The day after a mellowed, decaffeinated Thanksgiving Day, I fueled up good and plenty at my maternal grandmother’s birthday bash, drinking cup after cup of delicious, world-disclosing “coffeine.” While my aunts chortled and kvelled, my mind was speedracing, my eyes were darting, and my underwear elastic was limp with backsweat. I think the first philosophical tremor came during some mile-a-minute spiel about the internet. The same conversation everyone has had about the internet: about how the internet is the democratic tool par excellence, and that maybe if the Gutenburg press helped spur the Renaissance, the internet will have a comparable or greater effect on human consciousness, and about how it’s a shift in thinking and not just the same shit in an expedient pixellated form, and about where the interactivity is going and how the human conversation is burning the midnight oil and so on.
But the spiel was not really technocratic in nature, not about the perks and betterments of civilization’s newest toy. It was rather about the latest manifestation of a slow-glowing though ancient genius: the genius of Democracy, in the deepest sense of the word.
Mumbling through the internet spiel, pieces were moving inside, adjusting themselves, making room for a new clearing. Once I started blabbering on about the Internet with my extended family, strange dreams started to bubble through my subconscious. Little notions kept accreting to form bigger notions. I would spring from Lenny Bruce to Spinoza and back again. Until, driving back home from Keysville, Virginia, lost on the serpentine deer-strewn backroads of Old Virginie, listening to Iggy Pop, I had a moment of clarity, in which the meaning of “Democracy” was revealed to me in one blinding newsflash.
I spent the remainder of the ride enunciating the details, before I could lose them on the roadside. In this turgid, hallucinatory state, democracy was not distilled down into a simple, final formula. It was more like a brief glimpse of a winding, complex engine with a fuckload of buttons, levers, gears, and interlinking parts and drivetrains. Crap this way and that, dynamic and sweepingly dialectical. I saw the process that sustained the faith and self-assurance of Whitman, Jefferson, Franklin, Dewey, Rorty; the reason they were so sure of the democratic impulse. I understood why “tyranny leaps to the wrong conclusion as democracy stumbles to the right one” and why democracy must be understood in the context of Time rather than in the cross-section.
Everything seemed to tie in, from Darwin and Hegel to Digital Piracy and the Human Genome Project, but something must have lit the fuse, some piece or passage from the mouths of the Wise and Wonderful. And with some quick mental detective work, I followed the trail back to a Dewey quotation in Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope:
“Democracy is not a form of government or social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature…”
Democracy, in the widest possible sense, replacing Metaphysics, in the widest possible sense. And this sense only made sense to those who understood democracy as something much, much larger than politics, as an organizing principle within the best strands of human progress. Even before that night, I had understood pragmatism as the democratization of philosophy, or at the very least, the expurgation of metaphysics. I had previously said that: “A non-metaphysical philosophy tries to co-ordinate all of its beliefs, perceptions, fellows, desires, and other possibilities, without appealing to some trumpcard in the great Beyond, beyond the particulars of general and daily life.”
This trumpcard I imagined as some sort of authoritative center, the end-all-be-all of metaphysical descriptions, a despot of human communication. And I saw pragmatism as overthrowing this mad king and priestly caste, permitting the “co-ordination of all beliefs, perceptions, fellows, desires, and other possibilities” to follow through in a truly democratic form, much like a democratic town meeting in which everyone gets to speak and compare notes with out the hindrance of a bully pulpit. Pragmatism tells a democratic story about truth, in which we “trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one,” in the words of Charles Pierce. So I was familiar with the organizing principles of the “democratic form;” the necessity of experiment, error, autonomy, and communication; the antagonism to lopsided plutocracy, distorted communication, and disempowerment, but after that night, I knew it in my blood and bone marrow. I became bristlingly hypersensitive to every jab and manifestation of the antidemocratic, the authoritarian and the aristocratic… I became a true democrat…