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The Times They Are a Changin’?

The Halloween Attack in New York and the Prospects for Democracy

“The times they are a changin’.” The question is how are they changing? And speaking for myself, I do need “a weather man to know which way the wind blows,” as Bob Dylan might put it?

I hope that the global march of authoritarianism, with Donald Trump in the vanguard, is a momentary reaction that will be overwhelmed by a broad democratic front, one that rejects xenophobia, terror, irrationality and fear. But, I also know that the authoritarian turn, a radical reinvention of political culture, is powerful, and it may prevail. For the first time in my life, I see that “the democratic age” may have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Is the end now?

I am thinking about this as I deliberately consider the Halloween attack, a few miles from my office here at The New School, an experience burdened by memories of 9/11 and their continuing tragic aftermath. Dark thoughts. I am also remembering sunnier moments, a beautiful day cycling from my home 30 miles to the north to the end of the bike path on the tip of Manhattan, the site of this latest terrorist crime. My journey started in the pastoral beauty of the lower Hudson Valley, and ended in the architectural glory of lower Manhattan — New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island — modern ideals revealed in nature and human artifice.

This memory is tangible and real: it’s also a metaphor. We pursue the pleasures (and endure the pain) of private life, as we witness and are affected by the follies and achievements of public life, trying to understand and figure out how we might intervene, uncertain of the effect.

As I process this attack on schoolchildren, recreational bikers and tourists, I start with the ways I understand political culture, and with an appreciation of its importance. I believe political culture is where the action is, a struggle linking power and culture. Violence and fundamentalism, and reaction linked to the coercive power of the state are the phenomena: but political cultures are constituted, I think, as culture empowers politics, and as politics shapes culture. The power of politics does not just have to do with the means of coercion and discipline. It also includes the power of people to act together against disciplinary and coercive regimes, as I tried to show in The Politics of Small ThingsAnd, contrary to standard approaches to the subject, political culture is not destiny. It is textured. It develops dynamically, for better and for worse; and its dynamics are dialogical, not monological. I reject the idea that Americans are an exceptional freedom loving people or that they are the very opposite, eternally marked by the original sin of slavery.

I have been moved and committed to the anti-racist component of American political culture since my adolescence at the height of the civil rights movement. While white supremacy prevails in much of American life, anti-racism has been a constant. It is this constant that is the ground of my patriotism. To be sure, white supremacy and anti-racism are complexly connected, and not only has the latter challenged the former but there is a way that anti-racism has intensified white supremacy, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has vividly revealed in his most recent book, We Were Eight Years in Power. But his “black atheism” also perhaps distorts the American experience, washing out the hope for and faith in the prospects of progressive change, as Melvin Rogers has eloquently demonstrated in an illuminating, respectful, but critical review of Coates latest book.  As Rogers emphasizes, “the complexity of our political traditions and our lived experiences are flattened out. In Coates’s view, for instance, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all failures.” The culture of white supremacy can and has been reinvented in recent years, tragically now linked with the power of the presidency, but that is far from the end of the story. The drama between two components of American political culture defines the fate of the republic and the society.

We’ve been exploring such complexity of political culture this week at Public Seminar, trying to make sense of what seems to me to be an increasingly bewildering world, so tragically demonstrated by the attack this week, hopefully, though tensely, followed by our Halloween parade.

Isaac Reed questions the blanket criticisms of Thomas Jefferson, the hypocritical slave owner who authored, The Declaration of Independence: “that document so useful to Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others.”

Claire Potter, in introducing her course on American politics with focus on the presidency calls for an inquiry seeking to account for how it is we have gotten into this terrible mess we are now in. Goldwater now looks pretty good next to Trump. How did that happen?

Jan Dutkiewicz and Andrew Norris question Cass Sustein’s assertion that the use of variations on Marxist Leninism by Russia, Trump and Bernie Sanders are responsible for the mess. And they note that labeling those you disagree with as somehow Marxist is deeply problematic. There is a difference between Trump and Sanders, they cogently insist. Yet, I note that they don’t really frontally address the problem of those who want to cultivate the contradictions, the object of Sunstein’s inartful criticism.

Jordon Luber asks: “Who are the rebels in the Catalan democracy crisis?” And he argues that it is not the self-proclaimed democratic advocates of national liberation. I must admit, I am still uncertain. I see gray while the proponents of separation and their opponents see black and white. I think, drawing on the insights of my colleague Andrew Arato, that fundamental dilemmas of federation seem to be involved, with no easy answers available to us.

With terrorist attacks becoming a part of everyday life around the world and with authoritarianism already present or on the near horizon, resistance becomes imperative. Jonathan Lerner’s post reporting and reflecting on two clandestine organizations in the United States in the nineteen sixties is, thus, particularly intriguing. He observes how the less well known “Jane,” a women’s network that worked to provide safe abortions when they were still illegal, without the mostly male spectacle of the Weather Underground, achieved tangible results, while both Jane and the Weather Underground exhibited the anti-democratic problems of secrecy. Barbara Ransby has explained how open democratically informed resistance, with democratic means as well as democratic ends, is exhibited by movement for Black lives, and is much preferable. As such it reinvents the political culture of resistance in both its means and its ends.

There is hope in such reinvention, but contrary to the way Barack Obama quoted a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., I know that we cannot be confident that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” especially in light of recent events. In fact, there is evidence that Dr. King didn’t confidently believe this either.

And further, these days, Coates does actually capture the mood of progressives of our times. Even Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,”  appears to be overly hopeful now. Perhaps, we were once, not too long ago, too confident that we democrats had the winds at our backs, but perhaps now, we can only hope that the head winds are not as strong as they seem.

Jeffrey Goldfarb

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