Tag Archives: politics

The Art of the Possible

Detail from “The Effects of Good and Bad Government,” Caleb Ives Bach (1985).

What is “reality”? One answer: If I punch the wall, I hurt myself; if I step out the window, I fall. These are the principles I can accommodate myself to or manipulate or (for a short, inglorious period) choose to defy for some doomed reason or another.

Another answer comes from the first: Reality sets the bounds of the possible, the terms of debate, the imaginative limits we need to work under. Thus for politics, that art of the possible, reality says that there are winners and losers, that on certain issues, maybe all issues, we’re dealing with a zero sum game; your health or theirs, your safety or theirs, your children or theirs. There’s only so much space, so many chairs, so much goodwill to go around. Everybody’s hands are tied, no one is ever really responsible.

I’ll admit, in this second sense, I find I’m tired of reality, a shifting and twisting declaration of what cannot be argued with or challenged that comes down to things are as good as they can be, they stand to get worse if you agitate about that fact too much, and perceived reality is the only reality worth discussing (if you feel your hands are tied, does it matter whether or not they are?). Leibniz proposes in his Theodicy that the best of all possible worlds requires some of us to do evil, to fail, and to struggle. In the grandest understanding of space and time, if all could be encompassed and understood, that might be true enough. Politically, however, it’s a little much to swallow. Continue reading

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Introducing the Summer issue: Identities—What Are They Good for?

Identity is too much with us late and soon. It figures prominently in clashes over diversity, multiculturalism, political correctness, offensive speech, “deplorable” voters, and arrogant elites. In our overheated politics of recognition, “Check your privilege!” has become the rebuke of choice, aimed at silencing the opinions of those whose obliviousness to their entitlement is itself a giveaway of their advantaged social status. Those so accused—cisgender white males being prime suspects—in turn accuse their critics of playing identity politics to curtail free speech.

Identities are multiform, of course. Some are given or imposed, and some are elected. Some are acquired, while some are discarded. Some have to do with skin color; others, with ethnicity or religion, region or nation, gender or age, class or profession, disability or differing ability. Identities usually come in packages, and no matter how we assemble them, or how they are assembled for us, we are all, to use the current term of art, intersectional. We assume and wear our identities—in sum or part—proudly or shamefully, arrogantly or modestly. For some, identity explains much of who they are; for others, it explains very little and may even obscure who they believe they are.

Given its current importance, the struggle for recognition among our ever-proliferating identity groups might seem to be a peculiarly modern obsession. But even in the old regimes, with their static social hierarchies, the need for recognition was powerful. Recognition was pursued and attained largely on the field of honor, in daily efforts to fulfill the duties and obligations of one’s place in the divinely ordained social order.

As the old regimes were replaced by modern democratic states with growing social mobility, the concern with honor ceded to a new universalist politics that insisted upon dignity for all citizens, including equal rights and entitlements. But if the modern age did not give rise to the politics of recognition, it did give birth, as the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, to the “conditions in which the attempt to be recognized can fail.” It did so because, along with the new universalist politics, there arose a related but sometimes conflicting politics of difference, concerned precisely with winning recognition for one or more particular groups against the neglect, exploitation, or assimilationist pressures of the dominant group. The recurring collisions between these two modes of politics have produced some of the sharpest—and even the most violent—civil struggles within modern democratic states.

But the longevity and occasional ferocity of struggles arising from demands for equal rights, on one hand, and the recognition of difference, on the other, has brought relatively little light to the phenomenon of identity itself. How do we judge the adequacy, efficacy, or value of various forms of identity in our struggle to the find not only equal rights and privileges but also meaning and community?

That is the question that animates the thematic essays of the present issue of The Hedgehog Review, and though the answers range widely, they collectively provide an entry point for a deeper, possibly less fraught discussion of what separates humanity into tribes (defined by what are often extremely fine distinctions) and what may yet bring us together in a more capacious humanism that embraces universalist principles while respecting and protecting differences. As the historian Jackson Lears wrote not long ago wrote in the London Review of Books, “Identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing.”

While Lears writes from the left and is largely concerned with the way our current form of identity politics has displaced a concern with class and economic equality, voices of the right and center have joined him in criticizing this coercive narrowing of political debate. (See, for example, Walter Benn Michael’s The Trouble with Diversity, Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, and Francis Fukuyama’s forthcoming Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.) But escaping the grip of identity politics will require an honest reckoning with the historical and contemporary realities that continue to fuel the politics of difference, whether in the emergence of a new racism visible in soaring rates of African American incarceration or in the ever-accumulating incidents of male aggression against women. And, yes, we must also heed the identity-based grievances of those “angry white males” (and quite a few females) who came together in surprisingly wide support of an uncivil anti-politician promising to make America great again.

Of one thing we can be certain: Identity politics begets more identity politics. Any hope of overcoming that politics must begin with a willingness to listen to those who cleave to identity for the very solidarity and confidence that may free them, ironically, from the more limiting, indeed punitive, aspects of an identity. Are there more commodious forms of identity, including a rekindled and truly civic nationalism, that can bring not just tolerance but a sense of mutuality across some of the most politically heated identity divides? It is an irony—perhaps even tragic one—that the only way out of the identity trap is through it. How we negotiate that irony is one of the distinctive challenges of our modern condition.

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We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with these three:

What Makes Me Black? What Makes You White? by W. Ralph Eubanks

In with the Out Crowd: Contrarians, Alone and Together by Steve Lagerfeld

Virtue Signaling by B.D. McClay

The entire issue, already on its way to subscribers, includes thematic contributions from Mary Townsend, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, Phil Christman, S.D. Chrostowska, and James McWilliams along with standalone works by Witold Rybczynski, Becca Rothfeld, and Johann N. Neem as well as six book reviews. Browse the table of contents here and subscribe—if you haven’t yet—here.

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Why Not to Despair When the Barbarians Are at the Gate

Relief of Roman fighting a barbarian, Musée du Louvre

Relief of Roman fighting a barbarian, Musée du Louvre

Things got a little intense at pilates the other day.

My classmates were lamenting the state of the world. Global terrorism. Coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Donald Trump.

I piped up during my plank routine. Perhaps it’s all a positive, a character test of some type that should be heeded and understood, rather than dismissed unthinkingly in the grip of crisis or despair.

Julie on the neighboring “reformer” machine was quick to oblige: “What, don’t you have children—don’t you care about the future?!” Continue reading

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Things to Do Instead of Watching the Debate Tomorrow

Detail from John William Waterhouse’s Diogenes (1882). Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from John William Waterhouse’s Diogenes (1882). Wikimedia Commons.

It’s one of those facts that you learn when you’re young and that stick with you in some strange, character-forming way: Ancient Athenians would round up reluctant voters with a rope dipped in red paint.  What a clever way to force citizens to exercise their civic duty and, at the same time, shame them for their reluctance to do so! Citizenship is good! I would be an involved citizen (surely) when I reached my majority (I would not).

Citizenship is good, but the relationship between citizenship and, say, the theater of our seemingly endless pre-primary debates is probably a little dubious. When I asked a friend if she wanted to watch Monday’s town hall with me, she shot me down on the grounds she’d given up drinking. This was a good argument and I have taken some instruction from it.

So skip the debate! Even Donald Trump is doing it. And in that spirit, here are some things you can do instead of watching the Republican debate tomorrow:

Play a game in which you round up reluctant Athenian voters. I don’t know why this game exists, but, let me tell you, the controls are really frustrating and bad. Anyway—it’s an option.

To continue the Athens theme, read The Knights. This is a fun and delightful comedy by Aristophanes about a people wooed by a destructive demagogue. It’s relaxing to read literature about problems that are entirely in the past.

Learn a language. These debates last what? Five hours? A day? That’s surely enough time to get down the basics of German pronouns or something. Or hey, Attic Greek! People spoke that thousands of years ago, so hard could it be? πάθει μάθος, friends.

Fingerpainting. Jackson Pollock was born on January 28. Remember him.

Watch that movie, the bleak Scandinavian thing that you’ve been meaning to watch but not really because you already think about death enough and don’t need to be reminded of it at this particular time and also your glasses are bad and the subtitles are hard to read. You know the one.

Deep clean your fridge. This is a good way to spend a lot of time and gain some crucial self-knowledge.

Drink anyway. I probably will.

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