- Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America by Bill Ivey
What has most impressed me over the years about Bill Ivey is his persistence in standing up and declaring himself a folklorist. He did this at the National Endowment for the Arts when he was chair during the Clinton administration, at national arts meetings, and at public gatherings where he was the keynote speaker. It was a heady time when "the Bills" were in DC—Bill Clinton in the White House, Bill Ferris at NEH, and Ivey at NEA. Folklorists were rather shocked to be at the center. Speaking as we did for the common people, we enjoyed our position at the margins, and we didn't quite know what to do when two of our own were elevated to positions of high status in the federal government. Ivey took the stance of modest behind-the-scenes maneuvering, creating a signature program, Challenge America, which required serving underserved populations. He brought the values of our discipline to the arts world and quietly defended that approach, despite hostile attacks from a conservative elite. On January 1, 2001, George Will's Washington Post editorial pointed out:
It is not mere coincidence that both Ivey, former head of the Country Music Foundation, [End Page 370] and the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Ferris, are folklorists. Talk about a capacious category—what cannot be swept into the domain of "folklore"? Three years ago, the NEA endorsed the idea that "art includes the expressive behaviors of ordinary people," including "dinner-table arrangements" and "playtime activities" and "work practices." That is, everything.
On December 26, 2002, Will condemned Ferris and Ivey as levelers, and Ivey in particular for his "latitudinarian" definition of art.
Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America, while not a direct response to Will, attempts to reposition the discipline of folklore at the center of the Enlightenment philosophy upon which this country was founded. Ivey prescribes folklore's methodology of critical listening to engage difference as the cure for a philosophy gone wrong. He tells a tale of how folklore was a child of the Enlightenment, during a time of major change and the establishment of such big idea disciplines as psychology, sociology, and economics. He also positions folklore as central to the humanities: its European practitioners observed and described the stories, customs, and traditional behavior of peasants, of rural versus urban people and communities, with the romantic goal of recovering each nation's innate spirit. In the United States, folklorists similarly tried to determine peculiarly American characteristics in the folklore of various populations. Ivey early establishes the trope of "borderland" as the defining trait of this country, one that comprises residents without the historical, linguistic, and cultural homogeneity of European nations.
This work's title spells out its intent: to reposition folklore as the heir to the best of the Enlightenment, itself the promise of a new world order whose goal was to spread the gospel of rationality, science, and equal rights. The flawed implementation of this philosophy as colonization resulted in exploitation, despoliation, domination, revolution, and alienation; and, the rise of the social sciences, to the detriment of the humanities, was the result of a flawed understanding of the Enlightenment's promise.
Ivey outlines the field's development through the 1960s and 1970s, when post-World War II anti-Communist sentiments locked horns with a populist, more expansive definition of America. Ivey details the negotiations as mid-century folklorists (e.g., Dorson, Green, Rinzler, Abrahams, and Bauman) and congressional leaders, as well as the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and National Endowment for the Arts (especially Chair Nancy Hanks), determined how folklore would develop both as an academic field and also within our national government. He continues with essays about how the stories we tell—from urban legends to "fake news"— traditionalize our experiences. The penultimate chapter recommends that folklore's method of critically listening to others can be a source of bridging differences and change-making. The book concludes with a plea...