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<nettime> Glenn Smith on the WELL
Jon Lebkowsky on Mon, 22 Nov 2004 10:07:00 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Glenn Smith on the WELL

Glenn Smith, author of _Politics of Deceit_, has been discussing his book 
for the last couple of weeks on the WELL. The discussion's world-readable, 
and it's definitely worth reading. Should be particularly interesting for 

Here's an excerpt:

I think one of the difficulties is that Progressives always seem to be 
doing battle on behalf of others, itself a noble calling. We have health 
insurance, but we fight for those who don't. Our jobs have not been 
exported oversees. We work for more than the minimum wage. This puts us at 
some remove from those hyper-capitalism leaves behind. Psychologically, 
I'm afraid we're fulfilled as much by taking up a cause as we would be by 
winning. This is most obvious in someone like Ralph Nader, who seems 
untroubled by the practical consequences of his self-righteousness.

Maybe this is easiest to see in the alienation of some American 
intellectuals and artists from progressive movements, from Emerson to Bob 
Dylan. In an interesting new book, "Hip: the History," John Leland makes 
the point that engagement is the enemy of hip. Why is this?

I believe one of the reasons is that intellectual rebels like Emerson and 
Dylan are not so much rejecting collective action as they are pointing out 
movement members' self-absorption. Emerson was anti-slavery but he had a 
hard time hanging out with the abolitionists. Same with Dylan and 
anti-Vietnam War activists. Interestingly, their critique is often 
mistaken for its opposite. They are not retreating to a Romantic 
Individualism, the movement is. (However, Romanticism gets an exaggerated 
bad rap from Marxists and post-modernists. Maybe we'll get to that later.)

What passes for a political or cultural "ideal" is often just disguised 
desire. That's how a movement is turned into an audience. FM radio "goes" 
commercial. Environmentalists buy their cultural identity at REI. Well, 
the last thing we'd want to do in this circumstance is permanently satisfy 
and so eliminate the desire by winning. So we don't. The consequences of 
our failures, at least with regard to many economic issues, always fall on 
others. Our consciences are clear.

Why don't rightests suffer from the same thing? In part because they've 
put their entire world view at risk, as distorted as that world view is. 
When they lose, they are the victims. Almost any means justifies their 
end. George Lakoff says something really important about this. An 
authoritarian's lie is not a lie when it's uttered to protect the family 
(coherent world view). Until the family is publicly shamed by that lie, 
until the rationale for the authority itself is undermined, no damage is 
done to the cause by a lie.

As long as they hang together, and the GOP has done a masterful job of 
uniting the right, we gain no converts by pointing out Bush's lies. To the 
Right, we're just confused ideologues.

We're caught in a trap. The Left can't just mimic the Right and go to war 
on behalf of a world view because we understand such unified world views 
as monstrous. Communists tried it. I think I'm getting close to Adorno's 
hopelessness, but it's not hopeless.

In the book I turned to the thought of the late Czech philosopher Jan 
Patocka and his disciple, Vaclav Havel, poet-turned-president. When our 
world view becomes a non-totalizing, pluralistic commitment to "living 
within the truth," we succeed in putting more than our desire at risk. We 
go to battle on behalf of one another and can't take refugee in the 
self-satisfied construction of an identity at ease with perpetually 

As Havel pointed out in the 1970s, it is just here that Western capitalist 
democracies resemble the bureaucratic communist regimes of Eastern Europe 
that crumbled in 1989. The weakness of totalizing world-views is that they 
are captured by their lies. They are removed, quite literally, from 
reality. Sooner or later they suffer from a disease their world view won't 
recognize. And they will die.

"Living within the truth" then is principled political resistance. The 
trick comes when we succeed and take the reigns of power. Then we must use 
these principles against ourselves. The Czech Republic has not had so much 
luck with this.

To wrap this up, I just want to point out that I believe our Emersons, 
Thoreaus, and Dylans have long championed a similar approach. It's a kind 
of "moral perfectionism," meaning not a reachable utopian ideal of 
individual or collective perfection but the recognition that the self is 
in perpetual motion, that it constantly evolves toward greater 
understanding. Culture and political organization should promote and 
protect these possibilities of freedom.

When I was in Boston for the Democratic convention this year I had the 
great pleasure of talking through these parallels between the Emersonian 
tradition and Patockian "living within the truth" with Harvard's Stanley 
Cavell, the contemporary advocate of moral perfectionism. If the work of 
Patocka and Havel is not at hand, read Cavell. Read Cavell no matter what. 
He himself is modest about the political consequences of his work. But 
that's just because he practices the moral perfectionism he preaches.

Jon Lebkowsky http://www.weblogsky.com

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