Debating a Response to Charlottesville

18 Aug

I’ve been puzzling over a blog post in response to our latest bit of national drama, with no easy answers coming. (Well, there are certainly some clear things I could say about Confederates or “Heritage, not Hate” or people who run over other people with cars or people who think one’s political opponents must be shouted down and not engaged, but the point of this blog is to add nuance to the debate, not to reiterate points already made by countless other commentators.) I’ve had several false starts, the most effective of which was a sort of Socratic dialogue between two fictional characters, each taking somewhat different stances as they argue the merits in good faith. (Plato was on to something when he used that method to try to puzzle out some of the universe’s greatest questions.)

I’m not going to dwell on the particulars of this one; as valuable as empathy can be, pouring too much emotion into events that do not affect one’s day-to-day life in any visible way can drive one down into a bog of vicarious emotion. I will, however, devote some thought to a plausible path forward. To that end, I will link to two accounts that I think hone in on the troubles of our time quite well, and address the broader question of how people should respond to them.

First, in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller surveys the literature on protest movements, both in their successes and failures, and picks out some lessons for today’s resistance.

Second, in The American Conservative, an interview with Mark Lilla, a Columbia professor with a gift for pithiness who has just come out with a scathing review of “identity politics” on the left.

Both are written by left-leaning critics of the left’s response to Trump. I don’t endorse everything here, and could spend some time picking at things if I wanted. But I find a lot that makes me stop and think in both Lilla’s tour de force of public intellectual discourse and Heller’s measured examination of how protest movements can grow into more than protests. The Lilla piece in particular makes me want to go through question by question and pick through his responses, agreeing here, quibbling there. He may not have all the right answers, but he is asking many of the right questions, and anyone looking to find honest, good faith answers needs to engage questions such as these.

So, let’s discuss.

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