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Standing on the Barricades

Returning to Gray is Beautiful

Last year I announced my intention to write a series of posts for the PS Commons (we’re now calling these “letters”) around the gray is beautiful theme.  Predictably, things got in the way. I did write soon thereafter on controversies surrounding Israel/Palestine and Turkey/Kurdistan.  But then I was challenged both by my normal academic and personal responsibilities and by the additional project of directing the development of Public Seminar. Even though my need to push on with the gray is beautiful project persisted, so many words were spoken and written that I felt required a gray critique, i.e. an anti- ideological, anti-utopian critique, I was just too busy.

Now, finally, with the establishment of a more robust Public Seminar team (see our about us page), and as I take on the secondary role as department co-chair, I have the time to move forward with my appreciation of the gray. I’ll start by compactly recalling a few of the pieces I would have written if I had the time over the past year and by introducing a few I am now planning to write.

I would have written about my ideal position: standing on the barricade when others demand to know which side I am on. As a matter of principle, I often don’t want to declare which side I am on.

Cinzia Arruzza contributing a telling piece on Charlie Hebdo, starts with an affectionate remembrance of the day she met Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, the editor of the magazine and one of the victims of attack on the magazine and its editor. But she explains she would not march under of the banner of “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie, because she fears such expression of solidarity is predicated upon the exclusion of those who have not traditionally been included in the imagination of the French. She longs for “the space for a solidarity capable of challenging identities, rather than reinforcing or restating them, for a solidarity that does not need the affirmation of a common identity to express itself.” So do I, but I also can’t abdicate my responsibility to defend the freedom of expression, my primary political commitment. I am Charlie, and, in response to Cinzia, I want to have it both ways. I think we should sometimes pursue two apparently contradictory things at the same time, rejecting the contradiction, perceiving the gray.

I have been very critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians for many years. I think the policies of Netanyahu et al are an abomination, as were those of Sharon and his facilitators before them. But I think, as well, that there is abomination, large and small, among the anti-Zionists, from the terrorism of Hamas, to the foolish tweets of Steven Salaita. I want to be critical both ways, and think that this doesn’t mean that I am equating the suffering of both sides, as has been asserted when I expressed my reservations about Salaita in a response to a post supporting him. I supported his academic freedom, while I found his tweets problematic.

On the presidential campaign: Trump is the enemy of the gray, while perhaps Clinton is a bit too gray even for me. But Trump is clearly much worse, the cynical demagogue of black and white, problematic in form and content, revealing the face of the 21st century tyrant.

I would have wanted to respond to a number of pieces by Eli Zaretsky on feminism and the New Left, on Obama, American politics and international affairs. Eli is always provocative, as he depicts the world in stark terms with certainty. More on this in a separate post. For now: I’ll note with appreciation that Ali Shames-Dawson response to Zaretsky on rape culture reveals an understanding of the significance of the gray.

In another post, I will recall a public conversation I had over a decade with Ann Snitow on feminism and democracy.  It had beautiful gray tones.

I want to say something about hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the tribute of the immoral to the ideals of the moral, the unprincipled to principle, the racists to anti-racism, etc. Very gray indeed.

I will explain how my appreciation of the beauty of the gray is connected to my research on the social condition.

There have been many moments when I would have liked to explain why I hate the term neo-liberalism and suffer when my friends and colleagues use it to explain the problems of our times. It too cleanly accounts for all wrongs and injustices. It makes it seem that the problems have an easy solution. It’s a term that doesn’t make sense to the broad public in America, and therefore has an elitist aroma. As an expert in the opposition to a system that no longer exists (i.e. the opposition to the previously existing socialism of the Soviet bloc), I am convinced that there is no systemic alternative to capitalism called socialism.

This is the beginning, more very soon, at regular intervals.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

  • Chiara Bottici

    nice beginning jeff, but, if i got you right, now you will also have to write a post by explaining us, why grey is beautiful, but “too grey” (that is clinton?) is not: what kind of color is this grey then that becomes untenable when it is too much? i am getting confused…

    • Thanks. I am less concerned with “too gray, and more concerned with stark blacks and whites. That said, I recognize that sometimes one has to be clear about what one is for and what one is against. This is what sometimes bothers me about Clinton. I promise, Chiara, I will write a piece gray is beautiful but not always.

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