Mississippi to Mussolini: Our Weak Hold on American Democracy

by Mark Harvey

Where I live in Colorado there are unstable elements of the landscape that sometimes fail. In severe cases, millions of tons of rock, silt, sand, and mud can shift, leading to massive landslides. The signs aren’t always evident because the breakdown in the structural geology often happens quietly underground. The invisible changes can take hundreds or thousands of years, but when a landslide takes place, it is fast and violent. And the new landscape that comes after is unrecognizable.

Democracies, like landscapes, take time to erode and the erosion isn’t always obvious to those living within its structure. Seemingly small things like villainizing the press, vicious attacks on political candidates, gerrymandering districts, voter suppression, and allowing vast amounts of money to enter the campaign process are all erosive forces that, taken individually, don’t seem like much. But taken together, over time, they break down democracies and invite darker forms of government.

When you start to speak about democracy in this country, it can get wispy and abstract in a hurry. Most of us were taught about democracy as school children in breathless, fabled terms. It’s hard to get past the myths of our founders and our founding to consider both how young and how clunky our democracy really is. For perspective, the oldest tree in the country is a bristlecone pine named Methuselah that sits in eastern California and had its beginning as a seed over 4,000 years before the convention in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1787. We think of our democracy as about 230 years old from the time when the Constitution was signed and George Washington first took office. But it’s only been 156 years since African Americans were freed and only about 100 years since women were guaranteed the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment. So our true democracy, at least on paper, is really only about 100 years old, closer to the lifespan of a cottonwood tree. And yet just 100 years into it, since the day when everyone was theoretically given the right to vote, things in the United States are wobbling and teetering. Read more »

Religion, Legitimacy, and Government in America, A Just-So Story

by Bill Benzon

I don’t remember when it was, but it was years ago, before religion had become such a prominent factor in American politics. Perhaps it was during my graduate school years, the mid-to-late 1970s. Whenever, it came as a shock to learn that America was more religious than Europe. It’s not so much that I had thought the reverse. I rather doubt that I’d thought much about it one way or another. The shock, I suppose, was simply that America was such a religions nation.

Religion has been much more visible in American politics of the last two decades and America remains more religious than Europe. This would come as no surprise to readers of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but I hadn’t read it and, to be honest, still haven’t (though I’d read The Ancient Regime and the Revolution years ago). I have, however, read The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, by the economic historian and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel. Fogel argues that American society and culture has been driven by cycles of religious revival. The first three cycles, starting in roughly 1730, 1800, and 1890, have been recognized in standard religious history, while the Fogel himself has proposed the fourth, dating it to the 1960s. He characterizes it as a “return to sensuous religion and reassertion of experiential content of the Bible; rapid growth of the enthusiastic religions; reassertion of concept of personal sin; stress on an ethic of individual responsibility, hard work, a simple life, and dedication to family.”

I rather doubt that either Tocqueville or Fogel would have predicted that one day the United States Capitol Building would be stormed in the names of a recently defeated President, Donald Trump, and God, with many of the belligerents believing Trump to be God’s instrument. They would have found that shocking. I did, as did many other Americans.

To put the question in its starkest form: How is it, then, that religious belief can be both foundational to American democracy and a profound threat to it? Read more »

Life and Death in New Jersey

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

On a whim I decided to visit the gently sloping hill where the universe announced itself in 1964, not with a bang but with ambient, annoying noise. It’s the static you saw when you turned on your TV, or at least used to back when analog TVs were a thing. But today there was no noise except for the occasional chirping of birds, the lone car driving off in the distance and a gentle breeze flowing through the trees. A recent trace of rain had brought verdant green colors to the grass. A deer darted into the undergrowth in the distance.

The town of Holmdel, New Jersey is about thirty miles east of Princeton. In 1964, the venerable Bell Telephone Laboratories had an installation there, on top of this gently sloping hill called Crawford Hill. It was a horn antenna, about as big as a small house, designed to bounce off signals from a communications satellite called Echo which the lab had built a few years ago. Tending to the care and feeding of this piece of electronics and machinery were Arno Penzias – a working-class refuge from Nazism who had grown up in the Garment District of New York – and Robert Wilson; one was a big picture thinker who enjoyed grand puzzles and the other an electronics whiz who could get into the weeds of circuits, mirrors and cables. The duo had been hired to work on ultra-sensitive microwave receivers for radio astronomy.

In a now famous comedy of errors, instead of simply contributing to incremental advances in radio astronomy, Penzias and Wilson ended up observing ripples from the universe’s birth – the cosmic microwave background radiation – by accident. It was a comedy of errors because others had either theorized that such a signal would exist without having the experimental know-how or, like Penzias and Wilson, were unknowingly building equipment to detect it without knowing the theoretical background. Penzias and Wilson puzzled over the ambient noise they were observing in the antenna that seemed to come from all directions, and it was only after clearing away every possible earthly source of noise including pigeon droppings, and after a conversation with a fellow Bell Labs scientist who in turn had had a chance conversation with a Princeton theoretical physicist named Robert Dicke, that Penzias and Wilson realized that they might have hit on something bigger. Dicke himself had already theorized the existence of such whispers from the past and had started building his own antenna with his student Jim Peebles; after Penzias and Wilson contacted him, he realized he and Peebles had been scooped by a few weeks or months. In 1978 Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize; Dicke was among a string of theorists and experimentalists who got left out. As it turned out, Penzias and Wilson’s Nobel Prize marked the high point of what was one of the greatest, quintessentially American research institutions in history. Read more »

“How Do You Feel about Being an American?” A Conversation with Patricia Thornley

by Andrea Scrima

Indian Scout

From November 17, Patricia Thornley’s work The Western, part of her series THIS IS US, is on view as part of the group exhibition “Empathy” at Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The project is the latest in a seven-year series of installation and single-channel video works consisting of interviews and performances. Previous videos of the series are An American in Bavaria (2011), Don’t Cry for Me (2013), and Sang Real (2015). As a whole, THIS IS US  formulates multiple parallel inquiries into the collaborative fantasies Americans enact through popular media. In the current political climate, as the escalation of social and economic forces impacting millions of lives is cast into increasingly sharp relief, these fantasies take on new urgency and, in many cases, a new absurdity.

The Western’s cast of characters consists of these Civil War-era archetypes: Indian Scout, Beast of Burden, Frontiersman, Savage, Deserter, Justice, and Drifter. The work is conceived as a two-part installation in which the cinematic trope of the Western is used as a framework for inquiring into the American psyche. In the exhibition space, a projected “movie” is installed opposite a wall of screens playing a series of interviews with the seven participating characters.

Beast of Burden

Andrea Scrima: Patricia, a few years ago I conducted an interview with you about a previous work of yours, Sang Real (2015), for the online poetry magazine Lute & Drum. Now, with The Western, the overall structure of THIS IS US is coming more and more clearly into focus. The last time we spoke at length about your series was a year and a half before the last presidential election. How have recent changes on the political landscape affected your approach to the themes in your work?

Patricia Thornley: From the beginning in the THIS IS US series, one of the questions I asked in my interviews with the people who featured in the individual videos was “how do you feel about being an American?” Historically, there’s always been a certain political disconnect at play with Americans, due to less armed conflict on our own soil and a certain comfort level. Read more »