A colleague of mine in the Government Department has written a book, Democratic Faith, that describes what he calls "a state of quiet crisis" in democratic theory. His introduction, which is all I have read so far, explores the tension between the idea that democracy "takes men as they are" and the idea that people must be fashioned for democratic life. "While claiming to take 'men as they are,'" he writes,
democratic theory from its inception, even to its dominant contemporary expressions, exhibits anything but satisfaction for the civic capacities of ordinary humans, and seeks, sometimes to a major extent, to alter that condition for democratic ends.As a teacher and researcher in rhetoric and writing, I can attest to this tension, while freely admitting that I do not feel it as strongly. I very much see my pedagogy as focused on something like citizenship: that the ability to engage others rhetorically through writing and other forms of composition is vital to the life and health of democracy. I see cultivating (better) citizens as necessary because I do not find democracy (nor any other form of government) "natural." I do not feel that if only we somehow removed all external forces humans will naturally desire democracy.
I believe this, in large part, because much of my research is centered around the idea that much of what we take as "natural" in human beings is cultivated or inculcated. Forms of government do simply arrive after the fact of subject formation and then are either accepted or rejected (America's recent efforts at "nation building" certainly point to this fact). Societies, with their cultures and forms of government, fashion their own subjects both implicitly and explicitly. I see my pedagogy as in largely in the "explicitly" category. A government is not simply added to already existing subjects, but is, in many important ways, the sub-stance of subjectivity itself. But this moves me in other directions.
So I return then to this pre-Census letter:
Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.Obviously, one would take more time and care in conducting a fully rigorous rhetorical analysis, but a few things strike me as obvious here:
- "get" and "receive" are prominent (essentially, the same notion of "getting" appears twice in a very short letter)
- what we get are "funds" (for important things, mind you)
What is valuable about democracy, this letter argues (as I have haphazardly read it) is its ability to satisfy individual or group interests. I want to be careful here, obviously. Fair and equitable distribution of resources is about more than self-interest. Indeed, the allocation of government resources is one of the primary ways we manifest our values. What I focused on is the appeal made here. The appeal is not social (I recognize the use of community and the "your neighbor" line) in any meaningful way. In fact, as I read it, "community" in the first line is always about "your community" in the last line. What about communities that are not mine--neighbors that are not mine? The 2010 Census, and thus, I would argue, democracy, is about you getting what you want. There is no sense here (or not enough for me, at least) of what my colleague in Government calls "civic excellence."
In conclusion, I am not all that impressed with this letter and the perspective on democracy it bellies (I would not, however, automatically attribute these values to the author of the document--many civil servants are clearly not just in it for themselves). Nor would I say that I am surprised. I will not, however, despair; I have a rhetoric and writing class to plan.