by Wendy Willis Hobbies take place in the cellar and smell of airplane glue. ~John Updike Yes, it’s Saturday morning on a holiday weekend, and yes, I am supposed to...
Wendy Willis, Executive Director, DDC
Welcome to all of you. We have been talking about this for so many months. And it’s a huge pleasure to see you all here. So, on behalf of DDC, welcome! And thank you so much to Joe and Norma and everyone at UIC and Hull House for hosting us. And thanks to the DDC committee that planned this gathering—Bruce and Kyle and Val and Terry. And of course, Roslyn.
A few weeks ago, Bruce asked me if I would be willing to frame this gathering. So tonight, I’m going to bring my other life out of the closet for a few minutes. While I know many of you from the democracy trenches, you may or may not know that I also live with a foot in the world of poetry and literature. So, I’m going to try to bring both feet into the room this evening.
When poet and feminist activist Adrienne Rich died in 2012, my first thought was a selfish one: How will I live in America without her? (It was a bit like the first time I landed in Washington, D.C. after Ted Kennedy died. I burst into tears: “I have never been here without him.”). But, when I was a young woman just trying to figure it all out, Rich’s fierce reflections—both in poems and essays—on feminism and motherhood and work and poetry were my bread and milk. And I adore the tender, more personal poems of her later life, too. But the poem I return to again and again—it seems like sometimes weekly—is the title poem of her 1973 collection, Diving into the Wreck.” The poem begins literally on the deck of a boat, but metaphorically in the place just before a person—any one of us really—knows she must look below the myths and stories of our culture. She starts here:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
In teaching young poets to read closely, older poets—like me, I guess—often say: In reading a poem, there is an announced subject and an unannounced subject. It’s your job to understand both. I tell you all this because it feels to me that we are living in an era when public discourse is being swamped by the unannounced subjects. At least since the 2016 campaign—and really substantially before—we have been working in a world where the truth is as slippery as a live salmon and everyone—myself included—is swinging stem to stern (to torture the metaphor) from one emotional extreme to another. We are making our very best model-UN arguments to one another and yet we understand each other less than any time in my lifetime, for sure. It’s as if the unconscious has exploded to the surface, and we—who believe in an orderly and deliberative democracy—are wondering where in the world we have turned up.
Every week it’s some fresh crisis, and each time, I—along with many of you, I suspect—wonder whether this will be the day when we just can’t live up to the challenge. And while some of our democratic institutions are holding up pretty well, the citizenry is showing signs of strain, whether it is because they are recovering from a disaster themselves or because some new source of rage and vitriol and cruelty has erupted.
I feel like we’re living in the next section of Rich’s poem, which goes on:
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
I love the lines: “It is easy to forget/what I came for/among so many who have always/lived here/swaying their crenellated fans.” Isn’t that how it feels sometimes? It’s as if we have surfaced in some exotic kingdom where the rules—even the simple ones, like breathing or telling the truth—are different now, and it is easy to lose track of ourselves, to lose track of our moral centers, to lose track of what it is we value and are here to achieve. And so we—or maybe I should speak for myself, I— keep hammering away at the announced subjects—civility, citizen participation, inclusion, representative government, deliberation. I figure that I might be able to at least keep my own world in tact if I hold on to that deliberative democracy dinghy, no matter how small it is and how much water it is taking on.
But it feels like here, over the next 24 hours, we might have an opportunity to let go just a little bit. I think we can ask ourselves hard questions. We can ask ourselves when deliberation really works. And when it doesn’t. When can tell each other about not just when we’ve done well, but also when we’ve failed. We can look at one another and admit: I really don’t know what’s going on here. And we can do this all this because—unlike Rich—we are not alone. And because we are together, nobody will drown.
But I am also really excited about digging around in that which is unannounced in our democracy, that which–by nature—is unclear and muddied by mixed intentions, that which—of course—leads us back to Rich and what she is seeking from deep exploration of the interior world:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters
Holy moly, that’s it, isn’t it? Because we’re here together, we can show each other the wreck and not the story of the wreck. We can look straight at the thing itself and not be tied to the myth of the thing. Or at least we can run our hands along its sides. And by that, I mean we can talk about what is underneath the surface of the challenges to democracy and what is beneath our vocations, varied as they are. We can ask ourselves what we can do to meet citizens’—and democracy’s—announced and unannounced needs.
Of course, we’re only here for a day, so it would be tempting to stick to the announced questions because there are plenty of them. We have an awful lot to learn from each other about best practices and promising scholarship and the virtues of citizen juries versus citizen assemblies. And we should do that. Because it’s important. and we’ll be better scholars and practitioners if we do.
But I also would encourage us to ask the next questions, the deeper questions, the more confusing ones, the ones we have to grapple to find the words for. I would ask us to feel for what is beneath the rhetoric and behavior of those who represent us in government and also behind that of our neighbors and friends. I would ask us to ask what is the unannounced, but apparently powerful, set of fears and passions and hopes that led us here?
Even more, I would ask us to look at ourselves. What do we hold below the surface? What does deliberative democracy offer those who are wounded or confused or terrified out of their minds? And what are the things we hold sacred when we are out of public view and not trying so hard to present ourselves impeccably?
I would ask us to ask ourselves—what else do we need to study to get to that which is beneath the surface? Is it neuroscience? Or biofeedback? Or behavioral economics? Is it game theory? Or nutrition? Or is it literature and mythology and folklore? Or all of the above? Who else do we need here around this little bonfire to better explore the human condition and its darkest nooks and crannies? And what skills have become essential to whatever new democracy is emerging?
I encourage us to take detours and side-dives. I encourage us to risk belly-flops and ill-conceived theories. I encourage us to lift up the rug and peer under it. I encourage us—together—to dive into the wreck.