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Author Bill Ivey Argues for Rediscovering Values at Heart of American Ideal

October 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Bill Ivey, former National Endowment for the Arts chair, says he sees a crisis in our culture where public discourse no longer includes argument over values or why we do what we do as Americans. Jeffrey Brown talks to Ivey about his call for a revived progressive vision, outlined in his new book, "Handmaking America."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, as this divisive and closely fought presidential election sprints to a close, a new book argues the country needs a revived progressive vision. The book is “Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy.”

The author is Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the Clinton administration. He’s now director of VanderbiltUniversity’s U.S.-ChinaCenter for Education and Culture.

Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill Ivey, welcome.

BILL IVEY, author of “Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy”: Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to put aside politics for a moment because you’re making an argument about a crisis in American culture, excessive consumerism, misplaced values. Explain what you see.

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BILL IVEY: Well, what I first saw a few years ago was a huge transformation in the way Americans work and live brought about by forces that are larger than our own society, globalization, the reach of technology and changing demographics.

And within that, I felt that America was at a time when we desperately needed to have the strongest possible values space. We needed to be more in touch with the best of the American idea, the best aspects of the American idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Values space, you say.

BILL IVEY: Well, I say the values space, the space where we talk about why we do things, not what we’re going to do.

And I felt that space had emptied out. We had had a very tough first decade of this century. I thought the conservative vision of small government, low taxes, big defense had played itself out and that progressives, liberals, we were flat on our back.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you use this term handmaking, which implies a sense of craft, a hands-on, and your own background, I know, from being involved in folklore and music.

BILL IVEY: Yes. I’m a folklorist and a musicologist. And that colors my perspective.

I reach back for the foundation of my argument to the late 19th century, to that other transition, the Industrial Revolution, and to the critics who pushed back against it, to William Morris, John Ruskin, Karl Marx, public intellectuals of the day who — who recognized the challenges of industrial production and the new reach of capitalism and really tried to present a vision of artisanship and craftsmanship as a kind of alternative.

So, I touch rather lightly on them, but I use them as a starting point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, if you use them and you look at cultural problems and then you look at the political divisiveness in the situation in politics today, how does it jibe? What exactly are you calling for?

BILL IVEY: Well, I think what we need is to rediscover progressive values and put them forward.

If — if the reader buys my argument that the values space has in a sense emptied out, that the conservative view has failed after 35 years, and that liberals have kind of stepped to the side, I think we can talk about our own view of how American society should work and what things we have to do or not do in order to realize that vision.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, make it concrete. Give us an example. What would be different in this vision?

BILL IVEY: Well, I think we’re wrong-footed in our approach to education. We are doing hard work earnestly, but I believe that we need to train citizens first and workers second.

Some years back, the marketplace business came into the world of education. And education asked, what do you want? And business said, we want workers. And now education has become all about training workers and all about income and all about salary and career.

It needs to be about citizenship first and working second. I think we need a four-day workweek in this country. And I think we need to suppress productivity.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re often making arguments that really call on more of a role of government, at a time when we’re having an argument over that very thing.

BILL IVEY: Well, I think that’s true.

I think that this is, in fact — and we may talk about this in a moment — a values election. I’m arguing for, not bigger government, but I think different government. President Obama in the recent debate said in passing, you know, there are things that we do better together.

And I think we have lost sight as a society of the way in which a democratic government can organize our best instincts to actually produce things that benefit the entire society. We haven’t worked that way for a long time. And I think it’s going to take a change in habit to begin to think of government as a place where we can put our best instincts to achieve shared goals.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it interests me, though, because I — traveling around the country doing political stories, seeing people, a lot of the energy and the anger about the system and the emotion out there — it is there — a lot of it these days politically is on the right.

BILL IVEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That would be the Tea Party.

BILL IVEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you’re arguing that they have it all wrong in a sense.

BILL IVEY: Well, I think they have it all wrong for the right reasons.

And I think, if you look at Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party, or our gridlocked Congress, or unrest in the Middle East, I think you see a set of unsettled responses to unsettled times.

When I talk about the influence of globalization or the influence of advancing technology and changing demographics, my feeling is that what that produces is the same kind of anxiety that was no doubt felt 100-plus years ago, when the Industrial Revolution was changing agricultural society upside-down.

So I think that the Tea Party is responding to a real problem. I don’t think that notion of doubling down and saying, not only do we need small government, which we already have a kind of shrunken public realm, but we need even smaller government, is right direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so here we are in the midst of a campaign. If — you used the word values campaign, I think.

BILL IVEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are we not hearing? What — from either side? I mean, what is missing in this campaign that you think needs to be out there?

BILL IVEY: It’s very interesting.

I think that this is a values campaign because, at the conclusion of this election, this country will move in a new direction. I think that the Republican argument, we will keep you safe, we will keep Uncle Sam off your back, we will keep Washington out of your wallet, needs to be counteracted with an argument that says, you are not alone, you can live with purpose through work, family and community, America is still a beacon on a hill, we owe it to each other.

Those, I think, are the underlying values. I think the American people feel that this is a values election, but I don’t think the campaigns or the candidates are feeding the need to really understand what these underlying issues are.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new book is “Handmaking America.”

Bill Ivey, thanks so much.

BILL IVEY: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Art Beat, you can find more of Jeff’s conversation with Bill Ivey.