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February 15, 2004
The Last Best Hope: A Democracy Reader

The Last Best Hope: A Democracy Reader (Edited by Stephen John Goodlad)

"Political indifference is the death of democracy." Neil Postman, Democracy (1999)

I've been struggling for months over how to write a short, succinct review of this book in a way that will do it justice.

When we say, "democracy" what do we mean? How does democracy work? When does it not work? What does education have to do with democracy? What are the pitfalls of democracy and what are the forces arrayed against it? Are we truly born "free" or is the concept of a "free society" an unnatural one that requires warping or even parting away parts of human nature?

These may sound like dry, academic questions and you may believe (for those of you in the UsofA) that having been born into this country at this point in time, you have an instinctive understanding of the answers, but neither assumption is accurate. You don't necessarily know what democracy is or how best to nurture it. And reading about the subject can be interesting and engaging.

There's material in the book for reviews focusing on twenty topics if I only had the time.

Neil Postman's Democracy inspires a train of thought on the fundamental transience of public opinion in the UsofA.

"In America," [Tocqueville] wrote, "parties do not write books to combat each other's opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire."

It's no wonder we invented the internet. This has always been a country in a hurry.

I could easily write ten pages on this aspect of the "American" character, but that wouldn't produce a review of this book.

(Today, as I'm re-reading this passage, I run across the information that the "South had lagged behind the North not only in the formation of schools but in its use of the printing press" and I'm almost sidetracked into discussing another recent research project, the formation of the character and identify of the South as a unit somehow discrete from the rest of this country, but I'm determined, finally, to stay on topic and get this review done.)

What is Postman writing about?

"Democracy is not a thing, a process, or an idea. It is a word, and a word that has had a checkered career at that."

And, before you ask, yes, it is important to know where a word came from. From those origins come varied and variable uses for the word and from the origins of "democracy" we can trace the roots of the differing definitions of the word as it has evolved into...whatever it is we think it is today.

What about education? To paraphrase Benjamin R. Barber in An Aristocracy Of Everyone (1992), no one is born free. We are born helpless, dependant, and ignorant. We must be educated into freedom. Freedom is the business of an educated, national citizen.

The education of the population is a constant theme throughout much of the book and certainly I could write more than one essay on the topic myself since it's a 'hot button' of mine. The vital importance of education - the way we're failing ourselves as well as failing to safeguard our future - I've ranted about these things before.

But why bother when Barber puts it all so much more succinctly?

"Yet the fundamental task of education in a democracy is the apprenticeship of liberty--learning to be free."

Also from Barber, I found words to articulate what "liberal" means to me.

Democracy is a "leveling process" - it struggles to create equality, but it struggles to level up. Not the lowest common denominator but the highest - to bring the ignorant and unwise up to the level of a learned, committed citizen.

He captures the idea that the best democracy to strive for is an aristocracy where every member of the society is also an aristocrat.

The classical notion of an aristocracy grades on a curve (something I've never respected). Those "above' define themselves by the people they are superior to - they are superior on comparison only to the inferiority of others.

A democratic aristocracy, in contrast, would define superiority by the approach to a standard of excellence. A citizen is not superior by virtue of the difference between themselves and others but by virtue of their own, personal attainments. Measurement against how nearly they approach an ideal.

(I'm sure I need hardly point out that the more an individual assists others in their approach to the goal, the more nearly the individual moves toward the same ideal.

Grading on the curve is a prime example of the failure of any other approach to democracy. You can only be an 'A' student if someone else fails, if someone else is an 'F' student. Ask yourself - are you actually a success if your "success" is purely a measure of by what percentage you outperformed the worst possible students?)

Next, Robert D. Putnam asks, What Makes Democracy Work? and then provides a fascinating Italian experiment through which he and investigating colleagues discovered an answer.

I'd like to quote the entire experiment (but you know how I feel about transcribing things) or at least enough of it to give you a context for the experiment but somehow I doubt that quoting six pages of a seven-page essay is quite covered under Fair-Use agreements so I'll confine myself to the flat statement that civic bonds, the interaction and participation of equal citizens in those activities that define their region, is the key to "installing" a successful democratic system.

"The correlation between civic engagement and effective government is virtually perfect."

The education I got from Putnam's discussion of the differences between a "horizontal" society of equals and a "vertical, patron-client" exploitation of dependence was worth the price of the book by itself.

Civil engagement. At this moment, I'm tempted to stop and discuss the bruising of our national psyche by McCarthyism, followed by the painful divisiveness of Vietnam, followed in turn by the public disillusionment of the Nixon Administration and the subsequent Iran-contra crimes of the Reagan Administration but even as I consider the subject I'm forced to admit that these contributions to voter disillusionment, significant as they are, are just pieces pulled from the middle of the puzzle. There's more to the waning of political involvement in this country than those events.

Anyhow. Putnam does not attribute low civil engagement to a lack of education, but I think a case could be made for the idea that his "horizontal collaboration among equals" necessarily contains components of or would be enhanced by Barber's "civic education." What else is a 'discussion of issues and ideas' but a kind of cooperative education between citizens?

Beyond this, Putnam offers a lively historical section on the development of cultural and social ties (based on engagement, trust, and reciprocity) in those areas of Italy where successful democratic institutions existed in 1993.

Although I'm trying desperately to avoid recapping the entire content of every, single essay, I'll add that at the heart of Putnam's theory is "social capital" - the relationships of people to those within their neighborhood or society. The "banking" of "social capital" with our fellow citizens is what allows democracy to work.

"Cynicism is despair before it loses the ability to act."

That's a paraphrase of C. Douglas Lummis in The Democratic Virtues.

Trust is at the core of this essay. Specifically, public trust, which neatly ties this to the previous essay. The making and keeping of promises, not only by people but by public institutions.

Again, I could easily get sidetracked here. Lummis was writing in 1996 and his topic was timely then, but how much more important does it seem today with Enron, Parmalat, and other corporate scandals in the headlines?

But let's stick with the book. Better yet, let's stick with Lummis' own words:

"The act of making and keeping a promise is a conquest of the chaos that would come if each of us followed our individual passions from moment to moment wherever they lead. It is a conquest that establishes order without placing humankind under a punishing God, a punishing leviathan, a punishing conscience, or a punishing order of exploitative work. In Rousseau's words, it leaves us "free as before." There is no need to ask why making a promise is an act of freedom: we make promises only where there is freedom. Where there is no freedom there is no need for a promise."
Through promises, people faced with more than one choice can create order by collectively willing one.
"The specific context of a promise need not . . . be moral or honorable. But even when it is indifferent ("I will meet you at 7:00 p.m. in front of the post office"), keeping it takes on moral weight. This weight does not come from some metaphysical source: god, transcendent law, absolute reason, the form of the good. It comes from the people themselves, and their act of promising."

Again and again, the book comes back to these ideas. Democracy is the product of an informed, active, and committed population.

Lummis quotes, "Politics is the art of the possible" and offers a brief discussion of realpolitik and its relationship with despair.

"In democratic politics, the art of the possible means the art of extending the possible, the art of creating the possible out of the impossible."

Moving on, Robert D. Kaplan's Was Democracy Just A Moment? discusses, again, when and how democracy can flourish, and warns of a "world government" spawned and controlled by giant, multinational corporations that take upon themselves the duties and powers of nations.

Unguided, democracy is not a guard against tyranny.

"Hitler and Mussolini each came to power through democracy. Democracies do not always make societies more civil--but they do always mercilessly expose the health of the societies in which they operate."

Kaplan also argues convincingly against universal democracy on the grounds that, "for many parts of the world, the historical and social arguments supporting democracy are just not there."

In other words, the social, educational, and moral grounds for democracy do not currently exist in all parts of the world and we do those peoples no favor when we attempt to force our version of democracy on them.

"[O]ur belief in democracy regardless of local conditions amounts to cultural hubris."

There is a level of development that must be reached in a society. The social bonds that tie individuals together must cross tribal, religious, and regional boundaries - there must be the development of Putnam's "social capital" before democracy can flourish.

In warning against the formation of a world government, Kaplan tells us that, "[of] the world's hundred largest economies, fifty-one are not countries but corporations" and points out the disproportionate amount of the world's wealth concentrated (in 1997, when he wrote) to the point that 500 corporations accounted for 70% of the entire world's trade.

While not ruling out the possibility that multinational corporations could become entities responsive to international moral or social pressures, Kaplan makes it clear that a transition to this system (as politics follows power follows money) will be difficult and will mean the end of our "domestic" democracy as we know it. And of national culture, as we know it today.

He ties in comparisons to the Roman Empire, as many of us have done in recent years, pointing to the degradation of our "entertainment" as a sign.

"The mood of the Colosseum goes together with the age of the corporation, which offers entertainment in place of values."
"Is it not conceivable that corporations will, like the rulers of both Sparta and Athens, project power to the advantage of the well-off while satisfying the twenty-first century servile populace with the equivalent of bread and circuses?"

Kaplan also warns of the "return of the oligarchy" to the enrichment of the rich and the detriment of the poor.

The previous essays constituted the first two Parts of the book (Why Democracy? and Concepts and Complexities). There's much more.

Citizenship and Character

Democracy and Its Troubles

The Public and the Personal

Education in a Democratic Society

Human Potential and Democracy's Future

These are all more than worth reading and I regret that good sense (and a tired writing hand) prevent me from discussing the entire book at more length.

I think anyone concerned about the future of this country and the way society is evolving would be doing themselves a favor by reading this collection.

Essays on Law and Justice, and Egalitarian Solidarity, and Moral Imagination, and Practical Utopianism offer something for everyone from the casual browser to the serious thinker. (Okay, I know. I always say, Read This Book! but they're good books and worth reading, okay?)

( Read it.)

Posted by AnneZook at 05:48 PM


Nice review - I love your book reviews! I was especially intrigued by the part where you talk about grading on a curve and how superiority is defined. My husband is constantly saying "it's not a contest, you don't need to compare yourself to other people - you only need to better yourself."

Posted by: Elayne Riggs at February 16, 2004 06:10 AM

You know, I didn't even think anyone read these book reviews. :) Thanks for the kind words.

That "grading on the curve" was a source of constant annoyance to me in school. I didn't care how much I'd learned compared to the person in the class who had learned the least. I wanted to know how much I'd learned in comparison to how much material we'd actually studied.

It drove me nuts, as did a teacher's explanation one time that I couldn't be given an 'A' because not enough people had flunked the test. She had, you see, done such a good job of teaching the material that too many people had learned too much of it, and the "curve" was skewed.

Posted by: Anne at February 16, 2004 11:00 AM