Monthly Archives: January 2017

taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

From Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense.”

On Saturday, I ate my 50th birthday dinner with my beloved wife and younger daughter in a restaurant in Cambridge, MA. While we waited for the check, we heard about the protest at Logan Airport and decided to go. I then watched two of my favorite people stand against injustice in the company of a large and passionate band of our fellow citizens.

To say that I enjoyed my birthday evening seems wrong. It sounds a bit like saying, “The US Coast Guard turned the refugee-laden ship St Louis away from Miami in May 1939, and 254 of the passengers were soon murdered in the Holocaust, but I enjoyed standing on the dock with a ‘Let them in!’ sign.”

But there is another way of looking at these situations. Politics is often about cruelty and injustice. Sometimes the people who respond with optional political actions–like carrying signs in Logan’s Terminal E–are not directly at risk. We may nevertheless take satisfaction from our political action if we contribute, in some ultimate way, to a better world.

For one thing, we should draw satisfaction because that motivates more activity. If politics is mere sacrifice, everyone except the most direct victims (the ones with their backs to the wall) will drop out sooner or later. I think it’s wise for activists to advertise the emotional benefits of action.

More than that, we should take satisfaction from politics, even if others are suffering while we are safe, because consequential public action is part of a dignified life–an aspect of dignity too often denied to us by bureaucracies and markets. Hannah Arendt thought that the American Framers originally revolted in defense of their own private liberties, but they discovered, as they made the new republic together, that “no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public business” (On Revolution,  p. 247). Lin-Manuel Miranda captures that feeling at the very end of Hamilton, when his hero sings, “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference.”

We shouldn’t wish for injustices so that we can make a difference. (Young-man Hamilton does–singing “God, I wish there was a war! / Then we could prove that we’re worth more /
Than anyone bargained for…”–but he outgrows that sentiment.) When, however, we are confronted with injustices that we did not choose, we may take some joy from rising up together with those we love:

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,–the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

– Wordsworth, “The French Revolution

See also: unhappiness and injustice are different problems ; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happinessnotes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution; and Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?

registration open for Frontiers of Democracy

Tickets are now available for Frontiers of Democracy, June 22-24. Frontiers is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, with partners. This year’s theme is defending the frontiers of democracy against undemocratic, xenophobic, and illiberal trends around the world. Some of the time will be spent working with this framework, and others that take different approaches:

Purchase now to hold your place. Regular tickets cost $240, and there are discounts for current students and Tisch College’s Community partners. Alumni of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies attend free.

As always, the format of Frontiers is highly interactive; most of the concurrent sessions are “learning exchanges” rather than presentations or panels. We welcome proposals for learning exchanges for 2017. Please use this form to submit ideas.

Frontiers is public. It follows immediately after the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a selective 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students that is capped at 20 participants. Applications for the Institute are being accepted now. Email me ( your resume, a graduate transcript if applicable, and a cover letter explaining your interest.

why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

(Washington DC) Kevin Drum imagines how a Trump fan receives the president’s tweets:

You’re at home, watching the Factor, and O’Reilly is going on about the crime problem in Chicago. It’s outrageous! The place is a war zone! Somebody should do something!

Then, a few minutes later, you see Trump’s tweet. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Damn straight, you think. They need the National Guard to set things straight there. Way to go, President Trump.

This exchange is good enough for you–on its own. You don’t really want Trump to send the feds into Chicago, whatever that might mean. If it would cost money or create a precedent for federal intervention in your town, or anything like that, you might actually be against it. But your media stream will never give you an update on whether Trump sent in the feds or what happened to the murder rate in Chicago. You are immersed in media that consists largely of bad news about places you don’t like. You are satisfied that the guy in charge shares your opinion and has announced he’s on it. He even quotes verbatim the same stats you just saw on O’Reilly. It’s a magic solution–at last.

I think more or less the same will happen as a result of Trump’s announcement today that Mexico will pay for the border wall via a 20% import tax. That is highly unlikely to occur, because Congress would have to enact the tax, and I’m guessing the economic effects would be awful if it did; but Trump’s fans will probably never get an update. They may hear about battles between the president and Congress over taxes, but those will take the form of specific insults flung from his end of Pennsylvania Ave. up to the Hill, which they will endorse. Each exchange will be an event unto itself.

I happen to think that this kind of politics has yuge political limitations for Trump. Most people already disapprove of him, and his welcome is going to wear even thinner when people’s actual lives fail to improve. In turn, massive disapproval will weaken his already shaky position. But it’s still a very dangerous situation, at best, and is very far from any reasonable model of a democracy.

My explanation is that millions of Americans have lost all expectation that leaders will be accountable to them. At the national level, they are not getting very good results from the government that purports to represent them. At the local level, they have lost the kinds of institutions that used to depend on people like them. To reprise a graph from a recent post, here is the trend in the proportion of people who belong to a church and/or a union:

For all their flaws, these are the kinds of institutions that make promises and then have to deliver. If they fail, their members know about it and complain, act up, or walk out. A union or a church has a real covenant with its members. When people have no such expectations of accountability, they are much more likely to be satisfied because the boss just tweeted something they agreed with. Again, I think Trump’s own appeal will wear even thinner than it is now, but the underlying problem is a lack of accountable organizations in many communities.

assessing the charge of respectability politics

“Respectability politics” is a valuable term of criticism. Apparently, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined it in 1993. It refers to a strategy of trying to look “better” in the eyes of the dominant group in order to be accepted and make progress. Since respectability politics puts unjust and impossible burdens on the marginalized, we should diagnose and try to avoid it.

At the same time, successful social movements do try to look better. An appearance of moral or spiritual discipline and excellence–“Worthiness” –is an asset that social movements can build and use for political purposes, along with “Unity,” “Numbers,” and “Commitment” (WUNC, for short). They claim higher ground because that’s a powerful strategy.

Also, democratic social movements demand that their own members–previously excluded from civic life–be treated as full citizens. True citizens display values and commitments that are not very common in any population: for example, they are actively engaged with public issues and concerned for the common good. Therefore, in asserting a right to be full citizens, social movements often try to embody values that are better than what they see around them; they try to “Be the change.”

My friend Harry Boyte has saved the Program Notes from the 1963 March on Washington, which says, among other things: “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.”

I don’t think that message should be labeled “respectability politics.” The point of the Program Notes was not to look better to White people. The point was to live up to high expectations chosen and embraced by the Black leaders of the March. The movement redefined respectability–indeed, excellence–on its own terms.

For example, it’s traditional for a crowd at a march or rally to hear a famous and excellent singer. That is one way to display both worthiness and unity. At the 1963 March, Mahalia Jackson filled this traditional role when she sang, “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned.” The difference was that she sang an old gospel song about her own people. This was a performance designed to move and inspire Whites (and others) as well as African Americans, yet she didn’t sing a “White” song to obtain their support.

Likewise, Dr. King’s speech was aimed at a majority-White and overwhelmingly Christian nation, but his specific style of prophetic oratory was uniquely African American. One of the achievements of an effective social movement is an expansion or redefinition of respectability–but not an abandonment of respectability as an ideal.

It’s hard to redefine and consistently demonstrate respectability within a mass movement that is voluntary and democratic. People will join with all kinds of agendas and styles, and they have a right to that diversity. Some will make choices that look bad to others. Enemies of the movement will emphasize the outliers: for example, FoxNews showed footage of last Friday’s anarchists to illustrate Saturday’s vast and peaceful women’s marches. Still, I think the women’s marches represented “worthiness” to an extraordinary degree, and that is a basis for optimism about the next few years.

Opinions about any specific case will differ, but we can look at a sign, slogan, or statement; at a whole episode, like Saturday’s marches; or at a movement composed of many such episodes, and assign it to a category:

  1. Problematic respectability politics, when the movement adopts norms that exclude some people in order to gain support.
  2. Neutral respectability, when the movement just happens to be respectable in many people’s eyes, without adjusting its rhetoric or strategies or excluding anyone.
  3. Pursuit of excellence: whether by displaying self-sacrifice or by singing as well as Mahalia Jackson (or in many other ways), a movement presents itself as more than respectable. Most people cannot meet this ideal, but it becomes a resource for the whole movement. Maybe only Gandhi is starving himself, but we are all satyagrahis if we support him.
  4. Shifting the border of respectability in productive ways. For example, wearing a pink pussy hat on Saturday was a way of rebuking the utterly disreputable new president with a sly and kid-friendly answer. In my view, the hats were fully respectable, but in a way that shifted respectability slightly.
  5. Unhelpfully un-respectable politics, such as the anarchists’ window-breaking on Friday or (arguably) Madonna’s speech at the March.

My main point is that the choices are not just 1 or 5. Some movements fill the other categories, and all are options.

fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism

In lieu of a substantive new post here today, I’ll link to an essay of mine on the Oxford University Press blog, “Fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism.” It concludes, “We need a dose of populism that neither delivers power to a leader nor merely promises fair economic outcomes to citizens as beneficiaries. In this form of populism, diverse people create actual power that they use to change the world together.”