“I believe that intellectuals have played crucial roles in the making of democracy and in the ongoing practices of democratic life.” With this sentence, I opened my book Civility and Subversion. Motivating the writing of that book was a developing misinformed (to my mind) consensus that intellectuals played an important role in the democratic opposition to the Communist order, but they would be relatively unimportant for the post Communist making and running of democracy. I thought that this was a terrible mistake, and I tried to show that in the book. In short, my argument was that intellectuals play a democratic role, not when they purport to provide the answers to a society’s problems, but when they facilitate deliberate discussion. Intellectuals are talk provokers. Discussions at Deliberately Considered over the past week demonstrate my point. We have considered and opened discussion about important problems.
On Monday, Vince Carducci introduced and analyzed the photography of John Ganis, art that confronts the damage we do to our environment, showing beauty that displays destruction. Carducci observes that “Ganis describes himself as a ‘witness’ rather than an activist. And yet his subject matter and its treatment clearly indicate where the artist’s loyalties lie.” But it is the ambiguity of the work, its internal tension that provokes and doesn’t answer political questions that facilitated a discussion between Felipe Pait and Carducci, comparing the destruction of the BP oil spill with the devastation in Japan. This could inform serious discussion about my reflections on man versus nature. We are present. We have our needs. How does it look when we satisfy them? What are the consequences? I think that this reveals that the power of the witness can sometimes be more significant than that of the activist. Carducci and I have an ongoing discussion about the value of agit prop. He likes it. I abhor it. I think Ganis’ work, with Carducci’s analysis of it, as the devastation in Japan was unfolding, supports my position.
On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, I reported on and reflected upon some local happenings in my hometown: the closing of an A&P and threatened budgetary cuts at a community center in a primarily African American neighborhood. Logical business decisions and business as usual local governance were having profound unjust effects. I was particularly impressed by the replies to the posts. First, my Town Supervisor responded, asking if he could pass my criticisms of the A&P closing on to A&P. Then a series of replies to my post on institutionalized racism, which pointed to analogous situations. Rafael reported from Texas about the schools there. Regina Tuma’s noted how the conflicts in Wisconsin and the experiences in Ohio are a manifestation of the same problems. And Scott made the general point: “The powerless throughout the country are being asked, or more properly forced, to bear a disproportionate cost for a problem that was, by and large, not of their making,” and speculates about the likelihood of “a counterpoint to the Tea Party.” I also had discussions at the community center about the post. Staff and community members think that the protest I reported on may be having an impact. They seem to have a sense of empowerment, as they try to figure out how they are going to buy their daily bread, along with their other groceries. I’m struck how two parts of my life, one embedded in the academic world, the other in my hometown, met virtually through the post.
I tried hard to facilitate a careful response to the Japanese catastrophes. I have difficulty responding to natural disasters. To use a silly cliché, they are beyond my pay grade. I generally listen to the experts, turn off the cable news and try to act as a responsible citizen. Intelligent public deliberation and discussion are difficult.
The complaint of Pait in his response to Fine’s post on joking about Japan underlines the point. “This conversation is too much about the talk and too little about the act. There are people who like it. As an engineer, I don’t.” I am a man committed to talk, but I know that sometimes talk is cheap. Pait is right, action is imperative in the face of earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear disasters. Talk is secondary. But eventually it is important.
We need to confront the relationship between the human and the natural world. We need to know when we can tame nature, when we must accept its overwhelming destructive force, and we need to be aware when we are the destructive force, as it is connected to our pursuit of oil and our attempt to create easy alternatives in the form of nuclear power. That requires informed talk, when intellectuals, including artists, not only experts, are necessary.
And then there’s Gary Alan Fine, Deliberately Considered’s intellectual provocateur, mixing high and low brow insight. He established his learning by presenting a classic reflection by Adam Smith on distant suffering. Fine, in his first post this week, highlights that Smith recognizes both the problem of empathy at a distance, but also reflects on how reason and principle reach out, leading us to do the right thing. But, in his second post, he explains the humor in horror, justifying the politically incorrect jokes of: “Mr. Gottfried, Mr. 50 Cent, and Mr. Haley Barbour’s press secretary.” Fine in his appreciation of troubling humor, makes a classic conservative point about the human condition, “let us treasure those who begin the process by which we realize that we cannot change the world, but must distance ourselves from it, amused. We can wallow in the pain of others or we can recognize that our life continues.” Have I found an intelligent conservative intellectual within our midst?