Johnson, Joel A. Beyond Practical Virtue: A Defense of Liberal Democracy Through Literature.
Political scientist Joel Johnson uses plots and characters from classic works of American fiction to defend liberal democracy as a political system, specifically the version of liberal democracy to which the United States at least ostensibly subscribes. Johnson introduces his book with the claim that a vigorous defense of liberal democracy is especially important today because democracy's spread around the world has run into powerful obstacles. Radical Islam, in particular, rejects many of its tenets. Johnson worries that, due to the global "setbacks democracy has experienced of late, Americans and other friends of democracy have tended to lose faith" (ix). He imagines democrats "secretly" asking themselves, "Can democracy really be the best form of government ... if so many of those who reject democracy are willing to die in order to destroy it?" (ix). Readers should probably resist any provocation they may feel to question whether it is indeed a desire "to destroy" democracy, as Johnson here suggests (following President Bush's similar assertion after the September 11 attacks), or, instead, resentment against perceived anti-democratic U. S. policies and actions abroad, that has in fact played a more significant role in motivating recent jihadist attacks on U.S. interests. Fortunately, it becomes clear after the first few pages of Johnson's preface that Johnson does not in fact seek to enlist Cooper's The Pioneers and Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court as combatants in some supposed "clash of civilizations" between Western democracy and the Muslim world. Instead, Johnson aims to use works of American literature to refute a specific set of criticisms and anxieties about democracy articulated from within the Western humanistic tradition itself.
Referring primarily to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers such as Carlyle, Nietzsche, Arnold, Pound, and T.S. Eliot, Johnson delineates what he calls the "aesthetic critique of democratic liberty" (33). "Aesthetic" critics of liberal democracy worry that its emphasis on equality and on distributing power to the people destroys social hierarchies and relations of authority that are necessary for cultivating the highest forms of civilization. Democratic culture gravitates toward the lowest common denominator. Liberal capitalism in particular, especially as these critics saw it developing in the United States, produces a society of money-grubbers, in which a hollow materialism displaces other "higher" values. Superior individuals, including those with the potential to produce great art and important philosophy, are not supported with the resources or the environment that would allow them to develop to their fullest capacity. Johnson admits that some might be inclined to dismiss these charges as no more than the elitist grumblings of "cranks or snobs" (35). Part of his own motive in confronting the "aesthetic critique," however, is that doing so presents an opportunity to argue the contrary: that liberal democracy is the best political framework for allowing, even encouraging, all individuals in a society to develop to their own fullest potential as human beings. Johnson's defense of liberal democracy on the grounds that it helps individuals develop to their fullest, he explains, differs from the more common arguments that political theorists offer in favor of it, for instance claims that liberal democracy tends to produce societies that are more just and/or more economically prosperous (3-5).
Johnson derives his illustrations of the positive effects that liberal democracy has on individual development from novels by James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells. Natty Bumppo, for instance, demonstrates the importance of individual freedom. In the woods, "Natty is subject neither to a hierarchy nor to the whims of his neighbors." As a result, "he is able to live according to his 'gifts,' and can become the sort of person he is best suited to be--in his case a hunter and scout" (69). Huck Finn's journey down the river, during which he gains critical distance from the institutions of his society, including slavery, and comes to regard the escaped slave Jim as a friend, again illustrates that the experience of personal liberty allows people to "rise to their full height" as individuals (77). For Johnson, one important way in which liberal democracy helps people "reach their fullest level of development" (101) is that, at least in theory, democracy does away with the aristocratic system of inherited privilege. Without inherited privileges and predetermined roles, individuals are forced to develop a variety of different aspects of themselves in order to make their way through the world. They become more well-rounded. By contrast to the multi-talented and ever self-educating Hank Morgan, who benefits from having been brought up in a democracy, the feudal knights of Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court have impressive "skills related to mounted warfare," but they are otherwise dull, unimaginative, and ignorant (133, 91).
Much of what Johnson says about the canonical works he discusses will not be new or startling to scholars of American literature. Indeed, the critical texts he cites in support of his interpretations tend to have been published at least a generation ago and (especially in the portions he quotes) to assume more of a consensus view of the United States and its essentially democratic nature than more recent scholarship in the field of American Studies would support. Though Johnson concedes there have been flaws in American society, including the history and legacy of slavery as well as the unequal treatment of women, he regards these as largely external to American liberal democracy; they are unfortunate holdovers from prior political systems or earlier modes of thought (143-44). Johnson fails even to engage with such powerful and currently prominent arguments as, for example, Toni Morrison's claim that, from the earliest years of Anglo settlement, white Americans' lived experience of "freedom" has been bound up with and dependent on the relative un-freedom of racial others (see Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination).
Among the more intriguing portions of the book is Johnson's discussion of "democratic interaction" in such novels as Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes. Drawing on writings about the public sphere by Toqueville, Habermas, Rawls, and Robert Bellah, Johnson argues that in relatively fluid democratic societies the public sphere includes not only coffee houses, journalism, and civic organizations, but also such "private" activities as informal conversations among friends, business associates, and even family members (118-19). Focusing on the dinner party that the millionaire Dryfoos hosts at home for the staff and contributors of Every Other Week, Johnson suggests that the dinner constitutes a space for democratic interaction. The guests, who come from different backgrounds and geographic regions, assume equal freedom to speak their minds on important social issues. They find themselves at least listening to the opinions of others with whom they disagree. Although the dinner ends in angry argument, by the close of Howells's novel Dryfoos has adopted a somewhat broader and less dictatorial outlook than previously and even admits that he was wrong about several matters. These positive developments in the millionaire's character, Johnson contends, have been at least partly caused by the democratically styled give and take at the dinner, which if nothing else planted seeds.
It's worth pointing out, however, that the more obvious and immediate cause of Dryfoos's softening is the accidental death of his son in the violence surrounding a bitter streetcar strike. Regarding the dinner itself and its putative display of the virtues of liberal democracy, one might equally argue that the dinner's aftermath reveals the uneven power relations of capitalism, which only good manners and Fulkerson's desperate attempts to avoid explosive topics had briefly papered over at the table. The morning after the dinner's acrimonious finish, the offended Dryfoos exercises his power as Every Other Week's owner to fire the socialist Lindau from the magazine's staff and he almost forces the resignation of the editor Basil March. Nonetheless, it is true that Dryfoos ultimately relents, and Johnson uses the dinner party and whatever role it may have played in Dryfoos's personal growth to develop an interesting argument: that public-sphere interactions of the sort that liberal democracies tend to produce can serve to correct for the narrowing of character aesthetic critics such as Carlyle and Arnold worried would result from the competitive pursuit of wealth.
I often found myself writing skeptical questions in Johnson's margins in response to his highly optimistic picture of American democracy (about which Howells, at the time he wrote Hazard, would also have been dubious). I also turned back to the novels he discusses in search of more nuanced readings to counter aspects of his literary interpretations that struck me as simplistic. To Johnson's credit, the clarity and openness of tone with which he writes do seem to create a space in which readers feel invited to think for themselves and to articulate their disagreements. In that sense, Beyond Practical Virtue succeeds in promoting the sort of democratic give-and-take that its final chapter describes.
The University of Texas at Austin
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|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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