03/01/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

The Return of the Exiles

In the late 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills challenged the tendency of writers and other professionals to substitute whining and criticizing for action. He issued a call for what can be called "cultural organizing." "The writers among us bemoan the triviality of the mass media," wrote Mills. "But why do they allow themselves to be used in its silly routines by its silly managers? These media are part of our means of work, which have been expropriated from us... we ought to repossess our cultural apparatus and use it for our own purposes."

For all the differences between Barack Obama and Cornel West -- described in my recent column, "Higher Education and the Movement for a Citizen-Centered Democracy" -- both practice cultural organizing. They engage questions of American identity and the "next chapter of the American story."

Such cultural organizing takes seriously culture-shaping institutions like opinion journals, news and social media, motion pictures, entertainment industries and other sites of cultural production as settings for political struggle about the meaning of America, the identity of the American people, and the future of the society. Obama and West are unusual. The movement for a citizen-centered democracy needs to spread their examples.

In recent years, debates about the meaning and future of America have been dominated by a bellicose right wing, on the one hand, and a progressive intellectual and political establishment disengaged from -- even scornful of -- American identity on the other hand. Gary Gerstle has detailed progressives' secession from questions of American identity since the late sixties in American Crucible. His book is also a splendid account of battles in earlier years between exclusive racialized identities and civic democratic ideals about what America stands for.

Martha Nussbaum, an influential figure in liberal arts education, illustrates such secession in her 1994 essay in Boston Review, "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism" and books such as Cultivating Humanity and Not For Profit. Nussbaum invokes the Greek tradition of the Stoics as the alternative to patriotism. Stoics held that "the accident of where one is born is just that, an accident; any human being might have been born in any nation." Nussbaum maintains that "emphasis on patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve [like] worthy moral ideals of justice and equality." She proposes that patriotism "erect[s] barriers between us and our fellow human beings." Her alternative, global citizenship, continues to hold sway in much of education and intellectual life.

I learned a different view in my college years, working in the Citizenship Education Program of the civil rights movement, directed by Dorothy Cotton. The Citizenship School Workbook, developed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, affirmed that "we love our land -- America!"

The patriotism of the movement differed from bellicose nationalism and from global citizenship. Citizenship schools cultivated respect for other societies and their democratic struggles. As the Workbook put it, "in Africa and Asia new nations are being born as people of color everywhere are demanding the freedom to decide their destiny."

Citizenship schools practiced ground-level cultural organizing, which was in turn amplified in the larger public culture by leaders like Martin Luther King.

The movement's cultural organizing had roots in the populist movements of the 1930s. In The Big Tomorrow, Lary May describes how cultural workers in the film industry sought to change the values of "The American Dream," and had considerable success until the McCarthy repression of the 1950s. In Cultural Front, Michael Denning traces organizing among cultural workers of in the New Deal, including journalists, screenwriters and artists, scholars and educators.

Cultural organizers constituted what Denning calls an "historic bloc" addressing a myriad of issues but united by goals such as the struggle for racial and economic justice, the fight against fascism, and the effort not only to defend but also to deepen democracy. The populist concept of "the people" became central. "'The People' became the central trope of left culture, the imagined ground of political and cultural activity." This involved a contest over the meaning of "the American Dream" and "America" itself. "The figure of 'America' became a locus for battles over the trajectory of U.S. history, the meaning of race, ethnicity, and region in the United States, and the relation between ethnic nationalism, Americanism, and internationalism.... less a sign of 'harmony' than of the social conflicts of the depression."

The idea that professionals' work should aim at developing the civic capacities of people and communities and contribute to the enrichment of democratic culture was widespread. In the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, a range of professionals -- artists and poets, labor organizers, teachers, ministers and musicians, to list a few -- saw themselves as making visible the capacities of ordinary people.

James Weldon Johnson put it this way, "Harlem is more than a community; it is a large-scale laboratory experiment. Through his artistic efforts the Negro is smashing immemorial stereotypes." He saw blacks "impressing upon the national mind the conviction that he is an active and important force in American life; that he is a creator as well as a creature." The Harlem Renaissance meant that the black American was to be seen as "a contributor to the nation's common cultural store; in fine, he is helping to form American civilization."

Civic-minded professionals helped to sustain what Sara Evans and I call "free spaces," places rooted in the life of communities that have a public and democratic character, in which democratic cultural values and practices incubate. In Harlem, such spaces ranged from jazz spots like the Cotton Club to churches, labor study groups, locally owned businesses, union locals, the Harlem library, schools, and theater projects. These settings mingled with fluid boundaries to create a vital local public culture. People learned that what happened in Harlem mattered to "American civilization."

In the Great Depression, free spaces took root not only in Harlem but across the country, in towns as well as in cities, in cultural and educational practices of many different kinds. They amplified and communicated the populist movement.

In 1932, the writer Malcolm Cowley signaled such cultural organizing with his book Exiles' Return, calling for a repatriation of young American intellectuals and writers from Paris to join the emerging democratic movement.

We need a new Exiles' Return.

Harry C. Boyte is the Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.