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A Public Seminar Happy New Year?

Reflections between hope and despair, with musical accompaniment

I wanted to declare, without hesitation: Happy New Year! But I couldn’t, as New Year’s celebrations passed. I fear a very unhappy one, with more of what we have been experiencing. Democracy, free speech, academic freedom, human rights, and the movements for class, gender, sexual, and racial justice are all under attack. Even the survival of the species and life on the earth are in question. I worry, deeply, although I want to be happy. I struggle with despair. As I write this post, I am listening to Bobby McFerrin to lift my spirits.

I am desperately seeking hope (along with many of you, I realize). I thought the midterm elections presented a choice between a continued escalation of a kind of postmodern barbarism or a more civil alternative, as reported here. I am heartened, happily noting the forthright rejection of barbarism in the results.

But so many unsettling developments continue. Madman Trump and his mad colleagues at home and abroad keep up their unrelenting attacks on decency. And he is now cornered.

While, the evidence of his corruption has been mounting, while many of his close associates have been charged with and convicted of crimes, and while others, with principles, working for his administration, have been resigning, he has become ever more erratic. He has not yet faced a major crisis not of his own making. I dread what will happen when he does. The way he responded to the election results, the way he announced the pull out from Syria (which I am not against, in principle), the way he is responding to a downturn in the stock market, and the way he is creating and responding to the partial shutdown of the Federal government, all indicate profound dangers.

These dangers are echoed and reinforced around the world. As things seem to be falling apart, conventional ways of ordering the economic, political and social order are being rejected, and new authoritarian leaders are ascendant, offering easy solutions, built on new and ancient resentments, to complex problems and confusions. I have friends who think that this presents opportunities for what they blissfully name “populism of the left.” But where they see a silver lining in the clouds, I see more clouds. The true believers and authoritarians, left and right, are just as frightening in this century as in the last, in my judgment. Democratic opposition is developing, but it quite possibly will not prevail.

I especially worry as the authoritarians attack the free, open, intelligent and consequential public life (the core principle of what I call “my radical centrism”) that is necessary for an effective resistance to the new worldwide darkness. The attacks persist without pause, from Trump’s charges against “fake news” and “enemies of the people” to the systematic destruction of the free press and academic freedom in Hungary, with similar developments in Turkey, Poland, Brazil and beyond. I would say there is a vast conspiracy against liberal democratic ideals around the world, though it is hardly hidden.

Note: the commitment to a free, informed public life is Public Seminar’s raison d’être. We have been reporting and analyzing the struggles of the moment, the new manifestations of gloom, as well as the attempts to illuminate, both in thought and action. We are doing what we can. I know ours is a relatively small effort, and I recognize larger ones with deep admiration, including the much maligned “mainstream media.” Our special niche: the academic expertise and global reach of our contributors.

I recently read an informative article in The New York Times“On the Surface Hungary Is a Democracy, But What Lies Underneath?” raising an important question concerning the unique form of authoritarianism developing in Hungary, among its neighbors, particularly Poland, and around the world. It was a sound outline of an important question. I turn to our contributors to deliberately consider answers.

Jeffrey C. Isaac’s offered a cogent argument that illiberal democracy is a useful term, when carefully applied, for understanding the new threat, while Jan Mueller’s presented a forceful rejection of Isaac’s argument, and others considered many subtle alternative positions. This is far from a “mere” academic debate. It is academic in the sense that it comes from people working in universities, but it is not hermetic. It has broad public implications: how we name the new barbaric regimes informs both how we understand them, and how we respond to the small and large challenges they pose to democracy and decency.

In Hungary: Ivan Szelenyi reported his experience of the removal of his dryly a-political article on rent seeking in a conservative journal. He wondered: Was it political infighting among the new elite or censorship? Mátyás György Endrey demonstrated how the constitutional order permitting such censorship was created step by step through the voting booth. Isaac drew attention to the attack on the Central European University as a predictable fruit of “the voting booth revolution.” We also published the president and rector, Michael Ignatieff’s, open letter protesting the attack. The new authoritarianism comes with an apparent democratic face, but the repression is achieved one small step at a time, when the regime maintains a semblance of a normal democratic life, but is quite capable of closing one of the preeminent academic institutions in the region.

I see in our posts on Hungary and on illiberal democracy, along with our series on liberal democracy in questioncapitalismimaginal politicsmediarace, and sex and gender, as well as those explicitly presenting historical and theoretical perspectives on the crises of our times, as reasons for hope. Bad things are happening, but importantly, they encounter resistance. Trump, along with, Orban, Kaczynski, Putin, Duterte, Sisi, Le Pen, Wilders, Salvini, et al., are attacking key liberal and social democratic ideals and practices, but opposition is also evolving. The Democratic Party in the U.S. is now poised to more effectively control Trump through its election victories, and it may decisively put an end to the horrors in the next election. Elsewhere, even in Poland and Hungary, protests and opposition advances are heartening. The question is: how decisive will the opposition be and with what consequences?

As the New Year begins, I can logically imagine three possible outcomes: the new authoritarians prevail, they are turned back, but cause lasting damage to the order of things, or they are decisively defeated. I fear that a clear defeat is not likely. I am not optimistic, but as I said in my opening, I am seeking reasons for hope: grateful and gratified that I see it here in our work on Public Seminar. I am trying to feel good, or at least not too badly. This is a kind of blues quest that has beauty and makes life worth living, as is revealed most movingly by Nina Simone.

As we observe the crisis of our times, we need to pay attention to details, to similarities and differences.

The new authoritarians vary in their viciousness and in their stated political programs. In my judgment, as in the twentieth century, they appear both in leftist, as well as rightist ideological clothing, Nicolás Maduro as well as Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Sometimes it is difficult to discern what is their ideology beyond resentment, hatred of the other and polarization, and in Trump’s case profound psychological problems.

Polarization seems to be a common structural element of the new social orders. After teaching a course, in Wroclaw, Poland, on the rise of the new authoritarianism, as the Polish regime made significant advances in firmly institutionalizing its authoritarian rule, I published “The New Authoritarianism and the Structural Transformation of the Mediated Public Sphere” parts IIIIII and IV. The public is polarized, bifurcated between friends and enemies of the new authorities. Media facilitate this, constituting and confirming the beliefs of the polarized public, this through conventional media forms, as well as social media usage. The regime then plays exclusive attention to and exclusively addresses its supporters (“Trump’s base” as it is named in American commentaries), and governs accordingly. The base is “the people.” All others are not: true Americans, Poles, Hungarians and so forth. James Blumler analyzed the same pattern in Chile in the 1970s, suggesting that what we are observing is not unprecedented. Can Mert Kökerer explored how this developed dynamically in Turkey, with the polarization changing, as its “uprooted truth” is changed at it serves the regime. Societal polarization develops as it is constituted by the media, as the truth becomes what the authoritarian leadership says it is, or in the case of Trump: what he tweets.

I am proud that one of the posts we published on this topic, Ian Olasov’s “When is a Lie a Lie?” concerning the difficulty of conventional journalism to name regime lies, as such, won a prize in public philosophy by the American Philosophical Association.

I despair because I worry that the ideals and human accomplishments that I have valued and worked for are less secure or less reachable than I once thought. Some of my concerns have a conservative quality. I despair that gifts we have inherited: civility, cultural excellence, the law, the ideals of the university and academic freedom are being lost. I also fear that some of my more radical commitments are being systematically undermined, the chances for change that is desperately needed are dimming: economic, racial, gender and sexual justice, and human rights broadly understood, as well as the pursuit of a sustainable environment.

I am convinced that both my conservative and radical concerns can only be defended with a robust liberal free public life, with freedom of speech broadly understood, my primary political commitment, as I have studied and work for it through my entire life. A commitment Richie Havens declared with all the passion I feel at Woodstock.

Havens was one of my favorites when I was a young fully engaged radical new leftist. He inspires me to recommit to my primary commitment as I fight against despair.

Happy New Year!

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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