Some time ago I read a book by Kenneth M. Dolbeare entitled "Political Change in the United States: A Framework of Analysis" (1974). At the end of the book, Dolbeare suggests to the reader that he design a new form of government. This new government, a government that never existed before, would suit the whims and fancies of the reader. Dolbeare imposed no constraints, no guides to work with. This was a most unusual proposition, at once both intimidating and empowering. How could one possibly presume to create a new government, if only in the imagination? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be a wonderfully liberating experience to engage in such an exercise? New possibilities would open up. One would begin to see the current government through different eyes. The future would seem brighter, seen in the light of this new government.
Well, I took up Dolbeare’s challenge. I did exactly as he suggested. I borrowed from Aristotle his use of the word “virtue” and proceeded to create a new form of government. For Aristotle, “virtue” meant the excellence of a thing. The virtue of a knife is its sharpness; the virtue of a workhorse is its ability to pull heavy loads. If I wanted to create a democracy, what would be its virtue? As I understood the word “democracy” then, and still do, the virtue of democracy as a form of government is its inclusion of the maximum number of citizens in the deliberative and legislative processes.
This then became my goal—to design a government that had this virtue. It would be a government that included hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of citizens, not as passive observers but as actual governors. There would be no other considerations. I would not worry whether or not my new government was feasible or even desirable. I would not include any other constraints. I would simply proceed with my new government, heedless and free of any second-guessing.
For the past twenty years or so, I have been living with this imaginary government in my head. It has cast a warm glow of anticipation and optimism as I have lived out the harsh realities of how government has indeed been behaving in current reality. Though I took no steps to realize the new government I had created, it nonetheless existed for me as an alternate reality to the government that did exist. "Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy" was written in the hope that those who read it will join me in my journey to the land of imaginary government, where new possibilities exist as realities.
When did you first start writing?
I started writing as a High School student. But these were writing exercises. I think I first began expressing myself in a personal way was when I started writing outside of school and began exploring my emotions. I wrote a poem about a boy wandering down a country road, his "hat askew." I was quite proud of "hat askew."
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in the borough of Queens but I attended Stuyvesant High School in the borough of Manhattan. Mr. Brant was my English teacher. He wore tortoise shell glasses, was blasé about life and had very little interest in teaching, which turned out to be a benefit. We were asked to come to each class with a short story we had written over the week. For each class a different student was chosen as chairman. We would read our story to the class. Students would comment and the chairman would offer a grade. Mr. Brant kept himself busy doing crossword puzzles. This was my introduction into writing.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
I probably have many favorites, but one stands out in particular: "The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen." For me, books are a physical presence, friends whom I revisit from time to time even if its only a glance in the direction of a particular spine on the shelf.
Herzen memoirs came in four volumes. I purchased them on the Columbia University campus one sunny spring day at a time when the library was selling off books that Columbia librarians no longer wanted on their shelves. There are four, dusty yellow, hard cover, cloth bound volumes published in 1968 by Alfred A. Knopf. I love the fact that I have all four volumes. They look so handsome on my book shelf. I read and savored every word.
Alexander Herzen was a nineteenth century Russian intellectual. HIs father was a wealthy, landed aristocrat. Herzen was schooled with his peers, many of whom shared his intense dislike for the oppressive rule of the Czars. Herzen's progressive political views landed him a stay in Siberia. Eventually he left Russia and emigrated to Europe where he spent his adult years living mostly in Paris, London and Geneva. He published a newspaper called "Kolokol" ("The Bell") that was secreted back to Russia. Herzen argued against serfdom and in favor of socialism. He was a humanist and wanted a social system that would permit the fullest development of each individual.
The richness and warmth of his prose, his commitment to the truth and social justice have made of Herzen one of the key figures in my life. From time to time I return to the volumes and pick out a passage at random. Herzen's words never cease to engage attention and lift my mood.
How do you approach cover design?
The cover came from the title. The title came from John Milton's "Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained." I see true democracy as it existed in ancient Athens as "Paradise." We have lost "Paradise." It can be regained. I needed an image that would evoke the "Paradise" I had in mind. I remembered that Albrecht Durer did a painting of Eve all the way back in 1505. I tracked the painting down to "El Prado" in Madrid. I began a correspondence and for $70 I was given permission to use the image, which was sent to me on a CD: an exciting and very rewarding odyssey.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I studied painting at the Art Students' League in New York. It was one of the richest experiences in my life. Any spare time I can find — never enough — I paint. Currently I am working on an abstraction. Playing the cello has been an important part of my life for many years. Briefly I played in a string quartet, an experience I would very much like to repeat.
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
I don't read e-books. I am devoted to hardcover, physical books. Anywhere you look in my apartment you will see books neatly arranged on bookshelves, a sight that makes me very happy.
What is your writing process?
These days, my writing (mostly non-fiction) begins with reading. What I read gives me ideas for what I want to write. Sometimes I actually take notes that I use in composing my narrative. Thoughts and sentences are often worked out in my head in advance of actually writing. Sometimes I get a thought when I am away from my computer. I find a scrap of paper and scribble it down.
What are you working on next?
I have two projects in mind. One is based on Jose Saramago's novel "Seeing." "Seeing" is political satire. In it Saramago examines how the government might respond if majority of the citizens in the capital city decided to hand in blank ballots. In other words what happens when the legitimacy of government is brought into question. I was thinking of applying the same framework to a different possibility. What would happen to government if everyone decided to turn off their television sets?
Another possibility is an historical novel based on the Dutch rebellion against Phillip II of Spain, which began in the middle of the sixteenth century and worked its way into the middle of the seventeenth, allowing me to weave in the likes of Spinoza and Rembrandt and other lesser known figures. This was a very rich period in Dutch history both politically and culturally.
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