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What Are We Living In?

November 5, 2011

“Democracy In America,” the second in the West Hollywood Lecture Series, differed from the first almost immediately after it began; instead of the somewhat ambling dialogue that constituted the previous lecture, here political thinker Dick Howard spoke almost ceaselessly for the first hour of the lecture in a structured and authoritative manner, often pausing to mark necessary transitions in his speech so the audience could follow his thoughts.

Howard covered a brief history of American democracy, the Occupy Wall Street movement as it relates to protest, revolution, and global history, as well as issues concerning the “New Left” and post-9/11 politics. Martín Plot, another political writer who is a part of the aesthetics and politics track at CalArts, offered fewer but equally engaging thoughts regarding these topics as the lecture progressed. Plot and Howard generally shared their views on contemporary politics in America, with the one notable exception being Plot’s recently pessimistic view of the dangers of plutocracy.

An illustrative example of this can be seen in both speakers’ thoughts regarding Occupy Wall Street, which was, to my delight, touted in the first seconds of Howard’s lecture as “undoubtedly a primary concern.” To oversimplify, it seemed as though Howard’s view is that Wall Street, once a legitimate representative of power in a country where the will of the people was to reward those who “worked the hardest,” simply overstepped its boundaries by flaunting its power in to gross a manner.

Plot, on the other hand, borrowing Howard’s earlier definition of democracy as  “the way of life in which the incarnate of the popular will is never fixed” viewed the Occupy movement’s success as the correct identification of a power structure that had occupied the seat of influence, or that had attempted to incarnate the will of the people, for too long.

One of the more fascinating bits of history told by Howard involved the early American Federalists and their battle with the Anti-Federalists, the battle that would in effect decide whether America would become a Democratic Republic or a Republican Democracy. When the latter won out, the stage was set for a game-changing enterprise, one in which, by the time Jefferson was elected, a peaceful succession of power from one regime to the next had occurred for the first time in modern history.

The other side to this story of course involves the plutocracy that Plot discussed with regard to the protests, or perhaps meritocracy is the better word? Or Oligarchy? This ability for the will of the people to be skewed as it is transferred from representative to representative before emerging in some mangled form on Capitol Hill seems to exist today side-by-side with the successes of our Republican Democracy.  Questions regarding this duality bubbled under the surface of the lecture last night, but Howard, a thinker dedicated to questions, offered no answers.

There was barely enough time for audience questions at the end of the lecture, but the ones that were asked sparked more quality dialogue between the speakers. In response to one question, Howard stumbled on the idea of #OWS protestors using the declaration as a rallying point in response to the Tea Party’s use of the constitution. “That’s an interesting idea.” Howard said. “That’s the great thing about giving talks, is that you talk to people and stumble on things you never thought about.”

 

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