My recent reading has been more re-reading, going back to (for me) foundational texts that have had a hand in sculpting my understanding of the
Richard Rorty’s Contingency, irony, and solidarity is one of those. The reason for going back to it has to do with our current political situation. I wanted to reëxamine his argument, in the latter part of the book, about the divide between public and private lives and the place of politics in each. Rorty knows that the border between the two is porous, but he wants to reserve a “privateness” to the private parts of one’s life, which he describes as “ironist,” so that the liberal humanist project of solidarity does not bog down in a reliance on unreliable universalist truths about human nature but instead has an anchor in the contingent suffering each person suffers from day to day.
Using Rorty’s own insistence that language and its meanings are never finished and always morphable, I feel these days that the
topographic divide that Rorty gives to life – private here, public there – has dissolved under the solvent of our current American politics, where tweets act as policy
statements, personal presidential gain is the dominant democratic project and we are all forced to take a stand on our common slippery slope, like it or not.
We now breathe the air of a smoldering landscape of anger, intolerance, and triumphalism. However, these fires are not new fires. They have
always kept American history on a low boil, flaring up at times in civil wars and genocides, and then falling back, never extinguished.
The heat and pollution of the American burn is what gives Raoul Peck’s documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, such
a searing effect, at least to me (I’ve seen it twice). The heavy sadness laced throughout Baldwin’s version of the history of black people in white America easily maps
onto our republic, in the throes of its latest fever-dream, where many gleefully demonize others and inflict cruelties upon them while using linguistic dodges – national
security, the safety of the homeland – to excuse their barbarism.
Not without resistance, though, which is good to see, millions committed to finding ways to stabilize the slippery slope and make the ground
more supportive, just as in Baldwin’s time the civil rights movement bloodied its way towards something like a victory.
But as important as this resistance is, both in its short-term marching and longer-term institution-building, it will be not sufficient to put
out those coal-seam fires burrowing through
the American historical record. The fires exist, as Baldwin points
out, because the dominant white culture has not faced, and thus
has not answered, this question: What is it in you that needs to create the nigger (the “nigger”
here not just black people but any people deemed the “other,” whether that be Native Americans or Muslims, and, as the “other,” not even really considered
Baldwin’s sadness is also our sadness, his unanswered question the toxin that poisons all efforts at solidarity and forms the basis of a
society that seems unable to feel satisfied and purposeful domestically and stands discredited internationally.
However, when Baldwin is asked if he is an optimist, he answers that he is forced to be an optimist because he is alive, and his answer stands
for us as well. But because his optimism is not cheerful, we may ask how useful can it be. My answer would be that any chance of putting out those subterranean fires begins
by disassembling our ill-structured private American selves, the part of human life that Rorty privileges.
We need to stop believing in principles, like American exceptionalism and white supremacy, that harden our hearts and block our ears.
We need to chuck out most of Christian theology and keep the few tenets concerning charity and resistance mouthed by Jesus, the way Jefferson
amended the New Testament to get rid of the miracles and keep the moral teachings.
We need to ’fess up to the truth of how American prosperity required, and still requires, immense blood sacrifices of the powerless and
We need to retire the myths of rugged individualism and bootstrapping self-helpery in order to make room for “the more perfect
union” we promised ourselves two-and-a-half centuries ago.
We need to become real adults so that we can acquire a deeper acceptance of how our limitations and frailties as meat creatures can, and
should, take the piss out of any abstract idealism or righteous crusading and instead bind us in a solidarity of shared bodies and pain.
If, in this country, the people are truly to be the governors, then we, as those “people,” need to become people worthy of
governing ourselves. This requires discipline – the species’ simultaneous strength and weakness is that humans are born in a malleable state and do not, from the womb,
come equipped with love, humility, patience, self-deprecation, and humor.
The antidote to Trumpism begins in disciplining our private lives to be a people worthy of exercising power and discretion. The angels of a
better nature are built, not summoned; if we do not build them, they will not come. What will take their place will be the demons of our human nature, the ego, appetite, and
selfishness embedded in our DNA that may enable the creature to survive a hostile world but ensures that the creature will not become a humane human being.
This is, I think, what Baldwin means by linking optimism to being alive: we may not have done it right, but that doesn’t mean we
can’t do it right: the possibility is never foreclosed as long as people are breathing and feel pain in their bodies.
The great gift of Trumpism, if such a phrase can be used, is that it is spurring us (at least some of us) to get it right this time. The fight
is public and private, against the external powers and against our own sloth, for a commonwealth peopled by governors schooled for the task. It is not enough to rail against the
barbarians and hope they don’t invade your home. Better to assume that they will act as barbarians usually do and take it upon yourself to be the best example of the
civilization you want to protect, which will also be the best defense against the siege of this wrecking crew.