Democracy in Progress

What would John Dewey think of America today?  Quite specifically, Dewey outlined some key components of a Democracy in his piece Creative Democracy.   Components that may seem like a stretch in our society now.  Eighty years have passed since John Dewey wrote Creative Democracy, while he also was at the age of eighty, and what can America show for it?  World War II, Korea and Vietnam Wars, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, many changes in how the government functioned have changed the perspectives and outlooks of Americans.  Advancing technologies have completely changed the pace of the country and how it functions from day to day.

Many changes have been for the better.  Medical advancements are savings many more individuals, while new technology is making the world a cleaner place.  Acceptance and tolerance are themes that can be found anywhere… But in contrast to Dewey’s claims- has America advanced for the best?

Dewey States;

“Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life.”

And,

“A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other”

Unfortunately, while many positive changes have occurred, many negative changes have as well.  The polarization of political parties in America has created a heightened new climate that makes it difficult for work to get accomplished.  In this political climate BOTH parties are guilty of intolerance and abuse directed at the other, what Dewey refers to as “treason to the democratic way of life”.  Neither party is looking for an opportunity to give the other a chance, making it difficult to move forward.  Senator Marco Rubio explains this exact issue here, showing just how recognizable the issue is that politicians feel the need to voice it.  Try looking at 2:50-4:15.

Advancements in technology, specifically social media have accelerated these issues.  Instead of discussing these issues face to face with one another, many individuals are behind a screen discussing issues- thus making it easier to become frustrated and not see the others point of view.  Additionally, for many young Americans, social media provides a very legitimate news source.  While some sources may be better than others, the majority are biased to one side or the other, and do not offer just the facts.  Facebook specifically looks at what you are watching and records that history in order to show you similar articles/posts that perpetuate what the reader already believes.

All Americans need to open up to one another and stop putting down each other’s views.  Until this happens, we will continue to see these similar issues that are plaguing our democracy, making it nearly impossible to take a step forward.

The Richness of the World

As a women who wants kid, there is something romantic about the idea of the “stay at home mom”.  Not in today’s sense of the word where the women is scorned for being lazy, or put on a pedestal for marrying someone who can provide so much.  The idea of the stay at home mom, when it wasn’t a title, just the norm.  Where the loving father leaves in the morning for a hard day’s work, and the mother gets her perfect children ready and off to school, then cooks and cleans her story-book day away until the whole family comes together that night at the dinner table.  But then once you step back and the cracks start to reveal themselves, it loses the romantic aspect.  Certainly the norms in nineteenth century North America were not romantic; where woman were open vessels, at their husbands bidding.  Being abused sexually or physically and not being able to divorce without losing your kids.  Never mind even aspiring for a life without kids… Wasn’t really an option.  Where is the freedom in that?

In Blood, Bread, and Poetry Adrienne Rich claimed “I naturally absorbed ideas about women, sexuality, or power from the subjectivity of male poets… The dissonance between these images and the daily events of my own life demanded a constant footwork of imagination” (244).  Similarly to what I was saying in my last post, it is difficult to change the only thing that you know.  Just think about it.  Prior to the Civil War, white southerners released all kinds of literature related to slavery and how it was really doing a service do African-Americans, who they believed could not really live on their own.  To these white southerners, who were raised with the idea that this was OK, even if they started to doubt themselves the reinforcement of these documents could justify what it was they were doing.  Further, to the Northerner who has not seen slavery first hand, reading these documents they can fall into the trap of believing it.

Of course this applies to anything and everything, and anyone can be subject to believing it unless they have enough knowledge to sort through what is true and what is not.  So in a world were women belong on the backburner, it is difficult to change the dynamic enough for them to become the main course.  Rich has a purpose when she pursues geography and moves straight to the body.  In a sense the idea of having countries and continents, cities and states, may be a little unnatural.  Who are we to divide up pieces of the earth?  Who are we to stop people from roaming the world as they please?  However, for a woman who is not at peace with what she finds within the country, this retreat within the body, seems completely natural.

This is where questions can begin to be answered, feelings unveiled, injustices recognized.  Rich is taking these feelings and observations, and putting them into her poetry.  To say that politics should stay out of art, like poetry, is contradictory.  It is like saying that women should not be allowed to vote when in a democracy… Oh wait.   Taking politics out of art is leaving an entire piece of our society behind and closing the door on their voices. We are not fulfilling our duties as informed citizens by ignoring these voices.

In An Atlas of the Difficult World, among many other themes, Rich addresses a woman’s place in the world.   The frustrating search for this place has many negative components, but that is life.  Many of Rich’s poems are tough to read, such as “That Mouth,” where disturbing images offer no relief except a father can try to choke you,/a mother drown you to save  you.

What struck me most about Rich’s collection is not the disturbing passages, but the universality that these provide.  Rich is writing as many things- a white Jewish woman, middle-class American, a feminist, a lesbian, an activist.  But she touches upon so many more concepts.  While some of her poems are more specific, like section five of “Eastern War Time,” where she expresses the thoughts of a young Jewish girl during World War II, others are more generic.  The second page of her collection offers a harsh look into a relationship gone bad, that could be represented by any young adult or woman.  So while the whole world has changed, it is important to note where it once was, and the work it still needs to do.  While it is better than it has ever been, there is still enormous effort that needs to be put forward worldwide.

The Thinking Man, the Action Man

 

There is something to be said about the string of themes that come out of commencements.   When large groups of people are brought together, be it for recognition, celebration, or anything else, the speakers are usually well-prepared to deal with a large audience.  Naturally, the speaker does not want to be caught off guard and look foolish in front this aforementioned audience.  So he/she would do ones best to represent oneself well, just as the program leaders would do their best to select an individual who will take the job of speaking seriously.

Many things are spoken about at these gatherings.  For example, speakers can focus on bettering yourself, finding your passion, building the community, and taking risks.  It is a chance to offer advice, and to send a message that might need to be heard.  The success of a group of people and the direction they are headed in is vital.  So in short, there is no right subject to focus on, which is why the themes that connect together are so important.  Action is one of those themes that are seen over and over.  While it may not be as cliché as “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” it is found all throughout.  However a huge advantage to this theme is the timelessness it presents, and the never-ending importance it demands.

“Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.”

In 1977 Adrienne Rich attested to these points in her speech, “Claiming an Education”.  It was a call to action for the women at the college.  That they are not at the college to receive an education, but to take and claim it for their own.  Rich calls out the staff, which is mainly white and male, then proceeds to call out the books and materials students are learning from.  Rich says “What you can learn here… is how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history,” which Emerson has indirectly responded to in his speech.

“The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar, is, the mind of the Past, — in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed”

As Rich explains, receiving an education isn’t enough.  This would qualify an individual to be labeled as the “bookworm”, and it would leave the women at Douglas College with a plethora of information  provided by men about the world we live in.  Emerson and Rich both know that it is not enough to get by on the information taught alone.  Acting on one’s education, the texts that were read, and the lectures that were heard is necessary.  No change will ever come in the world unless something is acted upon first.

“The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, — so entire, so boundless.”

And here is how nature begins to change.  Emerson claims that “there is never a beginning, there is never an end,” and this is true for “the education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by action”.  The action that has been taken in the past, changes the nature of our world.   For example, if no women ever pursued an education, Adrienne Rich would never have had the opportunity to give her speech.  But women did pursue higher education, and because of that the nature in the United States has changed.  For me it was not a question of if I could receive higher education, just a question of if I wanted too.  Soon I will be faced with the question of what to do with the knowledge I have.

This is because someone questioned the norm, they stood up, they spoke out, and they acted on their surroundings.  Terry Tempest Williams advice of “Question. Stand. Speak. Act,” reflects Rich’s claim to take action and not just accept the views thrown upon oneself.  Rich’s speech reflects Emerson’s of “The American Scholar”, to learn by nature, books, and action.

Fortunately the world has changed.  Human beings are smarter, more efficient, eco-friendly, and more compassionate.  We hear the voices of people like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes who put their knowledge to use to express their world to those who do not understand, and while the world is far from perfect it is making progress.  So just as  Emerson says “each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding,” each generation must take its own action to make changes for the following generations in the world.

American Democracy: Whitman’s Future

Walt Whitman claims American democracy as an embryo in his 1871 essay.  Perhaps it is easy to see this point of view today, as there have been so many developments since he first wrote this, but on the contrary, it could have been quite the statement when it was first written.  After all, it had been just short of a century when American democracy truly kicked off, with the declaration of independence in 1776 and the signing of the constitution in 1787.  In a world that democracy is not typically used, this would seem to be quite a length of time.

Robert Dahl just might agree with Whitman on the topic.  However, not without stopping to explain the history behind democracy as he does in On Democracy.   While democracy may not be strongly developed, it has been invented multiple times, and practiced by sizeable groups since 500 B.C.E.   Armed with this knowledge, we could make a strong argument for American democracy to be in the condition of a fetus instead of an embryo.  The country has had decades to settle into the flow, and the countries limits were tested in the American Civil War.

Whitman is right however.  Democracy is extremely young and time is the only thing that can tell where it will go.  Will it be a failure?  Worst yet, will it be the “most tremendous failure of time,” as Whitman says it might be.  But Whitman describes democracy as so much more than just politics.  He claimed it as literature and religion, something to be found in every nook and cranny from schools and colleges, into the military.  If Whitman truly believed that America as a nation had no literature in 1871, what would he think of America today?  We are surrounded by literature, but as he would see it “the said nation, land, strictly speaking, may possess no literature at all”.    Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray may be considered literary phenomena’s, but is this the new style he believed the country needed?  It certainly is not what Whitman had in mind when comparing the countries already poor literature to the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Meanwhile, the ways in which literature is received have changed.  Whether rich or poor, screens are everywhere and they are completely unavoidable.  Be it the TV, a cell phone, laptop or gaming system, the forms of media found throughout would have been shocking to anyone during the Reconstructive Era.  Many may argue against the efficiency of this advancement.  Social media like Twitter and Facebook have become official sources of news for many individuals throughout the last few decades- particularly among young people.  And for many, the most advanced materials consumed are based off of platforms like these.

While the country may be more than an embryo, his claim “that the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future,” does express the newness of the nation.  With developing technologies, it is obvious that big change is going to happen.  So big in fact that Whitman theorized that the nation’s capital could be moved perhaps up to two thousand miles its current location in Washington D.C.  While this did not occur, the nation did continue to expand and create a new world.  Although Whitman may not find many reasons to fall in love with American Literature, the advancements of this world would be enough to keep anyone occupied.

Opposing Perceptions

 The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

As an American, a defensive wall shot up while reading pieces of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  “In what Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts,”
the American culture was attacked for a lack of fine arts.  Tocqueville picked apart American culture, but focused only on several specified aspects.  He included example after example sharing why the aristocracy was good and the democracy was bad, and he refused to stop to question or look at this view from another angle.  While he does create many valid points, the negative portrayal, should make one question the point of view he is coming from. Most likely, born into a rich aristocratic family, the benefits of a democracy do not appear as lucrative to him as they would seem to individuals of another class.  To him, art is defined by the amount of money behind a piece, affordable by only the richest individuals.  It is not attainable to the average citizen.

Tocqueville expresses that “in democracies there is always a multitude of persons whose wants are above their means and who are very willing  to take up with imperfect satisfaction rather than abandon the object of their desires altogether,” but is this really a bad characteristic in society?  Perhaps the definition of what these members in American society value has changed.  Certainly the social structure is different, but so is the way of life.  For example, technological advancements were starting to grow with more speed.   Tocqueville’s sentence could be rewritten as “in democracies there is always a multitude of persons who’s striving to reach above their means and who are very willing to take up happiness with imperfection than chase their desires forever.”  The value of nice things may have appeared to have dropped, but in all reality, the importance of these things in society may have changed.

Similarly in “Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times,” political pamphlets are expressed as a negative aspect, however it is just a reflection of the time period.  Tocqueville is not incorrect in his assessment of what may be found in an American library, but the fact that few texts have been written by American authors at this point should not be alarming.  Political pamphlets benefited many members of society, not just the wealthy members.  For many years, literacy was something only for the upper class, without proper systems of education, the working class did not have a reason, or the means to learn.  It adds up that lengthy texts were not created for an American audience as the majority of readers had no need and could not afford these texts.  Political pamphlets along with many short stories and newspapers would have provided a much more valuable source of information to a majority of readers.  Tocqueville does try to get into the mind of a literary individual within a democracy versus an aristocrat but again, the standard he appears to believe in does not have any room for individuals of lesser education.

In Tocqueville’s perspective, the arts and literature was highly valued.  Other individuals may say that happiness or love would make one wealthy.  These people were most likely not friends with Tocqueville.

Ralph Waldo Emerson seems to indirectly display an opposing view in his essay “History”.  Here he displays an understanding between history and memory.  It is interesting to consider Tocqueville within a class other than his own.  If he had spent significant time with the very Americans who he seemed to disagree with at every turn, would he have written the same way?  “What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know,” Emerson wrote in “History,” and perhaps this line would change the way of thinking for Tocqueville.

As a fellow American, it is safe to say that Emerson would have had a strong sense of patriotism for his country.  This love of a country is often viewed to be much more powerful than the items held within it.  However, it is 2017 and America may relate more closely to the life Tocqueville expressed than ever before.  The working class is growing while they continue to loose money, meanwhile, the 1% is gaining money with fewer and fewer people owning it.  Celebrities spend thousands of dollars on designer outfits, and drive cars with zero practicality.  While art and literature may not be vital parts of society for these individuals, the social hierarchy may be moving towards a modern day aristocratic society- similar to Tocqueville’s nineteenth century experiences.