A re-invitation to read Jeffrey C. Isaac’s Notes from Year One
With the Donald Trump now virtually declaring, “L’Etat, c’est moi,” in his attempts to avoid possible indictment, I can think of no better time than now to highlight Public Seminar’s second book, Jeffrey C. Isaac’s brilliant #AgainstTrump: Notes From Year One (for a free download click here).
The book was officially published to coincide with Adam Michnik’s visit to a course Elżbieta Matynia and I were conducting during the Spring semester, Women and Men in Dark Times. In many ways, it was perfect timing. Michnik’s public lecture was brilliant, a version of which we published here. The book inauguration featuring a panel discussion of Isaac’s book, moderated by Deva Woodly, including Adam, Elzbieta, and Jeff and Jeff, was illuminating, especially when Deva pushed us on the limits of liberal democracy. A circle of friendship was renewed as the basis for significant public action. And then later over dinner, we agreed to continue working together, as I have outlined, committing to the renewal of The Democracy Seminar.
Yet, I must admit, in pushing to make this all possible, there were some production errors left in the text, which I am now gratified have been fixed. So this sunny Friday morning, I would like to again underscore how important I think the book is for understanding the primary challenges of our times by publishing here my forward to #Against Trump. Note, it is an appreciation of Isaac’s text, of our friendship, of our work together at Public Seminar, and of the support of The New School in providing the grounds upon which this work is happening.
Public Seminar, Public Seminar Books, and Jeffrey C. Isaac’s # AgainstTrump, are all significant innovations in publishing. Yet they also flow out of a deep intellectual-political tradition of The New School for Social Research, and its engagement with the problems of the times and enduring problems of the human condition: the struggles for cultural freedom and democracy against tyranny. While I am proud of the innovations we are making, I am thrilled that they are serving a critical tradition that is especially dear to me, and especially important now.
The New School was founded in 1919 in response to the threats to academic freedom in the United States during World War I and its aftermath. In 1933, its tradition was strengthened and broadened as the relatively small and underendowed academic enterprise played a big role in rescuing intellectual refugees fleeing Nazi Europe. In the 1980s, in this tradition, a number of my New School colleagues and I, with the active participation of then-president of The New School Jonathan Fanton, engaged with and supported the democratic oppositions in Central Europe in the fight for liberal and democratic values in that part of the world. They were our colleagues. We worked on joint intellectual projects, including a clandestine democracy seminar, held in Budapest, Warsaw and New York, and then after 1989 conducted openly all around the old Soviet bloc. Public Seminar’s founding was informed by these century-long engagements, applying them to the problems and possibilities of twenty-first century public life.
Now, the sad irony: the work of opposing the enemies of democracy and intellectual openness is hitting very close to home, as the imperfect but invaluable norms and practices of American liberal democracy are under frontal attack, not by a foreign dictator, but by the president of the United States and his administration. Understanding, criticizing, and opposing this has become one of Public Seminar’s major themes, and Jeffrey C. Isaac has played a key role.
He first joined Public Seminar as an occasional contributor, writing telling essays on the presidential primaries. The occasions multiplied, and then he and I organized special features: the Election Forum and then the Post Election Forum, and he became a Senior Editor. #AgainstTrump is an outgrowth of these activities.
It’s an illuminating book. The chapters are organized chronologically as they appeared (primarily) on Public Seminar. They reveal critical thought in action. They are “exercises in political thinking,” as Hannah Arendt described her own political essays. And while they present a running commentary on the 2016 elections and the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, they also provide a thick description of the political and cultural challenges of our times, concerning key issues and possibilities.
There is a crisis in the political, cultural, and economic order, about which Isaac has been writing for decades, and the threat of Trumpism is as much a manifestation of this crisis as it is the consequence of the person, Donald Trump. The new authoritarianism is personified in Trump, along with his global cousin, Vladimir Putin, and their many illiberal, as well as anti- liberal colleagues: Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jarosław Kaczyński, Rodrigo Duterte and Miloš Zeman, et al. Yet, these authoritarians and their regimes, with the authoritarianism variously realized, are not just a consequence of a set of personalities.
Isaac, as a self-described left liberal, is fully cognizant of and concerned about social injustice and inequality and the deep challenges of globalization. So many have been left behind. So many fear the foreign and the foreigner. So many are confused, and are convinced by easy solutions to complex problems. Isaac offers sober analysis. As a leftist, he is aware of the limitations of liberalism (“neo-liberalism” so called), but as a liberal, the limitations of leftism are clear. He writes about this with understanding, empathy, and insight, and observes interesting interactions. He presents telling observations and judgments, as he responds to current events and links them to the history of political inquiry in each essay. Democracies die and live. He notes that faced with the alarming, we should sound the alarm without being alarmist. Words matter, and the way Trump uses them is not only hurtful, racist, sexist, and much more, but also could destroy the possibility of democratic life and could yield a nuclear war. The mad authoritarian is supported by more conventional ones, and facilitated by those who don’t take these folks seriously. There are liberal, leftist, and conservative reasons to oppose Trump. Conservative critics are opponents, not enemies. Liberals and leftists should make common cause. There is a difference between a political opponent and an enemy. Both the form and the content of Trump’s tweets are dictatorial. There is something fundamentally disturbing about Trump’s family life, about his relationship with his wives, to be sure, but also in the relationships between the father and the mothers and their children. In this the personal is political in a bizarre way. As we look for reasons for the Trump victory we should proceed modestly. Talking to adversaries is preferable to shouting them down.
In sum, he identifies an authoritarian threat, and counsels that those who recognize it should unite in opposition and resist, as they recognize that their differences should be resolved democratically.
As I read these chapters and as we have worked with each other these past few years, Isaac and I have forged a friendship. We had known each other for decades, though only as corresponding colleagues, first through letters and later through email and Facebook, including video chats. We feel close to each other, but haven’t actually met, as of this writing. We will meet for the first time the day of publication and at the book launch of #AgainstTrump, which will include a dialogue between Adam Michnik and Isaac about the book, followed by a reception. There is poetry in this that I think provides insight into the book project and the contributions it makes.
As I recall, Isaac wrote me in the early 1990s about my book Beyond Glasnost: The Post-Totalitarian Mind. The book’s title is misleading, the result of a bad deal I made with The University of Chicago Press. Finished at the time of Glasnost, what proved to be the last years of the Soviet Union, and before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I agreed to put the word glasnost in the title, and the press in turn agreed to market it as a trade book. There is only a closing reflection on glasnost, in which I maintain the real alternative is not in this new official ideology, but beyond such ideology. The book, in fact, is an analysis of the radical social, cultural, and political alternatives to ideological communism and anti- communism emerging from Central Europe. It is in this sense an analysis of the mind after totalitarianism. It is a reflection on practical experiences of Solidarność and the actions that preceded Solidarność in Poland, and similar practical experiences among Poland’s neighbors. It also presents a critical review of the writing of a number of key authors whose work informed these experiences and was informed by these experiences, including Václav Havel and Milan Kundera of Czechoslovakia, György Konrád of Hungary, and Stanistaw Barańczak and Adam Michnik of Poland, among others. Our responses to these thinkers brought Jeff and I together.
My memory is fuzzy. I long ago lost the copy of the letter Isaac wrote, but I seem also to remember that he followed up with a phone call, hoping to make contact with Michnik, who I believe he wanted to invite to Indiana University. This is important here and now because I realize what I had labeled the post-totalitarian mind back then, informs Isaac’s, and also my, thinking about the current crisis now. Isaac never believes that there is a singular simple answer to complex problems. He knows about the perilous relationship between truth and politics. He seeks to understand and make common cause with people who think differently than he, and to understand his opponents as fully as possible. He is not naïve and doesn’t know that everything will work out in the end, but he looks for hopeful openings and then is willing to act. He writes clearly and directly, seeking to communicate, not to assert authority.
And beyond these positive qualities, there is the awareness of darkness. We both have dear friends in East Central Europe, he in Romania, I in Poland, and we have learned a lot from them about the horrors of the twentieth century and resistance to these horrors. We see foreboding echoes of those horrors now. As left liberals, we, with sorrow, note that everything that has been accomplished in the past decades is under attack. As American observers, we see that the struggle to constitute decent normal democratic society in East and Central Europe seems to be failing, as we observe the same problems closer to home.
Enervating despair is a temptation, but Isaac looks for guidance in a political intellectual tradition that animates the sensibility that informs the chapters of #Against Trump. We turn to the same people for guidance.
Isaac here: “One place to look would be to Tony Judt’s short book The Burdens of Responsibility, which brilliantly elucidates three exemplary modalities of twentieth-century anti-totalitarian resistance relevant to our present: Leon Blum’s party-political opposition to fascism, Albert Camus’s ‘rebellious politics’ of resistance (and Resistance), and Raymond Aron’s ‘engaged spectatorship.’ Each of those figures sounded an alarm without being alarmist. Each enacted a kind of conscientious resistance to authoritarianism that was not moralizing and that was linked to a sense of real political agency and possibility. A second place to look would be to those who in fact organized successful resistance to communism in Eastern Europe only a few decades ago: not Palach, but Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, Miklós Haraszti, György Konrád, János Kis, and Jacek Kuroń. Some of these people are now gone. Many of them live and continue to oppose authoritarianism.”
Thus, the poetry of the fact that the first public discussion about #AgainstTrump will be between Isaac and Michnik. I am imagining a hopeful, though soberly considered, link between the past and the future. Such thought, such sensibility, informs these chapters.
Public Seminar is dedicated to promoting engaged and relevant thinking of this kind, building upon the great traditions of The New School. We are excited to be launching our new book imprint in collaboration with OR Books. And we hope that more and more colleagues will join us, as readers, as writers, and as contributors to a global republic of letters dedicated to the promotion of liberal values in an illiberal time.
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.