This is Part 2 of my interview with R. Kevin Hill. See here for Part 1.
Skholiast: Speaking about the risks undertaken in folding the personal into philosophy, or philosophy out of the personal – as you say, this raises questions about the professionalization of philosophy – a recent thing, and arguably one that (to put it gently) has not helped. The idea and institution of tenure, for instance, was supposed to enable someone to think and say whatever, which could then be rejected or not; but the risk you speak of, the cost of being rejected, would in theory not be a cost to one’s livelihood, given one’s academic vocation. Philosophy has a particular interest in this because of its roots in being a gadfly, an inherently unpopular position. But do you think tenure is functioning that way?
R. Kevin Hill: I’ve never thought that tenure functions that way. First – a vanishingly small number of tenured academics have anything to say that would get them in trouble with anyone. Academic freedom is a wonderful thing, but I don’t see many people taking much advantage of it – let’s put it that way.
S.: Is this because academics just “all think alike,” – or, they’re all timid? – or – ?
R.K.H.: No. This is, again, a very personal observation, so all due caveats apply – the most important thing about tenure as an institution is not that if you get it, you cannot be fired, but that if you don’t get it, you have to be fired. Many non-academics are unaware of this, but it is standard practice in academia that you must be given tenure if you have been with an institution for a certain amount of time, so if they do not want you to receive tenure, you have to be let go. In principle, the rationale for this was to force the institution’s hand, to make it give tenure instead of working someone forever with no job security. But in practice, it creates an up-or-out rule: if you do not receive tenure, you get your one year and then you are gone. The nature of the job market is such that if you are denied tenure, the odds are very good that you will never get another tenure-track job again. So the lived experience of the institution of tenure for most academics is that it is a threat. You have spent much of your professional life leading up to the moment you receive tenure – speaking personally, this was twenty years from the time I entered graduate school – not thinking, Someday I will be able to say what I think, but rather, Someday my career may come to a complete end, because I failed to receive tenure. What might cause this? You don’t really know. Failure to live up to professional standards, yes, but of course there are going to be other factors that influence people’s perceptions, and you want to be well-behaved so that people want to be helpful to you, and so on – so the shadow of the tenure decision looming in the future has an enormously repressive and normalizing effect on junior faculty. To put it crudely, that pressure guarantees that almost anyone coming out the other side will have nothing harmful to say; they will have been so cowed during the years in graduate school, trying to obtain a tenure-track job, preparing for the ultimate tenure review – by the time you get tenure, they’ve beaten you.
S.: You’re saying, by that time, you’ve been conditioned.
R.K.H.: You have adapted to your saddle. I cannot help but think that this experience, which is very common, sheds light on why there is so little truly challenging speech coming from tenured academics. For me, it has kind of worked out that I can say what I want. But it’s very easy for me to imagine why it would not have worked out that way for many people. I certainly don’t feel I’ve taken to the saddle; but even for me, the whole process took some sharp edges off me.
S.: I listened recently to a panel discussion sponsored by Heterodox Academy; Samuel Abrams (of Sarah Lawrence College) told an anecdote about being called a racist on his second day of teaching, upon which he made up his mind to keep his head down and get tenure – and use it. One of the co-panelists – Nadine Strossen of the New York Law School and a former president of the ACLU – expressed dismay that so many tenured academics are “squandering” their opportunity. Your account here offers one theory of why this may be the case. And the fact that Heterodox Academy looks like a strange outlier, can get so much attention, and has as much work to do as it seems to have, suggests that something like what you say may be at play.
R.K.H.: I’m a supporter of Heterodox Academy; but the dynamics play out differently in philosophy. The experiences Jonathan Haidt had which led to his founding of Heterodox Academy were colored by the fact that his discipline is social psychology. What social psychologists do and what philosophers do is so different, that ideological bias and the repression of diversity plays out differently. In philosophy – and this is sad in a way – I think that most philosophers just don’t have anything particularly controversial to say. They don’t need to be repressed. If you spend your life becoming a Hume scholar, you aren’t going to suddenly explode with some controversial professional perspective on the passing show – your head is back in the eighteenth century.
S.: But I can’t help wanting to ask – for God’s sake, why not? Isn't our great exemplar Socrates? And Hume, for that matter, was indeed a controversialist. Sure, maybe if Hume were to publish today his work would fall just as stillborn from the press as it did in the eighteenth century; and there’s a kind of Straussian argument that might say, actually this is a good thing – philosophers ought to fly under the radar, and write “uncontroversial” work for other reasons. But might there not be something wrong with philosophy, if it never raises any eyebrows – or ire? Of course, there’s also a difference between Hume scholarship, and Humeanism. Or Nietzsche scholarship and Nietzscheanism, for that matter.
R.K.H.: Well, ultimately, this all has to do with the professionalization of philosophy. This goes back, in analytic philosophy, at least to Bertand Russell, and arguably to neo-Kantianism in the nineteenth century. Once you conceive of philosophy as something that belongs in a research university, because you can “do research” in it, (rolls eyes) – in which there is a division of labor and agreement about canonical methods, and then proceed to “research” various problems, this – I don’t want to say it kills the philosophical impulse, but it gives it a certain tendency, and limits it in specific ways.
S.: A scholastic tendency, in the worst sense.
R.K.H.: Now we also have this other community in philosophy – “Continental” philosophy as it is called – which oftentimes seems to position itself as an eternal critic of our society; but the criticism is all rather homogenous. So it turns out that there really is very little ideological diversity in academic philosophy in the U.S., and those who are asking the “forbidden questions” are mainly outsiders. There are a few who are academic philosophers, but those whose work has precipitated the so-called Free Speech Crisis, are largely not philosophers, and the things they want to talk about are not what most philosophers want to discuss, I think. Moreover, if philosophers do decide to talk about them, they may discover that there are powerful disincentives to do so; but those disincentives are not necessarily coming from tenure committees; they’re coming from Twitter. I’m thinking, for instance, about what happened recently to Rebecca Tuvel.
S.: She is the assistant professor at Rhodes University whose article in Hypatia comparing arguments about transgender and transracial experience generated such controversy. And what do you think those “forbidden questions” are?
R.K.H.: Well, the impression one has is that they are all related to what is called “Diversity.” Or, in other communities, “Identity Politics.” A fairly narrow band of concerns, but they are all topics we cannot, in the current environment, speak freely about. For various reasons, academia has been committed to affirmative action in admissions and hiring for a long time, and this has always been a tricky topic for the larger community. This practice is under more pressure now than it has been at any other time in my lifetime. Academia has to contend not only with its own internal norms, but with various legal requirements: anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action executive orders, judicial opinions. To understand the recent Free Speech controversies, you must go back to the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights Act itself included a prohibition on discrimination in employment based on race, gender, religion, national origin, and so on. At the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, I imagine that people’s understanding of discrimination was fairly crude; an African-American applies for a job, and the employer says, I’m sorry, we don’t hire black people.
S.: Perhaps they didn’t say that out loud to their face, but that’s what they were saying, and what they understood themselves to be saying.
R.K.H.: But in the 1970s – and this was initially more the case with sex discrimination than other kinds – a new, additional, conception of how one could experience discrimination began to be broached by the courts: hostile environment discrimination. And our culture’s whole conception of harassment, for example, is a product of this. There was no concept of sexual harassment such as we have it today, before the courts articulated this idea of discrimination via hostile environment.
In an employment setting, this notion generated a variety of new norms about how people must behave there. On balance, I would say, this was a good thing; people behave better in the workplace as a result. But most workplaces are not primarily operating to develop, exchange, and debate ideas. On a factory floor, if you stand on a soapbox and begin spouting a political or social opinion, however well- or ill-founded, you are probably not doing your job. The factory floor is not the place for expressing those opinions; and so your speech values are not likely to collide with anti-discrimination values.
S.: Though they may collide with the interests of your employer, if, say, they don’t want workers to organize. But it would take quite a stretch to construe this as a case grounded in anti-discrimination law.
R.K.H.: In a normal employment setting. But as soon as you import the notion of hostile environment into an academic setting, you open the door to a real conflict. Because the notion becomes that certain ideas, in and of themselves, can be interpreted as contributing to a hostile environment, and are thus discriminatory. The thought that we need to establish non-hostile environments in academia, basically for legal reasons, is a fairly recent one, and we have very little experience so far in nuancing, finessing, mediating, compromising, between the competing values of academia as a place where a wide range of ideas can be discussed and debated, and academia as a setting which should and must be non-discriminatory. We don’t know how to do it yet.
Most people don’t realize the full extent to which our current challenges in academia in this respect are driven by legal necessity. Conservatives, for instance, have this picture of academia as this hotbed of radicalism, anxious to suppress all dissenting opinions. It’s vastly exaggerated. But what is unappreciated is that academia doesn’t do what it wants to do, it does what it has to do.
S.: And that “has to,” that constraint, you are saying, is of a legal nature.
R.K.H.: It is. And one of the reasons that the climate in academia has changed so dramatically is that the legal climate has changed so dramatically. It was during the Obama administration when we got that notorious “Dear Colleague” letter. So Title IX prohibits discrimination in academic settings receiving federal funds. For decades, this mandate went almost entirely unenforced, so you would have never heard anyone say, Oh, we can’t do that – we might lose our federal finding. But the Obama administration decided to put the fear of God into people, and told them, Yes, you might indeed lose funding, if you are not doing what you’re supposed to do to assure that your setting is a non-discriminatory environment.
S.: This most famously involved lowering the standard of proof in cases of alleged sexual assault.
R.K.H.: One of the harshest ways, obviously, your setting can be hostile is if you actually experience sexual assault, and this is especially frequently the case for women. This legitimate concern for safety, to curb sexual violence on campuses, led to a new posture: you are not going to just keep getting federal funds no matter what you do as long as you assure us you are doing good things; we are going to make sure you try harder to do good things. This awakened people to the possibility that academia could be a locus of hostile environment discrimination, and that it urgently needs to avoid being so; and this resolve was hurriedly made, with the implicit assumption that we’ll figure out later how this impacts the free exchange of ideas. And we have not figured it out yet.
S.: But it’s very hard to wrestle with these questions and do this figuring-out; the very asking of the questions and figuring-it-out is easily construed as part of the problem; it raises the specter of hostility. The truth is, of course, academia can be a hostile environment, as this phrase is used. There is (or can be) a lot of especially egregious kinds of behavior; and, to make sure I avoid that, avoid contributing to the climate and culture where it can happen, avoid giving cover to those who do it, I have to query myself. I want, in short, to treat people decently, and to not just avoid being “part of the problem,” but to actively help build a context where the right thing happens more and more, more and more naturally. At the same time, thinking out loud about questions like this can all by itself feel dicey, or gives you the look of devil’s advocate, or a little too much like the devil. So this figuring-it-out-later – is it really working?
R.K.H.: We have no choice but to figure it out. Academia does not exist in a political vacuum; it’s a part of the larger society, and at the very least it depends on the good will of many people who are not part of it. It cannot be completely aloof to the desires, interests, values, beliefs, of that society. If society finds, or believes, that academia claims out of one side of its mouth to be the idea-generator, the place where knowledge happens, and out of the other side of its mouth that only certain ideas will be permitted, you will lose at least half of the community’s support. This has already started to happen.
It is a mischaracterizaton of Heterodox Academy, I think, to call it a stalking-horse for conservativism. I don’t think Haidt is a conservative at all. But he, and others like him, are recognizing that the academy is sawing at the branch it – they – are sitting on. They run the risk, if they create the impression of favoring only some parts of the ideological spectrum, that the larger society will say, You are not in the business of generating knowledge or ideas, or an environment of generating free discussion; you are just indoctrinating people, and maintaining an ideologically pure community. If academia were able to support itself, this might not be a problem; but it isn’t. It’s massively dependent upon federal funds, and thus indirectly dependent upon the people whose government it is. So we have to figure it out, because the other option, which would be to say, Better safe than sorry, and to avoid forever any idea that could ever possibly be construed as contributing to a hostile environment – that is not sustainable, unless the whole society is on the same page ideologically, which currently it clearly is not.
S.: And is not likely to be.
R.K.H.: But how we figure it out is unclear. I’m going to punt, and say: eventually the courts will have to figure it out, the same way that in earlier decades the courts had to figure out sexual harassment. And they will.
S.: Your own background is in law, as well as in philosophy. So of course, Hill would say this, yes?
R.K.H.: Well, the legal background may give me some awareness of features or issues which others may not be as aware of, but the real source of my stance is my belief that people respond to carrots and sticks. And in academia there are both.
S.: The courts are one venue in which carrots and sticks are applied; but so too is the court of public opinion.
R.K.H.: When universities woke up to the possibility of losing federal funds, that was one sort of stick. But when they did that, some conservatives began circulating this narrative of academia being an arena of thought-control rather than free exchange of ideas, and universities then have to contend with that.
S.: So, a question to you as both legal scholar and philosopher. As with most arguments about the “construction of concepts,” one would not want to say, for instance, that there was no such thing as a hostile environment before the courts articulated this phrase; or that there was no such thing as sexual discrimination or sexual harassment. But these legal formulae do get into our personal experience, construing it and causing us to construe it, in new ways. Sometimes one can say, they named the elephant in the room; and instead of saying “that strange gray shape I can see out of the corner of my eye,” we can say “Dumbo.” But it’s not always like that.
R.K.H.: The way I think of this is: there is a real world out there, a bedrock of real bodies moving around doing real things. But how we classify what we see is to a very large extent up to us. There is no doubt, for instance, that men were hitting on women in the workplace before Title VII, before the courts got involved in the 1970’s and minted the idea of hostile environment. There’s no question, stuff was happening, and it was bad stuff, and it was also “accepted” in a certain sense because of the balance of power of men and women in the workplace. But the concept of sexual harassment is a certain way of conceptualizing these tableaux. The tableaux are real. But our conceptualizations are really modes that were created by the law, and thus by the power of the state. Employers didn’t just decide out of the goodness of their hearts to ensure that people didn’t engage in sexual harassment. It was the prospect of legal liability and the need to protect themselves from it, which hits their bottom line and costs them money, that made employers make sure they inform employees of their duty with regard to sexual harassment. And since almost everyone is employed, at least in some fashion, some of the time, a federal law that does that is going to touch individual lives on a grand scale. It has transformed the culture; and I do believe it is the law itself that did the transforming, and not some sort of cultural shift reflected in the law.
S.: The old argument that one can’t “legislate morality” seems, on the face of it, to have been falsified many times. To the extent that we have a racially integrated society – a limited extent, clearly – this seems obviously (by now) the result of legislation and judicial decision. But aside from the fact that the “bottom line” is an economic reality and not just a legal one, I want to ask: surely, the pressure to enact a law comes from somewhere – from “we the people,” yes? – or some portion of the people; so in that sense there must also be a “cultural shift.”
R.K.H.: Well, yes in some sense. The courts didn’t start to think of sexual harassment until feminists started talking about it first. However, I would insist that flouting federal law has rather more serious consequences than merely ignoring what feminists say. Ultimately the genealogy here is going to be complicated, and go back in part to the entry of greater numbers of women into the workforce mid-century.
S.: One could speculate that whatever "legislation of morality" has transpired has been enacted not primarily by lawmakers but by universities, which have trained up the next generation of students to expect and accept certain premises. (Poor Shelley! the unacknowledged legislators would turn out not to be poets, but underpaid college instructors – at least this is clearly what they aspire to be.)
R.K.H.: No, I would deny that. Take the sexual assault on campus issue. People have been talking about that on campus since I started graduate school in 1987, if not longer. Nobody did a thing. President Obama has an advisory letter issued emphasizing that noncompliance with the requested standards can result in the loss of federal funding. Immediately everyone scrambles to comply. One thing that Marxist critique and Foucauldian critique alike emphasize far too little is that who holds the guns and what they want has an awful lot to do with what ultimately occurs.
S.: The guns, or the money, or the courts. And we can ask questions about this, as well as about the extent to which we agree that litigation is the best way to act upon these shifts. Do we want “the stick” of legal liability to shape us in this way? Another question: If we decide that the tableaux are real but our vocabularies for the tableaux are to a large degree up to us, and that there are different possible vocabularies, then we can also ask, how do we evaluate these vocabularies? But even to ask about different possible ways of speaking, is to call into question how we are speaking, which can make some people very uncomfortable. You mentioned Rebecca Tuvel earlier; I take her to have raised the question of how we deploy this notion of “social construction,” which is one element in such a vocabulary; and she seems to have discovered, in the aftermath, that there was an agreement – a tacit agreement – among the people she was addressing – that it could be deployed in one way, but that to deploy it in a different way was not just going to be questioned, but would be seen as a hostile act.
R.K.H.: I think what happened there had something to do with what I alluded to earlier: these two, largely non-overlapping, philosophical communities – so-called analytic philosophy, so-called Continental philosophy – a distinction people routinely deny exists, more or less proving that it does by the vigor with which they deny it. While I don’t know Professor Tuvel at all well, the impression I got from reading her paper was she was trained in the analytic tradition, in which thought experiments are the bread and butter – “suppose such and such; what would the consequences be? How does that challenge our intuitions about cases like these, or these?” And so on. By contrast, the Continental philosophical community has tended to be one of advocacy. It’s interested in critical inquiry, but inquiry guided by certain goals. There is less freedom to say, Well, let’s think this thought and see where that takes us; because the over-arching concern is: let’s make society better in the light of our understanding of these problems. I don’t think Professor Tuvel ever imagined that anyone would read the kind of prose she’s producing as offensive. It’s a shame; her questions are very interesting; and I see no hostility behind them. She was thinking through a line of thought; and asking, so why is it that we treat these two kinds of cases differently? If I recall, she doesn’t answer the question, but she certainly gives the reader the question. Meanwhile, though, these communities of advocacy are shocked and offended that their experiences of oppression are not being acknowledged or honored in the right way.
S.: Well, in part because the very assumption that raising the question would not be problematic is itself seen as – problematic!
R.K.H.: There have been attempts – I am the product of some of these – to adjudicate or navigate between Continental and analytic camps; but for the most part, they remain non-intersecting.
S.: How you characterize them makes me think that perhaps one of the things so puzzling – or worrisome to some – about the crowd that is loosely called “Straussians,” is that Straussians deploy Continental language that advocates in a very different direction from the left consensus of most continental philosophers; it’s a set of crossed signals that many find unsettling.
R.K.H.: Well, there have also been, for instance the conservative Catholic Heideggerians; clearly in the Continental tradition, but, like Heidegger himself, their sympathies and agendas are conservative. Straussians are a strange group though, partly because Strauss’ own teaching and influence was so mediated by political science departments.
S.: They are outside the philosophical academic mainstream, for sure. But they are not alone in getting into philosophy via subterranean paths. Strauss certainly laid claim to philosophy (even though he called himself a “scholar”); and so too did Derrida, whose influence in America was (and still is) strongest in English and literature departments. But the reason Strauss comes to mind here is a broader and more pertinent question. In that very interesting and problematic book The Closing of the American Mind, Strauss’ student Allan Bloom has a chapter called “The Nietzscheanization of the Left, or Vice-Versa,” pointing out how strange a development it was. You alluded earlier to the fact that there are valences of Nietzsche’s thinking that “nobody wants.” But nobody feels willing to throw Nietzsche overboard either.
R.K.H.: Yes. Nietzsche has rendered himself indispensable to us, somehow.
S.: This happened before Foucault, though I think Foucault was hugely instrumental in shaping the form our dependence takes now. If I had to make a very elementary crayon-scrawl of what I think that indispensability involves, I’d say it has to do with the link between power and morality, or ostensible morality, raising the question of law, and putting at the service of that link a rough-and-ready moral skepticism or relativism. Certain people very much want to have recourse to these tools; but they don’t like the tools being turned upon them. This is, for instance, what Tuvel discovered, though she wasn’t deploying (I don’t think) a Nietzschean argument; she was asking, if anti-essentialism is an admissible argument in the case of gender, why is it not in the case of ethnicity? Her mode of thinking was much more like Philippa Foot’s trolley problem. You pose a thought experiment, and no one gets bent out of shape –
R.K.H.: Right. No one thinks you are getting ready to run anyone over.
S.: – though I have encountered occasional criticism of the way the trolley problem is posed, for instance in terms of body-shaming. And I think those critiques have a point. Moreover, Elizabeth Anscombe – surely an analytic philosopher! – says someplace that certain moral hypotheticals are monstrous, and we make ourselves culpable when we “consider” them so breezily. But to say that is to posit some kind of access to something else, some standard of morality that is available -- maybe intuitively? – by which we would determine that something is beyond the pale. Now the opponents of this table-turning – the ones who deploy some vaguely Nietzschean arguments, or more likely just depend upon some vaguely lite-Nietzschean assumptions, in contesting some forms of power, but when they are asked to answer parallel critiques speak of “false equivalencies,” and say or imply: Just because your standards are relative does not mean mine are! – though it is never put so crudely, that’s what they’re claiming – are insisting: in the name of diversity, in the name of some kind of intuition of inclusivity or fairness, these things, these principles, we will declare beyond question. I often don’t know how to even point this out – let alone to query or evaluate it – without colliding with righteousness.
R.K.H.: Well, when I say “we need to figure this out,” and I refer to the courts, part of what I mean is that it isn’t any of these specific sub-groups or sub-cultures that will do the figuring –
S.: Not analytic or continental philosophers, not particular minorities or vested interests –
R.K.H.: – I mean: We, America, the larger collective – the political community we are – is going to have to figure these things out. And one of the nice things about this political community is that it is ideologically diverse. And there are all kinds of avenues by which people express themselves in this larger community – vastly more now, because of the internet, than even a few decades ago. And that makes it possible for all kinds of voices to enter the discussion, even if things do look fairly homogenous within a subculture (which is undeniable).
This leads me to a different set of concerns. To me, the most important thing, despite what I said in defense of Heterodox Academy, is not that there be a huge ideological spectrum represented within these settings – say, within a particular university. And we already have a huge amount of diversity in the larger community, so diversity there is not a concern. What I do worry about is our eroding sense that the larger community is a community.
S.: Yes. Not everyone agrees that the courts' decisions are “ours;” and not everyone finds “ideological diversity” “nice.” And what happens seems to be that all of these sub-communities can wind up excommunicating the others.
R.K.H.: We cannot answer the questions if there is no longer a We to ask them. That probably concerns me more than anything else; it looms in the background every time I discuss a political question. We have to be able to recognize that we stand on common ground in our very disagreement; that we occupy common political space; that we’re not in a war, we’re in a conversation. And the goal is not to annihilate each other but to discuss, from our respective and divergent vantage points, our common concerns. The scariest thing about our period historically, is that the sense of commonality across the spectrum seems to me to be at an all-time low.
S.: Well, there are those who seem to think it is a war, and to blame – though this is always the case in a war – the so-called “other side” for starting it. Marxism will say: in a class struggle, to call it a “conversation” is to be a tool of the oppressor. There are trans people who insist that their very “right to exist” is at issue. A while ago students at Evergreen College screamed at professors and administrators, We are not having a conversation with White Privilege. This objection is aimed at right and left alike, if indeed those terms mean anything now.
R.K.H.: There is a slogan – attributed to Voltaire, though likely incorrectly, at least in its most popular form: I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Articulating a principle like that presupposes that both parties referred to are and understand themselves to be “on the same side” in some sense. Otherwise why would I defend to the death your right to anything? If you are in the trenches shooting at me, I’m not going to defend to the death anything about you.
S.: I’m going to defend myself!
R.K.H.: But if I say, I disagree with you but I defend your right to say what you say, that presupposes that in some deep sense we are on the same side, we share a community, and that disagreement as a part of discussion is a possibility within that community.
S.: Perhaps even a crucial part of the shared project of that community.
R.K.H.: That’s what is eroding now – that sense of shared community across divergent perspectives.
S.: And a sense of humility, a sense that no one knows everything. So then – what do you make of the alleged need to permit free speech for everyone, in (almost) every case? The argument against this says that “Free speech for Nazis” hands the enemy the license and means to advocate for your own destruction. And perhaps it’s all very well, until it becomes plausible that they might win. In other words, you can afford to tolerate certain things, but when the risk becomes real, stop affording it! Whereas the other argument might be, that’s when – and maybe only when – we see what your actual principles are.
R.K.H.: Well, I think the former characterization is in some sense disingenuous. Why is it that, until quite recently, the champions of free speech were all liberals and progressives? The short answer is, those people experienced their speech acts as the ones that needed protection, because they were “speaking truth to power,” or they were articulating unpopular perspectives and they needed to extort from those who had the power the concession that they could speak anyway -- despite not having the power. (This is of course a very Nietzschean way of characterizing all of this.) I think that what has happened is not that free speech has become so dangerous and threatening that liberals and progressives are rethinking their commitment to free speech, but rather that they won. Now they are in power. And those in the positions of power have very little interest in tolerating dissent. So I think that the characterization of certain kinds of speech as too dangerous to be borne is somewhat in bad faith. Is education about to sink under the waves of a vast number of Nazis in academia? No, of course not. There’s perhaps, say, one Nazi in academia. Out of thousands and thousands of academics.
S.: But we need not just be speaking of academia, as you said a bit ago. We’re speaking, in some sense, of the whole body politic. Or we could be talking about visiting speakers to universities, or people standing on corners distributing pamphlets, or people with websites or facebook pages. But – I’m not sure I’d want to go to the wall for this, but there’s a possible figure/ground switch here, which is: you could say, the liberal culture that champions free expression actually has been ascendant, since at least the 70’s, maybe all the way back to FDR. This sort of tolerance-while-it’s-convenient is the position of the so-called coastal elites, the presuppositions of liberal culture fomented by the Ivy League and a few other universities, which have absolutely been entwined with state and economic power. It didn’t matter which party was in office – there was a natural systolic-diastolic rhythm between think-tanks and the halls of power – but they all knew what side their bread was buttered on. Now, if one accepts this scenario, the question arises: what could make the powers that be start to worry? I have believed since the mid-90s, that all meaningful protest has essentially evaporated, but the problem is doubtless much older. The huge Seattle WTO protests in 1999 meant nothing; worldwide protests against the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq were completely ineffectual, if measured by their stated aim. All dissent has been commodified. So: is there a crisis of free speech? Go ahead, speak away! The scenario you sketch is of a beleaguered vanguard of progressivism which eventually won, and after winning betrayed its noble origins. My alternative scenario suggests that progressivism was always ascendant, at least since the power feedback loop between the Ivy League and Washington; so its change of tune must have been due to something else. I don’t know what that might be -- assuming we accept this scenario.
R.K.H.: Well, your mention of the ’90s brings up something else significant. For a long time, the narrative of freedom said that something called “liberalism,” or “democracy,” was defined and celebrated in the 20th century by contrast with two different forms of totalitarianism. What made our struggles sacred ones was that we were struggling on behalf of liberalism against these. But take the adversary away, and you have American power triumphant; we don’t need to define ourselves in contrast to anything else. One of the ideological functions of liberal values is no longer with us. Then there is the slowly-increasing influence of anti-discrimination laws, and their migration into academic settings. Between these two things, free speech isn’t of much use to anyone anymore –
S.: In the short term!
R.K.H.: – except for conservatives who are trying to stick it to the so-called liberal elite.
S.: Your take on both society and philosophy, informed in some ways by Foucault, is still much more suspicious of or cautious with critique. In some of your personal writings, you describe for instance your experience with ordinary politics, and politicians who obviously struck you as decent people, not cowed by any conspiracy to make everyone think narrowly, nor swamped by unconsciously-held ideology. So, your own skepticism about power-structures still does not give critique the last word (at least by default), which I often experience with the Foucauldian left.
R.K.H.: The reason for this is that the vision of the world as a battlefield is not my basic vision. My basic vision of the world is much closer to Plato’s. Yes, there are battles, but they are battles between cities. My deepest commitment is to a kind of civic republicanism, to the question: what are the necessary conditions for a community to be free, in the sense that it governs itself? To answer these questions you must talk about culture and about institutions. But if everything is dissolved in the acid bath of critique, then there are no institutions, there is no culture, there is no city; there is no us. I don’t see a conflict between the liberalism that holds that the most important thing is the self-actualization of the individual, and the civic republicanism that holds that we are all in this together and must learn how to live so, with a shared culture and a shared set of institutions. I don’t see these as at odds with one another. Where the Nietzschean and Foucaultian tools are most useful is where something is not right, not functioning the way it ideally ought; but I have never abandoned the notion that there is a way that things should ideally function. So there is, looming in the background of my thinking, the idea – though not with Plato’s specific details or even his outline – that the first political question is, how should the city be governed? Which implies that there is a city, and governments. To characterize the city itself as a battlefield may be a useful tool for understanding certain processes. But people do not live on battlefields. Battlefields are places where people die.
S.: Deploying Nietzsche and Foucault in the service of a kind of Platonism – the platonizing of Nietzsche, or vice-versa – first of all makes me think you are closer to Strauss than you let on --
R.K.H.: And Heidegger, yes …
S.: -- and use these giants of the moderns, in what seems a characteristically ancient project.
R.K.H.: I think that is a fair characterization. When I think of any philosophical question, any concept, I try always to ask, what does this concept mean in concrete terms? What real material thing, perceptible in the world, are we speaking of in using this concept? When I think of politics, I find myself adverting to this image of a city, and all the things that must happen in it. This has been in the back of my mind for decades. I cannot, of course, justify the claim that the way human beings should live is in small cities; I don’t know how I would justify it. All I know is that, when I ask myself how should political institutions function, what are they for? – I view this through the lens of a free and self-governing city. And most of my contemporary concerns are seen through this lens. But –and I have truly come to believe this – part of the reason why our communities are so divided right now, is that our institutions have been captured, by people who do not reflect the interests and values of the larger community. We do not have a free and self-governing city called America; we have a bunch of disenfranchised people who don’t believe in their institutions and are being herded into highly polarized ideological conflicts as a form of distraction from this capture. Nietzschean-Foucaultian means can be useful, for understanding how did this capture happen, and what are its effects? But this is preliminary to and guided by a larger vision that asks, how are things supposed to be? And the answer is that we experience ourselves as a community, we have common institutions, and we conduct our differences and our discussions in the context of these.
I was starting to think this way before 2016, but the election in 2016 gave it a big boost. Government has largely migrated from discussions in the legislative branch to decisions in the executive, a development I find extremely troubling; and the two parties who effectively share a monopoly on politics in this country gave us in 2016 two candidates who pretty much nobody wanted. How did that happen? There is a recent study made by two political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, showing that the popularity of any proposed piece of legislation, and its likelihood of enactment, have zero correlation. Zero! If 100 percent of Americans think that a measure should become law, that is no reason at all to expect that it will; if zero percent of Americans think that a measure should become law, that is no reason to expect that it will not. What does, however, correlate with such likelihood is popularity among lobbyists. We do not control our government anymore. I have gradually, reluctantly, concluded this is the case, that it is a crisis, and that it explains the divisiveness and polarization of discourse – as instruments of distraction from that disenfranchisement, forms of substitute gratification. Parties cannot offer the American people governance; that is no longer what they are about. So they must offer emotional gratifications instead, and thus we must have culture wars that entertain and distract.
S.: So then, is governance happening? Or is all we have left a sort of blind blundering-forward by way of distraction and entertainment? Aside from citing critiques of the Gilens-Page study (critiques with which I don't necessarily concur), I can think of at least two ways to go to query the scenario you propose. One is to ask: So who are the bastards? By what steps, and with what malice aforethought, did they pull of this de facto coup? Or did it just kinda happen willy-nilly?
R.K.H.: The view I propose is a kind of structural view, about an arrangement that emerged not by design, but as the result of certain incentives that have long been in play. As any Marxist will tell you, you can have very dire circumstances on your hands as the result of structural features that nobody intends, dire enough to warrant extreme action.
S.: The other possible account I can improvise, then, touches on what you refer to when you said we’d been captured by those who do not share the interests of the community.
R.K.H.: Or may not even understand the community.
S.: Perhaps, though, we don’t know what community is. When people talk about the coastal elites, this is a cliche, but it gets at a disconnect between different centers of population and different centers of culture. And a non-conspiratorial explanation of this might be, or at least include, the observation that we’re simply too big. Perhaps the notion of “the United States of America” is one that was bound to founder, once you got beyond a certain critical mass.
R.K.H.: You are homing in on the quintessential Madisonian question. Can you have civic republicanism on this scale? And it’s a real question. Maybe you can’t.
S.: Deploying late-modern thinkers in an ancient project – this also seems in a sense like what the American founders attempted. The United States may be a unique attempt to do something that feels ancient, in a modern way. So it is unsurprising that the loci of your political thinking are with the founders, and with Reconstruction – the two eras when that had to happen as if from scratch: during and after the Revolution, and the Civil War, when much unfinished business of the founding came due. Are we now in a third crisis, which dawned more gradually, brought on by burgeoning populations and migrations? Perhaps the last time when anyone would have seen it as a crisis was during the Civil Rights era when the legacy of Reconstruction came to a boil. And now we see the question: whether it in fact is tenable. I don’t know the answer either.
R.K.H.: Well, federalist systems are always tricky; the Europeans are discovering this too. How do you honor the integrity of the local, while maintaining stable institutions that can coordinate on a large scale, and not have those institutions get so powerful that they suppress the diversity of the communities that comprise them? There’s a tendency in conservative thought, both in Europe and in the US, that stigmatizes the EU project as a terrible betrayal of the member nations, and so on; yet, if you were to analogize the member states of the EU with the member states of the US, the American system is infinitely more repressive. They have far more autonomy at the level of member-state than the US does. I don’t know yet what this tells us, but --
S.: Perhaps we see the United States as fait accompli, but the European Union as an agenda.
R.K.H.: It’s a project, yes; of ever-closer integration. But a project carried out with one eye on concerns for the autonomy of member-states, and that’s a difficult value to articulate in this country, because of the tragic way that it became entwined with issues of race.
S.: And later with many other “social justice” questions: marriage equality; abortion; and so on.
R.K.H.: So rediscovering the virtues of loose federations, semi-autonomous communities, while disentangling those issues, is also tricky. But ultimately desirable – if it’s possible. Because this capture to which I referred, clearly results from an excessive concentration of power in the federal government, and within the government, in the executive branch. And the way things are structured now, I believe, is not what anyone intended.
S.: On the blog Unqualified Reservations, which Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. “Mencius Moldbug,” wrote from 2007 to 2014, he too champions a sort of small-city-state vision, more or less on the model of companies "ruled" by CEOs. I don’t want to give Yarvin more than his due – being very smart is not everything – but his critique of democracy ought not to be just waved away. People forget, or ignore, just how critical of democracy Plato (and Nietzsche!) were – and Badiou and Zizek are, for reasons pretty much opposed to Yarvin. Yarvin is right that democracy is fragile – fatally so, he believes. But you point out, Madison and the other American founders knew it was fragile too. Yarvin’s imagined small city-states would not always be “republics” of course – in fact, he prefers autocracies, and likes to point to Singapore or Dubai – but really, he’d be satisfied to “let shareholders decide;” in other words to have a kind of democracy within certain bounds.
R.K.H.: I’ve read long stretches of Moldbug. It’s a frustrating experience because there is such an interweaving of insights with absurdities.
S.: Not unlike Nietzsche, some might say. The difference– well, one difference – being that Yarvin has not made himself indispensable. (He’d probably argue that “indispensability” on those terms is not something he would covet. And of course there’s the argument that many of those who regard Nietzsche in this way misread him in very disfiguring ways.)
R.K.H.: To your question though: we used to have such things as company towns. I’m sure there’s a reason why we don’t anymore! Bear in mind too that I use the concept of a small city-state as a heuristic, much the way Wittgenstein uses his “language games.”
S.: The way you describe the disintegration of American polity and the “capture” of US politics by forces inimical to it, seems to be a kind of centrifugal reaction (the fragmentation of our sense of "We") to a huge centripetal force (the concentration of Executive power). Is that too simple?
R.K.H.: The concentration of executive power greatly incentivizes special interests to seek control over it; and they are remarkably successful. The main reason is that the parties need their money to wage a modern campaign. I wouldn’t describe the result as centripetal or centrifugal; rather, as a bifurcation of the body politic brought about by a corrupt, competitive two party system which no longer can deliver anything substantial.
S.: To return to a Nietzschean prognosis: I take it you don’t expect the immanent arrival of the Übermensch to deliver us (and why would the Übermenschen be deliverers?). But what if – to come back to the question of decadence I raised earlier – we are just living in the twilight of the Zarathustra’s Last Men, the “inventors of happiness,” for – well, for a long time? Possibly even the last men – without happiness?
R.K.H.: One of the most striking experiences I had recently was returning to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and finding all sorts of parallels between Mill and Nietzsche with regard to individual development, eccentricity, social pressure, modernity, et cetera.
S.: A provocative pairing, Mill and Nietzsche. The Nietzscheanization of liberalism, or vice-versa!
R.K.H.: Such parallels are probably due to Mill being directly influenced by German thinkers. Implicit in Mill is this notion that a flourishing culture requires conditions necessary to the development of individuals. These conditions are what we call “liberalism” both in connection with institutions and with attitudes. Nietzsche’s concept of the superhuman is his somewhat grandiose way of talking about a flourishing culture and the culturally productive people who compose it. This suggests to me a kind of rapprochement between the two thinkers, and the way out of our current condition. And yet I think the way out is ultimately political.
S.: On how to discuss questions academically, balancing this with legal concerns about hostile environment, you said, we must and will figure it out. But on our larger political crisis, you sound less sure.
R.K.H.: No, I’m not particularly confident. Centralization is very hard to reverse, and doing so often requires either violence or profound systemic failure, like the Soviets experienced in the late 1980s. Neither of those are good options!
S.: Well, systemic failure – economic, ecological, or both – looks increasingly possible. And even this may not bring decentralization. In the short term it could easily occasion the opposite.
R.K.H.: I still hold out hope that we can figure things out as a political community, recognizing ideological differences, working through things, debating honestly and civilly – but we must address something that we have not satisfactorily addressed so far: the self-serving role of special interests in steering legislation and regulation. It used to be a lively topic among Democrats, and seems not to be anymore. One wonders why.
S.: Well, the powerful there know what is, and is not, to their immediate advantage. And as you say – they have, like their Republican counterparts, exchanged a role in governance for a role in public entertainment and a seat at the table power-brokering behind closed doors.
R.K.H.: But you can’t have civic republicanism if the city is for sale to the highest bidder.