Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Friends and in-crowds

Regarding the question of political over-polarization, Among the Poseidonians recently commented:
our political culture has not only become permeated with hysteria and the de-legitimizing of one’s political opposition, but with an “ends justify the means” mentality which violates not only my sense of political morality, but long-term political prudence (which are intimately connected in my mind).
This articulates very clearly part of my concern over the acrimonious and distorting nature of political "debate" at present. The more one polarizes the debate, the greater the license for radical, what-you-can-get-away-with tactics. (This is nicely illustrated, e.g., by John A.'s example of the GOP cutting minority membership in committees; and, credit where it's due, in this case the Democrats restored the balance even when it hurt them; this is also Poseidonian's point regarding the Justice Department's defense of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy's legality even as the Obama administration detests the law.)

As I mentioned in response to John, I sometimes meet a kind of shrugging, so-what, aren’t-we-among-friends incomprehension when I object to the demonizing of rank-&-file republicans (or tea-partiers) by my democratic acquaintances. What I take Poseidonian to be saying is that there’s a link between the end justifying the means, and the stark polarization of political life. After all, there is a referee in a boxing ring or a fencing match, but in a scratch-your-eyes-out brawl to the death, there are no rules of engagement.

In this midst of thinking this over, I stumbled on Grad Student's blog post ruminating on the guilty pleasures of counting oneself right. " 'Demagoguery...jihad...rabidly anti-Islam...incendiary libel...' I’m beginning to suspect," Grad Stdent wrote,
that political rhetoric like this isn’t very good for my psyche. It breeds in me a repulsive sense of smug superiority and anger that I would like to avoid. What’s the antidote? I suppose wishing my enemies well would help.
I think I recognize what Grad Stdent's talking about. Even back in my sign-waving days when I stood outside the Nevada Test Site calling for a ban on nuclear weapons testing, indignation seemed always (to me) the least attractive or compelling feature of any political argument. I have noticed, too, that I have an aversion to my own smugness -- once I've noticed it -- even stronger than my dislike of others'; and my distaste for the smugness of those who agree with me is stronger than my dislike of it in my opponents.

I can extend this to a suspicion of all self-congratulatory, mutually-admiring in-crowds. This is not a horror of joining a group per se, a kind of rugged individualism run amok, but specifically a distaste for the lure of jargon, the secret smiles at each other over the bewildered heads of the others in the room, the nudge-wink, "we know what we mean" question-begging. And yet. And yet, the pleasures of friendship are so close to these, that I have to wonder if there is something of a bad puritan conscience in my recoil? (Simone Weil says someplace that the pleasure in sharing an opinion with one's friend sullies the friendship). I am a high-church Anglican, a lover of Nabokov, a nerd for progressive rock music, and on and on -- all highly idiosyncratic tastes (and more than "tastes") the sharing of which has given me some of the great pleasures of my life. We all know, too, how the little meaningless in-jokes one comes to share with ones best friends, one's lover, and so on, become the subtext of one's life after a while. I don't want to gainsay this. But there’s something that makes me shudder, about the sly way fellow-hobbyists shake their heads over the lost ones -- the ones on the outside, bereft of their meaning-bestowing enthusiasms.

This can only get worse when combined with politics. (In religion, it's positively deadly, and, in Christianity, all the more hard to uproot, as it is very close to -- and crucially different from -- something authentically and legitimately Christian... but that's the matter for another post entirely).

But are there not urgent matters for which indignation and rallying are the only decent responses, where "keeping a cool head" is an indecency? I want to answer Yes to this. And yet... Perhaps at least some of my distaste for indignation comes from thinking this line is in a different place from where others think it.

The difference, as far as I can tell, is that between friendship and something pseudo-, something that imitates it.

In the former, either both of you are looking at some third thing, and it endlessly opens up to you without exhaustion (or even 'withdrawing'), becoming a token of the mystery of the whole world somehow, but never losing its absolute specificity (the Sherlock Holmes stories you both love never turn into red wine or antique Tiffany lamps or even into “the mystery of the world”); or you are yourselves revealed to each other -- the wonder and miracle of another person, shining next to you as if in a pillar of light. This is what love is.

In the latter, there's something else -- something less. Something that comes about by virtue of not being the benighted others who don't get it, in which the miracle that occasions your camaraderie is cheapened by being pressed into service of making you feel better than them .

Certainly, I do also know a kind of reactive appalled-ness at the one who just doesn't see it, who seems to not grasp what is at stake. I long ago despaired over trying to open my parents’ ears to the thrill of certain music, or certain friends’ to the obvious allure of the mind. What refreshment, after so long among philistines, to meet someone who getsMark Rothko, or Led Zeppelin, or Le Morte d’Arthur, or ornithology. The soul exclaims “You too?!” And can one begrudge us if, after this "you too!", we share a moment of relief, or dismissal of everyone else besides we the initiated, as the accumulated exasperation of years is finally expressed?

I know well such moments. I will say, unequivocally, yes, I’d be a better person without them. Pace Nietzsche, there is a difference between pity and compassion, and (at the risk of an almost absurd overwroughtness) one can feel compassion for the one who lacks one's thrill at the sight of a landscape or the fascination of your favorite city, or (slightly less ridiculously) who just doesn't see the obviousness of your politics, without any condescending pity. I also try to nurture a degree of compassion for myself, in feeling these silly all-too-human moments of breathing, "God! Those idiots!", when I've finally found a sympathetic ear. Such lapses of decorum and decency are forgivable. But lapses they are, and I certainly don’t want to mistake them for friendship, just because someone is there to agree with me.

This is the case, even if the listening ear, the kindred-spirit, who occasions this relief and recrimination is my friend. But in politics, all too often, they're only the enemy of my enemy.


  1. Reading this post for some reason made me realize how applicable this discussion is to Stewart's D.C. rally (which I'll be at). I think it's clear that Stewart is a little leery of his rally being a bunch of "self-congratulatory, mutually-admiring in-crowds." He is, as indicated on his recent interview with Terry Gross, not a joiner. ("No, this is it's a rally. It's one day where non-joiners unite, you know." -Stewart) For this reason I look forward to seeing how Stewart and the rally-goers will deal with this irony in D.C.

    As for the content of your post, I haven't stopped thinking about this topic since Amod Lele first wrote about it, so maybe I'll be back here with a more substantial comment later.

  2. Grad~~
    I am interested myself to see whether the non-joiners can have anything like the impact (if that's the right word) that the vilifiers have. My suspicion is that this sort of ironism mixes ill with politics, which by nature takes itself seriously. I believe it possible to be a politician with a sense of irony and a light touch (as Laotzu says, not overdoing it); but a crowd is not an ironical beast. For this reason I suspect Jon Stewart may get a smaller crowd than crazy uncle Glenn. But I would love to be wrong.

    Thanks for the comment (& for the initial post that helped inspire this), & welcome.

    PS-- you are right, that post by Amod was an excellent one.

  3. Thank you both. Stewart's rally does appeal to me - I think it's a good idea to get people together who aren't particularly outraged and think that given the circumstances that produced them, things are okay, all things considered.