We see the people we look at, we look at the people we’ve seen

In the latest issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn argues that the reason Wisconsin’s Democratic US Senator Russ Feingold lost his seat in this month’s election was that too many voters associated him with the Obama administration and its habit of appeasing the Republican Party.  How can the senator regain his reputation?  Cockburn recommends that he challenge Mr O for reelection, presenting himself as an independent candidate in 2012.  Cockburn does not claim that US voters in general are looking for a populist candidate who will call Wall Street to account; rather he says that exit polls show that the public at large has no definite idea as to what it would like to see next.  But more respondents in those polls blamed Wall Street for the country’s economic woes than any other force, and Feingold’s record makes him a plausible champion of real reform.  Perhaps if someone like him made a case for curbing the power of the financial elite, public opinion would start to move in that direction.  Perhaps the existence of a populist candidate might give rise to a populist movement, which might in turn reshape the public’s perceptions of what is possible in US politics.

Barry Schwabsky’s  essay about painter Nancy Spero (1926-2009) is occasioned by a new book about her visual work, the reissue of her book on The Torture of Women, and an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou.  Schwabsky focuses at length on Spero’s decision to exclude male figures from her work.  Schwabsky points out that many critics who ceaselessly attacked Spero for her supposedly narrow range saw nothing narrow about the decision many of her contemporaries made to renounce representational art altogether. For Schwabsky, these critics missed the fact that Spero was, “after Matisse, the great painter of the dance.”  He enlarges on the comparison: “Matisse, speaking of his chapel in Vence, explained, “This lightness arouses feelings of release, of obstacles cleared, so that my chapel is not ‘Brothers, we must die.’ It is rather ‘Brothers, we must live!'” Spero’s late work embodies this same sense of release. “Sisters, we must live!” could be its motto.”   Even Spero’s protest, as in The Torture of Women, is never merely angry, never a counsel of despair; rather, she always affirms that life is still to be lived, “that judgment has yet to be rendered.”

Benjamin Barber looks at the US political scene and worries that Americans are losing their grip on reality.  More precisely, he fears that in our public life we no longer make much distinction between facts and opinions.  This development, Barber argues, is lethal to democracy:

The trouble is that when we merely feel and opine, persuaded that there is no possible way our opinion can be controverted or challenged, having an opinion is the same as being “right.” Being right quickly comes to trump being creditable and provable, and we lose the core democratic faculty of admitting that we might be wrong, and that our views must be judged by some criterion other than how deeply we hold them. Our polarized antidemocratic politics of personal prejudice is all about the certainty that we are right paired with the conviction that nothing can change our mind. Yet democracy is wholly contrary to such subjective certainty. To secure our liberty in a world of collectivity, we must remain endlessly sensitive to the possibility that we might be wrong. And hence to our reciprocal willingness to subject our opinions to corroboration—and to falsification. We teach evolution not because it is “true” in some absolute sense but because it is susceptible to falsification. Creationism is not, which is why evolution is science while creationism is subjective opinion—a fit candidate for belief but inappropriate to schooling.

Barber has spent a great deal of time replying to the so-called “Public Ignorance Objection” to direct democracy, arguing that if the public does not have the knowledge needed to govern itself, that is likely because it has had no occasion to gain that knowledge.  Let the people govern, and they will have an incentive to acquire not only the information that statecraft requires, but a set of habits that can translate that information into workable policy.  It’s a bit of a disappointment he didn’t have space to develop that theme here, but could only describe the problem.

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