I lived in South Africa and worked there as a journalist from 1993 to 1996. I had the privilege of covering that country’s first all-race ballot in 1994. In 1995, while visiting the United States for the first time in two years, I found relatives and friends were curious about the historic, apartheid-ending election. A cousin had a question on which I still often reflect. Particularly these days.
My cousin wanted to know: “How do black South Africans vote? On what do they base their decisions?”
Black South Africans had been denied citizenship and cheated out of education for generations. I suppose my cousin’s question was fair. But I bristled. I’d heard too many dismissive suggestions from white South Africans that their black countrymen and women “weren’t ready for democracy.” White South Africans, whose prejudices and privileges had been fed and coddled for generations, had much to prove when it came to readiness for democracy. But who was demanding a poll test of them?
History tells us no one is ready for democracy. Not the American colonialists who believed so little in their own declarations of equality -- on which democracy depends -- that they held slaves and denied the vote to women and the landless. Not the descendants of those slaves who marched and died demanding to be enfranchised. Not the East Germans, who for generations had known only dictatorship and suspicion before the wall fell in 1991. Few questioned the readiness of East Germans to vote -- I suspect that was because of the color of their skin.
White or black. European, American, African or African-American. Democracy isn’t given to you when you’re ready. You take it when you can, then you make it work.
On what do we base our votes? Sure, sometimes on a sober assessment of the facts, a determination of what is true. Sometimes on fear. Sometimes because we believe it’s good for our tribe, whether that’s our neighbors in Crown Heights or our fellow Xhosa. Those new to democracy at least still bring idealism and hope to the voting booth.
As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about my cousin’s question a lot lately. Americans readied for democracy by more than two centuries of trying it out have proven as likely as any rank novices to make their decisions based on impulse, insularity or ignorance.
We do get to keep trying. We make mistakes, correct, repeat. And repeat. Democracy is not an end. It’s the best means we have of working out our differences. Then we encounter new differences and return to the work of perfecting our union. We’ve been doing it so long in America we have perhaps forgotten what the alternative to democracy will cost us.
I sense a lot of the angst we’re feeling now over the state of our democracy and its susceptibility to untruths does not come from an actual inability to determine the facts.
We say figuring out what’s true is difficult. Often, what we mean is that we’re finding it difficult to let go of what we want to believe, or that we are unwilling to make the effort to consider how our cherished lies affect others.
We are capable of recognizing misinformation. It’s just that we sometimes don’t want to. We sometimes would rather undermine democracy than face the truth.
Luckily, we have art to help us.
At his 70th birthday exhibition in 2008, the great South African painter David Koloane showed a series he called Ordinary Faces. The large-scale works gave his relatives and friends the kind of status usually reserved for formal portraits of heads of state. Koloane also has painted Soweto bar scenes and the world as seen from the perspective of Lagos taxi drivers glancing in their rear-view mirror. Koloane, a black South African who lived most of his life under apartheid, takes the time to really see everyone around him, and to help us see his subjects and understand their stories.
"Truth takes time," muses a character in Louise Erdrich’s “Future Home of the Living God.”
Erdrich claims as her own a plot from Mark Twain, that most problematic of American writers. Erdrich’s “Future Home of the Living God,” a retelling of “Huckleberry Finn,” imagines a dystopian future in which our country finally grapples with its dystopian past -- Native American genocide, African-American slavery, Japanese-American internment. Erdrich leaves it to her readers to decide whether her characters will one day recognize each other’s humanity, and thereby save humanity.
And then there’s jazz, that most American of art forms. Don’t just listen. Go soak in a live performance of, for example, Vijay Iyer's sextet. Six artists – led by the son of immigrants! -- of several generations, ethnicities and perspectives engaged in rigorous conversation. Jazz is a dance of cooperation and selflessness – without which a diverse society won’t long endure
Improvisation. Empathy. Patience. Art reminds us of what democracy demands, even as it inspires when our energies and commitment lag.
Our truest myths order the facts into stories that help us remember where we set out to go. We have little evidence democracy can get us there, but generation after generation has placed faith in it as the best way forward. Democracy is the fiction we need the most.