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By Any Means Necessary?

Reflecting on the Book Launch of # Charlottesville: Before and Beyond

We had a party last night, a book launch of #Charlottesville: Before and Beyond. It was a great event, a milestone, inspiring and gratifying. Hard work has yielded important results. I am personally pleased that my intuition that there is room on the web for critical consideration of significant issues, informed by disciplined inquiry and practice, addressing a general informed public, has been materially confirmed in the book (the ebook is available in a pay as you wish download, the expanded paperback will be available for preorder in a few weeks, and shipping in a few months from OR Books).

But even more, I am thrilled that we have created a creative community that together proves the intuition day to day, showing the promise of the web to create opportunities for serious informed deliberations, with a capacity to make a difference.

The night also highlighted the connection between work on the web, on the page and in face to face interaction: from web posts to ebook to the printed word, all realized in embodied interaction: at the party, in classrooms and as people act in concert politically and socially.

The book launch was a celebration of this capacity. Sociologist that I am, it seemed to me that it was an evening of collective effervescence, as Emile Durkheim might have described it. We celebrated our collective capacity, as we demonstrated it to ourselves, and, through our work, to a broader growing public.

Ali Shanes Dawson read from Vice Mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy’s opening chapter of the book, describing the horror:

“I want to be clear: I am from the Deep South. I have heard countless stories about the K.K.K., about white supremacists and other groups who despise the color of my skin, doing a variety of hateful and vile things to try and intimidate us. So as I sat in the church, and the news broke that white supremacists were outside with tiki torches, my initial thoughts and feelings made my blood boil. I desperately wanted to fight. I wanted to show that this will not be tolerated, accepted, or allowed in our city! I wanted the people in the church to know that things were going to be okay. However, I could do neither. I’m the vice-mayor. I can’t. I have to remain calm and I have to remain composed.”

Bellamy further expresses his resolve to resist the horror:

“Many people have called the days, the weeks, and the months that have followed, ‘The Awakening.’ Black people, white people, yellow people, old people, young people, and everyone in between have now seen the hateful ways of the white supremacists who worked to overthrow our city”

Reverend Marcus Toure B. McCullough, a pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church offered his tragic and provocative reflections underscoring the persistence of white supremacy in American life:

“So let me get this straight: the presence of military-grade guns and fire-and hate- filled chanting is not enough to bring in police but one prophetic cry—“Black lives matter!”—is enough and then some?

To my great dismay, I was not surprised. Nor was I enraged, shocked, or frankly, even appalled at the blatant displays of white supremacist ideology. How could I be surprised? Enraged? How could I feel a surge of such powerful emotion when this felt like nothin’ new under the sun?

The lack of law enforcement in the face of an overtly threatening demonstration led by white supremacists felt familiar. It seemed that to be surprised would mean that you’d been lucky enough
 to be blind to what it’s like to be Black in this country, to carry and live the weight of Black history and Black present.”

And further provocation: Eric Anthamatten a New York philosopher and alum of The New School’s philosophy department, drew upon the tragic insights of Jean Améry to reflect on the imperative of “punching fascists in the face.” It is revealed in Charlottesville in the march of “Unite the Right,” but is very much with us “before and beyond,” in the infamous celebrities Anthamatten considers:

“Maybe there are other, more effective ways to stand against the Richard Spencers and Milo Yiannopouloses of the world. But the two punches — that of the torturer and that of the tortured—are not equivalent, logically, morally, or otherwise. the first punch destroys. the second restores. The first punch is death. The second is life. The first punch is the enemy of humanity. The second punch is a friend, maybe even a hero, with the courage to confront the face of the enemy.”

I also read a fragment from my chapter highlighting the intimate connection we have with the event of Charlottesville and our difficulties in adequately responding to it:

“We are all in Charlottesville. We have been there before, and during, and will be there after the events of August 11 and 12, 2017. And there’s no exit. The white supremacy and racism, supported by state power, monumentalized in words and stone, and resisted through all imaginable means, started with colonial settlement…, and there are no signs that this is ending soon. The struggles for alternatives to the reprehensible persists, as does the project of squelching alternatives, demonstrated by the repeatedly equivocal responses to Charlottesville by the president of the United States.

While only a small number of people involved in the Charlottesville events were physically present, the rest of us were also directly involved through our mediated experience. Such is the nature of media events.

My theoretically informed observation: we are actually there much more than we realize. My political concern: we aren’t there together. We are there isolated in our mediated silos, and this has significant political consequences.”

The presentations revealed how we are realizing the mission of Public Seminar:

“Confronting fundamental problems of the human condition and pressing problems of the day, using the broad resources of social research, we seek to provoke critical and informed discussion by any means necessary.”

I came up with this motto for Public Seminar four years ago, in consultation with a small group of colleagues. Last night, it was demonstrated as speakers read from book chapters. It is even more clearly revealed in the book itself, and in our continuing flow of posts.

Notes on this week: we are publishing a series of interviews leading up to the International Women’s strike. They reveal the experience of living at the intersections of the challenges of class, race and gender, a pressing issue, concerning an enduring problem.

Also on such intersection is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s reflections on the radical implications of the movements for black lives and the recent student mobilization against guns. On a more historical note, Maria Burcur argues that feminism was much more central to the transformational year 1968 than is generally recognized in historical accounts. By the way, as an activist in those times, I feel I must acknowledge that her argument conforms to my memory. As I reflected on last week, there was a rich diversity of movements that were emerging simultaneously, richly connected to each other.

And such diversity is characteristic of our times, as revealed in our featured essays, letters and columns. From our ongoing critical analyses of #MeToo, to Claire Potter’s incredibly illuminating live blogging from CPAC see here and here, and her continuing Purple Wednesday column, along with my Gray Friday pieces, and Jeffrey C. Isaac’s Blue Monday contributions.

The Blue Monday posts are particularly significant in that they get at what I meant when asserting that we would inform the public “by any means necessary” in our motto. I was playing with the implication that this may include “punching Nazis in the face.” But I actually reject that. I meant, rather, to ironically underscore the project of using a full range of cultural capacities to provoke informed, critical discussion. This is beautifully presented by Isaac, as he combines his mastery of political theory and jazz, to offer commentary on pressing issues of our times through the written word and music.

This brings me to a key post by Elzbieta Matynia, with whom I am now teaching the course Women and Men in Dark Times. This shortened version of her keynote address, delivered at the conference Dramaturgies of Resistance — International Artistic Positions on Freedom and Repression, in Greifswald, Germany on January 26, 2018, also utilizes artistic form to inform critical reflection, showing how the arts of performance, and a full range of the arts and sciences, can overcome the power of the punch.

We at Public Seminar are working to use this full range in a variety of different media, now including a book. It was great to celebrate it together last night. I trust it is just the beginning of such celebrations with each other and with an ever broadening public.

Jeffrey C. 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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