I started this website with a very specific purpose; to write to people in southeast Montana about the issues the media wasn’t covering regarding the Tongue River...
It's official. The proposed Tongue River Railroad is done. Today the Surface Transportation Board issued a decision officially ending the Tongue River Railroad. On November 25, 2015,...
By now the demise of the Otter Creek mine is old news. I thought I should write something about it but I didn’t. Talking to a good...
In his last weeks as President of the United States, President Obama has been channeling some of the later work of John Dewey (1859 - 1952), American philosopher, educator and writer. A man whose writings have greatly influenced my thinking on democracy and the importance of public participation.
My copy of his book, The Public and its Problems, is highlighted and underlined and dog-eared but one of his most striking and relevant works and the piece that I believe Obama has been influenced by is entitled Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us, written in 1939 on the brink of the United States entering WWII.
He wrote about the need for the public to continue to recreate our democracy through deliberate and determined effort in an era of extremely complex conditions. Little did he know what we would be facing today. Dewey identifies one of the great challenges of our democracy is thinking that our democracy is something that perpetuates itself automatically, "as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics."
He warns that it is dangerous to think that as long as we are faithful in voting, performing that political duty, our democracy will maintain itself. Voting is not democracy. A sentiment that Obama has echoed in numerous recent speeches. Dewey maintains that we must see democracy as personal way of individual life.
Put into effect it signifies that powerful present enemies of democracy can be successfully met only by the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings; that we must get over our tendency to think that its [democracy's] defense can be found in any external means whatever, whether military or civil, if they are separated from individual attitudes so deep-seated as to constitute personal character.
But what does it really mean, at its core, to treat ourdemocracy as a way of life? Our democratic ideals and values can be encoded in statutes and laws but they don't mean anything unless, as Dewey states, "it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings display to one another in all incidents and relations of daily life." Dewey said,
To denounce Naziism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to fostering insincerity if, in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our daily walk and conversation, we are moved by racial, color or other class prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment. The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has. The democratic belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one. It is universal. It is belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied.
This belief is the radical nature of democracy. Of course, in his time Dewey was accused of an undue, utopian faith in the capacity of people to make intelligent political and moral judgements. Dewey maintained this was not a faith that came to him without experience. He acquired it from his experiences with people over his lifetime. I know what Dewey means. If didn't ultimately believe what Dewey states about people, there is no way I could emotionally or intellectually continue to do the work I do.
For what is the faith of democracy in the role of consultation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with commonsense to the free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication? I am willing to leave to upholders of totalitarian states of the right and the left the view that faith in the capacities of intelligence is utopia. For the faith is so deeply embedded in the methods which are intrinsic to democracy that when a professed democrat denies the faith he convicts himself of treachery to his profession.
But, treating democracy as something that lives within us and not something that is external is a lot of work. It is easier to focus our hopes and fears, our anger and our elation on individuals because the alternative is scary. The alternative is to realize that our societal and political problems are complicated and intertwined and that the solutions require long-term multi-generational thinking and planning, cooperation and conflict, failures and successes that involve engaging the actual public, not the public we want or handpick, but the public that exists right now, today.
Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life. For everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life. Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred. These things destroy the essential condition of the democratic way of living even more effectually than open coercion which- as the example of totalitarian states proves-is effective only when it succeeds in breeding hate, suspicion, intolerance in the minds of individual human beings.
Here is the full un-edited essay. I highly recommend spending some time with it.
By John Dewey
Under present circumstances I cannot hope to conceal the fact that I have managed to exist eighty years. Mention of the fact may suggest to you a more important fact-namely, that events of the utmost significance for the destiny of this country have taken place during the past four-fifths of a century, a period that covers more than half of its national life in its present form. For obvious reasons I shall not attempt a summary of even the more important of these events. I refer here to them because of their bearing upon the issue to which this country committed itself when the nation took shape-the creation of democracy, an issue which is now as urgent as it was a hundred and fifty years ago when the most experienced and wisest men of the country gathered to take stock of conditions and to create the political structure of a self-governing society.
For the net import of the changes that have taken place in these later years is that ways of life and institutions which were once the natural, almost the inevitable, product of fortunate conditions have now to be won by conscious and resolute effort. Not all the country was in a pioneer state eighty years ago. But it was still, save perhaps in a few large cities, so close to the pioneer stage of American life that the traditions of the pioneer, indeed of the frontier, were active agencies in forming the thoughts and shaping the beliefs of those who were born into its life. In imagination at least the country was still having an open frontier, one of unused and unappropriated resources. It was a country of physical opportunity and invitation. Even so, there was more than a marvelous conjunction of physical circumstances involved in bringing to birth this new nation. There was in existence a group of men who were capable of readapting older institutions and ideas to meet the situations provided by new physical conditions-a group of men extraordinarily gifted in political inventiveness. At the present time, the frontier is moral, not physical. The period of free lands that seemed boundless in extent has vanished. Unused resources are now human rather than material. They are found in the waste of grown men and women who are without the chance to work, and in the young men and young women who find doors closed where there was once opportunity. The crisis that one hundred and fifty years ago called out social and political inventiveness is with us in a form which puts a heavier demand on human creativeness.
At all events this is what I mean when I say that we now have to re-create by deliberate and determined endeavor the kind of democracy which in its origin one hundred and fifty years ago was largely the product of a fortunate combination of men and circumstances. We have lived for a long time upon the heritage that came to us from the happy conjunction of men and events in an earlier day. The present state of the world is more than a reminder that we have now to put forth every energy of our own to prove worthy of our heritage. It is a challenge to do for the critical and complex conditions of today what the men of an earlier day did for simpler conditions. If I emphasize that the task can be accomplished only by inventive effort and creative activity, it is in part because the depth of the present crisis is due in considerable part to the fact that for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics. We acted as if democracy were something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany-or some other state capital-under the impetus of what happened when men and women went to the polls once a year or sowhich is a somewhat extreme way of saying that we have had the habit of thinking of democracy as a kind of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens were reasonably faithful in performing political duties.
Of late years we have heard more and more frequently that this s not enough; that democracy is a way of life. This saying gets down to hard pan. But I am not sure that something of the externality of the old idea does not cling to the new and better statement. In any case we can escape from this external way of thinking only as we realize in thought and act that democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose· in all the relations of life. Instead of thinking of our own dispositions and habits as accommodated to certain institutions we have to learn to think of the latter as expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes. Democracy as a personal, an individual, way of life involves nothing fundamentally new. But when applied it puts a new practical meaning in old ideas. Put into effect it signifies that powerful present enemies of democracy can be successfully met only by the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings; that we must get over our tendency to think that its defense can be found in any external means whatever, whether military or civil, if they are separated from individual attitudes so deepseated as to constitute personal character.
Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature. Belief in the Common Man is a familiar article in the democratic creed. That belief is without basis and significance save as it means faith in the potentialities of human nature as that nature is exhibited in every human being irrespective of race, color, sex, birth and family, of material or cultural wealth. This faith may be enacted in statutes, but it is only on paper unless it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings display to one another in all the incidents and relations of daily life. To denounce Naziism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to fostering insincerity if, in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our daily walk and conversation, we are moved by racial, color or other class prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfilment. The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his per· sonal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has. The democratic belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one. It is universal. It is a belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied.
Democracy is a way of personal life controlled not merely by faith in human nature in general but by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgement and action if proper conditions are furnished. I have been accused more than once and from opposed quarters of an undue, utopian, faith in the possibilities of intelligence and in education as a correlate of intelligence. At all events, I did not invent this faith. I acquired it from my surroundings as far as those surroundings were animated by the democratic spirit. For wha tis the faith of democracy in the old of consolation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in the formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with commonsense to teh free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication? I am willing to leave to upholders of totalitarian states of the right and the left the view that fain in the capacities of intelligence is utopian. For the faith is so deeply embedded in the methods which are intrinsic to democracy that when a professed democrat denies teh faith he convicts himself treachery to his profession.
When I think of the conditions under which men and women are living in many foreign countries today, fear of espionage, with danger hanging over the meeting of friends for friendly conversation in private gatherings, I am inclined to believe that the heart and final guarantee of democracy is in free gathering of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gatherings of friends in the living rooms of house and apartments to converse freely with one another. Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life. For everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life. Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion: by abuse, by fear and hatred. These things destroy the essential condit10n of the democratic way of living even more effectually than open coercion which-as the example of totalitarian states proves-is effective only when it succeeds in breeding hate, suspicion, intolerance in the minds of individual human beings.
Finally, given the two conditions just mentioned, democracy as a way of life is controlled by personal faith in personal day by day working together with others. Democracy is the belief that even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable cooperation-which may include, as in sport, rivalry and competition-is itself a priceless addition to life. To take as far as possible every conflict which arises-and they are bound to arise-out of the atmosphere and medium of force, of violence as a means of settlement into that of discussion and of intelligence is to treat those who disagree, even profoundly-with us as those from whom we may learn and in so far, as friends. A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other-a suppression which is none the less one of violence when it takes place by psychological means of ridicule, abuse, intimidation, mstead of by overt imprisonment or in concentration camps. To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves cause of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one's own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life.
If what has been said is charged with being a set of moral com- monplaces, my only reply is that that is just the point in saying them. For to get rid of the habit of thinking of democracy as something institutional and external and to acquire the habit f treating it as a way of personal life is to realize that democracy is a moral ideal and so far as it becomes a fact is a moral fact. It is to realize that democracy is a reality only as it is indeed a commonplace of living.
Since my adult years have been given to the pursuit of philosophy, I shall ask your indulgence if in concluding I state briefly the democratic faith in the formal terms of a philosophic position. So stated, democracy is belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness. Every other form of moral and social faith rests upon the idea that experience must be subjected at some point or other to some form of external control; to some "authority" alleged to exist outside the processes of experience. Democracy is the faith that the process of experience is more important than any special result attained, so that special results achieved are of ultimate value only as they are used to enrich and order the ongoing process. Since the process of experience is capable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education. All ends and values that are cut off from the ongoing process become arrests, fixations. They strive to fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and point the way to new and better experiences.
If one asks what is meant by experience in this connection my reply is that it is that free interaction of individual human beings with surrounding conditions, especially the human surroundings, which develops and satisfies need and desire by increasing knowledge of things as they are. Knowledge of conditions as they are is the only solid ground for communication and sharing; all other communication means the subjection of some persons to the personal opinion of other persons. Need and desire-out of which grow purpose and direction of energy-go beyond what exists, and hence beyond knowledge, beyond science. They continually open the way into the unexplored and unattained future. Democracy as compared with other ways of life is the sole way of living which believes wholeheartedly in the process of experience as end and as means; as that which is capable of generating the science which is the sole dependable authority for the direction of further experience and which releases emotions, needs and desires so as to call into being the things that have not existed in the past. For every way of life that fails in its democracy limits the contacts, the exchanges, the communications, the nteractions by which experience is steadied while it is also enlarged and enriched. The task of this release and enrichment is one that has to be carried on day by day. Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.
I have some leftover calendars and so I'm selling them for $5.00/calendar + $5.00 flat shipping rate. PayPal button has been updated with new pricing!
If you have any questions please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The calendar is 8.5 x 11 in full-color with thirteen of my favorite photographs of southeast Montana.
$10.00/calendar + $6.50 shipping.
By now the demise of the Otter Creek mine is old news.
I thought I should write something about it but I didn’t. Talking to a good friend a couple weeks later, I told him that it felt weird to write, photograph, organize and spend a significant amount of my life and emotional energy on something and then let the end of it pass without a note or retrospective. He told me that I’ve already written everything I needed to. He was right. I was content to sit back and just let myself be happy that it was over.
And yet there will probably always be something more to say because the struggle in southeast Montana taught me bigger lessons about community, about politics and about people.
In March of 2010, when the state of Montana leased the coal tracts to Arch Coal, most people were convinced there was nothing to be done. Once the coal was leased the issuing of permits seemed inevitable. As we all know government agencies aren’t in the business of denying permits. However, during those six years, the Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad never received a permit, not one.
Sometimes the distances between southeast Montana and Helena felt insurmountable. I’m not sure the people who held the fate of the valleys in their hands really understood that the core resistance to this project didn’t stem from an attachment to a certain political ideology or from outside environmental groups.
The resistance came from local people who held wildly different political views but all cared deeply about a place. That is why we won. It's that simple. Hundreds of people, who cared nothing about credit, attention, money from donors or environmental politics, spent their time and their own money to involve themselves in our democracy. You can’t sustain six years of grassroots opposition and public involvement if the people don’t truly care about the place they are trying to protect.
For many in Helena and Washington D.C., southeast Montana and the proposed mine were abstractions. They weren’t personally connected to the place so it made the Otter Creek valley just words on a map, a place for mining. That bureaucratic abstractness made it hard for them to understand or care that the issue was the very real destruction of a real place that would impact real people.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the Livingston Enterprise ran an editorial last year entitled, “There is a place for mines but it isn’t on Emigrant Peak.”
That phrase lodged itself in my brain; a place for mines. I’m not politically naive. I recognize the usefulness of the tactic, but, as someone who works and lives in an area that others think is a place for mining, I also recognize the enormous damage that it does. The sentiment was echoed in a recent opinion piece about the proposed gold mine exploration near Yellowstone National Park by a local business leader. It reads,
Lest we forget how the Otter Creek mine happened. In order to protect the greater Yellowstone ecosystem from a gold mine, taxpayers paid a Canadian gold mining corporation $65 million dollars and federal lands in other places to give up their mining claims around Yellowstone National Park. Later, taxpayers spent another $8 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to finish the purchasing of the land from a private owner. To appease the Governor of Montana, who argued we were losing out on revenue and job creation, the federal government transferred the Otter Creek coal tracts to the state of Montana. Although there were those that spoke out against the trade and tried to stop it, it still happened. Not many people were willing to spend political capital on the Otter Creek valley, a place for mining.
What could we accomplish together if we stopped treating our working landscapes differently than, what Wendell Barry calls, the ‘gated communities of the wild?’ We must recognize the value of protecting our working landscapes, like the Otter Creek valley, as much as we recognize the value of protecting the great wild lands of our state, like the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The places that we love, and we all have them, are connected. Water, air and wildlife don’t recognize human created boundaries.
We must guard against, in our actions and our words, myopic strategies that have real consequences for other places. Are there communities “better suited” to large scale industrialization and mining? Who gets to make that determination? How will this new fight to protect the greater Yellowstone ecosystem end?
Rarely do local communities have a choice in the matter, rather it is imposed upon them by corporations and governments. Large scale industrialization, and the associated environmental and human health consequences, usually happens in places that don’t have the resources, political and financial, to fight back. This is the type of thinking that leads to sacrifice areas.
Ground zero is the in the eye of the beholder. Some projects are more disastrous than others depending on your position in time and place, both geographically and financially.
We don’t gain anything by breaking up Montana into places for mining and places for protecting. That doesn't build community. That doesn't build power.
Lucky for all Montanans, the people working to protect the Otter Creek and Tongue River valleys succeeded by traversing that space that exists between communities, cultures, political ideologies and landscapes.
They made a place for protecting.