Our time of incivility must end
In the summer of 2020, protesters – and criminals – have installed a reign of disorder in many American cities. On the news and on social media, there were videos of arson attacks in Minneapolis, mass looting in Manhattan and Los Angeles, blocked highways in Texas and demonstrations in Washington, DC, in which crowds of activists harassed and intimidated restaurant patrons. These actions, while alarming to many Americans, were met with nuanced sympathy and outright approval in places of polite liberal opinion such as the New York Timesthe Nationand National Public Radio.
Seeing the general public accept, even welcome, such incivility, in defiance of public health guidelines that had banned even the smallest of public gatherings, was a dizzying experience. After months in which Americans had been cajoled and sometimes ordered to stay isolated and indoors, the scenario had suddenly changed.
This changed again after January 6, 2021, when “riot” no longer meant an eloquent expression of the “language of the unheard of”, something to be defended or at least understood with sympathy, but an ignoble betrayal of the nation, close treason or terrorism. For the establishment, standards of civility seemed to matter only as a weapon against the right.
For political scientist Alex Zamalin, however, the problem with America is simply that there is too much civility. A vain desire for moderation and compromise at the expense of radical left politics, he argues in Against Civility: The Racism Hidden in America’s Obsession with Civilityis “everywhere you look”.
According to Zamalin, “a consensus narrative” has emerged in American elite political discourse. While he argues that without civility our “everyday life” would be impossible, he argues that “politics is not everyday life” – it is a distinct “arena of power and struggle”. And our obsession with finding “common ground” with opponents and preserving “non-political” spaces in our society hampers anti-racist movements.
Zamalin is certainly right to say that politics should not be everyday life. Preserving the political character of politics – that is, ensuring that it remains a closed arena of competition for power – is as necessary as protecting everything outside this arena of intensity. overwhelming of politics. We could describe civility, properly understood, as the formula that allows us to keep politics in its rightful place – as an intense but limited struggle between rivals who see themselves as belonging to the same community.
For Zamalin, however, civility is a central theme in American history, and it has always been a weapon of white supremacy. In its historical sections, against civility offer a familiar story that pits evil white racists and misguided black moderates like Booker T. Washington against virtuous radicals like WEB Dubois and Malcom X.
In Zamalin’s account, the failures of black American radicals are inevitably the result of their adoption of “white” standards of civility. When Martin Luther King, Jr. expelled gay writer James Baldwin from the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights leader, according to Zamalin, “applied the same standards of civility found in the white racism he denounced. “. Two decades later, when Baldwin, in a public conversation with Audre Lorde at Hampshire College, said he did not understand why Lorde, a lesbian feminist, insisted that black women faced struggles distinct from those of black men, he too reproduced the moral failures of whites.
It is difficult to understand why anti-gay bias or resistance to feminism among black intellectuals should require an explanation in terms of white moral failings, or what it has to do with civility. Unless, of course, one shares Zamalin’s implicit premise, common to part of the American left, that only white people have real moral agency. When black people make mistakes, it’s through some kind of whiteness excursion or infection. Indeed, the Whites appear in this conception as the authentic protagonists of history, which they advance through their infamous desire for domination.
The role of non-whites, on the other hand, is to offer romantic but ultimately ineffectual resistance. Each generation’s valiant fights for justice are suppressed by outspoken enemies and unreliable allies who insist on respecting civility rather than pursuing racial equality. How insulting this narrative might be, given that repeatedly trying the same thing and failing is a sign of political incompetence, doesn’t seem to calculate.
Zamalin seems equally dense on recent history. In his account, the years since Trump’s election in 2016 have seen the moderate elite punish those who bravely spoke out against racism, like former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. In fact, Kaepernick’s activism has been adored by the mainstream media – QG magazine named him “Citizen of the Year” in 2017 – and led Nike to gift the ex-quarterback a multi-million dollar sponsorship and his own line of designer clothing. Likewise, while the Black Lives Matter movement may seem to have imposed its slogans on many prestigious American institutions, Zamalin can only see it as a force on the fringes of society, “rejected” and “treated with contempt” by the elites. .
It is certainly true that BLM has failed to make meaningful changes to US law enforcement, except to the extent that violent protests and riots in the summer of 2020 led many city governments to restrict the maintenance order in troubled neighborhoods, causing a spike in crime that led to hundreds more murders than might otherwise have been the case. But while it has been unable to secure substantial legislative changes, the BLM has been caught in the fold of America’s elites, neutralizing the movement’s radical potential while draping the country’s institutions in moral authority. of anti-racism.
Zamalin does not seem to understand the two-sided nature of contemporary anti-racism politics. As an ethical discourse, it is hegemonic in American universities, corporations, government offices, and even the military. At the same time, it appears completely powerless as a political force. Giving meaning to this would amount to probing the strange chasm between discourse and power in our time. It would be, for example, to ask how Donald Trump – who, as Zamalin acknowledges, has flamboyantly transgressed the standards of civility – managed to violate all the political pieties of the conservative establishment to achieve none of the his goals once in power.
For the nationalist and anti-establishment right, Trump’s orgy of incivility was not the start of his empowerment but a detour into spectacle, in which the imaginary pleasures of “owning the libs” and boring the media took precedence over real political victories. The “insurrection” of January 6 is the ultimate drama of this theater of resistance. Ignorant conspiracy theorists stormed the Capitol on behalf of Trump, as if, once freed from the dark forces holding him down, he could finally achieve his stated goals.
No sane person on the left should wish such a fate for his own side. Or rather, sensible people on the left might regret that their own camp has for years been caught up in the same fantasies of uncivil resistance, and the same unmooring from the realities of power, that now characterize the populist right.
In the 21st century, the dramaturgies of protest against the war in Iraq carried out by groups like Code Pink were as elaborate as they were ineffective. Those protests were the model for the left’s resistance to Trump a decade later — both were loud, lame, and brought Nancy Pelosi to power as Speaker of the House.
Such incivility is dangerous precisely because it is powerless. Theatrical gestures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance at the Met Gala in a “Tax the Rich” dress and Trump’s mocking of reporters share with the BLM riots and January 6 a common perversion of the difference between politics and everyday life. Performative incivility disrupts our normal, non-political lives with drama that commands attention while draining politics of its specificity and substance.
What we need is not more incivility—more self-aggrandizing antinomianism from narcissists posing as radicals—but a careful recommitment to a kind of civility that, in keeping politics off the streets, out of schools and out of our private lives, funnels it back into politics contests.
If we want real change, right or left, we need to depoliticize everyday life and repoliticize politics. If we don’t, we will remain glued to each other in an endless arena of strident but pointless symbolic struggle.