Dhaka, Bangladesh
Tiny Books of the Resistance

Tiny Books of the Resistance

(From previous issue) The seemingly contradictory notion that liberalism can be a radical position in capitalist European and North American countries in the 21st century is not new in political theory circles. Most recently, so-called "third way" theorists such as Anthony Giddens have posited that a non-partisan, technocratic approach to political questions could be not only reasonable, but a radical alternative to the entrenchment of the left and the right. "Freed from an intrinsic connection to either left or right," he argues, "radicalism reverts to its original meaning as daring: it means being prepared to contemplate bold solutions to social and political problems." We know this argument from popular culture, too. Consider the claims of radicalism made in venues such as TED talks and Apple product launches. Radicalism is too often recast in the guise of corporate and technological novelty. What is radical, in this view, is not that which fights against the violence of those in power, but that which promises innovative solutions to social problems. A more user-friendly graphic interface, a new way of organizing corporate work space, or the rise of a new class of healthier fast-food chains can, in this view, have greater impact on the lives of individuals than political changes that would affect broader social policies such as marginal tax rates, healthcare, or public education. Against this vision of third-way and technocratic thinking, a vision that minimizes the partisanship of politics in favor of a model of the renegade individual entrepreneur, political theorist Chantal Mouffe claims that the notion that it is possible to transcend the partisan divide "is not only conceptually mistaken, it is also fraught with political dangers." This is because, she argues, collective identities "always entail a we/they discrimination." This distinction between we and they can be the basis of democratic politics if democratic institutions understand themselves as spaces for the exercise of partisan passion, contestation, and antagonism. But envisioning a political future devoid of we's and they's has resulted, she argues, in a situation where "the political is played out in the moral register." The result is that "in place of a struggle between 'right and left' we are faced with a struggle between 'right and wrong.'" The notion that our political sphere has become "more polarized" is now a commonplace. But Mouffe allows us to see that polarization has its roots, paradoxically, in the depoliticization of the left. This helps to explain why liberal attempts to remedy polarization with gestures of compromise have failed. It is as if liberals and conservatives have been playing two different games: one that rewards consensus and pragmatism and one that rewards opposition and partisanship. One could certainly say that the former is preferable to the latter, but Mouffe demonstrates that the total disavowal of partisanship amounts to the disavowal of politics as such. Strangely, then, in trying to rid the world of antagonism left liberals and third-way proponents have succeeded in fostering a culture of outright hostility. The result, as we have seen in recent years, is an increasingly volatile political situation in which possibilities ranging from authoritarianism to civil war to mass chaos no longer seem remote. Today's tiny books tell us that in order to defend democracy, we have to be ready to take radical steps to defend liberalism. It's easy enough to understand why this argument would seem obvious: we have historically believed that democracy and liberalism require one another. But the tiny book as an aesthetic object signals an illiberal position: it allows one to carry one's credo onto the street, close to the heart, ready for combat. Liberalism, with its values of the primacy of rational discourse, individualism, and autonomy seems as if it should sit in an uncomfortable relation with the tiny book. If this is no longer the case, we might need to start asking about whether what we are seeing is the rise of something like liberal obstinacy, and what the outcome of such a paradoxical position might mean. Are we seeing the rise of something like an anti-democratic liberalism? WNYC's On the Media host Brooke Gladstone is interested in that possibility, and she pursues that interest in the form of a tiny book called The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. This is, as I have been suggesting, a fitting form for a rumination on the limits of liberalism, but it is also a surprising form for Gladstone, who generally works in a form with even greater popular purchase than the semi-populist tiny book: the radio show and its trendy offshoot, the podcast. But the tiny book promises to do something that a podcast does not: it promises to be a weapon. As Jad Abumrad of Radiolab writes in his blurb for the book, "I read this in one sitting and at the end, for a fleeting moment, felt like I had a new hammer in my hand." "Perhaps you picked up this book because an icy hand grips your viscera," the book begins. And what follows confirms the notion that it may be our viscera, more than our brains, that are at stake in the current political moment. Gladstone is interested in umwelt, a concept that originates from biologist Jakob von Uexküll but that she accesses through the work of neuroscientist David M. Eagleman. Umwelt, as Gladstone summarizes it, is an expression of "the idea that different animals living on the same patch of earth experience utterly disparate realities." For biologists, this is the result of the dramatic differences that exist among different organisms' sensory apparatuses and subsequent variations in their fundamental physiological orientations toward the world. Gladstone uses the term to argue that, in today's polarized political environment, what appear to be mere differences in belief are in fact dramatically divergent perceptions of reality. Our differences are so vast that we possess contradictory umwelts. The notion of umwelt helps Gladstone explain why liberal attempts at compromise have not worked. If the difference between the left and the right is a difference in umwelts, then learning how to have a more reasonable conversation is not going to help matters. I love this moment in the book where Gladstone quotes Thomas Jefferson, who writes, "truth is great and will prevail if left to herself […] she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error." "Oh, come on," Gladstone's replies. yes yes yes, I scribble along the margin, happy for an occasion to gang up on Thomas Jefferson, John Milton, and the rest of the liberal tradition. "The laws of human nature do not provide for the triumph of reason," she argues. "History and the internet have lavishly demonstrated that this notion, this stereotype, is false. But that cold truth stands in brazen defiance of the code that rules our world and the laws that govern our country." The notion that truth will not prevail runs in contradiction to the basic assumptions underlying liberal democracy, which are also the assumptions that underpin the liberal left's umwelt. The notion of umwelt as a sociopolitical condition, in other words, challenges the liberal assumptions of writers like Roberts-Miller and Snyder. It means that there may be a we and a them who are, at least for the time being, fundamentally opposed to one another. That the response to the them needs to be militancy rather than discussion. And it means that, contra Snyder, that liberalism, too, might rest on a shared reality that is not entirely based on the facts. That the notion of preserving democracy might be understood to be the credo of a certain we that has benefited from the system in place rather than a universal appeal to the essential good of our existing institutions. All of this seems as if it should pave the way for a tiny book that could fulfill the promise of the form: a tiny book that strategically polarizes, that calls a militant we into being, that offers strategies and tactics for a political takeover rather than simply a defense of what exists. But in the end, Gladstone too succumbs to the liberal umwelt: "You cannot march to a long-term solution to your reality problem with a cadre of like-minded allies," she writes. "That is a solitary journey, and it never ends. You have to travel out of your universe and into the universe of others, and leave your old map at home." Here, Gladstone's book slips into an entirely different genre than the tiny political book: it becomes a work of popular existentialism, an ethical meditation on the human condition rather than a work of political agitation. The book makes a promise to its readers on the very first page: you can feel better. And by the end, we see what feeling better entails. It entails replacing a political struggle with an ethical orientation to the self. The revolutionary tiny book becomes a self-help guide. There is, of course, a different conclusion that one could draw from Gladstone's premises. In her final paragraph, she writes, "We breed infinite realities and they never can be reconciled. We cannot fully enter someone else's. But if we really look, we might actually see that other reality reflected in that person's eyes, and therein lies the beginning of the end of our reality problem." We know from Gladstone's earlier remarks that the end of the reality problem, for her, requires trying to see from the perspective of others. But seeing another reality reflected in someone else's eyes might also act as an impetus to question the inherent relationship between liberalism and democracy. If we live in different worlds, some of which allow for the basic structures of democracy - such as equal protection under the law - to exist, and some others that do not, then affirming democracy might require illiberal practices of combat, of denial, of negation, of refusing to listen. But if this is true, we need our tiny books to do the thing that tiny books promise to do: we need them to tell us how to fight for the world we want to have, not just the one we are afraid of losing.

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