Last fall, Tobi Haslett, a young writer and critic with Marxist leanings, noticed a shift in the contours of popular intellectual debate. “Something is happening out there in the dark fields of ‘the discourse,’ ” Haslett wrote in Bookforum. “Incoherence is now a virtue.”
By incoherence I don’t mean an “extreme” position or the shriek of the provocateur, but a specific genre of chin-stroking, brow-furrowing, “eye opening” sophistry that’s now robustly represented in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Fluttering near the political center (they refuse to be pinned down!), the exponents of the new incoherence look at the Right’s mushrooming despotism, then at the enfeebled, regrouping Left—and, with theatrical exasperation, declare that both are a bit tyrannical. These pundits are the opposite of adherents; all hail the Incoherents!
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the sentences under consideration appeared in a review of my latest book, Self-Portrait in Black and White (an autobiographical argument against race), in which Haslett identifies me (along with two New York Times columnists, David Brooks and Bari Weiss) as an exemplar of this trend. To respond to a pan is a fool’s errand. Yet to be designated a standard-bearer for an alarming new problem in public thought makes one want to think through its implications.
One of the outgrowths of the frenzied, justifiably Trump-panicked moment in which we find ourselves is a profound unease with ambiguity or multidimensionality of any sort—moral, intellectual, ideological, political, artistic. Clarity is what’s most yearned for in times of emergency. Late in his essay, Haslett objects to the practice of drawing on a range of thinkers for reference—what he dismisses as “a kind of ideological dim sum”—when bolstering a given point. That there is weakness instead of strength in viewpoint diversity is presented matter-of-factly, as self-evident truth. Under these terms, it becomes impossible to express a coherent argument—about race, in this instance—“from the sundry platters of politics Left and Right,” since “these positions are profoundly incompatible, largely due to their clashing views of the distribution of wealth.”
Without ever explaining why, Haslett offers unanimity of opinion on one subject—wealth distribution—as a prerequisite for mining wisdom or insight about something else entirely. Here Haslett has stated outright what many others have been implying for some time: in a Manichaean world such as ours, the degree to which one refuses to become not just a partisan but an ideologue—or, just as likely, a recycler of ideological talking points—is the extent to which one descends into “incoherence.”
Lest one get the wrong impression: correct views about the distribution of wealth alone will not suffice. A similar sensibility was on display on The New Yorker’s website last November, in Emily Witt’s review of Meghan Daum’s liberal—though heretical—engagement with fourth-wave feminism, The Problem with Everything: “I suppose [Daum] can still say she is ‘of the left,’ ” Witt begrudgingly concedes (Daum identifies herself as a life-long Democrat), but
being “of the left” is not a purely materialist position. Right now, it also indicates a set of values, most obviously fairness, in which political correctness is a form of good etiquette practiced by well-intentioned people.
Here, Witt echoes Haslett’s assumption that people who express a mix of views are by default incoherent and politically homeless, as if there were some intrinsic logic to the “left” and “right” binary that obtains today.
In fact, there is no reason why a particular position on, say, access to abortion or gay marriage must track with a particular view on economics. One of the more intriguing recent political developments in France, for instance, has been the far-right National Rally’s swift and increasingly successful move to outflank the leftist Green Party on ecological concerns. The xenophobes deduced quite shrewdly that there’s nothing fundamentally contradictory about anti-immigrant “blood and soil” rhetoric and decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. Things can always be otherwise, and there is a myopia that stems from examining all political questions through a strictly American lens. In a hyperpolarized system such as ours (as opposed to a European parliamentary government), what seem to be inevitable political coalitions are just as often post hoc frameworks grafted on top of marriages of convenience.
To what degree then do these critics genuinely believe in the intrinsic harmony of their views? Haslett himself gives the game away: while he seems to suggest that centrism, heterodoxy, and moderation inherently don’t make sense, the thing he actually contrasts with “incoherence” is not coherence at all but rather adherence to some party line. What he and Witt leave us with is a set of opinions, and signifiers of such, that are meant to be paired together. These are just book reviews, but both are exemplary of an ascendant segment of the left that secures and wields its power and influence in the media, academia, and even the political sphere itself precisely by denying that it possesses any power to begin with. This is why Haslett insists on describing the left as “enfeebled” and “regrouping,” and why Witt claims to be exercising nothing more potent or ambitious than a sense of “fairness.” Who could be against that?
When one is “well intentioned” and striving for a better society—however fuzzily that goal may be defined—and when there really is a nihilistic authoritarian holding the polity hostage, moderation and magnanimity toward the opposition can look a lot like delusion and betrayal. But this is shortsighted. In The Return of the Political, the leftist political theorist Chantal Mouffe has cautioned against dismissing ideological adversaries out of hand. In her work, she quotes generously from the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt. “It is by facing up to the challenge posed by such a rigorous and perspicacious opponent,” she has written of Schmitt, “that we shall succeed in grasping the weak points” of our own views. Schmitt himself had argued that the primary liberal principle on which all else rests is the idea that truth is only achieved through an unimpeded “competition of opinions,” since there is no final truth in liberalism, no single common good. This is the parliamentary ideal—it demands compromise and debate.
The dysfunctional nature of the two-party, winner-take-all system that dominates American political culture is only magnified by the crisis of our social-media-driven journalism. Those “dark fields of ‘the discourse’ ”—on which we are expected to suit up and join our respective teams—have become ever more dependent on unreported “takes” by underpaid commentators and polemics by ever more ideologically rigid voices contending for virality (or at least visibility) through “likes” and retweets. None of this lends itself to nuance or self-doubt. This, in part, explains how we’ve arrived—far faster than I’d have ever imagined—at the dizzying place where even Barack Obama’s heterodoxy has become a topic of serious complaint on the left.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Obama observed last October, “you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities.” The statement drew widespread condemnation. “I gasped at what I heard,” Ernest Owens wrote in the New York Times.
“Barack Obama is a conservative,” David Swerdlick argued several weeks later in the Washington Post. Of course, his “perspectives don’t line up with every position now seen as right-of-center,” Swerdlick acknowledged, listing Obama’s policies on climate, Dodd–Frank regulations, and same-sex marriage—as well as his tripling of the number of women on the Supreme Court, antidiscrimination efforts, and protections for young undocumented immigrants—as evidence of liberal credentials. “But his constant search for consensus, for ways to bring Blue America and Red America together,” was more revealing: None of these changes “revolutionized governance or structurally reordered American life. None of them were meant to.”
Arguments about purity are nothing new. Writing about Machiavelli in The New York Review of Books in 1971, Isaiah Berlin observed that the lingering power of the man’s five-hundred-year-old ideas
stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error— the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but . . . as part of the normal human situation.
The insight cuts against a stubborn assumption we seem too eager to embrace—and not for the first time—in parts of the intersectional, socialist-inflected left:
Namely, that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculations of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live.
For Berlin, such a state of affairs is frankly impossible. “If this is false,” he continues,
(and if more than one equally valid answer to the question can be returned, then it is false) the idea of the sole true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent.
It is not heterodoxy or lack of ideological consistency that undermines coherence, but the reverse.
In the world of Machiavelli that Berlin channels for us, “the conviction that the fragments constituted by our beliefs and habits are all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” and that this puzzle can, in theory, be solved, is a seductive mistake leading in turn to the false conclusion that it is “only because of lack of skill or stupidity or bad fortune that we have not so far succeeded in discovering the solution whereby all interests will be brought into harmony.”
So long as only one ideal—whether it be social justice, wealth redistribution, or anti-racism in the quasi-religious formulation of an Ibram X. Kendi—is the overarching objective, nothing will ever be too much in service of achieving that end. This is why Kendi can recommend, for example, and in all apparent seriousness, the creation of a totalitarian “Department of Anti-racism (DOA)” to preclear “all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity,” and to “monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas.” This unelected body would also be “empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.” We know that our society is ailing and that the constellation of ills gathered and amplified under Trumpism is vile. Yet the fanaticism that this specific constellation of ills inspires and excuses is a form of fanaticism all the same.
One of the more baffling claims that Haslett makes in addressing my argument against race—which is of interest here only insofar as it touches on the larger topic of “coherence”—is that
any effective challenge to white hegemony would have to take place not in the perfumed realm of private choices and elective affinities, but on the harsh terrain of real life: where collective struggle is waged, and wealth is made and spread.
This is a false distinction, of course, prompted by a misperception of a single solution and a single, all-encompassing truth. What Berlin also knew was that public and private life “could not . . . be genuinely kept distinct.” Real life—and the incompatible choices and compromises it imposes—bleeds into “the perfumed realm.” The world of the individual is also an end.
Consider the 58 percent of black Virginians who opposed the calls for their governor, Ralph Northam, to resign after the emergence of photographs in which he wore blackface. Their reluctance to see Northam step down “is not so much support for him,” Theodore R. Johnson of the Brennan Center explained, “as it is a rejection of the alternate scenarios that would follow his resignation.” In other words, these black voters calculated that, given “the harsh terrain of real life,” to use Haslett’s phrase, they didn’t have time for pointless purity tests. The country is not a graduate program, and such pragmatism should surprise no one who interacts with men and women outside of academia and social media, especially ethnic minorities.
In applying the conservative label to Obama, Swerdlick cited a definition offered by the English theorist Michael Oakeshott. “To be conservative,” Oakeshott argued in the 1950s,
is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
Regardless of what progressives would like to think, by this ostensibly commonsensical measure, most black and Latino Americans can be safely defined as conservative. In which case, perhaps we should not be surprised that the vast majority of blacks—almost all of whom vote Democratic—describe themselves as either moderate (40 percent) or outright conservative (30 percent), while only about a quarter call themselves liberal.
Like Nietzsche (and Schmitt), Hannah Arendt argued forcefully that life is perspectival: reality appears different from different angles. It is made most legible through an abundance of views. It is only “guaranteed by the presence of others.” Depending on one’s standpoint, progress can seem like regress just as stasis can look like motion. The rapid demographic shifts of our society—and the increasing visibility and audibility of many identities and voices—may appear to one American as a threat, while to another they are a form of hope and even deliverance. This is to be expected, and it is the duty of the thoughtful person not to proscribe, ignore, or “cancel,” but to take measure, persuade, and engage. Of course, edifying sermons about a moderate and compromising consensus will never pierce as deep as the primal and particular certainties and grievances that animate our politics.
An inconvenient fact of human life is that we cannot and never have been able to neatly add it up. To do so would be a distortion of what it means to be alive. “Something in the soul . . . seeks release in transgression or transcendence,” wrote Mark Lilla about the life and work of Daniel Bell, himself an erstwhile adherent who demonstrated that modern societies could never be interpreted through a single set of laws. “Every orthodoxy brings in its train heterodoxies and heresies that would destroy it. The more rigid the orthodoxy, the more likely they are to prevail.” What our society sorely misses now is not some sterling ideological consistency but rather a genuine liberalism that is strong and supple enough to look for ways to build on who we are, in all our human incongruity. Yet we must also acknowledge that one of the more frightening lessons of the Trump victory has to do with the implacability of tribalism and extremism in our society. A total reconciliation may never come about, and this lamentable enmity may be a permanent fact of our lives.
And so we are going to need a liberalism that, while pushing America to equal its ideals, soberly recognizes the harsh and irreducible realities of who we are. If this is a form of incoherence, there are worse things.