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Gray is Beautiful Revisited

On the Politics of Sex and the Crisis of Democracy at Home and Abroad

This week I am returning to my appreciation of the color gray, a theme I promised to explore regularly here, which unfortunately I have only returned to occasionally, and not recently. I am returning to the theme on this the darkest of days — I started writing this during the winter solstice — because of recent events near and far from home. I am also returning to the theme because I want to explore the relationship between an appreciation of the beauty of gray and the need to sometimes make strong distinctions, to see and act upon stark black and white differences. In my private life, I am surrounded by artists, but these reflections are about politics, particularly about democracy, though they may have some aesthetic implications.

You may have noticed that there is a developing crisis at The New School. As in many social and institutional settings, there is great controversy over the matter of sexual harassment and Title IX, or as Claire Potter more directly puts it over the politics of sex at universities, and specifically at our university. Cases preceded #MeToo and no doubt will follow it, but things will never be the same.

Read Andrew Arato’s post, including the responses to it, and Potter’s post, and you will appreciate the dimensions and intensity of the issue as we are experiencing it. I will not go into the details, because I am not sufficiently informed, nor do I think that I have the expertise to explore all of the implications. But I do want to add some personal and gray notes.

The accounts of sexual assault and harassment that have become public are shocking. I find myself nauseated by the details, overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of a profound problem. I know that clear and radical action is required.

I also must admit that I am confused. When someone demands a no tolerance policy, I am persuaded, as I recall that the complex relationship that exists between means and ends, about how the way we act in public defines our goals and principles. This included my initial response to Kirsten Gillebrand’s leadership on the resignation of Al Franken.

But on the other hand, I recognize that there is an erotic dimension in human relations, perhaps especially the mentor-student relationship. Blanket denial and repression don’t make sense. I agree with Potter who bluntly maintains: “The policing of consensual sex is something that we should vigorously resist, even as we evolve to recognize abusive behavior that is sexual, that must be addressed through well articulated community standards, and that sometimes might cause us to recognize that abuses of trust render someone unfit for a teaching career.”

I find Laura Kipnis’s arguments against sexual paranoia on campuses persuasive and her legal struggles appalling, but I also find criticism of her arguments cogent. I know that universities, including my own, need agreed upon standards and clear guidelines concerning the abuse of students, junior faculty and staff (sexual and otherwise), but I note with deep concern how this has fostered a Title IX bureaucracy (Hannah Arendt: bureaucracy = rule by no one) and fear that fine distinctions and alternative understandings will not be adequately considered. We must act upon specifics, paying close attention to detail.

In sum, I know that the politics of sex at universities is not black and white, but I also know that recognizing its gray hues can and has covered up the abominations revealed in the #MeToo era. We as a university community have to muddle through this together doing the best we can. I am pretty sure that we have to do it with an awareness of the grayness of being, and that it cannot be cleanly and efficiently administered.

Nonetheless, please note. I also know that sometimes things are straightforward as Natalia Mehlman Petrzela reports on #MeToo and the Message Envy scandal. There is irony but no ambiguity: as massage has moved from a cover for prostitution to an integral part of body wellness practices, using massage as a cover for sexual assault is a sexual abuse scandal. There is a need to call out abhorrent action, to oppose it completely, to apply the law. Of course, the same applies to universities.

Recognizing when things are clear and when they are not, when they require an appreciation of the beauty of the gray, is a matter of judgment, and our judgments will not be the same. This should be the domain of democratic politics, a domain in crisis in the current wider political environment, which has also been on my mind this week.

There has been a systematic attack in the United States this week on the FBI and Robert Mueller’s investigation of coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government’s interference in the American elections of 2016. The state ideological apparatus, i.e., the White House, Fox News and their media and political associates, are directly attacking the rule of law in the United States, as they attack “fake news” media outlets that do not propagate the official truth. In the meantime in Poland, where I was an eyewitness to a successful self limiting democratic revolution, a tragic counterrevolution is now well advanced, as Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer reported here yesterday. The independent judiciary is being destroyed, laying the groundwork for a return to one party rule. All the work of a broad cross-section of society to constitute a decent democratic Poland is being squandered. I am deeply saddened for my many friends and colleagues there.

In this environment, in Poland, the United States and in the many other places where liberal democracy is under attack, it is imperative to identify the threat, clearly and unambiguously, and to proceed with an appreciation that opposition to dictatorship requires working with people who have a diverse set of experiences, concerns and principles.

I am a strong believer in being open to a broad range of political and theoretical positions and perspectives. I have learned a lot from Marxists and anti-Marxists, liberals and anti-liberals, conservatives and anti-conservatives, and appreciate how politics based on these positions have yielded positive democratic outcomes, especially as they confront each other. And I believe this position is not necessarily one of moderation, but of democratic commitment that can have and has had revolutionary implications. Adam Michnik’s The Church, The Left, Dialogue is my primary guide for this, a text which played an important supporting role in the development of Solidarnosc, enabling the making of a broad social movement cutting across social class and ideological divides in opposition to dictatorship and empire. Finding grounds for common action among those who disagree is important.

Yet, forthrightly opposing systemic injustice is also crucial. This is also a theme of Michnik’s thought and action, and is required of us now. We at The New School and beyond must fully commit ourselves to developing a learning environment free of sexual harassment, coercion and assault, as we understand and respect our differences in achieving this goal. And we in countries where the counter (anti-democratic) revolution is well advanced must find our common grounds to oppose, as we work together in our differences.

I must admit that this is easier to assert than to achieve.

While reading Nancy Fraser’s post this week I was struck by the difficulties involved. As is always the case with my friend and colleague, Fraser’s post is powerfully presented and clearly reasoned. The crisis in the United States is not primarily about Trump, and it is not “merely” political. It’s systemic, and about the fading hegemony of progressive neo-liberalism and about the hegemonic battle between progressive populism, on the one hand, and reactionary populism (candidate Trump) and hyper reactionary neo-liberalism (President Trump) on the other. There is a crisis, a systemic impasse, and the way out is a progressive populism built on an understanding that the injustices of race and class are two sides of one coin, “the shared roots of class and status injustices in financialized capitalism.”

I am impressed with the sweep and assurance of Fraser’s account. She knows that the enemy all along was neo-liberalism, and that the progressive version is no better, and in some ways much worse, than the reactionary version, because of its effectiveness. Obama appears in her account as a neo-liberal lackey who blew the opportunity to overturn the neo-liberal system, choosing instead to restore it. (Following the model of FDR?)

Clinton was no better than Trump. Fraser knows that the solution to the crisis, political and beyond politics must be “at least anti-neoliberal, if not anti-capitalist.” And she has a large vision: “Such a project can become a historical force only when embodied in a counter-hegemonic bloc. Distant though the prospect may seem right now, our best chance for a subjective-cum-objective resolution is progressive populism. But even that might not be a stable endpoint. Progressive populism could end up being transitional — a way station en route to some new, post-capitalist form of society.”

Line by line, I disagree with the details of Fraser’s account, as I am impressed by its sweep. The clarity of her on high theoretical account is quite impressive. I know that some readers of this post and hers will think her sound and me suspect. There is irony in this, perhaps even tragedy. I think that Fraser and I would generally agree on the contours of a good and just society, combining political freedom and economic justice, but I fear that we can’t work with each other in the here and now. And crucially, we must agree that the here and now is the domain of consequential political action. It should be a democratic domain, and therefore gray, as Michnik maintained in his “Gray is Beautiful” essay. Fraser, along with other theorists of grand sweep, present an object of beauty, but I think in the process they undermine the possibilities of democracy, as it is being attacked most directly right now by the dictators in the making, such as Donald Trump in the United States, and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. That Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Donald Tusk, and all they represent, are the real problem completely baffles me.

A final note of appreciation and further explanation: the beauty of the gray is demonstrated by Heather Prescott knitting “pussy hats” in defying Trump and Jennifer Stitt, practicing and celebrating solitary contemplation in dark times. And it is also enacted by Podemos as it confronts the messy political landscape in Spain and Europe, offering a radical alternative, as revealed in an interview here with Íñigo Errejón.

My appreciation of the beauty of gray is based on an understanding of the complexities of the social condition. (There is probably no aspect of social life that this is more strikingly a concern than when power and sexuality meet.) I know I have to explain more fully. I promise you I will. In fact, in the near future, I am planning to publish a sustained in-depth post on the social condition. I will also try to be more explicit in explaining my concern about overly clear and comprehensive accounts of history and social life: my working title for that post is “The Tyranny of Theory.”

Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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