The Nation, 13 April 2009

nation-13-april-09Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon review Caryl Churchill‘s new play, Tell Her the Truth, which tells the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in ten minutes.  “Why is the play so short?  Probably because Churchill means to slap us out of our rehearsed arguments to look at the immediate human crisis.”  Churchill cares about what human beings are doing to each other and how they justify what they have done to themselves and to each other, especially in the justifications parents give their children.  Tell Her the Truth consists of a series of lines giving the parents of seven unseen Jewish children advice as to what they should tell those children about various historical acts of violence, some committed against Jews in the name of antisemitism, some committed by Jews in the name of Zionism. 

Tell Her the Truth, like every publication critical of Israeli policy, has attracted charges of antisemitism; much of the case against it apparently hinges on a line that does not appear in the play.  Some have claimed that the play raises the spectre of “blood libel,” the old idea that Jews ritually murder Gentile children.  “Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written “tell her I’m happy when I see their children covered in blood.””  What she actually wrote was quite different: “tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.”  Kushner and Solomon interpret the real line thusly: “The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can’t protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others.”

Eric Alterman mentions a 1920 book by Walter Lippmann (a former student of Irving Babbitt!), called Liberty and the News.  Alterman cites this book to explain what happens to democracy when the general public is not provided with the information needed to fill the role of informed citizen.  His point is that the media must do a better job of providing America’s citizenry with vital information if democracy is to have a chance here. 

Lippmann himself would have endorsed this point, but his arguments in Liberty and the News are remembered for their contribution to a very different body of thought.  Lippmann would develop his point into what is now known as the “Public Ignorance Objection” to direct democracy.  The Public Ignorance Objection is an argument that political theorists offer in opposition to proposals for direct, participatory democracy.  To put it briefly, the idea is that the public cannot govern a modern society because the public cannot have the knowledge needed for such a task. 

It’s always struck me that the “Public Ignorance Objection” to direct democracy implies an “Elite Knowledge Presupposition.”  If the people at large cannot, as a group, govern themselves as well as an elite group could govern them, and the cause of this inability is a lack of knowledge on the part of the people at large, it follows that that elite group must both have knowledge that the people at large lack and that it has the ability to mobilize that knowledge into policy decisions.  Certainly it would not be difficult to find elite groups that have specialist knowledge useful to the rulers of a modern society.  But where is such an elite organized in a way that permits it to decide matters of public policy in a way that deploys that knowledge for the public good?  Even the US Supreme Court, a group of nine experts in constitutional law who deal with a relatively narrow range of highly abstract questions, often descend into incoherence when they try to cobble together a majority of five in a hard case.  What chance does a much larger group in no way insulated from self interest have to formulate a rational public response to the complex and shifting circumstances in which our communities find themselves?   

Moreover, where does a people excluded from participation in political decision making acquire knowledge that would be of value to them only in the course of making political decisions?  Thomas Jefferson brought that point up more than 200 years ago.  If the people do not take a hand in the affairs of state, they will have no reason to inform themselves about those affairs.  Public Ignorance is a predictable consequence of representative government, not an argument for it.

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3 Comments

  1. cymast

     /  March 30, 2009

    A- in your opinion, what, specifically, is the best form of government for the USA?

  2. acilius

     /  March 30, 2009

    Here’s one possibility.

    Some years ago I read that political scientists have been studying the world’s parliaments, trying to figure out how big they can be before it becomes impossible for every member to make a contribution. The number they’ve settled on is somewhere between 650 and 700.

    So I might suggest that we divide the USA into 650 states and divide each state into 650 townships. That would give you a total of 422,500 townships. The USA has about 300,000,000 citizens, so each township would be small enough for its whole citizenry to meet as a legislative body. Devolve as much power as possible to that legislature. Delegate the executive and judicial powers of the township, not to elected officials or to experts, but to panels of citizens chosen by lot.

    Whatever the township could not do for itself, it could delegate to the state; with one state legislator per township, each citizen would know his or her legislator personally. Whatever the state could not handle could be delegated to the federal government; with one Representative per state, each legislator would know his or her Representative personally, and so each citizen would be at most one degree of separation from his or her Representative.

  3. cymast

     /  March 30, 2009

    I have no objections.

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