KOLB: ‘Two Cheers For Democracy’

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Charles Kolb Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House
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With Donald Trump now permanently banned from Twitter, millions of Americans may be searching frantically for something to read, especially when there’s so much mainstream and social media chatter about looming threats to American democracy.

Is there hope for the Republic’s future? Has America somehow lost its bearings and succumbed to violent hyper-partisanship and resentments stoked by ongoing identity politics?

China is busy touting its authoritarian model, surveys suggest that many young Americans find socialism more appealing than capitalism (They’ve never visited Venezuela) and Washington, D.C., remains on high alert lest the Biden inauguration witness a reprise of the unacceptable U.S. Capitol assault by thousands of MAGA supporters.

Add the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s little wonder that Americans might be seeking solace. Dining out is an unlikely option in many locales. Maybe it’s fixing comfort food at home or watching a favorite movie or a binge series that offers a few hours of streaming escape.

For me, it’s rereading a favorite writer, British novelist and essayist E.M. Forster (1879-1970). His most famous novels, “Howards End” (1910) and “A Passage to India” (1924), have been turned into gauzy, but nonetheless superb, period films by Merchant Ivory Productions and Thorn EMI. His books, however, far surpass the films.

While “Howards End” has been my favorite novel since college, it’s Forster’s remarkable essays that offer spiritual and political direction in today’s dark moments.  Forster has been where we are today and diagnosed, decades ago, the challenges faced by democracies under siege.

In 1935, Forster penned a short piece (just four paragraphs) entitled “The Menace to Freedom,” where he states that “[t]he tyrant no longer appears as a freak from the pit, he is becoming the norm, country after country throws him up, he springs from any class of society with an ease which once seemed admirable; requiring only opportunity and ruthlessness, he supersedes parliaments and kings.” World War II was but four years away.

While Yeats warned in 1919 that “[t]hings fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Forster told us that our innate human desire for freedom and love offers a possible salvation: “The desire to devote oneself to another person or persons seems to be as innate as the desire for personal liberty.” If we can find a way to combine these two desires, he writes, “the menace to freedom from within, the fundamental menace, might disappear, and the political evils now filling all the foreground of our lives would be deprived of the poison which nourishes them.”

Love and freedom constitute central themes throughout Forster’s writings. He ponders these twin impulses in a social, political, and economic context that is still relevant, although some contemporary critics will surely dismiss his views as post-Enlightenment nostalgia from yet another dead white man.

Forster’s novels explore the possibilities of love, of bringing people together and reconciling cultural, socioeconomic and political differences and prejudices. He helps us see today’s world differently, refreshingly, notwithstanding his classical-liberal perspective reminiscent of Matthew Arnold.

Forster’s best essays are published in a thoroughly engaging collection, “Two Cheers for Democracy.” You will find musings on politics, art, tolerance, and famous authors such as Gide, Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Orwell, and Tolstoy. There are dozens of nuggets of wisdom in this slim volume of 362 pages. Dip in and out of these essays; you’ll be immensely rewarded.

The essay that has always spoken to me the most is “What I Believe.” Forster’s words have been my guiding star for decades:

“I believe in aristocracy, though – if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human condition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness, but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”

Forster’s world included the famous Bloomsbury group of artists, writers, performers, philosophers and even a great economist, John Maynard Keynes. They helped shape much of 20th Century life and culture. They held strong beliefs. Do we?

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House