Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cory Booker: Closet Dewey Fan

Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, about 4:00 through the segment on the Colbert Report posted below, makes a rather striking metaphor. "I think we make a mistake if we ignore the wonderful differences that's America," he said. "We're like a concert. It shouldn't be just one instrument. It should be a number of different instruments playing to one powerful song. That's America."

I wonder if Booker, a former Stanford grad and Rhodes scholar, was aware that he was using a metaphor that became quite poignant in a debate between Horace Kallen and John Dewey over the direction for cultural pluralism in America. It was Kallen who, in 1915, wrote that America needed a model beyond the melting pot. It needed an orchestra, he argued: "As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form ... so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture are its theme and melody."

Dewey liked the orchestra metaphor but, as Robert Westbrook has noted, added an important addendum. "I quite agree with your orchestra idea," he wrote to Kallen. "But upon [the] condition we really get a symphony and not a lot of different instruments playing simultaneously."

Compare this last sentence with Booker's--"It shouldn't be just one instrument. It should be a number of different instruments playing to one powerful song"--and we might have an reason to believe John Dewey is directly influencing policy in Newark. Dewey! Influence! Jonah Goldberg is peeing his pants right now in terror.


Blogger Scantron said...

Interesting stuff. I'm always interested by musical metaphors in politics. In Booker's case, the point seems to be about inclusion and diversity: let's get more people playing, because that makes the performance (of whatever sort) intrinsically more interesting.

On a slightly different note, one often hears about jazz music as being particularly democratic. Players can rotate in and out, playing is based around relaying subtle hints of information and improvising together, etc. Of course, just as in a symphony, (certain kinds of) jazz music can be hierarchical: does not the lead horn player or pianist usually write the melody and get credited for it, while the rest of the band, particularly the rhythm section, provides backup? Except in a few cases, which are exceptions to the rule -- Art Blakey, Mingus, solo bands led by established drummers like Tony Williams -- 'leader' positions typically fall to the melody-writers. And in any case, the very existence of 'leader' positions points towards hierarchy.

So I've never really understood what's intrinsically *democratic* about jazz, much less a symphony. Free jazz is maybe an exception -- a band with no rules and complete freedom for members, which still ends up sounding coherent or 'musical', perhaps comes closest to a truly democratic group. Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example. But maybe I am conflating 'anarchy' and 'democracy.' And maybe we should ask Gerald Early.

8:12 PM  

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