Tuesday, November 19, 2019

#NYLA2019 : Philosophical Publics: Ruling Ourselves, Thinking Together

Astra Taylor at NYLA Annual Conference
In introducing Astra Taylor, Meg Backus said, we call libraries the last bastion of democracy, but what does that mean?

During her keynote, Taylor talked about democracy, read passages from her book, and showed us a clip from her documentary.  What follows are the thoughts and ideas I picked up from her talk.

Who rules in a democracy?  The people rule, but what is “the people”? How do we describe this abstraction? Democracy focuses us to ask “how are we going to live together”?  Can we all engage philosophically with that question ?

Socrates warned that democracy would devolve into tyranny with a demagogue. Aristotle said that democracy is rule of the poor. Democracy assumes economic equality.

The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) has an impact on the U.S. democracy. As Taylor read passages about the Great Law of Peace, it was easy to hear how our U.S. democracy was founded upon it.  (You can read the Great Law of Peace on ganienkeh.net and fordham.edu.)   Yet we have moved away from it in ways that have harmed our democracy.

In a democracy, the people hold the power.  She noted that democracy is aspirational and a messy practice.  In a democracy, there should be mass opinion rather that expertise.  In other words, democracy should be based on a few people who have the "right" knowledge.  That is counter to the idea that the people hold the power.  Distrusting experts leads to looking for a strong leader.  A strong leader means that power is concentrated, rather than being held by the people.

Meritocracy is where experts rule. This idea was born over 50 years ago.  It was meant to be a joke, but has become true.  We live in a society where the experts know best. Who are the experts on democracy? People have always fought for their right to learn.  What would  like education look like in an inclusive, democratic system?

She noted that elections are aristocratic, while selection is democratic. 

Astra Taylor encourages people to recognize and use the power that they have. Organize with people who are in the same circumstance as you.

Quick Thoughts

This is a topic we - especially in the U.S. - need to be thinking about. It is not an easy topic to tackle, because democracy is an ideal that can be implemented in many ways.  What is important about it is that the people - not the philosopher king or the top expert or the richest people - rule.  Astra Taylor's work can indeed help us delve into this and I'm glad that she spoke at NYLA.

If this topic interests you, consider starting with the RN Future Tense podcast below (a transcript is available) as an introduction.  I also found Ezra Klein's interview to be informative and easy to listen to as I walk.

Astra Taylor's relevant works

Related podcasts 


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