Friday, February 29, 2008

Propaganda and Experience

Once again my reading of John Dewey's Art as Experience has confronted me with an alternative perspective on one of my own reflections. This time the reflection had to do with my view of the New York Philharmonic's visit to North Korea in terms of what I called a positive connotation of "propaganda." The word "propaganda" does not show up in the index of Dewey's book (and I probably would have been surprised had I found it there). However, having labored over setting my own thoughts into writing, I felt as if the final sentence of his chapter on "The Expressive Object" had an I-told-you-so ring to it:

In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience.

In How to Read a Book Mortimer Adler (along with Charles van Doren in later editions) wrote about "active reading" in the sense of the reader conducting a conversation with the author; and I found myself vain enough to think that, were Dewey still alive, he would have enjoyed having such a conversation over the significance of the concert the Philharmonic gave in Pyongyang. Still, the activity of conversation is not required to unpack many of the lovely details in this single sentence.

We begin with that phrase "complete and unhindered communication between man and man," which seems particularly important at a time when President George W. Bush is grandstanding against Barak Obama's statements about wanting to meet with the leaders of countries that he have declared to be our enemies. In the terminology of Anthony Giddens, Bush is more concerned with domination than with signification. This is what I was getting at when, in assessing the significance of the Philharmonic concert, I wrote:

Nevertheless, a paraphrase of Georges Clemenceau may be in order if we are to recognize that mutual understanding between radically different cultures is far too serious to be entrusted to political leaders, most of whom would prefer to think of leadership in terms of domination rather than understanding.

Recasting this from Dewey's point of view, one of the greatest hindrances of "communication between man and man" is the compulsion that one man has to dominate the other, regardless of what the reason for that compulsion may be. The unfortunate corollary is that a strategy intended for "enemies" finds itself being applied to everyone else. The most memorable legacy of the Bush Administration may be one of eight years of communication between the White House and the general public that was hindered at every turn and avoided completeness at all costs. The result is that we have become a culture of "gulfs and walls," some of which, like the fence along the Mexican border, have crossed the boundary from the figurative to the literal. By allowing domination to reduce Giddens' dimension of signification to virtual irrelevance, we have become a culture that has devalued the very concept of communication, thus reducing, in one violent stroke, all of the optimistic theories of Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Appiah, and Jürgen Habermas about effective cross-cultural communication to little more than a pile of rubble.

Are we then really so obsessed with being top dog at the expense of all the other qualities that make us human? Is this really what Bush I meant in his "new world order" rhetoric? If so, then I fear we have little to hope for in any new Executive Administration, regardless of who the President may be. The very competition for that position through the mechanics of our electoral process is just another instance of that top-dog thinking that creates more "gulfs and walls," whatever the rhetoric of bringing together a country that has torn itself apart with its differences may be. Perhaps the problem arises from a political system that does not really allow for coalitions. All that really matters is that "somebody wins," even if that "somebody" turns out to represent approximately half the country's population (which is, statistically, what the numbers from the last two Presidential elections were telling us). We take great satisfaction in reading about a disputed election in Kenya being resolved by building a coalition, yet this has never happened in our own history of Presidential elections, several of which were pretty contentiously disputed.

Yes, it is vain to speculate on what sorts of conversations I could have with Dewey were he alive today. With his attention to the role of education in a democratic society and his view of art as a reflection of our human experiences, the current state of affairs could well throw him into a deep depression. Under that dark cloud I doubt that he would be interested in having any conversations.

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