Political Poetry

I just spent a very nice lunch hour at the Center for American Progress listening to “political poets” read and discuss their work. As the promo for the event read,

Percy Shelley said that poetry, also known as critical reflections upon popular culture, was a touchstone and an influencing agent for understanding and advocating for current issues. E. Ethelbert Miller, David Gewanter, and Naomi Ayala have each written poems in this spirit. It is a gender- and culturally diverse voice that will sound out to the audience messages of progressive change at the level both of policy but more importantly of worldview.

The Progressive Poetry event certainly fills the bill for CAP’s own progressive left agenda. The featured poets, E. Ethelbert Miller, David Gewanter, and Naomi Ayala, see themselves as writing political poetry. But the question that always comes up in these settings is whether poetry should be political. The truth is that much poetry that sets out to be political is truly god awful. But I think this is a function of bad writing, not of the intent to write politically. Every poem advocates something, even if it is the need to stop and ponder. Maxine Kumin’s poetry advocates reflection, and does it very well. Naomi’s poetry today advocated reflecting on the downside of gentrification. But neither Kumin’s nor Ayala’s poetry is polemical.

The problem isn’t political poetry; it’s polemical poetry that tries artlessly to get the listener to change. Good poems do something else.

Some of my favorite poetry is political, like Adrienne Rich’s poem “North American Time.” Do read it and notice something. If what she is saying there is right, then all poetry stands for — or fails to stand for — something. We are all responsible for our words and what they do, no matter whether they are “political” or not.

V.P. Qualities

I was up late with some friends last night engaging in the usual political banter and the question of the moment: who will — or rather who should — Obama pick to be his vice presidential running mate? What should be the criteria? After much deliberation, it seemed to us that the usual geographical and even demographic criteria just didn’t play out. What seems most important is for him to find someone with lots of foreign policy or governing experience who doesn’t dilute or distract from Obama’s overall message and profile. The V.P. choice should appeal to those who are on the fence about Obama (rather than just those who already fully support him) but not to the point of being a jarring counterpoint. The choice should complement Obama but expand the pool of interest, be someone who’s a fighter but not a distracter. So we’re liking Jim Webb.

Beyond Broadcast: is this public media?

I’m at the Beyond Broadcast conference in Washington, DC, convened by American University’s Center for Social Media. It’s good to see a lot of old and new friends and the continuation of some projects I worked on when I was at the Center for Social Media. The question on the table is how new kinds of digital maps can help a public form — in the Deweyan sense. Pat Aufderheide started off the meeting with a great synopsis of what public media is — not just (or even only) media funded by the public, but media that helps a public find itself, connect, and be effective.

The presentations and videos this mornings so far show how powerful and innovative new uses of media are, how they provide new content and perspectives for journalistic practice. I worry that the innovations begin to be seen as ends in themselves, rather than as means for helping a public form in the Deweyan sense. There’s a profusion of content with a great deal of democratic potential, but the next step has to be how to help people connect. What are the spaces and ways in which that can happen? Can Second Life be that space? Can participatory media be the ways? I think these are steps but we’re still far short of finding ways for connecting.

Public Scholars and Intellectuals

Yesterday we wrapped up the first Beyond the Academy conference.  It was a terrific meeting of over 40 public scholars from across the country talking about how academics can make their work matter beyond the often narrow confines of academia.  Of course it is worthwhile to advance one’s own field, but this work need not happen without also engaging the larger public. In the meeting we grappled with how to do this work without falling into old hierarchical thinking, how to do research in communities without being imperialistic, and how to make a difference in public policy without losing one’s own soul. I’ll be writing up a report this next week, trying to pull together all the themes.  I can say now, though, that we only scratched the surface of what “public scholarship” as a practice might be.  Our keynote speaker, Dan Kemmis, got us thinking about that.  Is public scholarship a practice in the Aristotelian sense of having internal to it its own ideals and standards? What would those be?

To mull on this, see a piece in a New York Times blog on public intellectuals.

Pause over this…

Not so long ago it looked like we were in for a vicious general election. The Republican candidates kept trying to one-up each other on how anti-immigrant and unwelcoming they could be. The Democrats were put on the defensive about not being vitriolic enough. It seemed like we were in for an election that was all about why we should bar the door against foreigners and strangers.

As the Democrats, pulled along by Edwards, moved more toward worrying about  poverty and those in need, the Republicans seemed to move even further right than Bush in blaming those in need for their own fate. As the divisions escalated, we seemed to be in for a hell of a divisive fight.

The amazing thing now seems to be that the American people wanted none of this crap. We have the evidence: the Republicans chose the most conciliatory, pro-immigration, anti-ideological of its candidates. The Democrats rejected the party standard-bearer in favor of a new voice wanting to reach out across ideological differences. It is actually conceivable, though maybe not advisable, that each nominee might choose as a V.P. candidate someone from the other party. And it is quite likely that they’ll even share the same ride to their debates. Has that ever happened?

I am not saying that McCain and Barama are alike. They are as different in policy means and goals as any two candidates could be. As a Texan, I’d vote for a yellow dog before I voted for McCain. And I hope any other Democrat would do the same.

What I am stunned by is what the voice of the American people seems to have uttered: we want candidates who are so willing to solve problems that they will cross party lines; we want a politics that will bring people together; we want a politics that is welcoming, conscientious, and accountable to citizens rather than lobbies.

Just as there were many themes that Obama and Clinton shared, there are many that Obama and McCain share. There’s plenty that puts them apart, but we should take time to pause now and marvel at this new turn of events and what it says about what the American people want: a different kind of politics, a country that is welcoming and a model for the kinds of values that have sparked admiration around the world. Part of the credit for this climatic change goes indeed to McCain and Obama, but I’d like to suggest that the bulk of it goes to the American people, fed up with politics as usual, ready for a different kind of politics.

Obama and Diplomacy

Now that he is the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama is going to face increasing criticism that he is naïve on foreign policy. His willingness to talk with “enemy states” defies the prevailing political realist view that nation-states should act to maximize their own power and self-interest. The doctrine of political realism makes no room for a politics that is oriented toward changing relationships among parties in a way that furthers the larger good. It cannot conceive of anything even like a larger good, except perhaps for some kind of balance of power that allows one’s own state to retain the upper hand. In short, the politics of political realism is a politics of bellicosity and power-as-stick.

If indeed Obama is rejecting this kind of politics, is he being naïve? Only if political realism is truly effective. But the fact is that it is not. Throughout the world over the past two generations, at the domestic and international levels, productive change has resulted from a politics geared toward creating better relationships between parties. Ethnic divisions heal better when the parties find common ground, not when one party vanquishes the other. International relations improve after years of dialogue at all levels, from governmental, to unofficial (like the old Dartmouth conferences), to people-to-people exchanges. The lesson is that power-with is much more formidable than power-over. If we want to be truly realistic about making the world a safer place, and maintaining a respected role as an international leader, we need to reject political-realist bellicosity in favor of a politics of relationship building.