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Not in Agreement
Progress is so messy

by DK Holland

In 1787 one-third of the proposed signers of The Constitution of the United States refused to pen their names to this unique, world-changing document. They could not agree. Yet even 225 years later this manifest lays out the essential principles most Americans live by, with roughly 30 percent of the electorate constantly at odds with the majority opinion, yanking at the threads of our fragile democratic tapestry on one end or the other, creating tension. It's that tension that is our strength. The alternative, a state without apparent conflict, would be no utopia. It would be fascism and we know how that works out.1

Realities of a democracy:
1) “Maintain harmony” is a contradiction in terms.
2) Polarization opens up dialogue.2
3) Open dialogue forces us to reexamine our beliefs and processes.

This is all to the good.

How our country got this way is a lesson for others. The motley American populace of the eighteenth century had collectively bitten off the thumb of an oppressive monarchy. They wanted to be free, on that they could agree. The founders understood that without a dictator there would always be dissent and conflict within our tossed-salad citizenry. So, in their wisdom, they set up three branches of government—each with its own agenda. This sturdy tripod of checks and balances would hold the creative tension, keep the conversation lively. They also anticipated that the documents they had created—the Bill of Rights, the Constitution—would be debated, reinterpreted and amended many times. They even foresaw the possibility of another revolution: If the government is unjust, it’s up to the people to overthrow it.3

Yet they could not have imagined all the battles that would lead our democracy to gradually, miraculously, ultimately advance: civil rights, voting rights, minimum wage, child labor and a woman’s right to choose are all part of settled law. Any of these rights would have been seen as radical in 1787. However bloody and painful the process, differing perspectives about these issues were aired in public debates and laws were eventually passed in accord with our complicated and somewhat arcane Constitution. Many who take our rights for granted today are oblivious to their fragility: They can be taken away. Some feel they have already been taken away. How do we keep the spirit of open discourse alive, support and strengthen our rights?

Negotiating the rights of the individual versus the greater good provides much of the tension in any democracy since humans rarely agree 100 percent on anything. “Let the people decide” opens up a huge can of worms. And the time, emotional energy and effort that reconciliation requires has taught many of us to avoid conflict at all cost. We offload the stress to others (e.g., “Leave it to the elected officials.”) but in reality, conflict needs to be acknowledged and a process for resolution sought. This is essential to all human relationships, especially to a complex union such as ours.

When you were very young, you didn’t hold back. You were an extremist. You were totally connected to your feelings, you felt with your whole body: You burst into song when you felt love; you thrashed about and bawled when you felt angry. Everyone in the room knew when you were happy or pissed off. But the open-heartedness of a child inevitably evolves into the guarded heart of an adult when adopting social graces become an absolute must.

It takes lots of practice to modify your behavior as you get older, to learn to channel your self-expression in a way that others connect with while still being equally real, productive and fulfilling to you. One way is to join an activist group of rank amateurs bound by mutual values. Volunteer organizations attract all types creating vibrant social-emotional gymnasiums in which you can develop better social muscles. Mature individuals who apply their strongly-felt values to affect social progress make these movements work.

The revered professional children’s book illustrator/author Simms Taback was also an amateur union organizer. Raised in the Bronx, Simms was the son of Leon Taback, a union rep, an activist concerned with the well-being of the rank-and-file worker: A Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrant atheist and registered Communist.

Simms Taback believed that the output of artists enriches the world and that the rights of disempowered creators need to be constantly bolstered and strengthened in our democracy. After he graduated from The Cooper Union in 1952, he devoted much of his free time and energy in any way he could to improve the quality of the profession mainly through The Illustrators Guild and then the Graphic Artists Guild (when the Guilds merged).

Taback put himself in the center of conflict in a very individualistic profession struggling for recognition and fair treatment for its members. He became the father of this creative community, driven by love for his fellow illustrators and a strong sense of social justice. He worked patiently with anyone who wanted to help. He was not trained to do this, nor did he do this for pay or even recognition. He was an amateur, a lover.4

Jeff Seaver was a young illustrator who, in 1978, attended a joint meeting of the Guilds at which Taback was speaking about copyright issues. Seaver raised his hand asking angrily, “Is anyone else aware that the New York Times is saying they will own all rights to all the work we do for them?” From the podium Taback replied, “You need to talk to our media relations committee, young man.” Seaver approached Taback after and asked who was on the media relations committee. He smiled and said with confidence, “You are.” And so Seaver became deeply involved in the Guild, working with Taback and other members, including me, to run the Guild for many years. Taback trusted in our abilities, youth and zeal. It was through him that Seaver and I both came to believe, “Together we can really change things.” Through Taback, Seaver learned what collective bargaining was and how to do it. Through Taback’s unwavering support, I learned resiliency and persistence in the face of defeat. He was a model, mentor and confidante for each of us for the entire 34 years we both knew him. I'm sure many others felt the same. On Christmas morning 2011, Taback, age 79, died after a long illness. He was surrounded by his family and had just attended the opening of a retrospective of his work near his home in Ventura, California.5 Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.