Democracy, Discourse, Technology

by James J. O'Donnell

remarks on 19 April 1996 at the banquet in honor of John Hope Franklin held during the National Humanities Center's American Issues Forum III: Deliberative Democracy in the Information Age

The transformation of our public discourse was brought home to me some years ago when I thought to teach a course I called "What Is a Classic?" to a group of freshmen. I had the idea of showing them various modern readings of the nature and function of classical texts, and in particular had the idea of juxtaposing Mortimer Adler's 1940 best-seller How To Read a Book with the febrile imaginings -- sure evidence that there was something hallucinogenic in the Ithaca water around 1969 -- of Allan Bloom.

I had read Adler myself in high school in the late 1960s and been mightily impressed with him. My family never quite went out and bought the lovely living room suite of books that his list of "Great Books" had turned into, but a close reading of a high school commencement speech I gave would have revealed some remarkable similarities of thought with Adler. His theme was the way that a reading of the great books led to enhancing ". . . the life of a free man and a free citizen . . . ." (In this regard, he resembled a teacher I came to know at Princeton, Whitney J. Oates, who told us in the fall of 1968 how a course we were taking, "Man in the Western Tradition," a kind of Great Books course, had its origins during the second world war when Princeton faculty thought they needed to have a course that taught young men in uniform, being rushed through Princeton on an accelerated schedule to enter the service, "what they were fighting for."

But when I looked at the copies of the book that came in the fall just in time for my seminar, I found that we now had a somewhat different book, How To Read a Book: Completely Revised and Updated, with a co-author whose name would be familiar to fans of 1950s television and 1990s cinema, but at this moment in the late 1980's meant nothing to my students. I lingered over the iconography upgrade the cover had received, trying to decide whether it meant that reading the Great Books would make the reader sleak, blonde, and elegant (I've known it to happen, as a matter of fact) or merely mean that the reader would be privileged to associate with such persons on regular and familiar terms (not something I've observed with any certainty).

At all events, the real surprise came when I went to the last chapter of the book in search of the familiar discourse of citizenship and freedom. There instead I found that the new goal of reading the Great Books is ". . . to keep our minds alive and growing . . .". Let me point out two features of that pair of quotations. First, if the Great Bookie himself (as wags call Adler) has by 1972 already accepted the rhetoric of self-centered study and abandoned the public sphere, then we must grapple with the fact that the dilemmas we address in this conference are ones where once again we follow Pogo's suggestion and meet the enemy only to find him all too recognizable. The lesson I draw from that discovery is that manipulative solutions from outside are unlikely to be satisfactory unless they work on me -- and I'm yet to see a presidential candidates' debate on television that I could not in good conscience switch away from to watch an ordinary World Series baseball game. Second, observe the technological disdain. This is not a "Luddite" attitude, but plain old snobbery mixed with fear of the rising masses. What is striking is that in the first edition of How to Read a Book Adler himself had quoted a passage from Shakespeare which eerily anticipates his own later hostility to the new media of his time.

Both my points about Adler's attitudes underscore a theme which I have seen as latent but unaddressed in this forum. Politics is not merely a matter of bonfires and elections, but is very often a struggle for control. I would be very much concerned if a high-minded preference for deliberative democracy turned out to be a way of saying that we prefer the kind of democracy that behaves the way it would if we (people of privilege and power) controlled it. One strong force in favor of disaffiliation in our society is precisely a popular sense of loss of control. If we do not control ourselves, and we fear technologies for the way they undermine control, we should fear first that our distrust may not be directed so much towards the failure of democracy, but democracy itself -- the rude, noisy kind that let's other peoples' ideas prevail.

In that spirit, and somewhat contrary to the presentations made in this Forum of democracy-oriented sites provided by major national media seeking to extricate themselves from what one speaker called the shovelware business, I will confine myself now to describing briefly three sites that seem to me instructive: unauthorized, noncorporate, but suggesting how a truly democratic community of discourse may emerge (along with others) in the new technological arena of cyberspace.

Consider first a site created by Professor Ed Ayers of the University of Virginia, one that he calls In the Valley of the Shadow. In this site, Ayers has begun to create a thickly described social history resource comparing two demographically similar cities of the North and South for the fifty years before and after the Civil War. In it he draws upon a variety of resources to give a more vivid and detailed picture of the war's impact on Staunton VA and Chambersburg PA than has been possible before. He has scanned newspapers from the period and compiled all manner of legal and public data possible. In this enterprise, he has several de facto collaborators: census data from the US Government, genealogical data in machine readable form from the Mormon church, and military records input by Civil War amateurs. Where in another cultural moment, Mormon records and Civil War re-enactors' documents would be hard to find and perhaps difficult to manipulate, the common language of the computer makes what were once unprofessional resources a ready part of the scholars' vocabulary. Better still, when Ayers went to Staunton VA to set up a kiosk with a demonstration version of his resource at Woodrow Wilson's boyhood home, he invited the citizens of Staunton to bring in their memorabilia: photos, diaries, letters from the last century. With a simple scanner, he recorded what they had and made it a permanent part of the museum site, so to speak, and of the scholarly record, without taking custody away from the owners. (Just where the real museum may be found these days may be less obvious than would always appear!) What is being created is a "circle of gifts", where contributions to a site and the benefits of the site may move freely and laterally through a community of interest, without formal association either through government or through economic organization.

Consider another example. Through this last long hard northeastern winter, I have regularly had recourse to what I found was the most reliable site for on-line weather information, something coming from a Princeton University server and called WebWeather. After some weeks of using it, I became curious about a logo that usually appeared at the bottom of the page telling me that this page was "sponsored by the letters V and L and the number 6" -- with the precise numbers and letters changing from time to time. So I clicked on the name of the man responsible for creating the page and found myself at the home page of Ben Davenport, who turns out to be a Princeton junior and graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Now Princeton juniors are a subject I used to know a lot about, but they didn't use to be regular providers of high quality current information to people hundreds and thousands of miles away.

One last example comes from a student of mine who found this and presented it to us deadpan in class one day early this term. He presented himself as a true believer in the Church of the SubGenius. I think you will agree that this site can be extremely disorienting for the first-time visitor, especially one with a deadpan guide. We are now on the boundaries between play and seriousness, between responsibility and parody, in territory eerily familiar to that which Plato found opened up by writing: can any serious person take this sort of thing as other than a sign of cultural disarray? But the site is polished and clearly entertaining, quite unauthorized, never needing a formal publisher to gain my attention, and yet capable of altering my perceptions of organized religion in some marginal way. Can I control this? Should I fear it? Neither: whether for good or ill, it enriches my world and challenges me to live more responsibly in it for myself.

In the end, that is the challenge of democracy: that all of us live more responsibly in the world in which we find ourselves, even when it seems to be beginning to change beyond recognition. As we face these challenges, we do well to bear in mind one of the central tasks of the humanist scholar, to learn how to distinguish our values from our nostalgia.

Author's notes: