny and the shifting tales of fortune?

th9XH9XU5FI remember, in a television production of The Arabian Nights that I really enjoyed, the role of the old, white-bearded storyteller whose crucial task it was to coach an extremely vulnerable Sheherazade in the art of suspense, of leaving the, in her case, lunatic-psychotic listener on the edge of his seat, so that she could gain one more day to entrap him in the healing magic of her fictions. The importance of story was so well articulated there; I used the film to good effect with my English students.

Likewise, from literary writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and the wonderful Sholom Aleichem, I have learned the extent to which the story is central. It is central even in experimental works like Joyce’s Ulysses, though few readers will be able to get through the artifice to the narrative; Virginia Woolf does it just as artfully, but with a narrative simplicity – even as it flowed on the protagonist’s consciousness, on the stream-of-consciousness on which the larger narrative is woven in Mrs. Dalloway.

Marian has asked me what it is that distinguishes “literary” fiction from the genre fiction that she and other writing group members tend to work in. I don’t know how well I’ve been able to answer that, only to point to some of the techniques that I have used (in A Bride Called Freedom, for instance) to make the historical romance visibly pertinent to our present moment. Explicitly pertinent, I might say, as I do by juxtaposing the modern voice of Viviana whose emails become the frame through which 19th-century Argentine legend is made immediate to both North American past and present. Each work has its own method, which may be more subconscious than conscious. In “Courting Mel,” my romantic comedy that will grace the pages of the anthology that I’m presently struggling to put together, among other things there are a series of allusions to the immediate backdrop of build-up to war in Iraq that gives the romance some of its darker edge. Then there comes the allusion to Twain’s “War Prayer,” which puts (in Cameron’s mind) the story’s dilemma of love won or lost up against the dilemma of the one who prays for victory on his own nation’s field of battle – and, thus, blight and destruction on the enemy’s. Thus and so forth.

But I mention all that because, here, in the simple grace of Marian’s “genre” fantasies, the seriousness and importance and pertinence of the work are implicit in the craft itself. She who has ears, let her hear. There were at least a couple of moments in these stories – I won’t try to pinpoint them now (I read, as I rarely do anymore, without marking up the text!) – where it occurred to me that I wish a certain contemporary politician, not to mention a few of his more reactionary cohorts, could read this and reflect on its teaching. But, of course, some ears are not made for hearing, and I suspect that he is beyond comprehending, incapable of shame or self-revelation. But, there the wisdom lies, in all its simplicity and its nuance.

My present journey amongst Marian and her crew of southern Indiana writers has certainly helped me to push aside whatever snobbery might exist or might have existed in (especially my youthful) ambitions as a distinctly literary artist. Though, in fairness to that idealism, what I really felt a revulsion toward were the cookie-cutter Harlequin Romances and such. And, beyond that, I have always been open to instruction, as when I picked up Louis L’Amour’s memoir – Education of a Wandering Man, I think it was – which led me to take a respectful, if brief, glimpse at the art of his Western fiction. At the same time, I have always been attracted to the populist in literary fiction: John Steinbeck, for instance, read and admired by the common man. And that’s the kind of literary writer I have always wanted to be. Even in my wildest experimentation, I have been at pains to make the experimental form accessible and comprehensible.

th461VYQDSA new milestone in this evolving understanding of the subject occurred on Saturday, last week, at the Imaginarium in Louisville, where I attended a panel discussion on which sat Marian’s pseudonymous daughter, “Sara Marian” (well, her flesh-and-blood daughter, who uses that pseudonym). She, like me, had literary pretensions, and has abandoned her early efforts along those lines, viewing them as hopeless failures. But now, with her rather popular (one of Per Bastet’s top two sellers) The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, in the writing of which she simply tried to write a good story, she feels that she has expressed a good deal of what she had hoped to say in a more deliberately literary fiction. Inspired, by the way, by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky! How could I not love her?

That book, I gave as a gift a couple of Christmases past to my daughter Nadina. Don’t know if she’s read it yet, but someday I must. As for me, while also having moved on from my early efforts, I continue to fashion a more deliberately literary body of work; and, at the same time, I have some faint hope of returning to some of that early but, ultimately, unsuccessful work and crafting something more palatable to a general public. If I succeed at that, I imagine that my present sojourn among so-called genre writers like Marian Allen and her charming daughter will have played a role equal to, if not superior to, my “literary” influences and models. This book – Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage – makes that ever so clear. The proof is not in the pudding so much as in the story, the narrative, dressed up however it might be in literary apparel. I don’t believe there is any need to look down one’s nose at this popular literature, so long as it is finely crafted and imagined. As this work is.