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  • Arch Montgomery

    Barzun is a lucid, thoughtful, and self-reflective commentator who deserves careful attention.

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My favorite protest sign of those I’ve seen since Trump’s election victory is the one that reads “This episode of Black Mirror sucks.” It captures well the disorientation so many of us feel these days. Like the characters in a Black Mirror episode, we have been thrown into a strange, dystopian world where normal life seems to have suffered a rupture. We can no longer take anything for granted. Obvious lies are presented as truth; blatantly bad behavior is cheered by 40 percent of the population; and outrageous social policies become executive orders. Nothing seems out of bounds.

The disorientation stems in part from our bafflement over how millions of Americans could vote for someone so cruel, so ignorant, so shallow and so vain—so utterly bereft of almost any admirable human qualities. The answer, we are told, is that we inhabit different “epistemic bubbles” and “echo chambers,” the result of an increasingly partisan media landscape and our own need for self-affirmation. Each side has its own priorities, its own facts, its own experts.

Who are the relevant experts for understanding our situation anyway? Historians? Economists? Political scientists? Psychiatrists? It is hard to know how one should go about answering such a question. Add to these challenges the technological advances that now allow people to easily manipulate photographs and even video and it becomes harder to rule out even the most far-fetched conspiracy theories or sci-fi nightmares. Maybe this episode really does suck.

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It is within this context of profound uncertainty that a debate has emerged on the left about what sort of threat Trumpism represents and how best to respond to it.  At the risk of caricature, we can call one side of the debate the “centrist-liberal” camp and the other the “radical-progressive” camp. So framed, the differences between them may seem essentially political, pertaining to what sorts of tactics are required to check Trump’s power and what sorts of policies Democrats ought to offer as alternatives. And they are political, in part. But they also offer different solutions to what we might call the Black Mirror Challenge. By that I mean the challenge of securing a firm grip on what sort of world we now inhabit and how best to make our way through it.

In my view, neither camp offers an entirely adequate response to that deeper challenge, though I think the failures of each point to a third, more promising possibility. Whether that third response is satisfying to others is hard for me to know. But it seems to me that now is the time for airing such possibilities. For although party unity matters less for this year’s mid-term elections, the task of selecting a presidential candidate for the 2020 election will soon force some hard questions on all of us who hope to put Trump back in his tower.

Let’s consider first the “centrist-liberal” response. The centrist-liberal sees in Trump a threat to democracy, the rule of law and the norms that underlie both. Many conservatives share these concerns, with some prominent ones even talking about defecting from the Republican Party. The centrist-liberal seeks to build alliances with such Republican dissidents and, in the process, emphasize the shared democratic and rule-of-law norms that have formed the framework within which partisan politics has long taken place.

On this view, the Democratic Party ought to become, in David Frum’s words, “an Eisenhower party of the broad center.” After all, we all believe in the fairness of our electoral process (even if we remember the chads—hanging, dimpled and otherwise); we all believe in the importance of an independent judiciary and—to a lesser extent—an independent Department of Justice (even if we know judges and, more so, prosecutors sometimes act politically); and we all believe in a basic norm of truth-telling from public officials (even if we know politicians engage in evasions and spin). These norms are the cornerstones of a democratic republic operating under the rule of law.  And, as a number of recent books will explain to you, Trump is taking a sledgehammer to all of them.

The proper political response, in the eyes of the centrist-liberal, is one of moderation, in substance and strategy. The party should offer policies around which it can build broad coalitions, and it should seek to re-establish those political and rule-of-law norms so vital to maintaining a vibrant democracy and preventing a slide into banana-republicanism. The center must hold.

But it is not just democracy and the rule of law that are in crisis, in the eyes of the centrist-liberal. So, too, is the idea of truth itself. After emphasizing the need to protect basic rule-of-law norms, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates insisted, “There is such a thing as objective truth. We can debate policies and issues and we should, but those debates must be based on common facts, rather than appeals to emotion and fear through polarizing rhetoric and fabrication.” Such a belief is under threat from Trump himself—our first “postmodern” president—whose own lawyer informs us that “truth isn’t truth.”

The connection between the rule of law and “objective truth” is a natural one. Each promises the assurance of solid ground, the first for our politics and the second for our beliefs. Agreement on “common facts” constrains and channels our political disagreements in critical ways. And one of those common facts is the existence of the set of rules we call the “law.” Thus, according to the centrist-liberal, even as both parties struggle for political power and even as we all debate how we should change the law, we must do so within the limits of the positive (i.e. currently existing) law. If there are no facts, there is no law, and chaos reigns.

The centrist-liberal’s answer to the Black Mirror Challenge, then, is that we must insist upon the existence of an “objective truth” upon which good-faith debates over policies and values can take place. We must protect free speech, on campuses and elsewhere, so that people can debate important matters of policy and vote on the basis of accurate information about their leaders and their policies. And we must foster institutions facilitating civil discourse and dialogue.

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To the radical-progressive, all of this seems like a fantasy. The centrist-liberal envisions democracy as a sort of debating society in which people first make arguments about policy (based on “common facts”), then they vote and then the loser respects the outcome of the process. But one can only maintain such a faith in reasoned-debate and obedience to norms by ignoring reality.

The radical-progressive rejects the centrist-liberal’s understanding of political conflict in theory and practice. As a theoretical matter, its model of reasoning, in which people collect “facts” and then apply their “values” to assess policy proposals, is mistaken. As scholars in various academic disciplines—from philosophy to anthropology to psychology to literary theory—have argued over the last half-century or more, people’s thoughts depend on the language they use, and the words of our language carve up the world in ways that do not discriminate neatly between “facts” and “values.”

What determines our political positions are not arguments but stories—stories that play to our hearts and our guts, rather than our heads. The idea is now commonplace, but the radical-progressive critique goes further, pointing out that which narratives get aired in public, which questions get asked, and which policy positions are considered legitimate for debate are all determined by relations of power. Indeed, the radical-progressive might even argue that since language itself is a “social construction”— to use the academic jargon—the very words we use to describe our political and social world are the product of political, social and economic power.

Add all this up and you can see why the radical-progressive rejects the centrist-liberal’s understanding of politics. Where the centrist-liberal sees rational debate, the radical-progressive sees ideological conflict all the way down. The truth doesn’t out; the agenda of the more powerful does.

So much for the theory side. The radical-progressive also thinks that the theory has been born out in practice. In a pair of provocative recent essays, law professors Jed Purdy and Aziz Rana have each argued that the 2016 election marked the end of a long period of relative political consensus held together by the Cold War and its aftermath. In their view, the postwar consensus was built not on common facts but common fears—or rather, one fear in particular: communism. And that consensus was maintained not by democratic procedures or the rule of law but by ideological suppression of more radical and destabilizing views on both ends of the political spectrum.

In some ways, this critique is hardly new. In the Seventies and Eighties, a group of legal scholars made a similar critique of what they perceived to be the suffocating political consensus of the Fifties and Sixties. These “critical legal scholars,” as they were known, attacked the idea that there could be “neutral” methods of settling political conflicts through the application of legal rules or principles. Instead, the forms and rhetoric of law functioned to legitimize, through an appearance of “objectivity,” what was at bottom a raw exercise of power. Purdy evokes this tradition—whose roots go back to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and, ultimately, back to Karl Marx—when he insists that “the very idea that it would be possible to analyze political developments in terms of the decline of stabilizing, trans-partisan norms rather than substantive ideology is a political position.” There are no “neutral” principles, either for governing or for analyzing government. There are only competing ideologies.

In any case, according to the radical-progressive, Donald Trump has now shattered this Cold War consensus, forcing us to acknowledge the extremity of our ideological conflict. Such conflict has been the norm in American history, and we know from that history that it can be ugly and violent. But the radical-progressive points out that the shattering of the consensus also presents the left with an opportunity. Bernie Sanders’s relative success in the Democratic primary showed the hunger on the left for more aggressive critiques of capitalism, suggesting improved prospects for more radical forms of democratic socialism. The upset Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off in June is more evidence of the same.

In short, from the radical-progressive’s perspective, the problem with Trump is not (as the centrist-liberal sees it) that he threatens our democratic norms with an extremist ideology. Rather, it is that openly represents a nativist-fascist ideology that has always lurked just beneath the surface of those norms.

If the threat is nativism and fascism, then the centrist-liberal’s effort to re-impose norms and to moderate our political culture through “civil discourse” is misguided. Any progress that African-Americans, women, homosexuals and other marginalized groups have made in our country has only come about as a result of loud, angry and sometimes even violent political struggles, not through polite dialogue.  Thus, in calling for a return to norms of “civility,” the centrist-liberal is like the “white moderate” whom Martin Luther King considered to be the “the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom.”

Instead, for the radical-progressive, the proper political response to Trumpism is to mobilize politically—to get people in the streets and to join the Resistance. And its answer to the Black Mirror Challenge is to deny it can be or even need be answered. We live in a de facto postmodern world where there is no such thing as “objective” truth, at least in politics. There is no stable, authoritative source to offer us a sober-yet-reassuring take on the events of the day. Walter Cronkite is dead. So pick a side and start fighting.

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About some things, the radical-progressive seems clearly right. We do seem to reason in a holistic way, with factual and moral judgments intertwining to form a composite picture or narrative (a fact trial lawyers know well). And these days, it often feels like our moral convictions offer us a firmer grip on our situation even if we don’t have a fully worked out philosophy or “grand narrative” to explain and unify those convictions. The popular yard sign that reads “In this house, we believe:” and then lists a series statements beginning with “Black Lives Matter ” and ending with “Love is Love / Kindness is Everything” attests, I think, to this urge to assert our moral ideals and to affirm our sense of identity in the face of deep uncertainty. I Believe; Therefore, I Am—no matter how many times Trump lies or how many Twitter trolls spew racist bile.

Nor, I should hasten to add, are such assertions of moral conviction so banal as to be vacuous in today’s political environment. One hardly needs to worry about whether analogies to Nazis are fair when you’ve got the genuine article on hand—as was the case last year in my hometown of Charlottesville. The existence of real villains has a way of making the story’s plot refreshingly easy to follow.

The radical-progressive is also right that relations of power shape what questions get asked, what is considered legitimate to debate and even the very language in which we make our cases and tell our stories. In that sense, there is indeed no privileged or “neutral” position from which to analyze or assess political and social conflict.

But here’s the hitch: no one calling him or herself a “progressive” can endorse the view that all knowledge claims about politics and social life are entirely the product of social or political power. For on that view, the concept of “progress” is unintelligible. There is only change, historical flux. Nor can such skepticism account for the sort of deep anxiety that motivates what I have been calling the Black Mirror Challenge. For that anxiety grows from a sense that we cannot discern what is real and true and what is not. But if all narratives are simply moves in a power game, then that sort of anxiety makes no sense. It is like asking whether the football correctly understands the goal post.

I do not mean merely that there exist some “objective facts” in the world, though I think that’s true (even if disputed by some philosophers). Instead, I mean something a bit more controversial. Progressives generally believe—or ought to believe, anyway—that one can be mistaken about one’s own values, interests, desires and intentions. Such an idea, which goes back to Marx’s notion of “false consciousness,” has been critical to progressive and liberationist movements over the last century and more—from efforts to develop class consciousness among laborers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to the “consciousness-raising” groups that became an important part of the women’s liberation movement in the Sixties and Seventies. The suddenly pervasive term “woke” conveys the same thought in the context of race. Sometimes one has to be awoken, as if from a slumber, to see forms of oppression and domination that one had previously passively accepted.

If all knowledge claims reflect only power, then the idea of “false consciousness” is a myth. The social and political developments these movements brought about are only changes in the particular relations of power, not an escape from them.  There was no political emancipation, no increased social awareness, no progress.  Such skepticism renders progress impossible.

Yet if false consciousness does exist, how can we be sure that the radical-progressive is not herself deluded now about her own true desires, values and intentions? After all, oppression is often hard to spot. Take the #MeToo movement. As Rebecca Traister observed in a thoughtful and widely circulated essay last year, the flood of stories about sexual abuse coming out has prompted many progressively minded men and women to sort through their own memories of past sexual encounters and ask themselves whether they were victims or perpetrators of some form of abusive or manipulative behavior. Did I really want to do that that night, or was I just too tired (or embarrassed or afraid) to say no? Or: I thought at the time I was respecting her choice, but on some level did I know that she was not sober enough to know what she was doing? In other words, even some feminists may have not fully realized how much their own self-understandings had been distorted by underlying power dynamics.

Nor is oppression the only source of self-delusion. How often have you lamented with one friend that another friend systematically pursues the wrong sort of romantic partner or job—that they don’t see what is really best for themselves? Typically, the explanations one offers for such behavior are not framed in terms of power, domination or subjection. Instead, they are about pathological tendencies (“she’s always had an addictive personality”), unmet emotional needs (“he’s still seeking his father’s attention”), or simply failure to introspect sufficiently (“she keeps herself busy to avoid feeling the pain”). The practice of psychotherapy—particularly, though not only, Freudian psychoanalysis—is more or less predicated on the plausibility of such explanations.

And then there are religious accounts. The Christian natural-law tradition, for instance, treats human beings as possessing a natural telos or purpose, but it is a purpose that many people fail to clearly see. People are distracted by false gods or idols—by the pursuit of wealth, honor, power or pleasure. In fact, though, the only thing that can satisfy our deepest longings—what we are really seeking but aren’t quite aware of—is the sort of love that only a connection with God can provide.

So the radical-progressive’s intense moral convictions are not enough to answer the Black Mirror Challenge. How can she be sure that her particular political commitments that flow from those convictions—or even the convictions themselves—are not in reality the product of power relations, emotional pathologies or old-fashioned human temptation? For it’s not as if progressive movements in the past have never gone off course—the Progressives’ flirtation with eugenics in the early twentieth century being only the best-known example.

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We are thus left in somewhat of a bind. On the one hand, the centrist-liberal seems naïve in thinking that respect for rule-of-law norms can solve our political problems and that a commitment to the objectivity of “facts” and to reasoned argument can assuage the anxiety I’ve called the Black Mirror Challenge. On the other hand, the radical-progressive’s hope that we can avoid that challenge altogether through sheer force of moral and political will seems equally misguided. The very notion of progress depends on the possibility of gaining some clearer vantage point from which to view our situation, which is precisely what motivates the challenge in the first place.

In my view, the only way out of this bind is to accept what may seem like a paradoxical position: we can never fully answer the Black Mirror Challenge, but achieving progress requires that we never stop trying. The philosopher William James captured this dual aspect of progress well when he wrote, The course of history is nothing but the story of men’s struggles from generation to generation to find the more and more inclusive order.”

This understanding of progress has its roots in the tradition of American pragmatism associated with James and John Dewey. It has long been embraced by political progressives and should, I think, still be appealing to progressives today. Its goal is inclusiveness—a notion particularly revered on the left today—and it recognizes that achieving that goal requires political “struggle.” But it also understands that political struggle alone isn’t enough.

Why not? Well, imagine the Democrats take control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2020 and enact the most ambitious social programs the progressive left can come up with. Now imagine people like Scott Pruitt taking them over in 2024 or 2028 in a Republican backlash with the explicit goal of undermining their missions. Will that count as progress? To come at the same problem in a different way: Purdy calls for returning the marginal tax rate to the 70 percent range, but it is no coincidence that marginal tax rates were their highest when the country maintained the sort of political consensus he criticizes.

In other words, although political struggle is an essential part of social progress, it is not the only part. Over the long term, constructing a more inclusive order requires a process of genuine discovery—the “finding” part of James’s formulation. Why does that matter? A few reasons:

First, it reminds us of why we continue to channel political conflict through democratic processes. Otherwise, any “order” established is only the product of force. That point should be obvious and uncontroversial today, but it could not always be taken for granted. The intellectual and political elites in the postwar period were sensitive to the dangers of the ideological extremes on both the left and the right, having witnessed communist and fascist regimes dispense with the lives of millions of people. Those elites sought to stave off such dangers by attempting to balance competing values within the context of democratic norms and protection of individual rights.

And they were right to be wary. The extremes are awful. If history has shown anything it is that intense ideological fervor—the passionate conviction that one group is the sole possessor of Truth and Rightness—frequently ends in violence and bloodshed, not a “more inclusive order.”  Claims of false consciousness in that context become terrifying. And it is no surprise that competing extremist ideologies on the left and right sprung up around the same time in the 1920s and 1930s. Extremism begets extremism.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was during this early postwar period that a democratic theory informed by philosophical pragmatism—one which emphasized the plurality, malleability and interconnectedness of social values—reached its peak influence. Indeed, the school of legal thought dominant at the time was known as “legal process” theory because it saw democracy itself as a process of struggle and discovery in this Jamesian sense. So viewed, questions of how to make collective decisions deliberatively and settle social disputes peacefully—in short, precisely the sort of thing the centrist-liberal is so concerned about—take center stage.

Now don’t get me wrong: that time was far from perfect. Jim Crow had barely been dented, and women were nearly shut out from politics entirely. In that way the political consensus was far too complacent about its own shortcomings. Still, its commitment to the ideas that human values are plural and human beings fallible are essential for a constitutional democracy.

The second reason to focus on the “discovery” aspect of building an inclusive order is to remind us that the task at hand is at once a social and intellectual one. The very concept of an “order” implies some level of intellectual coherence, but truths are learned through our interactions with others. Take homosexuality, for instance. No question, the rapid progress in moral attitudes about homosexuality would not have been possible without the zealous efforts of gay-rights activists. Their work helped give gay men and women the confidence to come out of the closet. But it was people realizing that their own daughters, brothers, friends and colleagues were gay that helped so many people see homosexuality in a new light. Their moral understandings broadened in light of new facts they discovered, and in that way constituted a process of genuine learning. But it was one only possible because of the tremendous courage of the people coming out and because of the preexisting bonds of affection that often (though sadly, not always) served as a foundation of trust between human beings.

Finally, and relatedly, seeing social progress as a process of learning—part intellectual, part social—enables us to reframe several of the debates that have been raging on the left since Trump’s election. Let me close by mentioning just one: the ongoing dispute over the relative value of “civility” within our political culture. Whether it’s mocking Sarah Huckabee Sanders over dinner (or refusing to let her eat one) or simply dropping the f-bomb in reference to our president, the pattern is familiar: those on the right insist on the need to maintain some modicum of decency in our politics, while many on the left respond that it is no time for politeness when Rome is burning. And besides, it’s a little rich to hear complaints of incivility from those in the party of the Troll-in-Chief.

But the virtue of “civility” in political dialogue does not consist in avoiding hurt feelings or giving offense. If we ask what gets us closer to finding a more inclusive order, we see that the problem is essentially an intellectual one. Incivility prevents us from being able to hear what people are saying even when they may have something useful to say. Useful how? Useful in that it could open up space for shared bases of agreement on some matters, or opportunities for clarifying, refining or modifying positions. In sum, the problem is not that angry words produce hurt feelings; it’s that hurt feelings prevent people from hearing angry—and often important—words.

For that reason, and since political debate is and always has been a rough business charged with emotion, the responsibility for continuing this sort of dialogue probably lies more heavily on listeners than on speakers. It requires having a tough skin, an open heart and a discerning mind.

What does this sort of dialogue look like? The best example I have seen was a pair of short essays written last year, one in response to the other.  The first was a New York Times op-ed, written by law professor Ekow Yankah, with the provocative title, “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” Yankah, who is black, regretfully suggested a negative answer to the question in his title. He did so on the ground that friendship is about trust, and the election of Donald Trump has thrown such trust into radical doubt. As Yankah put it, “Imagining we can now be friends across this political line is asking us to ignore our safety and that of our children, to abandon personal regard and self-worth.”

The reaction on the right was swift and fierce, with many labeling Yankah a racist. My own reaction at the time was less harsh but still negative. It struck me that the piece would serve more to inflame racial divisions than to help bridge them. But David Marcus, writing at the conservative website The Federalist, took a different tack. While he disapproved of counseling children to judge others by the color of his skin, he said, he nevertheless sought to “learn something from how the conclusion was reached.”

And that he did. When he read Yankah recount that “my heartbreak dwarfs my anger” because his childhood in a college town was happy and relatively free of deep racial tension, Marcus said it struck a chord with him: “When I read that,” he explained, “I knew even before I googled him that this man was my age. I knew he was describing the ’80s and ’90s of my childhood and teen years that our pop culture is so nostalgic about these days. I knew that I share his heartbreak at the brutality of today’s racial tensions, which we thought we had left in the dark past of police dogs and firehoses.” He thus concluded that, while he disagreed with Yankah’s conclusion, he also recognized that “I have never been black in a society that has a tradition of horrible racism.”

That is what “civil discourse” looks like. It does not see political debate as merely a “marketplace of ideas,” nor does it imagine it as some sort of touchy-feely love-in. It simply sees it as a forum in which people try to communicate honestly their own sense of the world while doing their best to understand those of others—intently, charitably and, to use Marcus’s word, “dispassionately.” The hope is that doing so in some small way facilitates new ways of relating, new patterns of thought and behavior, new ideas, new habits, new models, new metaphors—in short, new connections, both intellectual and social (if there’s a difference). That is what finding and constructing a more inclusive order over the long-term demands. And it both depends on, and is necessary to repair, the sort of trust that Yankah sees eroding around him.

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Whether any of this will matter for 2020 is hard to say. Probably not if, as seems likely, the “energy” of a party, tends to go to its ideological extreme. At the same time, campaigns tend to resonate when they manage to connect up their particular agendas with deeper sources of meaning. And those deeper sources are what I have been trying to gesture towards.

How so? Well, as I trust now is clear, the Black Mirror Challenge is hardly unique to our time. It is our condition as finite and fallible creatures whose destiny, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, is not repose. To even recognize it as a challenge means opening oneself up to the possibility of discovering new ways of understanding oneself and new ways of engaging in the world. Keeping such a possibility alive requires an act of faith—one w­hich, to my mind, is the founding faith of a “liberal education” or cultivation in the “humanities.” But it is a faith born of doubt.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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  • Arch Montgomery

    Barzun is a lucid, thoughtful, and self-reflective commentator who deserves careful attention.

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