52:10 What Binds Americans Together
For the most part, I want Mesocosm to be a rambling survey of life-intensifying ideas and works of art. I generally keep it apolitical, because by and large I don’t believe political discourse is helpful.
But at this particular time in history, saying nothing about politics would be a kind of untruth. So for this week’s post, I’d like to look at February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together, a special little essay that deeply influenced my thinking. It was jointly published by Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2003. I’d like to briefly say a little bit about what it meant to me at the time, and in the light of current events.
Sometimes I think about the days and years after 9/11. All of us who lived through those times remember the grief, confusion, and the insanity of it – the long years that passed by slowly, when the evening news reported “Threat Level Amber” in a constant scroll across the bottom of the screen in an oblique reminder that the world isn’t safe. Talking heads reporting “high levels of chatter” around the holidays, and other glyphs and half-understood signs of danger.
I remember thinking that many Americans would literally rather go to war with a Muslim country than read a book on Islam. Who knew a Sunni from a Shiite? And I remember my Zen teacher despondently saying that what she found unbearable was that no one seemed to make any sense at all – you kept listening, and you never heard voices of reason. Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and the country was heading to war.
Now, more than ten years later, ideas are taken seriously in American political discourse that would have previously been regarded as madness even by the fringes of the political spectrum. And there’s a chance that in a few days time, we’ll see the election of a man preposterously unfit by any rational standard to the office of president – a man insults comedians and beauty pageant contestants in late-night Tweets, a man who openly called on Russian hackers to intercede in our election on his behalf, a man who celebrates torture, a man who will be standing trial for fraud and racketeering in a few weeks’ time, though he calls his opponent “crooked.”
The Trump phenomenon is increasingly being analyzed for its novel relationship to truth and reason, as he seems to exemplify a political ideology that is fundamentally characterized by a wholesale rejection of conventional standards of reason and evidence (see, for example, here and here). Of the countless examples within easy reach, perhaps the most illustrative case is when Trump insisted that President Obama and Hillary Clinton literally founded the Islamic State. When asked by a sympathetic radio host if he meant that Obama effectively was responsible for the creation of the Islamic State, he respond no, I meant what I said – he is the founder. From CNN’s coverage:
Trump was asked by host Hugh Hewitt about the comments Trump made Wednesday night in Florida, and Hewitt said he understood Trump to mean “that he (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump said. “I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
At this point one is literally left wondering if he doesn’t understand what the word “founder” means, or if the basic machinery of rational thought has broken down in his mind. What could he possibly mean by such a statement? Is it possible that in some or any sense he actually believes this claim is true?
This type of rhetoric, which proceeds as if the facts of the matter are irrelevant on a basic level, is central to his campaign, with its endless stream of falsehoods and contradictions. It is a new mode of mainstream political discourse which not only lacks but rejects critical self-awareness.
In a recent interview in Die Zeit, Judith Butler offered this observation about the culture of Trump and his supporters:
Butler: Well, it is all rather unfathomable. I think there is an economic component to the support for Trump. For some of his supporters government has gotten in the way of their capacity to make a good living and to succeed financially, so they are against regulations, against government. And that can include paying taxes and workplace regulations meant to secure the health and safety of workers. They applaud the fact that Trump has not apparently paid federal taxes and they think: “Yeah, I want to be that person”.
ZEIT ONLINE: There is a lot of rage?
Butler: I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants – they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism – basic American liberalism and the left – as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.
A friend of mine sardonically observed “Remembered the good-old days when the Left was the id and the Right was the super-ego?” All I can say is, our version of the id is a lot more fun.
In the dark days around 2003 when I was listening for a voice of reason, one of the first signs of light I found was the essay February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together. Two great European intellectuals representing philosophical positions that are, in many senses, diametrically opposed, came together to make a joint statement that articulated a shared political vision for Europe and a common set of ideals that could be used to chart the way forward.
You may find that short essay worth reading – in essence, it constitutes a reaffirmation of a European social order founded on reason and a concept of basic, universal human rights, in which disagreements are mediated by laws and procedures rather than force.
It was a surprising gesture, with Habermas being the preeminent living representative of the Kantian rationalist view of society, while Derrida represents a career-long manifold critique of the European Enlightenment and its naive construction of the rational subject. I can only conject that when push came to shove, as it did, Derrida found that he was committed to reason and fundamental rights. And though I hadn’t engaged vigorously in political philosophy before that time, I realized that I was, too.
I believe that the United States is, at its best, a society of laws, whose policies are shaped by democratic principles. Democracy depends on judgments that are fired in the collective furnace of rational discourse mediated by shared norms and values. One can and should subject every term of this formulation to critique, but my honest belief is that this is truly the best hope for the country and for the world, and the aberrations and errors made by this country in its checkered past occur, by and large, insofar as we deviate from that model.
Tuesday is the most important election I’ve seen in my lifetime – perhaps more important to me personally and to the world than the Brexit referendum which derailed my in-motion plans to move to London. Tuesday’s election is no less than a referendum on the vision of America as a society in which collective action is coordinated by rational discourse, and which affirms certain fundamental rights owed to every individual on the planet, whatever their country, genealogy, or religion.
We have a choice on Tuesday between a candidate who fundamentally rejects the role of critical reason and the universality of human rights, and one who does not. That is, in fact, no choice at all. If you live in the United States, please vote.