February 2009

Dear readers,

I’m working on an idea that troubles me, so any one who can help me out is much welcome.

How can we promote the idea of democracy while simultaneously defining politics as a negative term?

Here’s what I mean. If you listen, and not too carefully, you’ll recognize that most of the time we use the term, we are complaining about “politics.” For example, we want to get “politics” out of schools. I can understand that, but actually we want to get politics also out of politics. Partisanship is generally viewed as negative, obstructionist—and the good elected official is sometimes seen as someone who doesn’t “play” or “work” at politics. (Note, as an aside, how “playing politics” sounds even worse than working, as though “play” too were a naughty word.)

I was reading an essay by Jill Lepore in the January 26th issue of The New Yorker about the media—but particularly about the always endangered press. She tells the story about America’s irreverent newspapers starting with the early 1700s. “Our rulers,” unlike kings and queens, “do not rule over us for as long as they live and, when they die, their heirs do not inherit their titles” (although it’s hard to be sure of this of late). It may not seem obvious, but this led me back to where I started above.

The history of newspapers Lepore reminds us was a struggle between the hard to defeat ideas of tyranny and the new-fangled idea of liberty. From their start however, independent newspapers were charged by Tories (vs Whigs) as sources of dirt (gossip), invective (attacks on responsible leaders), and often capricious and unfair “propaganda.” But she argues, “taken together” the fight against a controlled media added up to a “long and revolutionary argument against tyranny, against arbitrary authority—against, that is, the rule of men above law.”

In 1776 there were more newspapers per person—by far—than there are today, and those left are disappearing. Can blogging and the like replace them? Or is blogging a form of media in which it is too easy to only hear the voices with whom we agree? Does that mean that we have grown lazy in our struggle against tyranny.

It puts, I think, a larger burden upon schools to act as an alternative to both the diminishing shared media—and to the official party-line line of those in power. Offering students a range of views—and invective—that they may not experience as they pick and choose which blogs to plug into. And, it takes students “educated” to view politics as the underpinning of democracy, to be taken seriously and critiqued with all the care that academics use to critique ideas in their own fields. It requires us to elevate arguments into educational tools for informed dispute.

Politics is our mutual field—newspapers and schools alike—and that it has gotten a bad name is dangerous to us all. It’s critical to serious academics, and its legitimacy as one of the new 2lst century skills of utmost importance must re reasserted, fought for. As are the arts, crafts and knowledge upon which democratic politics rests.

I’d like, first and foremost, everything we do in school to pass this test —whatever else it is also good for, it must be good for democracy adn politics. In peeling away the meaning of both terms, we must enrich their common core.


© 2009 Deborah Meier

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