Populism threatens democracy—or so the current political moment suggests. Now that Donald Trump has assumed the presidency, now that civil society seems patently uncivil, now that white nationalism marches resolutely forward, populism occupies a lamentable place in public culture. And that’s just the United States. Populism roils the globe as well. European leaders such as Silvio Berlusconi, Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen; Latin American leaders such as Nicolas Maduro, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa; African leaders such as Yoweri Museveni, Julius Malema, and Raila Odinga; and Asia-Pacific leaders such as Pauline Hanson, Rodrigo Duterte, and Prabowo Subianto—all of them, in their own ways, have disrupted civil society and blasted the existing political order for the purported benefit of “the people,” who are really just a narrow constituency of donors and supporters. By propping up their constituency as “the people,” these supposed populist leaders circumvent the pluralism and diversity of modern liberal democracy to push their agenda, creating widespread division and thwarting the public good.
The cops were ready to close in. The clergymen were ready to write it all down. The audience had no idea what was afoot.
A massive crowd had descended on the Hoboken Theatre in Hoboken, New Jersey. Theatergoers were eager to listen to the man widely considered the greatest orator in the world. Incidentally, he was also considered a heretic, an infidel, a blasphemer. For decades he had been delivering public lectures that ridiculed God, the Bible, and revealed religion. Given that blasphemy was then a crime in New Jersey, the cops and clergy were ready to catch him in the act of blaspheming and to put him behind bars. Two Hoboken detectives in the audience waited for the signal from two Protestant clergymen, H. T. Beatty and Herbert Campbell, who sat with notebooks and fountain pens in hand, ready to write down the heretic’s sacrilege.
Toward the back of every issue of the Christian Science Journal, Christian Scientists testify about healing. In the early decades of the church these testimonials were especially valuable in showcasing the promise of the new religion. In September 1901, for instance, C. S. Harris, a Jewish man from Chicago, told readers about attending “a lecture at the Third Church” of Christ, Scientist. Because of this thought-provoking lecture, Harris started attending regular meetings at Third Church, where he learned one of the mandates of Christian Science: “Work out your own salvation.” Soon he began to do just that. For thirty years he had been a heavy smoker and drinker, but after studying Christian Science, he reported that both “appetites left me without notice.” Moreover, he had long struggled with poor vision. “Oculists, specialists, and professors”—professionals, in other words—all insisted that he “must have an operation.” Instead of having an operation, Harris carefully studied Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the “textbook” of Christian Science. Soon his vision returned. Another healing took place when he accidentally punctured his thumbnail with a “pair of sharp- pointed tweezers.” With blood “spurting all over” his hand, he retrieved the church’s “Scientific Statement of Being” from his coat pocket, read it carefully, and “neither saw nor felt any ill effects” from the injury. He concluded, “I did not lose my finger-nail as on similar occasions before knowing of Christian Science.”
At the time, it was the most crowded neighborhood on the planet. Newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe crowded into small, stuffy tenement rooms, hoping to eke out a meager living. But the neighborhood was not built to accommodate the ever-increasing number of bodies, and the result was a public-health nightmare. One settlement worker described the squalid conditions she witnessed daily:
Every window opens into a room crowded with scantily clothed, dull-faced men and women sewing upon heavy woolen coats and trousers. They pant for air, the perspiration that drops from their foreheads is like life-blood, but they toil on steadily, wearily, except when now and again one, crazed by heat, hangs himself to a door-jamb.
This was New York’s Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth century.
What really stood out about rural Alabama were the naked kids. And they were not just little kids—they were boys of thirteen and fourteen running around naked. The issue was less their nudity than that they “seemed not to mind their condition in the least.” Not all of them were naked, but those with clothing had garments “so black and greasy that it did not resemble cloth.” Clothed or not, they were poor and uneducated. Yet they understood their predicament and were “desirous of improving.”
That was Booker T. Washington’s observation of the Alabama countryside shortly after moving there in 1881. He had been there only a month when he sent these observations to the Southern Workman, the monthly publication of the Hampton Institute in Virginia. A former student and teacher at Hampton, Washington had contributed regularly to the publication, and he was now ready to report on the prospects of opening a Hampton-like institution in rural Alabama. The prospects were strong, he wrote to readers of the Southern Workman, because the people of Alabama so desperately wanted to improve. To help them improve, Washington put his new institution “on a labor basis, so that earnest students can help themselves and at the same time learn the true dignity of labor.” Learning the dignity of labor was necessary, he believed, because labor had been degraded and forced upon African Americans during their enslavement. Tuskegee, a school that would alter the direction of black higher education for decades to come, would remake labor as something empowering, something that put individuals, communities, and the race on solid ground as the nineteenth century lurched to a close.
The little girl scampered across the kitchen, and the devil followed. She had been hiding behind the stove, but the devil found her almost immediately, his glittering yellow eyes fastening upon her. The little girl threw down her toys and tried to reach her mother, who was sitting across the kitchen with a friend. Both the mother and friend watched in silence, sitting motionless, as the devil pursued the little girl. They didn’t help. They just leered. Realizing she could not outrun the devil, the little girl used the stove as an obstacle, trying to keep the iron-and-fire appliance between her and the pursuing evil. But the devil was quick, and the little girl was getting tired. In a last-ditch effort to save herself, she bounded toward her mother, who remained silent, unhelpful. As the little girl collapsed at her mother’s feet, the devil leaned down to seize her, his claws hungry for tender young flesh.
Then she woke up. It was only a nightmare.
Or was it? The little girl looked around and remembered she was still far from home at the white man’s boarding school—separated from her family, her nation, her heritage. What’s worse, the white man’s school had recently taught her about the existence of this ultimate evil, this force of darkness searching the earth for unrepentant souls. Teachers had even shown her a book of Bible stories with the devil illustrated in vivid detail. Maybe the devil really was after her.
The twenty-first century may involve the end of inquiry as we know it. For 150 years in the United States, inquiry has been tied, more or less, to institutions of higher education—that is, research universities, specialized forums, laboratories, and classrooms perpetuated by technical discourse, academic certification, and siloed disciplines. As Chad Wellmon has recently argued, these institutions emerged to organize the information overload wrought by the Enlightenment. Their function was to help people winnow through more information than they had ever encountered, achieving knowledge in specialized areas that, when combined, could advance human understanding overall. But now that access to information has multiplied exponentially thanks to digital technology, universities and the specialized inquiry they promote seem antiquated. We need a new model of inquiry.