Re: Democracy and the Sixties [2 posts]

Tue, 25 Jun 1996 08:49:58 -0400

Martin writes,

>Well, you're right, Ted, I was using the term in a "conventional" sense. I
>like using words in the way that people normally understand them, especially
>since the conventional sense makes some, while your unconventional "pro
>democracy" seems strained and ambiguous. It reminds me of people who read
>horoscopes or tell fortunes, they tell people a few favorable things, like
>they're for equality and empowerment, make some vague connection to the
>arrangement of the stars, or Athenian democracy if you like, and the listener
>feels you've described them to the T.

Well I don't know about horoscope readers, but I guess I feel the conventional
sense of democracy* is rather bankrupt, but then I see the world from outside
the conventional American political (beltway/corporate) mainstream. For a
pretty good critique of how pervasive that mainstream is --to the point of
achieving a semblance of "objective truth" to those who have internalized its
view of reality-- see the writings of Noam Chomsky; see also Murray Edelman &
Lance Bennett's work on the mainstream media and the construction of political
reality; see also how that mainstream view dismisses outsider/UNconventional
critics like Chomsky as part of the lunatic fringe (cf. the recent book on
Chomsky's Politics published by Verso --I'm forgetting the author's name; or
David Edwards' recent South End book "Burning all Illusions).

*By conventional sense of democracy, I mean the notion that having two
competing parties, regular elections, the right-to-vote, and secret ballots
and numerical majority rule are not only necessary for a system to be called
democratic, but are sufficient for it to be so (as is the case in the U.S.).

So, on to...
>I find your methodology to be both dangerous and ultimately
>counterproductive. Once we give the green light to being selective with
>one's facts and interpretations, you can connect the sixties to numerous
>political ideas, many of which aren't nearly as favorable as "pro-democracy."
> I see no reason to accept such an approach unless it can demonstrate some
>discernable connective tissue; demonstrating that there were either some
>identifiable movements who actively -- with real live people -- carried their
>"pro-democratic" ideas into the sixties or that these ideas were so
>demonstrable strong that numerous people described themselves in that fashion
>at the time. You can do neither.

First, before condemning my methodology, Martin, I think you ought to read my
book which is full of references to "real live people" who "carried their
pro-democratic ideas into the sixties or ... described themselves in that
fashion at that time..." It is not based on a "selective" reading of facts and
interpretations, but seeks to interpret a significant piece of the events of
that time --certainly not ALL events; THAT's not the same as "being selective
with one's facts and interpretations." It presents and explains, I think, a
pretty good slice of the reality of the 60s (in fact, I think, a rather better
slice than those efforts that fail to "get inside" movements of the 60s and
end up being dismissive).

[NOTE: MY term in the book & elsewhere is "democracy" and "democratic;" I
used the "pro-democracy" term in one place, to refer to a Western counterpart
to the movement our media were describing in the Soviet bloc.]

Beyond this, I think you are making at least an implicit case for objectivity
with regard to history. For starters, said objectivity is impossible; we all
"read" experience and the past through lenses we have inherited, embrace
consciously or unconsciously, etc. Mainstream or conventional history
demonstrably does the same. One of the great fallacies that permeated much of
social science for a brief time was that through closer adherence to
"scientific method" --by which was meant statistical analysis of carefully drawn
quantified data-- one got close to the Truth; unfortunately, this social
science, at its worst anyway, never examined its own presuppositions and biases,
which most commonly simply reinforced the existing status quo whatever that may
have been. At its best, this social science provided another window into the
truth, sometimes helpful, sometimes heuristic. For a nice example of this see
James Clarke's "American Assassins."

I am quite open about the fact that my book (& subsequent work) is a "reading"
of the Sixties, an interpretation of the meaning of that turbulent time. This
is a significant part of its value, I think, that it goes beyond narration to
attempt interpretation of meaning, explanation. I never argue it is
objectively established or beyond debate; in fact, I welcome that debate (like
this). But the book is full of citations, quotations, and experiences of
people for whom the central, interpretative theme (however incomplete it may be)
resonates --and I hear the same from many readers.

>Yes, I know, there I go again, talking about that conventional democracy
>stuff. The problem is, the people to whom we're trying to peddle this
>interpretation to, the American people, they think like that. Their memories
>are real conventional.

Well, yes & no. Back to the first point. For the vast majority of Americans,
their entire range of official public information sources have been
"mainstream," thereby reinforcing all the conveniently "conventional" and
elite-serving meanings & interpretations. On the other hand, their
experiences don't square with those of the elite --job tensions, firings,
downsizing & job loss, poverty, inner-city crime, etc.-- and thus they at
least instinctively have a critical view of the pablum the mass media are
feeding them; Chomsky cites several instances in which the embrace of the
"propaganda system" rises as one's educational level and class rises. Not

Ted Morgan