Tuesday, April 11, 2017


My April newsletter contribution is below. I guess it's kind of saying exactly the opposite of my other most recent contribution to this blog, but hey, perhaps the complexities of life merit such contradictions. I choose to hide behind the words of Hugh MacDiarmid, etched on his tombstone, from his "Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle": I'll ha'e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it's the only way I ken/ To dodge the curst conceit o' bein' richt/ That damns the vast majority o' men. 

A couple weeks ago I was on a vacation with a close friend who happens to be a conservative, and we had the inevitable political “blow-up” that so many of us had with family and friends after the election. Ours was a delayed reaction, but that made it all the harder when it came, at least for me. I saw all at once how much further apart we had drifted, ideologically, than I had realized. During primary season, we still occasionally saw eye to eye, but now partisan groupthink had again dropped the veil between us. I felt like I was encountering Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – oh no, he is one of them!

As I say, many people had a conversation like this much earlier than I did. For some it happened around the Thanksgiving table or the Christmas tree. It led a lot of progressives to emerge from the holiday season with a chastened feeling. They wondered if the Left needed to reframe its messaging
for a broader audience. Are we saying something wrong? Where are we losing people? were the questions on everyone’s lips.

At that time, I was having none of it. I couldn’t believe liberals were blaming themselves for what happened rather than, say, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It wasn’t just, it wasn’t fair, that we should have to make an effort to speak to them – when look what kind of regime they had just elected. The truth is the truth, I said, regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it.

It was all very righteous. But now I guess I have to ask myself … so what? Even if it is unfair – and it is – what are we going to do about it, apart from lamenting that fact? 

One possible answer is to give up on changing hearts and minds altogether. After all, politics has always been a crude struggle, and perhaps we have no reason to hope for harmony in the end. America’s political divide was certainly not invented in 2016. Observing our society as an outsider in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the remarkable ferocity of our political rhetoric, and what a contrast it made with our peaceful transitions of power. “In America,” he wrote with wonderment, “the press has the same destructive inclinations as in France […] but lacks the same reasons for anger.” 

To Tocqueville, there was no solution to this problem. Politics in a democratic society is bound to be
conflictual, and the idea of “combining hostile opinions and opposing principles” was in his view merely an “illusion” indulged by weak and weary societies (Bevan translation).

Tocqueville’s observations of Jacksonian America (where, incidentally, a populist demagogue and white supremacist was in power -- who happens to be deeply admired by our current president) should keep us from getting too nostalgic or thinking that things have never been this bad. But again, so what if he's right? This too doesn’t change the fact that the “other side” remains among us. Do we want them to side with us politically or not? Or do we expect somehow that by struggling against them, we will convince them to vote with us? Do we want to lose this democracy to goons like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon? If not, I guess we had better start finding a way to talk to the people who voted for them. After all, nothing guarantees that they will do so again quite as much as the rest of us refusing even to communicate with them.

Not long ago I would have rejected this notion as insufficiently radical. But I have actually picked it again from reading two writers with impeccable radical credentials. In Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, one finds the following stern warning:

“To reject [right-wing voters] is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream world” – it's like he knows me! – “but they are here and will be. If we don’t win them Wallace or Spiro T. Nixon will.”

Alinsky was past caring whether it was fair to the radical to have to occasionally violate her or his cherished purity of principle. To him, it came down to a question of whether one cared more about being right, or more about actually changing the world – and to do the latter, you have to communicate. There's no way around it. “If [you don’t communicate] you’re worse than a failure,” he writes. “You’re just not there.”

I still believe that this is unjust. Why is it the responsibility of the Left, I keep wondering, to start the conversation? How can one initiate the reconciliation when one doesn't have the power on one's side? And of course it’s not fair; but nothing’s going to get any fairer so long as progressives speak a language that is untranslatable and alienating. Nothing will improve if we refuse to ever change strategies and messages that have failed us in the past. As the other impeccable radical in question, Roque Dalton, once put it:

When the stone-cutter
Finds his hammer is broken […]
he thinks about having a better and more powerful tool […] 
And doesn’t accuse the stone […] 
because of its resistant nature. (Hirschman trans.)

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