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On the American elections, Public Seminar and civility and subversion

I am feeling better this week. The election results were heartening, from top to bottom, from the high profile governor races in Virginia and New Jersey to the defeat of a most right wing county executive in Westchester, New York (close to home and very significant for me and my neighbors). There was also poetic justice, adding to my pleasure: the defeat of Virginia’s self declared chief homophobe by his openly transgendered opponent, and the victory of the boyfriend of a televised shooting victim over an “A” rated NRA supporter. And notable, too, was that people who indicated that President Trump shaped their voting overwhelmingly chose Democrats over Republicans, in Virginia by a margin of two to one. 

I am thrilled with these results because I oppose Republican policies. It is a partisan victory. Even more fundamentally, though, I think they point to the hope that the democratic project in the United States still may have life, something which I, along with many, have been pessimistic about over the past year.

Trumpism has been a clear and present danger to democracy, part of the global rising authoritarian tide of illiberal democracy: oligarchy, corruption, treating opponents as enemies to be vanquished, fact free political debate, attacks on science, the academy, the law and the courts, the free media and the press, and the customs, decorum and language of democracy. A substantial portion of the American public has supported or tolerated this, as Republican politicians have accepted and normalized authoritarian actions. They pose a democratic danger to democracy, as it has existed with all its flaws, and as it is a promise. That a majority of voters clearly and decisively turned against them is big and heartening news.

And it opens up opportunities for and underscores the continuing importance of the work we do here at Public Seminar: “provoking critical and informed discussion by any means necessary.” Consider some posts from the past week.

Claire Potter, like me, “began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” She understands that the election results promise is not as a victory of the left over the right, but as a re-opening of the center, where left and right, and all that is in between, can meet. In my terms, Trump’s victory was a consequence of a bifurcated public sphere, with each side ignoring the other. The election results on Tuesday suggest that this may not be our destiny. And Potter, commits herself, and Public Seminar to fighting against the polarization of public life: her latest post being the first of a “Purple Wednesday” series, in which she highlights informed discussion across left – right divisions.

We launched an important new vertical last week. Christopher Harris and Deva Woodly’s Race/isms: “we strive to create a space where both academics and practitioners can articulate original frameworks for thinking and acting beyond the oppressive racial formations that currently condition our lives.” They will be organizing the work we have been doing on race and racism and push it further, such as in Woodly’s post “#Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements.” 

As we pushed forward, we also looked back: Robert Rosenstone, the distinguished author of a biography of John Reed, reflected on the significance today of the author of the definitive eyewitness account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, as we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of those momentous times. I found Rosenstone’s celebration of “the Romantic Revolutionary” and commenter Myron Pulier’s criticism of the notion particularly illuminating.  It’s a insightful dialogue on the necessity and perils of the radical imagination.

It is in such a dialogic framework that I respond to Nancy Fraser’s work. Her ideas were presented this week at Public Seminar in the excerpted introduction from Banu Bargu and Chiara Bottici’s edited volume  Feminism, Capitalism, and Critique: Essays in Honor of Nancy Fraser. On the one hand, I appreciate the critical significance of my colleagues’ — Fraser, Bargu and Bottici’s –insights about the pernicious consequences of market fundamentalism (I hate the term neo-liberalism), highlighting the limits of second wave feminism, the way capitalism forms racism, and the ways capitalism, racism, sexism and environmental degradation are related. They especially appreciate “how… feminisms (south/black/anarchist, on the one hand, and Marxist/socialist, on the other) have more in common than is often acknowledged in advancing a systematic critique of capitalism and how Fraser’s recent work could point to such a convergence.” I see the insight achieved by making such connections, but, as an experienced observer of previously existing socialism, I also see how such convergence hides a great deal. The truth, no doubt, lies in dialogue and not in one position or the other.

I believe that keeping such dialogue alive, robust and as broad as possible, is the primary democratic goal of intellectual life. It is with this in mind that I read with deep concern Ken Wark’s interview of Ewa Majewska on the plan of the Minister of Higher Education and Science to de-certify Cultural Studies as an officially recognized scholarly discipline. I find this profoundly disturbing: a combination of bureaucratic routine and political repression is threatening a valuable tradition of inquiry in Poland. The country where I first studied, forty years ago, the opposite: the persistence of cultural freedom despite political repression

We have been working to fulfill our responsibility as democratic intellectuals this week.  In next week’s post, I will explain more fully exactly what I mean by this. Here a synopsis.

We have been special kinds of strangers, connected to everyday life around us, but distant from that life as we are informed by the experience of different places and different times, and our knowledge in disciplined inquiry and creativity. We have not sought to provide easy answers to pressing political problems, but have sought to stimulate more informed discussions about the problems, as citizens seek reasonable and empathetic solutions. We have done this in two ways. We have  tried to make it possible for enemies to become opponents, through civilizing differences. But also we have worked to subvert civilized agreements that hide pressing problems, such as the problems of racism, sexism and economic exploitation. By any means available, our goal is to provoke informed dialogue through “civility and subversion.” 

And this week following the American election results, the headwinds against this project don’t feel quite as tough as they have in the last year.

Jeffrey Goldfarb

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