Democracy, Death and Bearing Witness

Democracy requires more of its people than a vote. I’ve said this before – democracy is a tool of war, or perhaps a substitute for war. The Greeks used democracy to husband their strength against common enemies, counting men with spears in hand rather than the bodies on the ground. To prevail in a vote meant that the next village over would face more men in war … assuming they too did not join. Democracy ceases to be useful when the losers of a vote believe they may lose less fighting than voting.

We laugh about the coercion of the state when it comes to tax policy, and how men with guns enforce that policy, but it is just that. A vote, in essence, is a pledge saying that but for this scrap of paper with a name on it, I might kill you and take your possessions. The absurdist comedy that modern politics has become obscures the seriousness of this underlying truth, but it doesn’t change it.

The Greeks had a word for citizens who didn’t take their public responsibilities seriously. They called them idiots.

The unexpected death of two friends in the last couple of weeks leaves me chewing on what it means to participate in democracy, and how vital it is that we remember what that means today.

Janet PierceJanet Pierce, 68, died the day after Thanksgiving. Her published obituary makes gestures toward her volunteer work with the NAACP and other civic groups that are wholly inadequate descriptions of her value to DeKalb County and the world.

Local government runs to some degree on the power of little old ladies. I mean that without condescension. Retired people – often women – who have the time and inclination to attend horridly stultifying meetings of the local library board or the pension committee or the city parks department hearings make the difference between government that works and government that doesn’t.

This is for precisely the same reason murders become less likely with witnesses present.  

Social capital is what helps distinguish high schools in Dunwoody from those in south DeKalb – wealth, in the form of people who won’t lose their job and their home if they take a few hours working on school stuff. Community wealth means having people who keep filing cabinets with documents handy, and have the cell phone numbers of politicians and businessmen … and journalists … in their pocket for a quiet word.

Janet was not cantankerous, though she was quite willing to tell someone to get bent.

The night Tom Owens and Paul Maner stalked me after a community meeting, about a month ago? Janet had invited me to the Toney Valley Civic Association meeting. And Janet walked me to my car to ensure that the two didn’t try anything stupid when no one else was looking.

Janet had lived in her neighborhood just south and east of East Lake for decades. She bought a house in 1988 on a nurse’s salary for $56,000 in 1988. Her lawn is immaculate. So are most of her neighbors, even though about half are renters. The community is tight.

I note that her house is appraised at about $40,000 today. She was holding on.

A lifetime member of the NAACP, Janet also dutifully trundled into the south DeKalb precinct a mile away, once a week, to help around the office. Filing. Cleaning up. Making coffee. Just to do it.

A contingent of police officers, their faces a mask, attended her funeral, as unbelieving as I in the moment. She had seemed healthy a week before.

She and I started talking about four years ago, right after my mother fell ill and I ended up writing the crazy viral post about conditions at Grady’s emergency room. Janet had been a nurse for years, trained in Harlem, and a soldier – Women’s Army Corps – before that. She had little tolerance for dysfunction in government.

It became clear, quickly, that Janet knew who was dirty and who wasn’t. She knew who had relationships with whom. She knew who held grudges. She knew who could be trusted. Janet was the repository for institutional knowledge about her community. And she fed me this, and more, quietly, for years.

I thought of Janet as regular folks, if you get me. But then I saw other journalists and political reform activists at her funeral. Local writers. Politicians. Civic leaders. And her impact became clear. And I wept.

Her death came a few days after another friend, Scott Eric Kaufman, died after a year or more of grave illness. He was 39.

scott_kaufman_obitScott was a progressive southern writer, an academic and an intellectual who, like most men of his wit and perspective, has been holding on to the world by his fingernails as best as any of us could.

Scott went by SEK with friends and the online community. SEK may be the person most responsible for killing the idea that, somehow, writing for blogs diminishes the intellectual value of its content. In the early 2000’s, academia viewed blogging as unserious and potentially damaging behavior, the sort of thing that would knock aspiring graduate students out of contention for tenure-track writing.

As an “unspectacular grad student” – and blogger, in 2005 – he led a high-profile fight to see academic writing move beyond “his committee and the lucky 11 people who’ll skim his work, if, by some miracle, it lands in a flagship journal,” as he told a MLA conference. “My ideas are out there, circulating, in ways not often seen outside of conferences and seminar rooms, but the diversity of the crowd forces me to find some way to communicate with my readers in terms they’ll all be able to understand. This doesn’t mean, as some would have it, that I’m simplifying my ideas for a general audience.”

In a piece for Inside Higher Ed a year later, SEK said that “I’ve learned what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience. … When a blogger sits down to slave on her dissertation, article, or book, she doesn’t turn her back on the public sphere. Because in the end, the public sphere is us.”

He earned his doctorate in English at University of California, Irvine in the summer of 2008, and promptly descended into adjunct hell like 80 percent of all English PhDs do, teaching English there concentrating on media and rhetoric. To make a living while remaining relevant, he started writing for … well, whoever the heck would pay him to write, and many who should have.

SEK was a fierce, Menkenian media critic — a fundamentalist for truth. Shades of his work on visual rhetoric – how the composition of photographs and video convey meaning – show up in his writing for The Onion’s well-regarded AV Club Internet Film School, where he applied literary analysis to film composition. SEK presented shot-by-shot analysis of films like Fight Club or Batman Begins in a way that the layman could understand.

He was also a student of scientific history. There were few things more important to him that I saw than this: discernment between fiction and reality still matters. Truth must win. Over time, truth generally does.

He and I met while we were both briefly writing for The Raw Story. Like most people in the business, he wanted to move beyond the trap of clickbait journalism. He won an editing role at Salon. I got an actual job.

It was our work there that taught me how social media shapes the way we think — how a viral image is born and what that really means, for good and ill.

Both Scott and Janet were people who simply refused to accept the constraints we place on ourselves as participants in the public discussion. And both managed to contribute with real intelligence, without adding to the unending public appetite for rancor and bile and outrage – without feeding the idiots.

Given the condition of the world today, I know of few other things more vital than our need to learn how to communicate truth to one another again in ways that will be heard.

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George, I’m so sorry for these losses. And this – “Local government runs to some degree on the power of little old ladies” – needs to find its way to a pillow.