This land is your land, 1

13 03 2016

Man, are we Americans bad at politics.

I don’t know if we’re uniquely bad, but we do seem to have some difficulty with the notion that disagreement (and expressions thereof) is normal.

I’m not just talking about the violence at Trump rallies, but also to violence at protests generally as well as meltdowns about campus politics. Disagreement over whether the best way to accomplish x is achieved by y or z is still acceptable, but disagreement over the fundamental means by which we prioritize x over p or decide that only y or z are worthy options is considered uncivil.

The very heart of politics—uncivil!

Granted, there are many plausible ways of understanding politics, and not everyone would go along with my Arendtian/Crickian view which places distinctiveness and pluralism at the center of political life. But if one accepts that a complex society will necessitate substantive differences amongst the members of that society, then the management of those differences will in turn be required to maintain both its complexity and functioning.

There are, as Crick notes, any number of ways for societies to deal with complexity, among them attempts to bring its various pieces into line and/or to suppress expressions of difference. It is only in politics, Crick argues, that the freedom which arises from and allows further complexity may be found and strengthened.

Or, as Madison somewhat more pessimistically put it,

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. …

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

So, what Madison is resigned to and what Arendt and Crick celebrate is the endurance of difference and disagreement—and of politics to allow and make use of its expression.

Some leftists have argued that an open politics (of the sort often found in democracies) is merely reformist or bourgeois (as did the Communists in the Weimar republic), and thus fail to take seriously the radical possibilities contained within politics. Madison may indeed have been a conservative of a sort in wanting to limit what politics could accomplish in the new American system, but it was precisely because he saw that politics could be transformative that he sought to limit it.

And there is something to his conservatism, as well. As Crick noted, the first requirement of any system, political or otherwise, is to maintain order and thus provide security to its citizens or subjects. This is Hobbes’s basic insight: absent a leviathan, life is but a ‘war of all against all’, ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Fear matters, as does security.

But even as they matter, they are not all that matters, and the promise of politics is, pace Arendt, the promise of something more.

cont.

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We can dance if we want to

10 05 2011

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.

We want bread and roses, too!

Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

Okay, so that last slogan may not have been associated with radical or revolutionary politics, but it should have. And while Free your mind and your ass will follow! could be read as a somber observation of the necessity of intellectual development in one’s liberation, set it to a beat with a thumpin’ bass and you get the right spirit.

Anyway, this is prompted by a New Yorker blog post by Sasha Frere-Jones on music and culture critic Ellen Willis. I’d heard of her—read encomiums to her upon her death—but hadn’t been much moved to read more about or by her.

I should read more of her.

Frere-Jones offers this excerpt of some emails by Willis’s friend Karen Durbin:

Ellen was that wondrous creature, an intellectual who deeply valued sensuality, which is why she wrote with such insight about rock and roll but also with such love. She respected the sensual; in a fundamentally puritanical culture, she honored it. She saw how it could be a path to transcendence and liberation, especially for women, who, when we came out into the world in the early to midsixties, were relentlessly sexualized and just as relentlessly shamed. Rock and roll broke that chain: it was the place where we could be sexual and ecstatic about it. Our lives were saved by that fine, fine music, and that’s a fact. [emph. added]

I’ve been lamenting the left’s  failures to offer any alternatives to our current deracinated culture—capitalism is flattening us into consumptive nothingness—without doing much beyond, well, lamenting.

But here’s a clue for us: remember the pleasure of liberation, remember that pleasure can itself liberate.

Here’s Richard Goldstein on Willis (also quoted by Frere-Jones):

Ellen was, more than anything, a liberationist. She taught me that gay liberation was an “epiphenomenon” of feminism, and that’s something I still believe. Finally, she believed that for any leftist agenda to succeed it has to be based on pleasure, on realizing desire. This is a lesson the left has largely forgotten; indeed, the right has appropriated it, though they use social sadism the way we used orgiastic ecstasy. Ellen would surely agree that we won’t see a revival of revolutionary sentiment until we learn to make it fun. In that respect, Ellen, Emma Goldman, and Abbie Hoffman are part of a lost tradition—radicals of desire. [emph. added]

I’m much better and winnowing down than opening up, much better with distance and critique and despair blah blah, and, for the most part, I’m okay with the distance and the critique and the despair and the blah blah.

But it’s not enough, not for me personally and certainly not for any truly radical politics. If we are to have a human politics, then we have to begin with us, as humans—in our mess and despair and failures and blah blah and in our pleasure and amusement and joy and ecstasy.

Okay, so I”m a little uncomfortable with the ecstasy, but I can certainly get behind humor and dancing and ever more laughter. And while I’m also uncomfortable with my own desires, I have to admit that I have not been improved by my suppression of them.

So let’s bring it back, the mess and the desire and everything else—not as a problem, but as a given.

~~~~~~

Books by Willis: