ColumnsFeatureFirst DraftsGray FridayLetters

The Radical Center and The Politics of the Gray

Notes on the implications of the social condition for an understanding of politics

Over the past three months, I have been publishing weekly Gray Friday posts, reflecting on the events of the day and enduring human problems, and considering how contributions to Public Seminar inform my appreciation of the beauty of the gray. Today, I will begin to explain the political implications I draw from my appreciation of the gray: first with a compact declaration, followed by eight reflective notes. More to follow in upcoming posts on the radical center.

As I observe the social condition, and judge, therefore, that gray is beautiful, I radically commit myself to the political center. I know that there are tensions built into social life that cannot be resolved simply, and that in fact attempts at singular simple solutions make matters worse. I, therefore, know that my primary commitment should be to the free and fruitful interaction among alternative perspectives. This is my commitment to the center. It’s informed by my scholarship, and informs my public practices, including the making of Public Seminar. It has a special urgent quality in these times.

1. There are excellent grounds, from the left, the right and the center to oppose Donald Trump and his regime of “post truth authoritarianism.” Though the specific circumstances are different, there are also excellent grounds, from the left, right and center to oppose Trump’s fellow authoritarians: Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jarosław Kaczyński, Rodrigo Duterte and Miloš Zeman, et al. The common grounds for opposition to these authoritarians need to be identified, supported and extended. Different perspectives need to be understood.

2. Many have noted the common political threat, and there has been intriguing debate about what it is exactly we are up against. Neo-fascism, populism, and illiberal democracy have been examined here. Each of these terms suggest different diagnoses. They offer intriguing alternative accounts, which I consider not as competing theories, but as enriching interpretations, thick descriptions of the new authoritarianism (the term I first used until I came to understand next reflection as central).

3. The aforementioned approaches to understanding the political threat needs to be supplemented by a cultural analysis of the new authoritarianism, specifically an analysis of the relationship between truth and power. I see a pattern suggested by the work of Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism. Traditional tyranny and modern tyranny are distinguishable in that the latter conflates truth and power absolutely and systematically, revealed in the definitive relationship between ideology and terror, while traditional tyranny does not. I explore this in my book on the post totalitarian mind. It is now time for an update. In traditional tyranny, compliance to the tyrant is central. In modern tyranny, compliance to the official ideology is central, which makes alternative theories wrong and facts infinitely malleable. Now in post modern tyranny, both fact and interpretation are infinitely malleable. Note how this applies to modern Turkey as Can Mert Kökerer analysis suggests here.  And of course it applies to Donald Trump as he makes up facts daily and as he offers alternative and contradictory explanations for his actions from moment to moment. He is completely free from serious intellectual commitments, as Michelle Goldberg noted in today’s New York Times.

4. This flexibility towards fact and interpretation is my gravest political concern. Therefore my primary commitment is to the defense of facts and a multiplicity of perspectives that confront each other. I want to know what conservatives, liberals, leftists and rightists have to say for themselves. I also know, as a student of Hannah Arendt, that some things exist or have existed, and that denying this destroys the possibility of pursuing the good, the beautiful and the true, even as I know that the pursuit will never be completely successful.

5. Does this mean that I am a centrist? Perhaps it does. Yet, I still feel close to my leftist past, as I reported here when I observed the significance of of the book The Making of Black Lives Matter. But I also learn from conservative thinkers and have a impatience with the ideological cant and clichéd thought of some of my friends and colleagues on the left.

6. I am a radical centrist. I am committed to a center where people of different experiences, opinions, judgments and commitments meet, reveal what they know and think, and decide their differences democratically.

7. I am not a moderate centrist. I am not committed to the opinions in the middle. That which stands between left and right is not necessarily wise or sound. I have radical commitments, among them to racial, gender and sexual justice and against all sorts of inequalities, to cultural excellence and freedom. I know that these commitments are sometimes in tension and I therefore appreciate the gray, but I don’t think that compromise is necessarily a good thing, as I have explained in an earlier post, I know that often it isn’t.

8. My self identity on the left persists. On almost every political issue my opinions are those of the left. But I know that I don’t know everything. I thus arrive at a variation on a theme of Socrates: when it comes to political judgment and identity (a certain measure of) confusion is a virtue, while (excessive) clarity is a vice.

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

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

Previous post

Courage Before the Break

Next post

In Love’s Shadow