Embracing the Call for a New Civic Discourse

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For some time now, it has been difficult to remain hopeful about the trajectory of American civic life. While our world continues to face unparalleled socio-ecological and economic challenges, our governing leaders have proved incapable of addressing these crises in meaningful ways. In their recent book, Gardens of Democracy, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer take on the worthwhile task of attempting to salvage a civic discourse out of this rubble of modern politics. Within the realm of civic life, Liu and Hanauer conceive of a vision for citizenship that affirms self-interest is best served through mutual interest; within the realm of political life, Liu and Hanauer articulate a vi­sion for government that affirms the role of public life in addressing our great challenges, yet draws upon citizens and individuals to achieve these as­pirations. Although adumbrative by its nature, this small but worthwhile book deposits a rich loam where the seeds of a new discourse about citizen­ship, economy, and government may encourage profound responses to the socio-ecological crises and challenges we face.

For Liu and Hanauer, modern political dis­course adheres to a worldview they label “Ma­chinebrain.” Machinebrain conceives of the world as static, stable, reductionist, and self-regulating. “Machinebrain,” Liu and Hanauer argue, “sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms—clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances . . . Machinebrain presupposes stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction—‘regulation’—is mechanical in origin and regrettable in connotation. . . . It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.”[1]

Arguing that Machine­brain arises from a vestigial Enlightenment worldview, Liu and Hanauer recognize that all political and civic world­views stem from a construct­ed narrative. In this way, we “construct a social reality that validates some truths and distorts others. . . . [This con­structed reality] defines what a society thinks is possible.”[2] Drawing upon advances in bi­ology, physics, neuroscience, psychology, economics, and other fields, Liu and Hanauer argue that the worldview of Machinebrain is based upon notions that the natural and social sciences have long dismissed. Where we once could see only reducible phyla, we now recognize the immense, overwhelming complexity of systems. Where we once re­vered the atomistic individual, we are now only beginning to understand the intricate lat­tices of the networks that con­nect us to other humans, our communities, and our natu­ral world. Where we once assumed that competition and selfish individualism promised prosperity, we now recognize that true self-interest can only be achieved by recognizing the ways in which we can all succeed together. These developments have resulted in a revelatory social and ecological narrative—yet Liu and Hanauer rightly point out that our civic worldview has failed to recognize and embrace these new narratives.

Taking up the task of constructing a worldview that accounts for and embraces this new social reality, Liu and Hanauer prescribe a perspective that they label—in contrast to Machinebrain—as Gardenbrain. For Liu and Hanauer, “Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems. . . . To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend.”[3]

Liu and Hanauer draw upon Gardenbrain’s recognition of the entwined nature of ecosystems to call for a renewed understanding of citizen­ship that embraces and understands the value of that connectivity. From the perspective of Gar­denbrain, citizens are expected to tend gardens together—recognizing that the actions of each individual influence and affect the outcomes for others. It’s no longer enough to decry malevo­lent outcomes; instead of ignoring challenges that once seemed remote, Gardenbrain citizens must embrace challenges that are remarkable for both their importance and immediacy. 

However, while Gardenbrain commits a citi­zen to new responsibilities, Gardenbrain thinking also empowers citizens. According to Liu and Hanauer, Gardenbrain “enables us to claim more individual power—much more power than con­ventional theories of citizenship attribute to us as individuals. For one of the central facts of life on an interdependent web is that every action and omission is potentially powerfully contagious.”[4]

However, while each indi­vidual citizen has the power to have a “contagious” influence on other citizens—for good or ill—there’s little guaran­tee that the citizenry will have access to the resources that optimize this empowerment. For the Gardenbrain citizen to function effectively and most beneficially, that citizen must have democratic access to the questions and ideas that help a citizen identify her responsibil­ities and commitments to her­self, her community, and her world. This democratic access can take many forms; indeed, a robust marketplace of these ideas will help an able citizen cull perspectives and ethics that are descriptively and nor­matively superlative.

Recognizing the need for an invigorated resource, the Center for Humans and Na­ture is preparing to launch a new Web portal this spring that can empower citizens by help­ing them identify responsibili­ties and commitments to self, community, and the world. Through this resource, the Center posits questions that are key to citizenship, asks ex­perts and scholars from around the world to respond in an ac­cessible format, and then in­vites all individuals to consider the materials, develop ideas of their own, and join in this civic conversation. Such a re­source, premised on the belief that democratic discourse will shape our future, empowers the citizen to maxi­mize his or her civic talent.

I believe that Liu and Hanauer are correct: we are more connected than we ever thought pos­sible. This interdependence requires that we pay attention to those things which once might have seemed peripheral, yet also grants us the pro­found privilege to lead a civic life that will trans­form ourselves, our communities, and our world in ways unforeseen and unimagined. Yet a new civic life compels us to consistently seek new ideas and perspectives—and demands that we nourish personal and civic growth in ways that empower us even as narratives and worldviews transform. And as we identify our commitments, we will need to seek out civic opportunities at all levels and in all spaces to live out those responsibilities. Civic life must permeate our daily actions and routines. For the Gardenbrain citizen, no step is too small, no act too mundane.

[1]. E. Liu and N. Hanauer, The Gardens of Democracy: The New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government (Seattle, WA: Sasquatch, 2011), at 10-11.

[2]. Ibid., at 8.

[3]. Ibid., at 11.

[4]. Ibid., at 54.

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