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Mail Time, the Fourth, and Democratic Vistas

Osita Nwanevu
18 min read
An elderly, bearded, and seated Walt Whitman as photographed late in life, in black and white, by George Collins Cox. 1887.
Walt Whitman, 1887 (George Collins Cox)

Hey all. Here’s a Mail Time post, as promised, with a lot extra tacked on. Remember, send in any questions and comments you might have for me to Let’s hop to it.

Daniel writes in about my letter on Pablo-matic and the state of culture:

I liked reading this quite a bit. It took me well outside my normal content consumption trough. I was a bit surprised by this part:
"Executives know that most in marginalized groups desperate to finally “be seen” on screen will settle for being seen in something mediocre if need be rather in than something formally novel, challenging, or interesting"
Would you say you strongly believe that? I wonder if the finally-seen are more ok with mediocre content, or if they’re just normal people who broadly share the normal tastes for mediocre, broad-appeal content, just like everyone else. I’d guess that maybe in-group critics would pull punches a bit for the first few examples of representative content but that the free pass would dissipate as more is made available. I’m reminded of the hunger for videogame movies that made people inexplicably pay attention to Uwe Boll movies a couple of decades ago. Or how we paid way more attention to Heroes than it deserved because it came out before nerd content had totally conquered popular media. But otherwise, I think there’s just a tendency for everything to be targeted toward the middle of its potential audience, and the median potential marginal viewer will usually be a lame-o mainstream square regardless of how narrow the targeted identity.

I definitely don’t think the marginalized are intrinsically more ok with mediocre art than anyone else. But I do think those first bits of representation understandably matter a lot to many, and maybe more than the form and substance of the work in question. I don’t think this is true of just film either. Just this morning, for instance, I saw a tweet from Cathy Park Hong about the response thus far to the still to-be-released Barbie film.

She’s gotten a lot of angry replies since from people pointing out that Mattel did put out Barbies with different looks and ethnicities and that they mattered a lot to children of color growing up. Not knowing a whole lot about the history myself here, I’ve spent a bit of the day doing a little bit of digging, and I came across this February piece in HuffPo from Brittany Wong on the legacy of black Barbies.

As an Army brat growing up in Germany and then largely white suburbs in the States, Ebony Oliphant’s Black Barbie doll wasn’t just a toy, it was a destiny.
“Playing with my Black Barbies in the ’90s allowed me to feel proud in my skin as I imagined myself in Barbie’s ‘career’ and having the lifestyle that I created for her,” Oliphant told HuffPost. “I didn’t grow up seeing Black women in my community as my doctor, dentist, business executive, but Barbie could do all that.”
Indeed, in Barbie’s 64-year history, the doll has been the ultimate career girl: She’s been an astronaut, a major league baseball player, even a health care worker modeled after a Canadian psychiatry resident who advocated against systemic racism in health fields.
Oliphant, who’s now a clinical professional counselor in Chicago, said her dolls didn’t just help encourage her career goals, though; Barbie also made her feel less alone.
“If there were other Black girls at school, I was usually the darkest,” she said. “The Christie Barbie doll resembled my skin tone so that’s the one my parents usually purchased.”
“They lived in a dream house in which the inside resembled my own Black home, with a few other races and ethnicities sprinkled in,” she added. “I basically built a small Black Barbie empire. Although the environment outside my home rarely looked like me, it was nice to be able to see myself while I played.”

Obviously, those dolls were treasured by countless children like Oliphant, so much so that people are defending Mattel against critics like Hong in adulthood ⁠— despite the fact that the dolls themselves were, for a long time, cheap afterthoughts for the company:

Since the first Barbie doll was painted brown in 1967 ― the “colored Francie” doll ― she’s been a figure both beloved and highly criticized.
After Francie, there was Julia, a doll based on the titular character from the Diahann Carroll sitcom. Malibu Christie, Barbie’s bestie, made her debut in 1968. The first Black doll actually named Barbie was released in 1980.
Critics were quick to point out the toy’s limitations: The doll was merely dipped in a darker paint, with the same waif-thin body type and long, straw-like hair as her white predecessor.
As Black journalist Lisa Jones wrote in the The Village Voice in the ’80s, Mattel simply fashioned a doll made of “brown plastic poured into blond Barbie’s mold.”

It wasn’t until 2009, it seems, that Mattel made a serious effort to produce black Barbies with more anatomically distinct features, and even then the dolls still featured mostly straight hair.

Nevertheless, for many, it was the thought ⁠— the intended message ⁠— that counted. And the message often matters a great deal. The purveyors of culture know this, and it’s one reason I’m going to be watching Barbie with great interest. Both the marketing for the film and Alex Barasch’s remarkable piece on Mattel’s cinematic ambitions for The New Yorker suggest Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are up to something slightly and slyly subversive here ⁠— a soft critique of girlboss feminism and maybe Mattel itself dressed in hot pink. That will be catnip for critics and it will probably make for a better film than we otherwise would have had, but what are we supposed to do with a meta-critique greenlit by a company that ultimately just wants to sell a lot of toys, make a lot of money, and, should Barbie do well, inflict this upon us all?:

The movie, which opens in mid-July, is tracking to be one of the blockbusters of the summer. Meanwhile, Mattel has amassed a long slate of other projects. Daniel Kaluuya, for example, has agreed to produce a feature about Barney, the purple dinosaur. Thirteen more films have been publicly announced, including movies about He-Man and Polly Pocket; forty-five are in development. (Some of the projects have an ouroboros quality. Tom Hanks is supposed to star in “Major Matt Mason,” which will be based on an astronaut action figure that has been largely forgotten, except for the fact that it helped inspire Buzz Lightyear—one of the protagonists of Pixar’s “Toy Story” franchise.)
[..] One afternoon in October, I attended a development meeting at Mattel led by Robbie Brenner. She left Miramax in the early two-thousands, then moved among studio jobs and independent productions until Kreiz invited her to build a film division of her own. For many people in her circle, the jump to Mattel had been a surprising one, but she’d clearly absorbed the El Segundo world view. She told me that she’d identified which Mattel brands were both “commercial and theatrical,” adding, “If it’s something that could be toyetic, obviously that’s a great bonus.” (One executive noted that the term “toyetic,” which describes movies and TV shows that generate merchandising opportunities, was a recent addition to Brenner’s vocabulary.)
Brenner hopes to build on Robbie’s successful wooing of Gerwig, and told me that Guillermo del Toro was the type of director who “would lend himself really well to some of these world-building brands.” Several of Mattel Films’ first partnerships, including one with Akiva Goldsman, had emerged from contacts that Brenner has nurtured over the decades. Goldsman had pitched her Major Matt Mason—a toy from his childhood that hadn’t even made her I.P. shortlist. (The novelist Michael Chabon, a fellow-fan of the astronaut, has written a treatment.)
Brenner’s team consisted of six executives, some of whom had initially expressed uncertainty about what Mattel was doing. One hire, Elizabeth Bassin, told her, “I don’t really know how to make commercials.” Brenner replied, “That’s great. We don’t make commercials.”
Brenner sat at the head of a long table while her right hand, Kevin McKeon, provided updates on various projects. His descriptions sometimes sounded like a Hollywood version of Mad Libs. A screenwriter, he informed the group, was at work on an American Girl script that would be “ ‘Booksmart’ meets ‘Bill & Ted.’ ” Jimmy Warden, the screenwriter of “Cocaine Bear,” had devised a horror-comedy about the Magic 8 Ball. (One can imagine the chilling moment when a character shakes the ball and gets the message “outlook not so good.”) The approach, Brenner told me afterward, had been a subject of some debate. “We’re not going to make any rated-R movies,” she promised. Although the Magic 8 Ball script “walks the line a little bit,” she went on, “we’re not going to make anything that feels violent, or that is alienating to families. . . . We want to stay within the parameters of what Mattel is.”
McKeon seemed most excited by Kaluuya’s Barney project, which would be “surrealistic”; he compared the concept to the work of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. “We’re leaning into the millennial angst of the property rather than fine-tuning this for kids,” he said. “It’s really a play for adults. Not that it’s R-rated, but it’ll focus on some of the trials and tribulations of being thirtysomething, growing up with Barney—just the level of disenchantment within the generation.” He told me later that he’d sold it to prospective partners as an “A24-type” film: “It would be so daring of us, and really underscore that we’re here to make art.”

Are they? At one point in the piece, an agent asks and dodges the answer to the right question. “Is it a great thing that our great creative actors and filmmakers live in a world where you can only take giant swings around consumer content and mass-produced products?” he said. “I don’t know.” He does know, actually.

This brings me, in an extremely roundabout way, to the Fourth. Truth be told, friends, I am not feeling so good about the state of this country of ours today. Our politics are bad enough; I’ve nothing to say about what’s transpired last week in particular that you haven’t already read and heard. But as I wrote in my letter on Pablo-matic, the state of American culture seems almost more desperate ⁠— I might find myself thinking and writing more about cultural policy in the years ahead, but the truth is that there’s no mere law you can pass to revive art and popular culture in America. It’s an infinitely complex problem and there are no easy solutions.

These are matters that feel out of my wheelhouse more often than not. I studied policy, not English or art history or some such. I have a lot of firm things to say about the Senate and not much to say with confidence about art and beauty. But as I’ve worked on this book on democracy for the past two years ⁠— and that work is coming to a close in the coming months, by the way ⁠— it’s become all the more clear to me that society cannot be cleaved neatly in two in this way. Culture shapes politics. Politics shapes culture. And democracy, in particular, is as much a way of life ⁠— a spiritual practice, even ⁠— as it is a formal system of governance. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I was largely inspired to take on this book project in the first place by Richard Rorty’s brief but unforgettable book Achieving Our Country, in which he attempts to remind the left that there's an underheralded tradition of American optimism ⁠— an affirmative, progressive vision of this country’s purpose and potential ⁠— that we might take an interest in reclaiming. It was the belief of many radicals and visionaries past that America would be the ground upon which democracy would be perfected for the benefit of all mankind ⁠— that here, more than anywhere else, the world might be shown the heights ordinary people might achieve given freedom and true agency to shape the conditions of their lives.

One of the main texts in this tradition that Rorty cites is Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas ⁠— a set of lyrical and occasionally prolix essays on the dawn of the Gilded Age and America’s promise Whitman stitched together into a book in 1871.”Sole among nationalities,” Whitman writes, “these States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivaling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long deferr'd, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards, and self-reliance. Who else, indeed, except the United States, in history, so far, have accepted in unwitting faith, and, as we now see, stand, act upon, and go security for, these things?”

I’d read the snippets Rorty excerpted in Achieving Our Country, but it wasn’t until this past week that I finally read the book itself. Like Whitman himself, Democratic Vistas is not without serious flaws. It is conspicuously silent on race. Its gloss on the Civil War is gratuitously romantic. And while Whitman seems like something close to a gender egalitarian in many places, his pining for a “strong and sweet Female Race, a race of perfect Mothers” should, needless to say, read a bit strangely to modern eyes.

All of that said, Democratic Vistas is, truly, one of the greatest works of American rhetoric I have ever read. It moves me like few other pieces of political writing have; it contains all I’ve come to feel about democracy and the American project and renders those aspirations in language I never could. I can’t give a full account of the thing here. You’ll have to seek it out yourself or wait for me to write about it properly, as I’m sure I will soon. But just sit, for starters, with Whitman’s rendering of the age he was living in ⁠— how familiar it all sounds:

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk'd much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician's serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.

Democratic Vistas is just barely a political text as conventionally understood ⁠— Whitman’s chief concern, really, is the American soul and how it’s been left undernourished, with consequences for the body politic, by the state of American arts and letters:

Are we not doing well enough here already? Are not the United States this day busily using, working, more printer's type, more presses, than any other country? uttering and absorbing more publications than any other? Do not our publishers fatten quicker and deeper? (helping themselves, under shelter of a delusive and sneaking law, or rather absence of law, to most of their forage, poetical, pictorial, historical, romantic, even comic, without money and without price -- and fiercely resisting the timidest proposal to pay for it.) Many will come under this delusion -- but my purpose is to dispel it. I say that a nation may hold and circulate rivers and oceans of very readable print, journals, magazines, novels, library-books, "poetry," &c. -- such as the States to-day possess and circulate -- of unquestionable aid and value -- hundreds of new volumes annually composed and brought out here, respectable enough, indeed unsurpass'd in smartness and erudition -- with further hundreds, or rather millions, (as by free forage or theft aforemention'd,) also thrown into the market -- and yet, all the while, the said nation, land, strictly speaking, may possess no literature at all.
[...] Not but that doubtless our current so-called literature, (like an endless supply of small coin,) performs a certain service, and may-be, too, the service needed for the time, (the preparation-service, as children learn to spell.) Everybody reads, and truly nearly everybody writes, either books, or for the magazines or journals. The matter has magnitude, too, after a sort. But is it really advancing? or, has it advanced for a long while? There is something impressive about the huge editions of the dailies and weeklies, the mountain stacks of white paper piled in the press-vaults, and the proud, crashing, ten-cylinder presses, which I can stand and watch any time by the half hour. Then, (though the States in the field of imagination present not a single first-class work, not a single great literatus,) the main objects, to amuse, to titillate, to pass away time, to circulate the news, and rumors of news, to rhyme and read rhyme, are yet attain'd, and on a scale of infinity. To-day, in books, in the rivalry of writers, especially novelists, success, (so-call'd,) is for him or her who strikes the mean flat average, the sensational appetite for stimulus, incident, persiflage, &c., and depicts, to the common calibre, sensual, exterior life. To such, or the luckiest of them, as we see, the audiences are limitless and profitable; but they cease presently. While this day, or any day, to workmen portraying interior or spiritual life, the audiences were limited, and often laggard -- but they last forever.
Compared with the past, our modern science soars, and our journals serve -- but ideal and even ordinary romantic literature, does not, I think, substantially advance. Behold the prolific brood of the contemporary novel, magazine-tale, theatre-play, &c. The same endless thread of tangled and superlative love-story, inherited, apparently from the Amadises and Palmerins of the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries over there in Europe. The costumes and associations brought down to date, the seasoning hotter and more varied, the dragons and ogres left out -- but the thing, I should say, has not advanced -- is just as sensational, just as strain'd -- remains about the same, nor more, nor less.

I think it would be fair to say that American national literature has advanced substantially since Whitman’s day. But that lassitude he decries ⁠— that complacency and tendency towards a profitable sameness ⁠— is a constant threat to our vitality and our sense of ourselves. America, for Whitman, is a project that confers upon us the responsibility to seek the bold and the new in all things ⁠— not to receive either our culture or our politics from on high, but to find what is highest and best in ourselves amongst ourselves:

America demands a poetry that is bold, modern, and all-surrounding and kosmical, as she is herself. It must in no respect ignore science or the modern, but inspire itself with science and the modern. It must bend its vision toward the future, more than the past. Like America, it must extricate itself from even the greatest models of the past, and, while courteous to them, must have entire faith in itself, and the products of its own democratic spirit only. Like her, it must place in the van, and hold up at all hazards, the banner of the divine pride of man in himself, (the radical foundation of the new religion.) Long enough have the People been listening to poems in which common humanity, deferential, bends low, humiliated, acknowledging superiors. But America listens to no such poems. Erect, inflated, and fully self-esteeming be the chant; and then America will listen with pleased ears.

America deserves better poetry because America, for Whitman, is more than just a country, more than just an imperfect society moving steadily towards a better future through the improvement of its laws. America is something like a metaphysical cause. America is, or ought to be, the land of human becoming itself as made possible through the tests and trials of democracy broadly and spiritually construed (emphasis mine):

For after the rest is said -- after the many time-honor'd and really true things for subordination, experience, rights of property, &c., have been listen'd to and acquiesced in -- after the valuable and well-settled statement of our duties and relations in society is thoroughly conn'd over and exhausted -- it remains to bring forward and modify everything else with the idea of that Something a man is, (last precious consolation of the drudging poor,) standing apart from all else, divine in his own right, and a woman in hers, sole and untouchable by any canons of authority, or any rule derived from precedent, state-safety, the acts of legislatures, or even from what is called religion, modesty, or art. The radiation of this truth is the key of the most significant doings of our immediately preceding three centuries, and has been the political genesis and life of America.
[...] The purpose of democracy -- supplanting old belief in the necessary absoluteness of establish'd dynastic rulership, temporal, ecclesiastical, and scholastic, as furnishing the only security against chaos, crime, and ignorance -- is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train'd in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the State; and that, while other theories, as in the past histories of nations, have proved wise enough, and indispensable perhaps for their conditions, this, as matters now stand in our civilized world, is the only scheme worth working from, as warranting results like those of Nature's laws, reliable, when once establish'd, to carry on themselves.
[...] I say the mission of government, henceforth, in civilized lands, is not repression alone, and not authority alone, not even of law, nor by that favorite standard of the eminent writer, the rule of the best men, the born heroes and captains of the race, (as if such ever, or one time out of a hundred, get into the big places, elective or dynastic) -- but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves. What Christ appear'd for in the moral-spiritual field for human-kind, namely, that in respect to the absolute soul, there is in the possession of such by each single individual, something so transcendent, so incapable of gradations, (like life,) that, to that extent, it places all beings on a common level, utterly regardless of the distinctions of intellect, virtue, station, or any height or lowliness whatever -- is tallied in like manner, in this other field, by democracy's rule that men, the nation, as a common aggregate of living identities, affording in each a separate and complete subject for freedom, worldly thrift and happiness, and for a fair chance for growth, and for protection in citizenship, &c., must, to the political extent of the suffrage or vote, if no further, be placed, in each and in the whole, on one broad, primary, universal, common platform.
The purpose is not altogether direct; perhaps it is more indirect. For it is not that democracy is of exhaustive account, in itself. Perhaps, indeed, it is, (like Nature,) of no account in itself. It is that, as we see, it is the best, perhaps only, fit and full means, formulater, general caller-forth, trainer, for the million, not for grand material personalities only, but for immortal souls. To be a voter with the rest is not so much; and this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man, and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation, and equal with the rest; to commence, or have the road clear'd to commence, the grand experiment of development, whose end, (perhaps requiring several generations,) may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman -- that is something.

Of the many things I find extraordinary about Whitman’s words here, the aspect of Democratic Vistas that’s weighed upon me the most heavily today is that the Founders are scarcely mentioned anywhere in the text and never by name. The American people in themselves are the Americans to lionize. And we will find our true meaning as a nation in a grand future without precedent that we struggle to create together, not picking through the ruins of the past. We, Whitman insists, are the heroes and Founders we need:

We sail a dangerous sea of seething currents, cross and under-currents, vortices -- all so dark, untried -- and whither shall we turn? It seems as if the Almighty had spread before this nation charts of imperial destinies, dazzling as the sun, yet with many a deep intestine difficulty, and human aggregate of cankerous imperfection, -- saying, lo! the roads, the only plans of development, long and varied with all terrible balks and ebullitions. You said in your soul, I will be empire of empires, overshadowing all else, past and present, putting the history of old-world dynasties, conquests behind me, as of no account -- making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf -- I alone inaugurating largeness, culminating time. If these, O lands of America, are indeed the prizes, the determinations of your soul, be it so. But behold the cost, and already specimens of the cost. Thought you greatness was to ripen for you like a pear? If you would have greatness, know that you must conquer it through ages, centuries -- must pay for it with a proportionate price. For you too, as for all lands, the struggle, the traitor, the wily person in office, scrofulous wealth, the surfeit of prosperity, the demonism of greed, the hell of passion, the decay of faith, the long postponement, the fossil-like lethargy, the ceaseless need of revolutions, prophets, thunderstorms, deaths, births, new projections and invigorations of ideas and men.
Yet I have dream'd, merged in that hidden-tangled problem of our fate, whose long unraveling stretches mysteriously through time -- dream'd out, portray'd, hinted already -- a little or a larger band -- a band of brave and true, unprecedented yet -- arm'd and equipt at every point -- the members separated, it may be, by different dates and States, or south, or north, or east, or west -- Pacific, Atlantic, Southern, Canadian -- a year, a century here, and other centuries there -- but always one, compact in soul, conscience-conserving, God-inculcating, inspired achievers, not only in literature, the greatest art, but achievers in all art -- a new, undying order, dynasty, from age to age transmitted -- a band, a class, at least as fit to cope with current years, our dangers, needs, as those who, for their times, so long, so well, in armor or in cowl, upheld and made illustrious, that far-back feudal, priestly world. To offset chivalry, indeed, those vanish'd countless knights, old altars, abbeys, priests, ages and strings of ages, a knightlier and more sacred cause to-day demands, and shall supply, in a New World, to larger, grander work, more than the counterpart and tally of them.

“For our New World,” Whitman writes, “I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.” I agree. Happy Fourth.

A Song

“Treemonisha, Act 3: A Real Slow Drag” ⁠— Scott Joplin (1911), performed by the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra in 1976