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The Global Civil War

Gray Reflections on a Gray Friday Morning

It’s a cultural war that here and there sometimes includes guns. It is hard to see the end of it, short of victory or defeat, as it is important to realize it has long been with us. The war is being fought as a struggle between the good guys and the bad guys, and it seems to be all-important to know which side you are on.

I have my gray doubts.

There was a time when it appeared to be just the struggle of the old versus the new: “the old time religion” versus modern ways, with a clear and happy ending.

My first experience with the war in these terms was as a teenager, I learned about the Scopes Trial, which I researched after watching the classic film Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy. In my first year in college, I received a bad grade in a required survey science course when I submitted a paper demonstrating that the religious fundamentalists and the teachers of evolution both had truth on their side. This was after taking my first sociology course, an early experience of the limited tolerance for interdisciplinary inquiry.

As a sociology student, I learned about the progression and necessary outcome of “modernization,” the idea that modern ways of doing things replaced traditional ways, with a specific set of characteristics – the division of labor (social differentiation), urbanization, secularization, modern science, and depending on your ideology, democratic capitalism or socialism. All these advances were purported to have specific preconditions. Thus spoke, among many others, Talcott Parsons.

Now, of course, this is rejected, subjected to serious scholarly criticism in one field after another, disproved dramatically by the course of events. The component characteristics of “the modern” are now the grounds for cultural wars. Facts and interpretations often confront each other with little reason, as in the American Environmental Protection Agency, where climate change denial is empowering environmental destruction. And the natural fit between purported parts of the modern whole are critically revealed to be non-existent, as Joan Scott reveals in her new book on Sex and Secularism, which she and Judith Butler discussed here.

What is called fundamentalism is a contemporary development, and no less modern than the forces that oppose it. The civil wars of our world are between imagined fundamentals, both religious and secular. Liberal Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and seculars have more in common than their conservative and reactionary counterparts. The way we deal or don’t deal with differences seems to be key.

I am struck by the fact that these days the war has become more a matter of form, than of content, that the media have become central to political message and also the grounds for hope.

I have been thinking a lot about George Soros recently, as he has been demonized by anti-democrats around the world. We’ve re-posted an open letter by Michael Ignatieff, protesting the escalating repression of the Central European University in Hungary. “Soros mercenaries” are being publicly identified and vilified by in a private-public media campaign. Things have gotten so bad there that the Soros Foundations are moving their Central European operations from Budapest, the city of Soros’s birth, to Berlin. Please note the irony that Berlin has become the center of diversity and openness in Europe.

I have long been moved by Soros’s remarkable support of democratic activists and scholars around the world. I thought years ago that he should be considered as a serious candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, as I met one veteran dissident and promising young scholar after another who had positive prospects as a result of Soros’s support through his many philanthropic activities. I have met two Nobel Laureates in my life, Lech Walesa and Czeslaw Milosz, and Soros seems to be in their league, especially now as he stands for all that the new authoritarians oppose, and he and the people he supports remain steadfast in their commitment to the form of open, as opposed to closed, societies. Perhaps we should nominate him, even though we know that he is an aggressive capitalist, whose speculations should be controlled.

The global civil war sometimes appears as the classic battle between left and right, as Todd Gitlin put it here, “the right’s walls and the left’s commons.” Yet, of course, there are those on the left who jump to build barricades and “punch Nazis in the face” all too quickly. Gitlin knows this quite well.

I appreciate Elzbieta Matynia’s search for hope in the kapias of bridges. “The kapia, this square on the bridge, was a place where those who would otherwise not meet could look at each other, sit together, and get to know each other.” She sees in the built environment, an artifact that not only symbolizes, but also facilitates bridging of differences with mutual respect and regard.

The world of human making, artifacts, the built world, facilitates and undermines openness. Michael Weinman and Geoff Lehman show how the architecture of the classical building, the Parthenon, married mathematics and liberal ideals. 

Less hopeful, in fact downright depressing, is that we make things that make matters much worse, as Hakan Topal has reported here in his remarkable artistic research on the border of Turkey with Syria. “Vicious infrastructure” not only symbolizes repression but enforces it in the security dams, military fortresses and mosques of the “new Turkey.”

With this in mind, I read with great interest Samantha Oliver’s “No Offense to Robert Musil, but…” on the continuing relevance of monuments. It reminded me of a seminar I took with Edward Shils on tradition, in which he also declared that monuments and memorials were a thing of the past. Both Musil and Shils had in mind monuments of triumph, of victory over the adversary, of official ideals confirmed. What they missed was how monuments can be and are now used, as they intentionally open space. They are media for democratic life. I reflected upon this aspect of memorials in the classic of its form, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin, in “To Write Poetry After Auschwitz is (Not!) Barbaric.

In terms of the columns we present here, monuments open up space for the blue, the purple and the gray.

In Jeffrey C. Isaac’s weekly posts, he uses a blues’ sensibility and blues music to comment on his political and (for the first time this week) personal pressing concerns. The elegance of this piece and the series is that they show how loss and yearning, despair and hope, are linked.

I note today that various media, including stone and sound, can enable such expression, moving beyond the black and white.

Claire Potter, in her purple posts, also goes beyond black and white. She listens carefully to those with whom she disagrees, and respects and learns from them, even when she continues to disagree. She is on the bridge at Matynia’s kapia, reporting to us what people we normally don’t meet are thinking and doing. Given our social situations and the structure of our bifurcated public sphere, we don’t meet them, but Potter shows why we should pay attention.

And each Friday, I try to explain not only that the gray is the only alternative to the civil war we are experiencing, with a necessity of compromise, but also that gray is beautiful because it includes others whose humanity we deny only at the price of our own.

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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