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On Democracy

June 13, 2019

IMG_2728In light of my recent consideration of the cross-stitch sayings in the essays of Haze, a character in Lorna Landvik’s novel Chronicles of a Radical Hag, I thought it was high time to consider the ideas in a new collection of essays by E.B. White, On Democracy. I got an advance copy of this book from HarperCollins and read through it very slowly, so the book is already out.

Jon Meacham’s introduction to White’s essays describes the effect that those of us who write personal essays are always trying to achieve: “he was especially gifted at evoking the universal through the exploration of the particular, which is one of the cardinal tasks of the essayist.”

Besides essays, this collection includes poems, letters to the editors of various publications, and White’s characteristic “notes and comments.”

One of the poems is about a sensationalist radio news commentator named Boake Carter, now Salieri to White’s Mozart and Southey to his Byron:
“I like to hear the deep, sharp croaking
Of Boake, when he is really Boaking;
The sinister Carterial thesis:
A battleship is blown to pieces,
A town is stricken with paresis,
A mad king slays his favorite nieces,
Men strike, plants close, and all work ceases.”
Evidently, complaints about sensationalism in the news are really nothing new.

I was naturally delighted to find that White agrees with what I said recently about “certitude,” as he says in his essay on “Freedom” that “the least a man can do at such a time is to declare himself and tell where he stands.” But it’s discouraging to see that today’s problems are a version of earlier problems in this country; in the same essay, which takes a stand against fascism, White laments that “where I expected to find indignation, I found paralysis, or a sort of dim acquiescence….I was advised of the growing anti-Jewish sentiment by a man who seemed to be watching the phenomenon of intolerance not through tears of shame but with a clear intellectual gaze.” I see this every day–for instance, from people who shake their heads over the proliferation of confederate flags in our northern town but do nothing to try to stop it. And White’s description of Hitler sounds disturbingly similar to our current American president: “To him the ordinary man is a primitive, capable only of being used and led. He speaks continually of people as sheep, halfwits, and impudent fools—the same people to whom he promises the ultimate in prizes.”

White was quite far-sighted in an essay written three days after Pearl Harbor entitled “Intimations,” saying that “there will be a showdown on supranationalism after this war.” He then defines “supranationalism,” saying “before you can be a supranaturalist you have first to be a naturalist and feel the ground under you making a whole circle. It is easier for a man to be loyal to his club than to his planet; the by-laws are shorter, and he is personally acquainted with the other members. A club, moreover, or a nation, has a most attractive offer to make: it offers the right to be exclusive. There are not many of us who are physically constituted to resist this strange delight, this nourishing privilege. It is at the bottom of all fraternities, societies, orders. It is at the bottom of most trouble.” And he adds that “my feeling for supranationalism, and my trust in it, are intuitive rather than reasonable. It is not so much that I have faith in the ability of nations to organize themselves as that I mistrust what will happen if again they fail to do so.”

Possibly the most prescient of all his essays was published in 1942, entitled “Treason, Defined (When Congress Delays an Issue).” White laments that “nobody calls it treason when a congressman helps a touchy issue to escape ‘until after the elections are over’” and says that “when you hear it announced that such-and-such an issue cannot be raised now because it is ‘political dynamite,’ the implication is that you yourself are mixed up in a cheap trick perpetrated by one section of the people on another section.” Unfortunately, no one even thinks of this as “treason” anymore, despite despairing jokes about inconsistencies like Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to the supreme court and his announced intention to fast-track any supreme court nomination that a Republican president might make in the last year of his term.

This collection includes White’s famous “Party of One” essay, in which he declares that “one need only watch totalitarians at work to see that once men gain power over other men’s minds, that power is never used sparingly and wisely, but lavishly and brutally and with unspeakable results.” It’s awfully disturbing to see that some people are not just making excuses for but actually rallying behind a man who has admitted that a foreign government attacked our 2016 elections to support him and he welcomed that help and obstructed the investigation. This week he even said he’d do it all over again, and there’s little outcry. White’s 1964 warning about Goldwater’s activities also apply to the current American president’s: “depicting the federal government as the enemy of the people, depicting social welfare as the contaminant in our lives, promising to use presidential power to end violence, arguing that the end justifies the means (catch the thief, never mind how), promising victory now in an age of delicate nuclear balance, slyly suggesting that those of opposite opinion are perhaps of questionable loyalty, and always insisting that freedom has gone down the drain.” So we need to “make America great again,” as the red caps say.

In many of the essays, White celebrates the many different sources of news in the US, and denigrates “the Russians” for “spreading what they call the Truth and…jamming the sounds that come from the other direction.” They’ve gotten better at that “jamming” in the last fifty years, too. White laments, among others, the demise of the Baltimore Evening Sun, mentioning that it was the paper where Don Marquis published his archy and mehitabel poems. He points out that “the press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity….For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases.” This is no longer true. And what are we doing about it? I subscribe to three different newspapers, which seems the bare minimum for something to do.

In an eerily modern essay entitled “Not Conforming to Facts,” White discusses the many new words used to spin U.S. foreign policy, and sums up by saying that “Russia will always be able to trim us in the use of language, since she doesn’t feel obliged to make it conform to facts” and so the U.S. should support the United Nations. Sadly, since 2017 we have become more like Russia in our use of language, and we have decreased our support for the United Nations.

White’s 1970 letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News says that then-Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s suggestion that TV commentators “be scrutinized by ‘government personnel’ to discover what ‘types’ they were and to see whether they should be holding the jobs they were in” is a suggestion “casting the shadow of government interference with the press” and “is perhaps the most radical suggestion I’ve heard advanced by a public figure in my entire life, and I’m 71.” One doesn’t have to wonder what he would say about Fox News, and about what has happened to democracy in the U.S. today.

Is the state of American democracy worse now than when White wrote the pieces in this collection? Certainly many of us are less shocked and outraged, even if it’s only because we have less faith now that our essays will reach as wide an audience.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2019 2:02 pm

    Surely things are worse now than when he wrote those pieces. I hope to get to this soon.

    • June 17, 2019 10:48 am

      The one thing that is not worse now (at least today, as I write this) is that we are not at war.

  2. June 13, 2019 4:14 pm

    It seems like it’s worse, but I think the reach of social media and its enhanced tools for prevarication has a lot to do with that. All very depressing!

  3. June 14, 2019 10:53 am

    This sounds like another must-read right now. This line sums up much of my feelings about what’s been happening with people, and why I’ve begun to get not just angrier, but genuinely fearful: “I was advised of the growing anti-Jewish sentiment by a man who seemed to be watching the phenomenon of intolerance not through tears of shame but with a clear intellectual gaze.”

    The idea that this is all just some intellectual game, when real peoples’ lives are at stake — when our planet is at stake. When we have children locked up at our borders, dying. It’s too much.

    • June 17, 2019 10:56 am

      It’s hard, I guess, to understand the concept of agape, a concept that I understand through Auden’s warning that “we must love one another or die.” Too many people that I know have been talking about their “privilege” without understanding that the line between them and the people they are interested in helping is getting ever narrower.

  4. June 15, 2019 12:46 pm

    Wow. I can not believe how modern and relevant this sounds right now! Embarrassingly, I only know E.B. White as the children’s author – I had no clue he wrote essays.

    • June 17, 2019 10:58 am

      In his day, he was fairly well known as the author of “Notes and Comments” in the New Yorker. But yes, today I think a lot of people know him only as the author of Charlotte’s Web.

  5. June 17, 2019 4:22 pm

    At first I was wondering how EB White managed to publish a new book! 😀 This collection sounds like a very sad case of the more things change.

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