"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, February 12, 2007

What Democracy Means

Part of another gem by National Treasure, Bill Moyers. from TomPaine.com. My favorite clip:
Jesus would not be crucified today. The prophets would not be stoned. Socrates would not drink the hemlock. They would instead be banned from the Sunday talk shows and op-ed pages by the sentries of establishment thinking who guard against dissent with the one weapon of mass destruction most cleverly designed to obliterate democracy—the rubber stamp.
. . . .As I watch and listen to our public discourse today, it seems to me we are all “institutionalized” in one form or another, locked away in our separate realities, our parochial loyalties, our fixed ways of seeing ourselves and others. For democracy to prosper it requires us to escape those bonds and join what John Dewey called “a life of free and enriching communion”—to become “We, the People.” The late James W. Carey, one of our noted scholars of communication, wrote that the very concept of “public” could once be defined as “a group of strangers who gather to discuss the news.” In early America the printing press generated a body of popular knowledge. Towns were small, and taverns, inns, coffeehouses, street corners, and the public greens—the commons—were places where people gathered to discuss what they were reading. These places of public communication “provided the underlying social fabric of the town and, when the Revolution began, made it possible to quickly gather militia companies, to form effective committees of correspondence and of inspection, and to organize and to manage mass town meetings.”

The public was no fiction, Carey said. The public had no life, no social relationships, without news. The news was what activated conversation between strangers, and strangers were assumed to be capable of conversing about the news. In fact, the whole point of the press was not so much to disseminate fact as to assemble people. The press furnished materials for argument—“information,” in the narrow sense—“but the value of the press was predicated on the existence of the public, not the reverse.” The media’s role was humble but serious, and that role was to take the public seriously.

It would be hard to argue that we do so today, except in isolated examples. Our public conversation is mediated by politicians who have mastered “sound bites” sculpted from polling data, by “pundits” whose credibility increases with the frequency of exposure despite being consistently wrong, and “experts” whose authority depends not on reason, evidence or logic but on ideology and affiliation. The public, J.R. Priestly observed, “has been transformed into a vast crowd, a permanent audience, waiting to be amused.”

What kind of “public intellectual” survives in such an environment? Turn on the television and you’re likely to see them talking about the war in Iraq, for which they were cheerleaders, or the upcoming presidential race—still a year away. Notice where they sit—in a Times Square studio or a media stage in Washington, their messages beamed across the public airwaves courtesy of huge media conglomerates whose intent is not the informing of citizens but the maximizing of profit through the delivery to advertisers of mass audiences addicted to consumerism.

How forlorn a figure Socrates of Athens would be in this environment. Arguably the first public intellectual, proclaimed by the oracle of Delphi as the wisest of men, Socrates went about Athens on a divine mandate of self-reflection, some celestial spark glowing in his breast, some voice whispering in his head that only he could hear. Led by this voice he went to the wise men and great poets and master technicians of the city to cross-examine them, casting doubt on their knowledge by exposing their received opinions and unexamined assumptions, the deep-seated corruption of thought which leads to grave moral danger; or sometimes simply pointing to the common failing of so many experts: that of mistaking their expertise in one subject or practice for universal wisdom about the human condition.

Exposing the ignorance of the leaders was Socrates’ way of helping the “cause of God,” as he explained when he was put on trial. He reasoned thus from his interviews with them that the wisest of men—as the oracle, remember, described Socrates to be—is the one who is most conscious of his own ignorance, most aware of the limits of knowledge which are introduced by our limited methods of obtaining knowledge. Meletus, the main accuser featured in Socrates’ Apology (as told by Plato), was a young religious fanatic who charged Socrates with believing in deities of his own invention rather than the gods recognized by the state. Scholars now believe that Meletus was simply a “front man” for political interests, put forward to stir the public against the philosopher—a forerunner of modern punditry, or maybe something quite like today’s political fundamentalism.

I sadly think of [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell addressing the United Nations in February 2003, with his artist’s renderings of those trailers that were supposed to be mobile biological warfare factories; and I think of all the rest of the cooked intelligence that sold so many of our public intellectuals on invading Iraq. It was too crude to even qualify as false wisdom on the Socratic model, really, but the resulting disaster—as great a blunder as Vietnam to which many of the same mistakes could be assigned—would result from relying on the knowledge of self-interested experts and deluded leaders. When they sentenced Socrates to death, he reminded them that they were proving how groundless knowledge made it impossible to escape from doing wrong. Succumbing to wishful thinking that leads to disastrous self-delusion, he pointed out, is the only real death. “When I leave this court,” he said of his jurors, “I will go away condemned by you to death.” But his accusers, he told them, “will go away convicted by truth herself….”

The Hebrew prophet was another kind of public intellectual, one who was also condemned and persecuted by the political elites he addressed. A century before Socrates, one of those prophets—Jeremiah—came from a small village into Jerusalem to preach repentance to a faithless Israel, with its houses full of treachery, and its rich kings and princes who gave no justice to the poor widow and the fatherless child.

And of course, near the end of his life, Jesus of Nazareth also went to Jerusalem, to preach the same message in an even more dangerous public way, confronting the ruling elites before great crowds on the Temple grounds. When he predicted their imminent destruction in his parable about the wicked tenants who hoarded the fruits of creation, his fate was sealed.

Jesus would not be crucified today. The prophets would not be stoned. Socrates would not drink the hemlock. They would instead be banned from the Sunday talk shows and op-ed pages by the sentries of establishment thinking who guard against dissent with the one weapon of mass destruction most cleverly designed to obliterate democracy—the rubber stamp.

A stock broker who makes bad picks doesn’t last too long. A baseball player in an extended slump gets traded. A worker made redundant by cheaper labor abroad or by a new machine—well, she’s done for, too. But four years after the invasion of Iraq—the greatest blunder in foreign policy since Vietnam—the public apologists and advocates of the war flourish in the media, while the costs of their delusions accrue in body counts and lost treasure. A public that detests the war is relegated to the bleachers, fated to watch from afar the playing out by political and media elites of a game that has been rigged.

Yet the salvation of democracy requires a public aroused by the knowledge of what is being done to them in their name. Here is the crisis of the times as I see it: We talk about problems, issues, policies, but we don’t talk about what democracy means—what it bestows on us—the revolutionary idea that it isn’t just about the means of governance but the means of dignifying people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency. “I believe in Democracy because it releases the energies of every human being.” So spoke Woodrow Wilson, the namesake of your foundation and, I would suggest, still your guiding spirit.

The only PhD ever to reach the White House was a public intellectual and genuine reformer who understood what a major battleground higher education was. He learned what the political struggle was about while a professor and later the president of Princeton, where he lost his share of institutional battles with wealthy alumni who largely controlled the university’s development, and the nation beyond.

In his forgotten political testament The New Freedom (1913), Wilson took up something of the ancient, critical task of the public intellectual, a fact all the more remarkable in that he was president at the time. Louis Brandeis, the people’s lawyer, was his inspiration and the source of this vision, but Wilson stood for it, right there at the center of power. “Don’t deceive yourselves for a moment as to the power of the great interests which now dominate our development.” “No matter that there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States. They are going to own it if they can.” But “there is no salvation,” he said, “in the pitiful condescensions of industrial masters. Guardians have no place in a land of freemen. Prosperity guaranteed by trustees has no prospect of endurance.” From his stand came progressive income taxation, the federal estate tax, tariff reform, and a resolute spirit “to deal with the new and subtle tyrannies according to their deserts.”

Wilson described his reformism in plain English no one could fail to understand: “The laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak.” That was true in 1800, it was true in 1860, in 1892, in 1912, and 1932; it was true in 1964, and it is true today. We have often been pressed to the limit, the promise of the Declaration and the ideals of the Gettysburg Address ignored or trampled upon and our common interests brought low. But every time there came a great wave of reform, and I believe one is coming again, helped along by the bright young people this foundation is nurturing.

We cannot build a political consensus or a nation across the vast social divides that mark our country today. Consensus arises from bridging that divide and making society whole again, the fruits of freedom and prosperity made available to the least among us. What we have to determine now, as Wilson said in his day, “is whether we are big enough…whether we are free enough, to take possession again of the government which is our own. We haven’t had free access to it, our minds have not touched it by way of guidance, in half a generation, and now we are engaged in nothing less than the recovery of what was made with our own hands, and acts only by our delegated authority.”

As we face that challenge even today, a story about Helen Keller is worth remembering. Toward the end of her career, as she was speaking at a Midwestern college, a student asked: “Miss Keller, is there anything that could have been worse than losing your sight?” Helen Keller replied: “Yes, I could have lost my vision.”

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