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A Post on Friendship, Love and Power

On the Power of the Powerless in Dark Times

“There are a great many things which cannot withstand the implacable, bright light of the constant presence of others on the public scene; there, only what is considered to be relevant, worthy of being seen and heard, can be tolerated…there are very relevant matters which can survive only in the realm of the private. For instance love, in distinction from friendship, is killed, or rather extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public.”

Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, p. 51

I have long been intrigued by this quote. While I know that the assertion of love’s necessary intimacy needs to be critically considered (which I will address in the conclusion of this post), these days I am especially struck by the public importance of friendship. I am becoming convinced that a key resource for opposing the clear and present global dangers of post truth authoritarianism is friendship. I base this conviction on personal experience, thinking about four of my friends: Elżbieta Matynia, Adam Michnik, Jeffrey C. Isaac and Claire Potter.

Elżbieta and I met in Poland, years ago, as I described in my post on the course we are teaching together, Women and Men in Dark Times. This is the first time we are co-teaching, even though we have worked together over the years on a long list of public projects that support the development of a free public life and democracy. She was my major guide in Poland when I was researching my dissertation, and she helped me master the Polish language. Her first English instructor was my two year old daughter, Brina, when they watched Sesame Street together. I am told by our teaching assistants that a key to our class’s excitement promises to be not only the marvelous outside speakers we are bringing to the class, Jacob Dlamini, Melvin Rogers, Shireen Hassim, Leonardo Sakamoto, Krzysztof Czyżewski, Adam Michnik and Ann Snitow, (invited to join us as friends), but also how Elżbieta and I reveal our friendship, as we are teaching.

We are also both friends with Adam Michnik. Adam is famous. He is admired (and vilified) by millions of people. As a “dissident,” his writing, speech and action anticipated, facilitated and explained the fall of the Soviet Empire, and he has been a major political actor in post communist Poland as the editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, a, if not the, major Polish newspaper, with roots in the clandestine press before 1989. He is now a prominent public enemy of Poland’s new authoritarians.

Adam and I first met when I went to Poland to present to him an honorary doctorate from The New School, in December of 1984 (he was sitting in jail at the time of the New York ceremony). We spent a luminous week together, when he made a point of introducing me to his circle of friends in the Polish opposition. We consequently created together a clandestine network of “Democracy Seminars,” starting with our mutual friends, in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel and in Hungary, György Bence.

Adam has playfully met my children, explaining to them that his “dog has fleas,” as he was making his attempts to learn English on a leave at The New School. We have met each other numerous times in Warsaw, Krakow and New York since 1984. And he has become very close with my friend Elżbieta, who has written brilliantly about him and worked with him on many projects.

One of Adam’s most striking gifts is his powerful memory. He has hundreds, if not thousands, of friends, I imagine. He remembers our names and joyfully recalls the details of our relationships with him and our accomplishments. These are political gifts that Adam demonstrates with sincerity, which is strengthened by his incredibly sharp humor and powerful capacity to tell a joke.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is a distinguished political theorist. He is a highly accomplished scholar, the author of Democracy in Dark Times, and Arendt, Camus and Modern Rebellion, among other major books and articles. We have never met each other, though we are anticipating doing so when Adam comes to lecture in Elżbieta and my “Dark Times” course in April.

Jeff and I corresponded by snail mail starting in the early 1990s, I believe first about his wanting to work and meet with Adam (which he has). In recent years, we started intensive email and Facebook exchanges, leading to Public Seminar’s “Election Forum,” “Post Election Forum,” and “Liberal Democracy in Question” vertical. An important result of this will be the publication of a collection of his contributions to PS as our second book Against Trump: Notes from Year One. I am hoping that we will manage to publish the book at the time he visits Public Seminar in April. All of this will be visibly presented on Public Seminar.

Claire Potter is my relatively new New School friend, colleague and co-conspirator. She is The Tenured Radicala powerful historian and writer, a blogging celebrity. I knew of her as an appreciative reader of her blog on The Chronicle of Higher Education. We first met online. I published a piece on Public Seminar and she wrote me a note of appreciation. One thing led to another: she contributed to PS. We spoke about its future. She joined us as a senior editor and has since been promoted to “Executive Editor,” as I was promoted to “Publisher.” (I find these titles humorous by the way, an inside joke among friends, as I noted in my New Year’s post.) Our offices are now next to each other, across from the Public Seminar workspace.

Claire and I don’t only work on the day to day of PS and its future on a regular basis; we also have come to know each other well and have become friends. As a result, because she is a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic,  I will watch the Super Bowl for the first time in years this Sunday. (Despite my profound reservations about American football.) We joyfully provide a platform for the contributors to Public Seminar, as well as opportunities for the students who work with us, in what I think can accurately be described as a friendly environment.

Elżbieta, Adam, Jeff and Claire are my friends. We have much in common, and our friendship is the grounds of the work we do together. We share sensibilities. My weekly Gray Friday column is based on the writing, speech and action of Adam. Claire’s weekly Purple Wednesday column is motivated by a desire to see one’s political adversaries as opponents, not as enemies. This also is related to Adam’s writings on The Church and the Left. And starting next week, Jeff is going to be contributing a regular “Blue Monday” post, combining his insights as a political theorist and a jazz musician.

We are a diverse bunch, with different personal experiences and insights, though they seem to relate nicely. As public light is dimming, we can work together not only because we share convictions and judgments, but also because we like and trust each other, and we are glad to show this to others. Ours is a particular example of a general story, a variation on a general theme, I believe. Critical reasoning, political judgment and affection combine to make it possible for people to work well together. Friendship, as Arendt maintains, is a public activity. Through friendship people develop a capacity to act together, what she thinks is the power of politics, as an alternative to coercion. Adam’s close friend Vaclav Havel named this “the power of the powerless.” I analyze it as The Politics of Small Things. It’s an alternative needed now more than ever. In the face of the threatening dimness of authoritarian rule, people must figure out ways to speak and act together. Friendship makes this possible.

On the other hand, there is the matter of love, which Arendt maintained publicity kills. I get it as I embrace my loved ones and think that the embrace might become less meaningful if it were shown beyond us. This is what motivates me to make my Facebook page about public matters with almost nothing about my private life. Yet, I know some people think differently, and I also understand that there are dangers in this. Intimacy, sexuality and coercive power can make a toxic blend, revealed these days by the global #MeToo movement. I appreciate the insights revealed here in the posts on Sweden, Hungary, the United States and beyond. I especially appreciate Ali Shames-Dawson’s careful thought about the complex relationship between sex, power and human agency confronting the pressing dilemmas of “ethical sex.” Despite Arendt, this must be made public. Good, bad and reprehensible sex should be a matter of public concern.

A few final comments on Public Seminar this week. I thought that Bryan W. Van Norden’s excerpt, “Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto” was especially telling as nationalism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia are so dominant on the public stage. It is important to realize that this is not only about them, “the uneducated masses,” but also among us, “refined educated philosophers.”

I also noted with critical interest Assad Asil Companioni and Kurtis Brade post on “the sinister side of unity discourse.” I think they are on the mark in noting the limitations of the metaphor of the organism for explaining social life, but as with many critics of conservative models of society, I think they overlook the necessity of having some sort of singular public in polities. Without a minimally unified sphere of publics, the new authoritarianism we are now experiencing flourishes, as I tried to demonstrate here. Democracies do live and die, as Jeff Isaac reminds us, and death is on the horizon in the United States. As I complete writing today, the President and a faction of his party seem to be at war with the rule of law. A constitutional crisis looms: dark times desperately needing the illumination that friendship can support.

With that in mind, be on the lookout for our the publication of the first of a Public Seminar Books series: #Charlottesville: Before and Beyond. Available here on Monday.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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