They were also reading a new magazine. Jacobin had been started just prior to Occupy, in 2010, its name evoking the most radical and brutal leftist political club during the French Revolution. To its credit, it did not describe itself as a journal of ideas, which would have been false advertising. It was, quite self-consciously, a journal of ideology, whose editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, gleefully promised to put all of his considerable energy into hastening the arrival of democratic socialism. Initially, at least, the magazine did not throw many parties, though it did host a lot of panels, where you could hear young faculty from top universities speak very authoritatively about the ethics of ride sharing in the age of eco-catastrophe. Having grown by far the fastest of the little magazines, Jacobin can also claim, by virtue of its role as the de facto party paper of the Democratic Socialists, to have achieved the most direct political impact. It has solved the problem of left-intellectual elitism simply by ditching the pretense of there being any other role for the intellectual than to aid the activist. Just as for my colleagues at the Center for American Progress, for Jacobin’s contributors there are questions of strategy, but not of substance: writing just is a form of messaging. Introducing a recent interview with Bernie Sanders, the magazine shows its appreciation for its favorite American politician by applauding his ability to remain “on message for more than half a century.” The moral responsibility is no longer to think; it is to advance, as Sanders has, “like a slow-moving tank rumbling through enemy lines.”
When I worked at the Center, and when I spent time around editors at some of the leftist little magazines, I frequently heard complaints that we were not having as big of a political impact as we ought to be having. In retrospect, I suspect the think tank and the magazines have both had roughly the kind of impact they could have hoped for. Under Podesta’s successor Neera Tanden, the Center has become one of the most influential policy institutions in Washington, D.C., and a blog the communications team started in my final months there, Think Progress, is, by some measures, the most popular liberal political website in the country. Meanwhile, unlike Thomas Frank, I think the leftist little magazines have played their part in gradually tugging the political conversation, at least in the space of left-liberal politics and culture, in their ideological direction. Even many at the Center now embrace a version of universal healthcare and are edging toward a $15 minimum wage, policy ideas that would not have been allowed within spitting distance when I worked there. Probably any Democratic candidate for higher office will have to embrace those things, too. Likewise the little magazines, especially as their staffs have begun to better reflect the gender and racial demographics of the country, have done much to shift the conversation on social issues—aggressively advancing the agenda of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo—to more progressive ground.
But if the Center, and the liberal establishment it represents, has moved toward the little magazines ideologically in the years since Occupy Wall Street, the magazines have moved toward the Center in terms of the way they see the relationship between their political project and their intellectual one. Whereas I had learned at the Center what words to use to communicate with our progressive friends on the Hill, one now can learn a similarly pre-scrubbed terminology for communicating with one’s socialist allies in Crown Heights. I am hardly the first to note how certain concepts—intersectionality, neoliberalism, Gramsci—have become unmoored from their specific referents and now float freely, like wayward blimps, into sentences where they have no other role than to advertise, in big, flashing type, the author’s moral righteousness and commitment. This, though, is only one aspect of the polemical—and bizarrely martial—vocabulary that has become a staple of leftist discourse in recent years. Since the conventional wisdom avers no issue can ever be safely siphoned off from any other, each becomes a pretext for calling for resistance and solidarity among allies—the proximate enemy might be the NRA, the DNC or Jonathan Chait—in a war against sinister forces. I do not mean to question this rhetorical approach as a matter of politics. From the purely sectarian perspective, it may well be justified. There is certainly reason to suppose that some political advantage can be gained from the repetition of certain words and phrases, or from the habit of making every issue appear to be a matter of existential ideological significance. (The potential effectiveness of these tactics has been amply demonstrated by the American right wing.) I only mean to point out what the approach means for the role of thinking. “Resistance Needs Ideas,” reads a recent Facebook ad for Jacobin. If the intellectual at the think tank was the assistant to the legislator, here she has become the willing tool of the activist.
There have always been intellectuals who have chosen to become such tools, for good reasons as well as bad ones. Intellectuals are also citizens, and it is impossible to say in advance when might be the proper time for them to subjugate their intellectual to their civic responsibilities, or predict when those two responsibilities may become indistinguishable. History does show that intellectuals have often been mistaken about their ability to contribute meaningfully to social and political movements—and then, in the rare cases when they have actually taken power, about their capacity to lead them. But from the perspective of today’s New York intellectuals, the great danger of making such a choice is not (Katie Roiphe’s warning of a “new totalitarian state” notwithstanding) of our becoming Stalinists, or Maoists, or even Bannonites. We do not have enough power to be any of those things; and anyway, we hate guns. The danger is that, in attempting to discipline our desires to our political convictions, we might allow our ideology to overrun our intellect. When everything is political, everything is threatened by the tendency of the political to reduce thinking to positioning.
I began working on this magazine in 2009, two years after I had left New York to join a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, where we read the great books of the Western canon very slowly. Contrary to what is commonly asserted, no less by its defenders than by its critics, this canon did not promise or reveal to us any incontestable truths. It did not lead us to become committed conservatives, or liberals, or leftists (we had all three in the program). Nor did the writers we read agree with one another about how intellectual and political life should be related. There were those who thought the point of thinking was to interpret the world, those who thought it was to change it, and those who thought it was to be struck dumb with wonder at it. The one commitment the canon demanded of us was a commitment to engage in a conversation between different and often incommensurate perspectives. In the midst of the conversation, you still had to choose where you stood. But you did so knowing that the truth was not in you. It was out there, in the interplay of ideas that was the conversation itself.
Last year, in a report on “new public intellectuals,” the Chronicle of Higher Education referred to The Point as being the “least left-wing” of the intellectual magazines that had emerged in the first two decades of the 2000s. The phrasing consolidated a common misunderstanding. What distinguishes The Point from the other magazines mentioned in the story (Jacobin, the Nation, n+1, Dissent, the Baffler) is not where we fall on the left-right spectrum, but rather how we picture the relationship between politics and public intellectual life—or, to use Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s helpful phrase, “thinking in public.” Whereas the other magazines have framed their projects in ideological and sometimes in activist terms, we have attempted to conduct a conversation about modern life that includes but is not limited by political conviction. This has meant, on the one hand, publishing articles that do not abide by the dictum that everything is “in the last analysis” political. (Some things, we believe, are in the last analysis poetic, some spiritual, some psychological, some moral.) It has also meant publishing a wider range of political perspectives than would usually be housed in one publication. This is not because we seek to be “centrists,” or because we are committed to some fantasy of objectivity. It is because we believe there are still readers who are more interested in having their ideas tested than in having them validated or confirmed, ones who know from their own experience that the mind has not only principles and positions but also, as the old cliché goes, a life. If the Jacobin slogan indicates a political truth, it inverts what we take to be an intellectual one: Ideas Need Resistance.
This is true even, and perhaps especially, of political ideas. Our political conversation today suffers from hardly anything so much as a refusal of anyone to admit the blind spots and weaknesses of their ideas, the extent to which they fail to tell the whole truth about society or even about their own lives. In our eagerness to advance what we see as the common good, we rush to cover over what we share in common with those who disagree with us, including the facts of our mutual vulnerability and ignorance, our incapacity to ever truly know what is right or good “in the last analysis.” This is the real risk of the strategic approach to communication that sometimes goes by the name of “political correctness”: not that it asks that we choose our words carefully but that it becomes yet another tactic for denying, when it is inconvenient for the ideology we identify with, what is happening right in front of our eyes—and therefore another index of our alienation from our own forms of political expression. The journalist Michael Lewis, embedded with the White House press corps for an article published in Bloomberg in February, observed that a “zero-sum” approach is spreading throughout political media, such that every story is immediately interpreted according to who it is good or bad for, then discarded, often before anyone has paused to consider what is actually happening in the story. In this sense, the media mimics the president they obsessively cover, who as a candidate had promised his supporters that if they elected him they would “win so much you’ll get tired of winning.” Trump has always been the cartoon king of zero-sum communication—“No collusion!” he tweets in response to the news that thirteen Russians are being indicted—a person to whom one senses news is only real to the extent that he can interpret it as helping him or hurting his enemies. But Lewis is surely right that the zero-sum approach has become pervasive across the culture. I certainly see it in the corner where I spend a lot of my time, at the intersection of academia and little magazines.
A recent n+1 Intellectual Situation, “In the Maze,” is a reflection on being a woman in left-liberal publishing under the conditions that led to #MeToo, written by one of the magazine’s current editors, Dayna Tortorici. Toward the end of the article, Tortorici recounts a story she had heard “about a friend who’d said, offhand at a book group, that he’d throw women under the bus if it meant achieving social democracy in the United States.” The story was supposed to be chilling, she says, but she had found it merely funny (“As if you could do it without us, I thought, we who do all the work on the group project”). I can see how the story is funny, for the reason Tortorici mentions and for another she doesn’t: Who exactly is inviting this boy at his book group to make such decisions? But I also find the story chilling—and not only because of the attitude it manifests toward roughly half the country’s population. Above all, it feels chillingly familiar. The adolescent brutality of the friend’s imagery, the way he dresses up frustration or anger as hard-headed calculation, the conflation of rhetorical stridency with political seriousness: these traits are everywhere in left-liberal discourse these days. You can hear them in the voices of the Chapo Trap House podcasters, who ask “the pragmatists out there” to “bend the knee” to them, just as surely as you can read it in the public statements of aspiring presidential candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand, who signal their readiness for the job by indicating intolerance for “gradations” of guilt or the niceties of institutional procedure. You may even have noticed them in your own voice at the dinner table, or in your tentative contributions (you don’t want to sound this way) to the slugfests taking place on your Facebook wall.
And yet the zero-sum logic that informs the friend’s “offhand” remark cannot be completely dissociated from the approach that the rest of the little magazines have long taken to political life. If n+1 had begun with the “dream of advance,” an idea of addition that did not imply subtraction, the interrogative subtitle of “In the Maze”—“Must history have losers?”—reflects Tortorici’s observation that, in the non-dream world, the advancement of some tends to come at the expense of others. In describing the losses in power, comfort and authority that many men will have to accept if they wish to make the world “habitable for others” in the wake of #MeToo, the editorial certainly reminds us what kinds of things people do lose in history, often deservedly. But there is something more implied when we ask if history—like elections, or softball games—must have losers. The notion that history has a definite direction, and that only some people are on the “right side” of it, has always been attractive to intellectuals on the left; among other things, it offers a clear cause and mission to those of us prone to worry about being decadent or superfluous. On the other hand, it makes history into a bus that will run us all over at some point (Tortorici can only express sympathy for the intellectuals she sees being “cast out as political dinosaurs by 52, by 40, by 36,” a thought I found alarming as one just now entering the extinction window), and it threatens to render intellectual debate a strictly intramural affair. If politics is a war between the allies and the enemies of history, then arguing in good faith with the losers can only be either a sign of weakness or a waste of time. It’s the high-theory variant of the mindset that animated our in-house demographers at the Center, who used to delight in proving, with the aid of laser pointers and the latest in data analytics, that there was no reason to consider the arguments of red-state Bush voters, since they would all be dead soon. This was in 2004.
Plato and Aristotle, who were two of the first to reflect on the relationship between political and intellectual life, certainly did not think that politics described only what happened in voting booths or policy institutes. For them, the political was a realm of great importance, not only because it determined domestic and foreign affairs, but also because it shaped the moral character of the citizenry. Plato even imagined, in the Republic, a utopia in which every aspect of existence—from art to exercise to furniture—would be disciplined by a concept of the political good. (You might say he was the first to emphasize the importance of political correctness.) But the ancient philosophers did not believe that a life organized by politics could ever be the best or the highest life. This was because, although politics certainly required thinking, they believed in a realm of intellectual activity that lay beyond the instrumental logic of the politicians. Indeed it was the philosopher’s attraction to thinking as its own reward, sometimes known as contemplation and often correlated with the experience of wonder, that distinguished him from the rest of the citizens and sometimes led to conflict with the political authorities—a conflict that for Plato’s teacher Socrates had notoriously ended in death. But it was also this experience of isolation and radical self-questioning that made the philosopher of potential political value to those citizens.
In her 1954 lecture “Philosophy and Politics,” Hannah Arendt emphasized that it was Socrates’s own experience of “speechless wonder,” frequently reported upon by onlookers, that motivated him—having understood in his isolation and silence what was common to all human beings, namely their capacity to ask the fundamental (and fundamentally unanswerable) questions—to create a rhetorical format, the “dialogue between friends,” by which his fellow citizens would be able to “understand the truth inherent in the other’s opinion … and in what specific articulateness the common world appears to the other.” The purpose of the dialogue, Arendt claimed, was to “make friends out of Athens’s citizenry” at a time when the political life of the city “consisted of an intense and uninterrupted contest of all against all, of aei aristeuein, ceaselessly showing oneself to be the best of all.” It was this “agonal spirit” that eventually destroyed the Greek city-state, whose fate it was to be torn apart by polarizing internal hatreds long before it fell prey to invading armies.
We are right now living through another time of intense contest, of internal polarization and warlike separation. I do not think many of us have the feeling that we are winning. Yet we need only glance at those who have been most recently victorious to appreciate the unintended truth in Trump’s wayward boast. Winning really is tiresome—almost as tiresome as reporting on our supposed progress. Perhaps what we are doing can serve some other end.
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This essay appears in the “What are intellectuals for?”
symposium in issue 16 of The Point.
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