Flattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education. Marlene K. Sokolon and Travis D. Smith, eds. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
That America’s institutions of higher education are in crisis is widely accepted. What should be blamed and what the remedy should be is widely debated. Marlene K. Sokolon and Travis D. Smith’s Flattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education is a collection of essays from seven contributors and enters the crowded field of higher education discontent studies.
What makes Flattering the Demos stand out then? Sokolon and Smith do not focus on what is to blame, but instead focus on remedies. Whether one blames the rising costs of higher education, burdensome student loans, or professionalization, Sokolon and Smith push back on calls, nay, demands, for increased STEM education as the corrective. Increased STEM education usually is accompanied by reduction or elimination of the humanities and “narrative storytelling” (1).
Although they briefly note that the humanities are the most likely sources for developing the soft skills that employers need from their employees, Sokolon and Smith are not content to base their argument for humanities on the utility of employers. They argue that these so-called soft skills enhanced through narrative storytelling include skills that develop the individual’s capacity for self-governance. The shaping of thoughtful citizens for democratic governance is correctly understood as the function of higher education.
But if they had to assign blame, it would be the rise of and primacy of “rational argumentation” and “modern empirical science” over disciplines that study narratives (1). Storytelling offers an “alternative or complementary epistemological approach to the strict rationalism in understanding the human being within his or her socio-political context” (3). In one of the most economical presentations of the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, Sokolon and Smith suggest that the preference for rationalistic inquiry over poetry might be due to overly zealous interpretations of Socrates’ banishment of the poets in Plato’s Republic.
Sokolon and Smith acknowledge the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, but prefer to stress how thinkers, such as Lucretius and Montesquieu, have relied on the educative side of poetry. Many disciplines such as literature, theology, classics, and history among others still rely on the interpretation of narrative texts. Here Sokolon and Smith mention several of the benefits that flow from the close reading of narrative texts. Stories help us recognize reinforcing and challenging social conventions, explore the “tensions, conflicts, and paradoxes” of human life, and conduct thought experiments or test kitchens for ideas (3).
Democratic peoples because they participate in governance especially have need of the kind of moral and political education that stories offer. The promise of Flattering the Demos is to show that literature, or narrative storytelling generally, has insights into the merits and foibles of democratic peoples—insights that prepare students for thoughtful democratic governance. The essays that follow are demonstrations. Each essay illustrates how stories can instruct and teach democratic peoples. These essays may certainly be read individually. What holds the essays together is that each author offers a window to how the democratic peoples may be flattered, sometimes for good but more often for ill.
Marlene K. Sokolon’s essay on Euripides’ Suppliant Women shows how political leaders aim to flatter and manipulate the populace. Sokolon’s essay is worth the price of the book. The argument is carefully drawn from the text. Sokolon rejects the conventional opinion that Euripides introduces a debate on the best regime for the sake of affirming democracy. Instead, she claims that Euripides uses the debates concerning what the best regime is as occasions to highlight the ways in which Theseus’s speech and practice do not align—thus, training his audience to weigh what democratic leaders say and do. Euripides educates his audience to recognize demagogues. By showing his audience how to evaluate Theseus’s words and deeds, Euripides puts his audience on guard against flatterers and would-be demagogues. My only wish is for more analyses of Euripides’ dramas by Sokolon. A glance at the contributor’s page confirms that Sokolon is working on a book on Euripides.
Derval Ryan’s “Of Villains and Victims: Guilt and Bad Conscience in Richard III” builds on the dangers of sweet-talking political leaders and shows how Richard exploits guilt and bad conscience to his gain. Shakespeare anticipates Nietzsche when Richard says “conscious is but a word that cowards use/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.” For example, Richard plays the victim to Lady Ann—a victim of her loveliness—as he contrives to seduce her. Bad conscience, however, is a rhetorical posture available to victims as well. Queen Margaret, for example, taps into bad conscience to stir the great to oppose Richard. Women may be political dispossessed, but are not without resources. They are empowered by their victimhood. The women’s curses remind the great of Richard’s crimes and so guilts them into opposing Richard. Ryan approvingly claims that Shakespeare recognizes that guilt and bad conscience become “the tools of the disempowered” to affect change on their behalf (42). Ryan’s essay nicely shows that Shakespeare understood how the posture of the victim offers rhetorical advantages, but ultimately that Richard was undermined by reality. He clearly was not a wronged person. Yet, Ryan notes that much of Richard’s success in the short-term is due to the inability of his stupefied interlocutors to counter his false claims.
Kimberly Hurd Hale’s “Only Human: Free Will and Choice in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot” shows how easily we are flattered that we have control over our technological creations. Hale argues that Asimov’s I Robot chronicles the slow but sure decline of democratic politics as androids increasingly become more indispensable and less subject to human control. Asimov’s insight is that the loss of human control over the androids happens almost imperceptibly until it is too late for democratic means to reassert themselves. We humans are too easily flattered that the technology we create will always remain under our control. Hale’s literature review is immensely valuable in which she situates Asimov’s insights in I, Robot as relevant for debates concerning the ethics of the transhuman movement and the political status and rights of artificial intelligence. Algorithms and artificial intelligence aim to remove human flaws and weakness from making calculations for the sake of improving human life, but it also risks sacrificing our capacity for greatness, spiritedness, and democratic debate. Democratic debate is necessary to determine what technology should and should not pursued.
Travis Smith’s essay “Comedy and Comic Books” is likely the cheeriest of the book and another worthy contribution to the sub-field of “superhero studies.” Comic books flatter, but largely for sake of uplifting us and inspiring us. We non-supers may not be superheroes but we can be inspired by the ethics of superheroes who voluntarily choose to serve others rather than their interests. In this way, superheroes are highly valuable in democratic societies for the sake of correcting the low standards of Hobbesian liberal democracy. For example, Hobbes emphasizes refraining from action rather that positively helping others. To link Smith’s essay to Hale’s, unlike the androids in Asimov’s work over whom humans have illusionary control, superheroes are free. Like us, they must choose to do good. What restrains superheroes is what restrains democratic citizens as well—their virtue. Perhaps the most scandalous (from the perspective of modern liberalism) is that superheroes own being superheroes and recognize their status as supers. Yet, superheroes are palatable because they treat people like equals and do not assume authority over the lives of non-supers. Smith’s chapter here should be read alongside his book Superhero Ethics as another contribution to the burgeoning field of superhero studies.
Bruce Peabody’s “Explaining the Paranoid Style in American Politics: System Disjuncture and Narratives of Fiction” uses Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and JFK (1991) as examples of paranoid narratives in film. Americans perceive a disjunction between the idealized politics that the Constitution should produce and the messy realities that Washington politics produces. The cognitive dissonance between the two sets of politics is resolved by appealing to conspiracy theories and other paranoid narratives. These paranoid narratives, which are self-justifying and difficult to falsify, explain even as they flatter the viewer about how elites have supplanted the Constitution for their interests. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is a political outsider who reveres the Declaration, but in Washington, he struggles as a senator to put his constituents first amid the corruption of party machine politics. Likewise, JKF features Jim Garrison, an investigative journalist who aims to uncover the truth about the Kennedy assassination but is subverted by the nearly every major player in Washington from the FBI to the Secret Service to members of Kennedy’s administration. JFK present another facet to the paranoid narrative in which a utopian alternative political reality (represented by the promise of John F. Kennedy’s administration) is cruelly denied to the American people due to the machinations of Washington politics. As Peabody concludes, given contemporary politics, Americans are likely to turn even more toward paranoid narratives for false mollification.
James Beneda’s “A Band of Brothers Against Terrorism: The Citizen-Soldier Ideal in Post-9/11 US Military Mobilization” argues that the popularized image of military service as membership in a “band of brothers” is a boondoggle doctrine to encourage young people to accept the realities of war in the vain hope that they will “achieve the virtue of brotherhood” (128). Beneda traces the motif in American public writings to the founding and back to Shakespeare’s Henry V. In every case, the motive for invoking the romance of comradeship is to serve the interests of the state—increased or sustained military participation. Beneda focuses on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers as primary promoter of band of brothers motif that formed the “heroic ideal” (112) post-9/11 and through the Iraq war. The better part of the chapter traces the development of the miniseries and other films of that era that celebrated military service. Band of Brothers idealized the service of WWII veterans and films like Black Hawk Down (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002) idealized sacrifice of individual soldiers. Unlike the films, the miniseries had lasting cultural effects. Beneda notes an uptick in the number of times of the phrase “band of brothers” is invoked in newspapers, became the title of a Willie Nelson album, and eventually was applied to any close-knit group of people such as firefighters. Beneda calls for young people to read works like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and similar works as remedies.
Alexandra Manoliu’s “Political TV Series, Or, a Case of Unflattering the Demos” applies cultivation theory (analyzing the long-term effects tv has on viewers) to political TV series and, while noting other political series, focuses on The West Wing (1999) and House of Cards (2013). While viewers know they watch fictionalized stories, they are nevertheless “‘drawn into’ a parallel political reality” (136). Their beliefs are shaped by what they see on TV. In 1999, Americans found political succor from the sordid politics of the Clinton scandal and impeachment in the squeaky earnest and morally righteous Josiah Bartlett presidency in The West Wing. Bartlett’s administration was populated by morally sound, competent public servants. But times have changed. Manoliu argues that political series have turned towards unflattering narratives of democracy. These series promise to show viewers what happens behind closed doors and it is not pretty. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood narrates his ruthless deeds. In addition to cultivating cynicism and disillusionment with politicians and journalists, House of Cards depicts the people unfit for self-rule. Manoliu highlights how streaming has changed how political stories are crafted. The West Wing’s seasons contained some overarching plot points, but each episode stood alone. Viewers had to tune in week after week. Nowadays, Netflix releases full seasons at once. House of Card’s seasons are tighter, more intricate, and each episode flows seamlessly into the next. Binge-watching, Manoliu suggests, concentrates and reinforces the dose of political corruption and deceit to which the viewer is exposed.
Steven Orr’s “The Problem with a Pitiful Rump: On Impropriety and Political Philosophy” is the only chapter not to feature a writer, film, or tv show. Instead, Orr argues that while mid-20th century political thinkers such as Leo Strauss, Peter Laslett, and Isaiah Berlin fretted about the decline of political philosophy, its fundamental questions and activity were carried on in literature. Orr targets Strauss especially for approbation for his assertion that the treatise is the best form for political philosophy. Since Strauss and others fixated on proper form in which political philosophy ought to show itself, they believed political philosophy was near its death. Like the much-quoted Mark Twain quip that reports of his death are exaggerated, the same applies to political philosophy. Relying on Ronald Beiner, Orr argues that the task of political philosophy is ‘to confront human beings with a range of the most intellectually ambitious accounts of the standard by which to judge what makes a human life consummately human’ (155). The exploration of ways of living does not require the form of the treatise. By this measure, Orr argues that literature has taken up these questions in our present time. Moreover, literature and literary forms have long been a part of political philosophy. Orr cites Plato who wrote in dialogues and engaged with Homer’s epics among other poetic works as sources of political thought. Orr details adeptly the mid-20th century debates concerning the fate of political philosophy but curiously tucks away in a footnote what sort of literature and films might count as political philosophy.