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The "Secret Garden" of Democratic Imagination



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All who have read these commentaries over time know of my abiding interest in democratic theory and democratic governance. I was struck while in Nigeria recently by how many times I was informed that the tribal, ethnic, lingual and religious mix in the nation threatened the continued stability of its governance, and indeed of any semblance of democracy itself. As I mused on this concern, which theorists have treated as far back as Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and beyond, I happened to read an essay in the current Commonweal, in which the distinguished novelist Marilynne Robinson reflected on “Imagination and Community.” She observed,

“I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.”

As difficult as this proposition is to realize in the abstract, one can sympathize with those who argue that human differences, such as those outlined above present in Nigeria, can make it a formidable challenge indeed. Nonetheless, I suspect Robinson was right when she also suggested in her Commonweal essay,

“I have talked about community being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.”

The trick is figuring out how to obtain a population that exercises just such discipline on an ongoing basis (on the foundation of deeply acculturated values) so that when confronted by difference, its first-order response is not to “other” and hate, but to dignify with curiosity and respect. If such broadly shared imaginative empathy could be attained, it would be difficult to mobilize individuals to the polls, or to violence, on the basis of fear or disrespect arising from perceived difference. Bluntly, to place this into today’s campaign politics, it would be difficult as a central electoral calculus to hire consultants to devise television and radio ads to “drive up an opponent’s negatives,” knowing they would “work” by relentlessly focusing on fear of and hatred of perceived difference. And, more generally, if such could obtain, philosophers would not persistently present heterogeneity as a bane of democratic governance.

As it happens, I have been reading the classic novel, The Secret Garden, with my daughter in recent days and that lovely story offers clues to this basic problem of human imagination. Readers may recall the tale, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, of the orphaned child of English parents in India sent to an uncle’s manor house in Yorkshire, only to happen into a household in mourning and a cousin incapacitated by his fear of his father’s lack of regard and empathy for him. As the tale unfolds, both children are restored to vigor, as is their father and guardian, by what Burnett presents as the “Magic” of engagement with nature and with coming to regard others with compassion and respect. The story may be read as a fable on the challenge of alterity and its many manifestations in human relationships at even the most intimate scale of family relations. All three principal characters were restored to a healthy connection to the extent that each undertook personal journeys that brought each to regard others imaginatively with respect and equanimity. Burnett argues humanness itself demands no less. Her tale convinces that it can occur, but she also highlights an all too familiar human smallness of heart and mind, and these remind one of how difficult it can be to develop and act on a truly empathetic imagination.

Robinson, in her essay, argues only education and, more broadly, reading, can help individuals develop the proclivity to regard the world with openness and empathetic imagination. Burnett’s story reminds one how difficult this capacity can be to attain in the bruising rough and tumble and welter of human relationships. Still, democracy demands no less. Perhaps therefore, those interested in democracy should ponder the need for this peculiar “Magic” in populations desirous of popular self-government. It appears to be the sine qua non of democracy.

Publication Date

March 11, 2012