12 September 2014

The centrist trap and apophatic politics

The brilliant young blogger and fellow ‘magenta millennial’ Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig just posted a wonderful short essay, one which I had actually been trying to write for some time. But not only did she do it first, but she did it better! Which is all the more reason for me to go ahead and try to improve mine by framing it as a response to hers, because that’s what bloggers do. So I want to go ahead and say that not only should you read her essay, dearest readers, but you should read her entire blog. She is a brilliant author with her heart firmly in the right place.

And that is equally true here. She is speaking to the dangers of being seen as ‘centrist’, how the very term itself can mask a very broad array of positions, and how at any rate such a designation begs the question: the ‘centre’ of what? Where do you park the two poles you place yourself between? How do you frame your political priorities and borrow from each ‘pole’? Lord knows I’m guilty of this fallacy as well, and of ‘poxing both their houses’ Jon Stewart-style. See my previous post for a good example. It is a poor defence, indeed almost worse in a way, that I try to set out where I stand in as technically-correct a way as I can. Again, readily on display. See? I’m a ‘left-authoritarian’, whatever that means. To be honest, sometimes I think it just means I admire Zhukov.

Mrs. Bruenig is likewise correct to assert that Americanism is a problem, and that our ‘red’ and our ‘blue’ don’t represent the entire spectrum of ideas, and indeed narrow that spectrum in ways which exclude a priori a broad field of experience and political commitment. But the problem goes deeper. I would not call myself ‘anti-American’, because I am American, my family is American, and my ancestors are American – particularly and indeed especially the ones who agitated and fought on the side of the British Crown against the revolutionaries. I admire American people and American lifeways, though these are often opposed to or run against the official American political narrative. But I do realise there is a danger that even opposition to Americanism runs the risk of posing American politics as the centre and ignoring or downplaying broad swathes of thought running outside, agonal to or unconcerned with American politics. There is a reason why Noam Chomsky is indispensable reading for left-wingers but only to a certain point. He no less than his targets has a tendency for keeping American policy at the centre of everyone’s attention.

And there is, of course, the middle-ground fallacy itself, which Mrs. Bruenig so adroitly skewers. Just because something falls in the middle between two extremes does not mean that it is the best option.

What I think – what I hope – Mrs. Bruenig is getting at here is a kind of politics which defines itself primarily by what it is not, rather than by what it is. Particularly hopeful is this last line:
Magenta, yes. Centrist, not at all. Defined by the polarity of American partisan politics? Not even close. I know, I know: go ahead, throw your vote away. You got me, Kodos and Kang.
This would seem to point to a kind of apophatic politics, a politics which keeps its theological soundness (in a way which she feels Niebuhr’s does not) by taking an approach similar to that of Orthodox theology. Orthodoxy holds in dialectic tension the apophatic and the cataphatic tendencies, by keeping what we can know about God in light of the knowledge that our knowledge is insufficient. A sound approach to politics will (hopefully) do the same, because politics which assures itself of the infallibility of its own knowledge is not politics but ideology. And all ideology is, at root, heresy.

So, for example, with modern American conservatism we can affirm the wrongness of taking unborn human life. But for the selfsame reasons that taking unborn human life is wrong, we must witness against modern American conservatism on a whole host of other issues, like the denial of health-care benefits to expecting and new mothers, for starters. But because we can and should speak out about the wrongness of destroying brown children in the womb by uncontrolled doctors, we can and should also speak out about the wrongness of bombing brown children in the mountains by remote-control planes, and about the wrongness of shooting brown children in the streets by out-of-control cops. We can and should also speak about the wrongness of telling a woman she must bear her unborn child, whilst not expecting to raise him on anything more than starvation wages because she’s a ‘failure at life’.

With modern American liberalism we can affirm the need for a government that takes more than a procedural view of justice, and advocates for the poor. But we must also note the irony that the basis for any such government must be theological. Such a government will not bear up even under a liberal theory of the social contract – because, aside from the fact that the social contract is a patent falsehood, the ‘social contract’ has always been used not to protect the poorest and least vulnerable members of society, but to justify the ‘rights’ of the wealthiest to the protection and patronage of the government. The social contract is a bourgeois contract, because the rights the contract protects are all couched in terms of property.

Likewise: that property rights fall under our critique does not make us communist. That we love the traditions of our homelands and see ‘philopatria’ as a good and healthy thing does not make us fascist. And that we can understand the need for public participation and voice in government does not make us democrats. And yet we are standing for something – for the dignities inherent in, and promised through, the Incarnation. Christ, the one person in the All-Holy Trinity, fully human and fully God, who in His paradox cannot be understood by logic alone but with the eyes of faith, stands with us. (I say that not as an assurance of the rightness of my own political beliefs, by the way – to the contrary, Christ’s presence with me shows me where I continue to fall short!)

Postscript: It strikes me that Mrs. Bruenig’s excellent piece has given me some other thoughts on American politics. She says that our politics are ‘polarised’, but on a far narrower spread of opinion, objectively speaking, elsewhere in the world; I agree completely! But it strikes me that the differences between Republicans and Democrats – not even just the politicians, but the people as well – are more dependent on cultural signalling than on actual, legitimate ideological disagreement.

You can have on the one hand a latte-drinking, bespectacled, button-down Birkenstock-wearing vegetarian hipster who eats only organic food, lives in an urban centre or college town, and drives an electric hybrid. And on the other hand you can have a gun-toting, plaid flannel-wearing red meat-eating redneck who likes to go range-shooting and has a King James Bible in the glove compartment of his four-wheel drive pickup truck. But these two hypothetical individuals would, if one could keep the conversation off of culture, find a broad range of agreement with each other on the topics of individual liberty
vis-à-vis state power, of economic policy and even of foreign policy. American liberals and American conservatives are far closer to each other in terms of opinion than they tend to think.

Advocates of bipartisanship may think this is a good thing, but only in the short run. It might be easy enough to keep most of the American public on the same track by keeping genuine political variances as minimal as possible whilst focussing most of our energy on cultural differences, but it’s ultimately self-destructive. Cultural differences matter at a deeper level than policy does, and by driving cultural wedges through the population to keep up the appearances of democratic participation, the movers and shakers of public opinion may be laying the foundations of a lasting divide wherein adherents to the ‘liberal’ MSNBC-watching subculture and the ‘conservative’ Fox News-watching subculture may end up genuinely believing they don’t have anything in common with each other, with dire effects later on down the road.

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