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General News    H3'ed 1/10/21

Will Our American Democracy Die or Survive?

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) January 10, 2021: I write in the aftermath of the brash storming of the Capitol by a mob incited by President Donald ("Tweety") Trump -- who watched the deadly assault in which five people died, including a Capitol police officer, on television in the White House. The Trump terrorists' objective was to stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden to be the next president of the United States. To be sure, the Trump terrorists delayed the process. However, in the end, The United States Congress officially certified Biden to be the next president of the United States. His inauguration is scheduled for January 20, 2021.

Nevertheless, we are not yet safe from the dangers that Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two political scientists at Harvard University, alerted us to in their 2018 book How Democracies Die (New York: Crown/ Penguin Random House), in which they critique certain aspects of Tweety Trump's so-called populism as potential threats to what they refer to as the democracy game (pages 107 and 109). In their view, Tweety Trump threatens to overthrow the democracy game so that he can replace it with his authoritarian rule.

However, despite the fact that Levitsky and Ziblatt explicitly refer to the democracy game, they do not happen to advert explicitly to Johan Huizinga's classic book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950; German orig. ed., 1944 in Switzerland, a theme found in Huizinga's writings going back to 1903).

Now, my favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). In effect, his explicit interest in the theme of what Huizinga refers to the play element in culture goes back at least to 1959.

In effect, Ong's first sustained study of what Huizinga refers to as the play element in culture can be found in his discussion of polemic (from the Greek polemos, war, struggle) in his seminal 1967 book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press; see the index for Polemic for specific page references), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.

However, under the influence of Huizinga's classic book Homo Ludens: The Play Element in Culture, Ong himself subsequently switched to using the term agonistic (from the Greek agon, contest, struggle) in his streamlined 1981 book Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University.

Now, you have heard of good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. In effect, Levitsky and Ziblatt's basic argument about the democracy game can be likened to good cholesterol (agonistic behavior in Ong's terminology in his 1981 book) and bad cholesterol (polemical behavior in Ong's terminology in his 1967 book). In short, too much bad cholesterol can kill the democracy game - that's how democracies die. Consequently, as we have seen from the storming of the Capitol incited by Tweety Trump, our American experiment in democratic governance is existentially threatened by his endless oppositional (agonistic, contesting) behavior in favor of his own authoritarian rule.

However, the end of Tweety Trump's term in office as president will not bring to an end the polemical oppositional behavior in him or in his most gullible followers. Let me explain why not using Ong's larger conceptual framework.

Briefly, according to Ong's account of our contemporary secondary oral culture, our contemporary secondary oral culture is culturally conditioning us psychologically to be deeply attuned to the polemical orientation of primary oral culture in our collective unconscious (in Jung's terminology) - and this cultural conditioning is not going to change appreciably in the near future.

Now, in Ong's "Preface" to his book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1977, pages 9-13), he says the following: "The present volume carries forward work in two earlier volume by the same author, The Presence of the Word (1967) and Rhetoric Romance, and Technology (1971)" (page 9). He then discusses these two earlier volumes.

Then Ong says, "The thesis of these two earlier works is sweeping, but it is not reductionist, as reviewers and commentators, so far as I know, have all generously recognized: the works do not maintain that the evolution from primary orality through writing and print to an electronic culture, which produces secondary orality, causes or explain everything in human culture and consciousness. Rather, the thesis is relationist: major developments, and very likely even all major developments, in culture and consciousness are related, often in unexpected intimacy, to the evolution of the word from primary orality to its present state. But the relationships are varied and complex, with cause and effect often difficult to distinguish" (page 9-10).

Thus Ong himself claims (1) that his thesis is "sweeping" but (2) that the shifts do not "cause or explain everything in human culture and consciousness" and (3) that the shifts are related to "major developments, and very likely even all major developments, in culture and consciousness."

Major cultural developments include the rise of modern science, the rise of modern capitalism, the rise of representative democracy, the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the Romantic Movement in philosophy, literature, and the arts.

In my estimate, Ong, in effect, implicitly works with this thesis in his massively researched book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958) - his major exploration of the influence of the Gutenberg printing press that emerged in the mid-1450s. Taking a hint from Ong's massively researched 1958 book, the Canadian Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943) worked up some examples of his own in his sweeping 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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