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Issue No. 103 (January 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

The human qualities
we need now

Increasingly, journalists and social scientists are blaming the American people for the sorry state of our democracy.

And they have a point.

American people to the woodshed

Joe Klein’s bestselling Politics Lost (2006), which we reviewed HERE, may appear to blame pollsters and consultants for our problems (its subtitle is “How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid”). But Klein respects competent pollsters and consultants.  His real beef is with politicians who defer far more to their handlers than they should. He wants politicians -- and (therefore) the citizens who elect them -- to be far more principled, far more caring, and far more imaginative than they are at present.

What Klein puts obliquely, sociologist Alan Wolfe puts forcefully, even rudely.  Although he once famously claimed that we're more "reasonable" than pundits think, consider this passage from his latest book, Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press, 2006):

Americans have the choice to care about politics and have chosen not to. . . .

It is not a pretty sight, this willingness to denounce politicians for their cravennness combined with an unwillingness to pay attention to what they do. When it comes to politics, Americans rely on their cynicism to escape from their obligations, and they trust their naivete to counter their ignorance. Their views about politics frequently seem more appropriate for spoiled children than for mature adults, as if they want politics to be perfect and, when they discover it is not, they reject it as unworthy.

The demands that democracy places upon them are not especially onerous. No one is asking them to devote their lives to politics; all that is required for better democratic performance is that they have some idea what they are talking about and some [sense] of where those for whom they vote stand. But these tasks are evidently too demanding for them to take on, and they flock instead to those politicians who appeal to their vanity rather than speak to their needs.

These are harsh conclusions to reach, and they sit uncomfortably with me even as I reach them. One always wants to give ordinary Americans the benefit of the doubt.

Another major scholar, the usually dispassionate legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, is just as exasperated with us now.  Here's what he says in his latest book, Is Democracy Possible Here? (Princeton University Press, 2006): 

Americans are horribly misinformed and ignorant about the most important issues. . . . Polls show that just before the 2004 election, half of all Americans thought that Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers. . . . Given that level of ignorance, it is inevitable that politicians compete with one another on soap-opera standards. Who looks more confident or calmer? Who talks your language? Which one would you rather date?

Besides ignorance, Dworkin accuses us of disrespect, self-centerdness, and laziness:

If we aim to be a partnership [i.e., “real”] democracy . . . the degraded state of our political argument . . . count[s] as a serious defect in our democracy because mutual attention and respect are the essence of partnership. We do not treat someone with whom we disagree as a partner -- we treat him as an enemy or at best as an obstacle -- when we make no effort either to understand the force of his contrary views or to develop our own opinions in a way that makes them responsive to his.

Superficial proposals

Given the seriousness and depth of the problem these thinkers are addressing, it's hard not to see their proposals for reform as insufficient.

Klein merely exhorts our politicians (and, by implication, us) to be more principled and courageous. ‘Nuff said.

Wolfe -- as befits a one-time New Left radical -- wants us to start what he calls a “democracy protection movement” that would function like the environmental protection movement. Alas, just such a movement has existed for the last four decades -- Common Cause was (and is) its most prominent organizational expression, Reuniting America is its most interesting contemporary variant (see HERE) -- and our level of ignorance continues apace. Obviously, something deeper is needed.

Dworkin -- as befits a professor holding joint appointments at Oxford University and New York University School of Law -- sees formal education as the key. He’d make a Contemporary Politics course part of every high school curriculum. “I do not mean civics courses,” he says. “I mean courses that take up issues that are among the most contentious political controversies of the day.”

Sounds great. But where is Dworkin going to find the hundreds of thousands of teachers who could teach such carefully calibrated courses, let alone the principals and PTA members who’d be willing to defend them? As we’ve seen, he’s already characterized the American people as ignorant and closed-minded. Something more is needed.

Bring in the novelists!

Klein's, Wolfe’s, and Dworkin’s critique of the American people calls for changes on a deeper level than exhortation and better high school courses can provide. And I’m sure they know it.

The problem is that contemporary political analysts rarely try to describe the changes in human personality and temperament that may be necessary before their recommendations can take hold. (God forbid that they should overstep their professional boundaries and start sounding like Spinoza or the early Marx.)

At the radical middle, I believe we should address those necessary changes forthrightly.

The far left and far right both routinely praise the American people to the skies, but usually that's just preposterous and self-serving rhetoric (for a good example, see the letter from author Paul Loeb d. 1 February 2007 HERE). The radical middle owes it to the American people to take a deeper view.

One way in is by looking at what great contemporary literature has to say about the state of our souls now.

As it happens, two recent surveys have attempted to identify the best U.S. and British novels from the last 25 years.

According to 125 writers and critics who responded to a New York Times Book Review poll, the best U.S. novel from 1980 to 2005 was Toni Morrison’s Beloved (see “What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?,” New York Times, 21 May 2006).

According to 120 writers and critics who responded to a British Observer poll, the best “British, Irish, or Commonwealth” novel from 1980 to 2005 was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (see “What’s the Best Novel in the Past 25 Years?,” The Observer, 8 October 2006).

Both authors won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in good part because of these novels (Morrison in 1993, Coetzee in 2003). And both novels happen to be intensely political.

That made them next to perfect for our purposes -- determining the human qualities we’ll need before proposals like Klein’s, Wolfe’s, and Dworkin’s can take firm root.

The human qualities we need now

I loved both novels. I find it exciting and comforting that such wonderful (and such wonderfully diverse!) intelligences as Morrison’s and Coetzee’s are at work in the world today, proving once again, as always, that the “literary way of knowing” is -- at its best -- deeper than more purely fact-based ways of knowing. (The character “Beloved” is a ghost come back in the flesh, and the African National Congress found Disgrace so distorted that it brought charges against the book and its author; see HERE.)

If you had to identify five human qualities both novels put forward as essential -- five qualities that are needed by every person today before they can act wisely and well -- then you might come up with the following:

1. See the world through others’ eyes. Toni Morrison’s Beloved makes you see the world through the eyes of recently freed (and much brutalized) slaves in 1873, eight years after the Civil War; and I guarantee, you’ll never see slavery -- or perceive the lingering grievances of African Americans -- in the same way again.  J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace forces you to see the world through the eyes of bitter South African blacks, defensive South African whites, and younger whites who are committed to that country “whatever it takes” -- and before you’re through you’ll be rooting for all three groupings.

(Regular readers of this newsletter may recall that seeing the world through others’ eyes is the most touted virtue in Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman’s book Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, which won our Best Political Book for 2006 award; see HERE.)

2. Don’t make things simpler than they are. Morrison makes mincemeat of the PC concept of a loving and supportive black community -- and introduces a couple of (relatively) benign white people. And after Coetzee has his protagonist set on fire and his daughter raped by black intruders, the daughter manages to convince us that she’s right to not bring rape charges . . . and right to go ahead and have the baby.

3. Don’t let the past (including racial grievances) overwhelm you. Morrison’s African American characters struggle to make a new start in the post-Civil War era; and after many traumas (including finally exorcising “Beloved”), they finally do; and you’ll be rooting for them all the way. Coetzee’s principal character, a 52-year-old college professor, was living a life of white elitist grievance and resentment; but sexual harassment charges, the assault, continuous arguments with his lesbian daughter, and involvement in an animal shelter force him out of his rut and onto the road to life (“a new footing; a new start”).

4. Resist dehumanization, take responsibility. Morrison’s principal character killed her baby Beloved and tried to kill her other children in 1855, after she was captured in Ohio by her Kentucky slavemaster. You’re meant to “understand” and even empathize, but Beloved’s ghostly presence doesn’t just signify the evils of slavery -- it also signifies the dehumanizing effects of slavery on blacks that need to be confronted and, indeed, exorcised, for African Americans to be whole. Coetzee’s principal character lives in his head for most of the novel -- a different kind of dehumanization that that character finally, and very painfully, begins to confront and transcend at the end.

It would be easy for the central characters in both books to deny or make excuses for their dehumanization, but both books’ power comes from the fact that their characters ultimately refuse that easy "solution." As should we.

5. Consciously strive to be a good person. Morrison’s main characters feel their way toward goodness despite overwhelming brutality and poverty; and by the end of the novel, most of them are firmly on track. Coetzee’s main character is lectured to by his raped daughter as follows: “I am determined to be a good mother, David. A good mother and a good person. You should try to be a good person too.” By the end he's doing just that.

First things

I am not adverse to the recommendations of Klein, Wolfe, and Dworkin . Exhortation by political leaders (especially by a broadly respected future President), exhortation by a revitalized democracy movement, and high school courses that exposed kids to principled and respectful political argument, would all make sense -- in the right human context.

This article has tried to suggest some of what that context must include.

It is not my fault or the radical middle’s fault that this expands the task of political thinkers and activists manyfold.  We don't just have to induce Americans to act differently.  We have to induce them to change as people.  And "them" includes us!

There is a reason many classic political philosophers routinely touched on issues of psychology and the human spirit.


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