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Jedediah Purdy @JedediahSPurdy
, 18 tweets, 4 min read Read on Twitter
1/ Masha Gessen (writing in a piece posted yesterday in @NewYorker) is to my mind the most intellectually formidable voice of the idea that key paradigms for this moment come from the dissident experience of the Cold War era. She expresses it well here.
2/ My recent argument about the limits of "norm erosion" in @DissentMag probably made me seem less close to this argument than I am. It basically defines the first 10-15 years of my political and moral reading & effort to understand the world.
3/ Growing up after 1989, influenced by punk ethics & Wendell Berry idealism, I found Havel, Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Michnik, etc., the paradigms of an imaginable idealism--and of course traced their ideas back to Camus & other committed to the integrity of the personal stance.
4/ To my mind, the hard question now is whether this ideal translates as straightforwardly as one would like to believe. The paradigm of these dissidents was a kind of industrial monopoly of lies: the centralized regime, the official censors...
5/ ... the mass-distributed propaganda poster that Havel imagined his iconic grocer declining to put in his window in the classic essay, "Living in Truth." Against this vast but clumsy enemy, it was possible to reassert an organic, ground-up, social & personal set of truths...
6/ ... that were, in themselves, remarkable dissent. Against One Big Lie, one little truth bespeaks a whole world of subordinated Truth. Another way of putting it is, bc the regime is not allowing politics to happen, a little true voice can be a radical political presence.
7/ (Of course, I'm not sure how real all this was in the Eastern Bloc experience, but it holds together as an image of the situation and challenge, which these dissidents passed on to us. I admired them so much that in 1998 I made a pilgrimage to meet some of them.)
8/ But I'm afraid our situation may be fundamentally different. Trump is a product of a very different political economy of information--a cacophony of competing, inconsistent, often fantastical stories in which people were deeply invested, with their own distribution networks...
9/ ... that was well in place before he won. It was the ecology in which the Russia hacks, but also much much more that was purely domestic, could take root--birtherism, various alt-right formations, etc., etc.
10/ Plus the Fox News inflection of "mainstream" suburban, upper-middle-class Republican politics as a politics of white identity & grievance (with convenient tax-policy consequences).
11/ All the narrative (if you like, epistemic) sub-worlds run in parallel, intersecting mostly to spark outrage about what's being said in the other world. And the left and the center have these worlds, too, with different content but similar levels of existential commitment.
12/ (You got just a taste of this in the enmity of the Democratic primary. Anyway.)
13/ A lot of good political openings have also come through this fragmentation and de-centering: from the new youthful socialism to #metoo to the new anti-racist politics, key possibilities have been opened by the decentered (importantly but not only online)...
14/ ... creation of new, alternative accounts of what is happening in the world, who a relevant "we" is in it, and what must be done.
15/ The point is, this is less like the classic anti-totalitarian situation in what it demands of political/personal/epistemic judgment than it is a radically de-centered proliferation. A patterned cacophony. Not the shutdown of politics, but a surplus of it.
16/ You could look many places to think about this, but the old boring canon would suggest Hobbes on epistemic conflict in politics (shaped poignant by religious-political war in England) & Tocqueville on "public opinion" in a democracy:
17/ the way people commit to a certain orientation that's approved in relevant peer circles and do enormous cognitive work to protect it.
18/ Bottom line is that Gessen, et al., express a kind of political-ethical idealism that I've hoped to believe in all my life. But I think there is a genuine question--and I do mean genuine--how much of the present reality it captures.
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