This essay appears in a special symposium on intellectuals, which is entirely composed of essays by the editors of The Point. Click here to read all of the essays from the symposium.
My first full-time job after college was with the Center for American Progress, a policy institute in Washington, D.C. The Center was about a year old when I began working there, at the beginning of 2004. It was known as a “think tank.” I did not know what went on at a think tank, but the words conjured an institution dedicated to “the transformation of genius into practical power,” which Emerson had convinced me was the goal of intellectual life. (I was 23.) At the very least, I assumed it would be a place where people thought.
My primary role at the Center was to write something called the “Progress Report.” The report was a daily newsletter meant to apply the Center’s “spin” (a word that sounds quaint now) to the day’s political news. Practically speaking, this meant organizing the news into a pithy narrative designed to reinforce certain political lessons: privatizing Social Security was a boondoggle for the wealthy; No Child Left Behind left every child behind; there were no WMDs in Iraq. Because the Progress Report had to be sent to the rest of the Center’s staff for approval—and then to subscribers and journalists—by about 8:30 a.m., I often arrived at the office while it was still dark out. At first I arrived in a state of anxiety, worried that the news might not fit into any of the customary boxes. As the year wore on, my anxiety abated: once you got the hang of the narratives, everything fit into them. Eventually, I could report on progress while I was half asleep.
The Center had been founded to offer a “progressive” counterpart—at the time, the word evoked Clinton-style slightly-left-of-centerism, not Bernie-style economic populism—to the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. It was run by the former Clinton chief of staff and future Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and funded by prominent Democratic Party donors like George Soros. My colleagues were a mix of idealistic Ivy League graduates, veteran political operatives, public relations aides, academic policy experts and a few people who seemed to have been brought in for their skill at softball (beating Heritage in the Hill league was a high priority).
My vague sense when I was hired was that I would be assisting academics and other policy experts as they developed new ideas to help the Democratic Party govern once it had regained the presidency—something many of us persisted in believing, no matter what the polls said, was a foregone conclusion in the upcoming 2004 elections. In fact, I quickly learned that the professors, though they had some of the best and brightest offices, were footnotes to the Center’s day-to-day operations. They labored away on interminable reports, which we in communications whittled down to pithy takeaways (usually the words “shared prosperity” were involved) and promoted for a day or two after they were released, then forgot about. What was held to be paramount at the Center, rather, was to “win the narrative” of the daily political news cycle. This required little academic investigation or insight. It did demand, however, an education in a certain kind of rhetoric.
Early on, one of the senior staff called me into her office to teach me the basics. I should use certain terms carefully—“support” and “oppose” are two that I remember—she explained, since they had a privileged status with our friends on Capitol Hill. But her larger lesson concerned what it meant to do political things with words. It probably sounds silly now, but up until that point I had not understood what it meant to wield language strategically. I had understood language as an instrument of expression, of explanation and of description. I had known, of course, that language could be used to make an argument. My professors in the Brown English department had worked hard to convince me that language could even betray arguments their users had not intended. But what I learned at the Center was something different. The paragraph, the sentence, even the individual word revealed themselves as potential foot soldiers in the battle for public opinion and political power. It was imperative to always be pushing forward, onto new ground. There was no other goal besides winning.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Read more essays like this in our
“What are intellectuals for?” symposium,
such as “I Am Madame Bovary” by Anastasia Berg
and “Black Fire” by Jesse McCarthy.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That was the message I absorbed, anyway, first from the senior staff member and then later by osmosis from the public-relations people whose offices were across the hall from the communications cubicles. It is not exactly how the senior staff member put it. She implied that my use of language should be honed in order to communicate the facts as clearly and convincingly as possible. It would have gone without saying at the think tank, except we said it all the time, that we were proud members of what Karl Rove had reportedly derided as the “reality-based community.” To be a progressive at the Center for American Progress was to be on the side of reality. It was also, I learned, to believe reality was on one’s side. This was very convenient. It meant there were no questions, only answers. Our job was to package those answers as appealingly as possible.
Working well at the Center meant learning to exist completely within the confines of this self-congratulatory stupor. This was not only true for the communications staff but also, and more consequentially, for the experts. Even after George W. Bush had won re-election, a development that might have led to some measure of self-examination, there still appeared to be strict limits regarding what kinds of policy ideas would be considered worthy of serious consideration—limits set mainly by the think tank’s political strategists. In the years after I left the Center, I would often hear the policy academics who worked there referred to disparagingly as “technocrats.” The label was meant to convey the accusation that these figures, who pretended to solve problems chiefly in their technical aspect—that is, without regard for ideology—were in fact adherents to the anti-political ideology of technocracy or “rule by experts.” While this might be a passable description of certain politicians whom the think tank supported, the think tank, from where I sat at least, looked to suffer from something like the opposite problem: the experts were hardly even trusted to rule themselves. Far from being encouraged to conduct independent or innovative research, their projects appeared explicitly designed to reinforce the Center’s pre-existing convictions about what it took to achieve electoral success. And they were trusted even less than the communications staff—meaning me, who knew nothing—to describe or explain their work to the outside world. After all, they may not have learned how to stay on message.
To anyone with experience in politics or public relations, all of this will seem unremarkable. And it did not bother me terribly at the time: indeed, I assumed I was receiving a crash course in “how Washington worked,” as everyone liked to say. Looking back, I think I must have found it obscurely dispiriting. Whatever the causes, by my second year at the think tank the days had begun to bleed into one another, each new battle with the viewers of Fox News (or our image of them, since we didn’t know any) appearing to be serious and consequential right up until the next morning, when it had subsided amid a wave of fresh outrages. They kept lying, and we kept providing carefully worded rebuttals—but did anyone care? The Party did not seem to be making progress, and the people who were progressing at the think tank did not offer models I wished to emulate. Anyway, I wanted to move to New York, where the real intellectuals were.
I had learned about the literary magazine n+1 while I was still at the Center, having stumbled one day across a webpage so hideous I could only assume the ugliness was politically motivated. In the opening “Intellectual Situation,” the unattributed section at the beginning of the magazine, the editors of n+1 took aim at two publications that back then I would have said I admired. Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s “was a briefly significant magazine,” the editors wrote, which had sunk into obsolescence as it prioritized “the claims of childhood” over the workings of intellect. Leon Wieseltier’s highly acclaimed books section in the New Republicsuffered from the opposite problem: its self-seriousness had hardened into a vulgar decadence. For a book of Lionel Trilling essays he was editing, Wieseltier had chosen the title The Moral Responsibility to Be Intelligent. “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent,” the n+1 editors chided. “It’s to think.”
The editors were expressing a sentiment, I realized as I read it, that I shared but hadn’t yet been able to articulate to myself: a disappointment, or irritation, with the existing intellectual alternatives. Also a reminder that there was such a thing as thinking, and that you could fail to do it. Sometimes you could fail to do it even though it looked to everyone around you like you were doing it. I reflected on this as I sat at my desk at the think tank, reporting on progress. Then I subscribed to n+1.
Not long after, I attended the magazine’s first release party in Manhattan. By the time I arrived, several hundred people were gathered in the dimly lit Lower East Side gymnasium. Here were the “younger left intelligentsia” that the historian Russell Jacoby, in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, had hoped would one day be roused from their academic slumbers. Had they been roused by the Iraq War, the magazine’s trenchant analysis of late capitalism, or the cheap drinks? Did it matter? They had gone to the same schools as my colleagues at the think tank, and studied many of the same subjects (a bit more Derrida here, a bit more Schlesinger there). But whereas at the think tank everyone was hunched anxiously forward, imparting an air of professional intensity (or panic; the line was thin), the partygoers arched away from one another as if steadying themselves on skis, their postures connoting a carefully calibrated alienation. We held our $2 beers in one hand and our $10 maroon magazines in the other, and waited for the band to play.
n+1, founded in 2004, turned out to be the first of many “little magazines” that would be born after the end of history, after the end of long form, and after the end of print. The New Inquiry, Jacobin, the Baffler (v. 2.0), Pacific Standard and the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as refurbished versions of Dissent and the Boston Review, all followed over the next decade. (The Point was founded in 2009.) These magazines would go on, despite minuscule budgets and peripatetic publishing schedules, to produce or support a high percentage of the most significant cultural critics and essayists of the next decade. You know their names if you read any of the legacy magazines or the New York Times, all of which now regularly poach writers and editors from their talent pool.
Like the New York intellectuals who had clustered around Commentary and the Partisan Review in the Sixties, and partly in conscious imitation of them, the writers and editors of the new magazines blended art, criticism, philosophy and self-examination in the confidence that these activities would all be, when carried out with a sufficient level of clarity and insight, mutually re-inforcing. Indeed the appeal of n+1 was, for me, not merely due to its ability to articulate my dissatisfaction with literary culture. The magazine took for granted that the failure to think was responsible all at once for the sorry state of the American short story, our manic relationship to exercise, and the complicity of liberal elites in the invasion of Iraq. Reading it, one had the feeling that, in fact, the entire country had stopped thinking—or had grown satisfied with a false form of thought, just as it had grown satisfied with false forms of so many other things. This was a phenomenon that had to be tracked down in each and every area of our experience. My favorite early essays in n+1 were about Radiohead, Russian literature, the rise of the “neuronovel” and the psychology of the Virginia Tech mass shooter. Another was about taking Adderall. These were not topics that would have been considered of great political importance at a place like the Center. I was not sure that my own interest in them was primarily political. But the passionate intensity with which they were treated undoubtedly owed something to the sense that they were not of merely subjective significance: square by square, the magazine was filling in a map of contemporary experience, and that map would show us where to go next, not to mention what (if anything) was worth taking with us when we went. The project was political primarily in the sense that it pointed in a direction, indicated by the magazine’s title. “Civilization is the dream of advance,” read a note from the editors in the first issue. We were not merely going to report on progress; we were going to make it.
It was exhilarating to try and live this way. It invested what might seem like trivial everyday decisions with a world-historical import. At least that’s how it felt to me for a little while. Eventually, I began to notice in myself a tension that also existed at the heart of the project of n+1, and of many of the other little magazines. My aesthetic and cultural tastes, the reflection of a lifetime of economic privilege and elite education, did not always, or often, match the direction the magazines were trying to take me politically. This had not troubled me before, because I had never considered that—as the little magazines echoed Fredric Jameson in asserting, or at least implying—“everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.” But now I had come to see that politics were not just an activity that people engaged in at certain times: when they voted, or protested, or wrote newsletters for think tanks. It was something that could be said to infuse every aspect of one’s experience, from which big-box store you shopped at for your year’s supply of toilet paper, to what restaurants you chose to eat at, to who you chose to sleep with. This was what it meant not just to engage in politics but to “have a politics”—a phrase I probably heard for the first time at that n+1party, and that was often brandished as if it legitimated one’s entire way of life. What it meant for everything to be in the last analysis political, I came to see, was that everything I did ought to be disciplined by my politics. But what if it wasn’t? Should I then revise my politics, or myself?
I was coming to appreciate an old problem for the “intellectual of the left.” This problem is so old, and has been addressed unsuccessfully by so many very smart people, that we are probably justified in considering it to be irresolvable. To state it as simply as possible, the left intellectual typically advocates for a world that would not include many of the privileges or sensibilities (partly a product of the privileges) on which her status as an intellectual depends. These privileges may be, and often are, economic, but this is not their only or their most consequential form. Their chief form is cultural. The intellectual of the left is almost always a person of remarkably high education, not just in the sense of having fancy credentials, which many rich people who are not cultural elites also have, but also on account of their appetite for forms of art and argument that many they claim to speak for do not understand and would not agree with if they did. They write long, complicated articles for magazines that those with lesser educations, or who do not share their cultural sensibilities, would never read. They claim to speak for the underclasses, and yet they give voice to hardly anyone who has not emancipated themselves culturally from these classes in their pages.
One of the things that made n+1 such a compelling magazine is that their editors, instead of pretending, as many left intellectuals do, that this was not a problem, agonized openly about it. In the Intellectual Situation entitled “Revolt of the Elites” (2010), they called for an education system that would close the cultural gap between themselves and the rest of society, thereby making their high education the norm rather than a privilege. In “Death by Degrees” (2012), they offered to burn their Ph.D.s in protest of the unequal system that had produced them (if only they could torch their understanding of Bourdieu!). In “Cultural Revolution” (2013), they imagined a future where the “proletarianization of intellectuals” would lead to an increase in the “antisystemic” force of their critique. None of these proposals, however, addressed the central issue in the present: anyone writing, editing and reading articles in n+1 or any of the other magazines that had grown up with similar politics in its wake—anyone trafficking knowingly in terms like “proletarianization” and “antisystemic”—was engaging in an activity that, if it didn’t actively exacerbate the gap between cultural elites and the rest of society, certainly didn’t look like the most direct way of addressing it. How could the elitism that is intrinsic to the institution of the little magazine be squared with the urgent importance their writers and editors attached to the subversion of elitism?
Probably any leftist magazine’s dynamism depends on its ability to balance its elitism with its anti-elitism: a tension that also expresses itself in the eternal conflict between the intellectual’s desire to interpret their society and their desire to play a part in improving it. The balance is liable to be upset by events: ironically, precisely the kind of events that the intellectual has been called a useless idealist for predicting. In 2011, inspired by the activists having finally turned up at the right place (not to mention this place being a short subway ride from their offices), the staffs of n+1 and the New Inquiry, along with assorted other magazine editors and the leftist academics they dated and debated, all wrote about Occupy Wall Street as if they had at long last arrived at the reignition point of history. The early reports from Zuccotti Park were exuberant and hilarious—drum circles to see who would do the laundry!—and suffused with an antiquated academic vocabulary that the writers wielded like rusty axes. The Occupiers were not just occupying space; they were democratizing, communizing and decolonizing it. They had determined that “the process is the message.” They were committed to horizontality and praxis. Never mind the calls for higher taxes on Wall Street, or the forgiveness of student debt; this was a time to “attack dominant forms of subjectivity.” It was the moment to inscribe and to re-inscribe.
In a 2012 review of several collections of writing on Occupy, subtitled “how theory met practice … and drove it absolutely crazy,” Thomas Frank blamed the academics and little magazine writers for failing to convert the energy in the streets into political power as the Tea Party had done on the right. Four years later, when the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders became a credible candidate for the American presidency, Frank’s judgment appeared premature. Perhaps the theory had ultimately aided practice; at the very least, it does not look as if it suffocated it. But Frank’s article, itself published in the Baffler, the little magazine Frank had helped to found, did reveal something about what had by then become the dominant criterion for judging this form of intellectual activity. In one of their Intellectual Situations from 2013, the n+1 editors reported that they were often being asked a question: “If you want to change and not just interpret the world, why not give up writing and become an organizer or activist?” The defensiveness of their answers (we’re too old to become good activists, they complained, then quoted Adorno) showed how far the scales had tipped. The little magazines, contending to become the vanguard of the energies behind Occupy, increasingly demanded that the interpreter be hauled before the tribunal of the activist. Those twenty-somethings I had seen in the gymnasium, who had taught me how to “have” a politics; they had no time for parties anymore. They were busy organizing marches and movements.
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 wantto 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.