Six Questions — November 14, 2012, 9:30 am

Unruly Voices: Essays On Democracy, Civility and the Human Imagination

Mark Kingwell on fugitive democracy, the cultural role of philosophers, and hockey-borne Canadian anti-intellectualism

Photo by Claire McNamee.

As a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, Mark Kingwell often writes about salient cultural and political issues with an eye toward theory. In his newly published book, Unruly Voices: Essays On Democracy, Civility and the Human Imagination (Biblioasis), he addresses topics from architecture and society to fiction and citizenship, inviting his readers to reconsider the social and political landscape. I put six questions to Mark about politics, culture, and philosophy. 

1. Why do most citizens value thinking as a means rather than an end?

Most citizens value everything as means rather than an end. This is partly baseline human behavior and partly a hyped-up version of instrumentality, which currently functions as the operating system of everything from technology itself through to creativity, education, and public discourse, and even to friendship and family life. The triumph of economic thinking is that it has become the invisible presumption of everything; there is nothing, or almost nothing, that cannot be reduced to a transaction. So it can hardly be a surprise that thinking itself, which ideally ought to resist and oppose instrumentality, or at least put it in its proper place, has fallen prey to the same reduction.

The most obvious place to push back on this, I think, is in the university, which still has a grasp, albeit a feeble one, on the value of liberal education. I say it’s feeble because the bulk of recent evidence shows that even elite universities have become little more than brand factories and legacy schemes, like frequent-flyer rewards plans for the wealthy. Because I’m a university professor by day, I like to believe that we can work against that trend by being better teachers, communicators, and thinkers.

From Unruly Voices:

The idea of the individual, the main pillar of democratic thought for nearly four centuries, is undergoing shifts both subtle and profound. Only by returning to the question of selfhood—how is it that we are what we are?—can any light be shed on the deepest regions of the demand for democracy. The narrative assumptions of selfhood, the structure of reflection on past actions and future possibilities, is so much taken for granted in our lived experience that we most often fail to remark both the political implications of that narrative and, more deeply, the fragility of its construction. The very idea of consequence—I mean the notional shift from a childish sequence of and then, and then to an adult sequence of and thus, and thus—is a contingent and uncanny work of political art. More so now than ever before it must be interrogated, not assumed, precisely because it is evidently (we might say literally) coming apart in our hands. That is, the more we try to mirror the self in devices and desires, replacing ethical reflection with multiple reflected images of our ‘likes’ and ‘friends’, the more we consume the modern conception of the individual, in effect eating its brains (22–23).

2. How can philosophers compel the public to reflect on culture?

Compel is such an awesome punchy word! Alas, I don’t think you can ever compel reflection—would that we philosophers had that kind of power. No, the actual process of reflection, whether on one’s culture or on one’s deeper place in the world, has to be motivated from within. But we don’t have to sit still and do nothing. From Socrates onward, it has been obvious that one way to prompt thought is by being irritating and indigestible. The Greek-root word xenocyst captures what I mean: it refers to the lump of foreign matter that enters a complacent system and induces a kind of internal instability. We might think of the abrasive grain of sand that slips inside an oyster’s shell. In attempting to stabilize itself, the oyster creates something new and beautiful out of what as before only annoying.

A linked idea goes to the Latin roots of the word educate, which means to lead out or bring up. Without subscribing to the Socratic notion that we already contain all ideas within us and just need the artful extraction of intellectual midwifery, we can say that wisdom must come from within an individual: it can’t be poured into someone, as if into an empty vessel. So actually the more useful notion here is not education but seduction. Interlocutors need to be drawn in close enough so that the perverse thought or unsettling idea can take hold. Sometimes charm and humor are more effective than argument, in other words.

Staying with Socrates, it must be noted that this can be a dangerous business. What happens to the grain of sand? What becomes of the seducer? We all know the part about drinking the hemlock. Of course, one of our current problems is that we don’t take philosophers seriously enough even to consider putting them on trial for corrupting our youth, though I for one keep trying.

3. You say in “What Are Intellectuals For?” that “whoever tells you Canada is less anti-intellectual than, say, the United States or Britain hasn’t been paying attention.” Why do you think liberal Americans still tend to look to Canada as an exemplar of tolerance, in that case? And is there a difference in the quality of Canadian anti-intellectualism, if not the quantity?

Canada’s history of social programs and reputation for politeness are unconnected, it seems to me, but people looking at us from outside often see some sort of link, then make a further leap to the political theories of cultural diversity and tolerance. It is worth separating the strands. Our socialized medicine and welfare provisions are born of an awareness of fragility: this was a hard land to settle—indeed we have really settled only the tiniest southern strip of it—and that leads to an awareness of shared risk. The culture of tolerance is related in the sense that it is rooted in the immigration waves and multi-racial origins that mark Canada’s history. This is mostly a nation of recent arrivals—even as our treatment of the First Nations remains confused and sometimes shameful.

So the toleration culture is there as another kind of survival mechanism: negotiating differences rather than eliminating them. Hence, in a good way, our annoying and apparently eternal discussion of Canadian identity. This is one of the world’s truly postmodern nations; there is no Canadian identity save the ongoing question of what that identity is. But there is still plenty of acrimony, bigotry, hatred of the other, and racism. Not so nice after all, really, and New Yorkers would probably be surprised to know that they are a lot friendlier than us allegedly polite Torontonians. Nobody looks at anybody here, and the driving is terrible.

As for the special quality of Canadian anti-intellectualism, I would call it smug, hockey-loving, and aggressively masculine. It comes from deep within the Protestant, mercantile soul of the nation. Yep, we have rednecks here too; they just don’t have as many radio shows.

4. Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission has all but sealed the political position of what you call “entrenched elites,” having given even more power to the wealthy. With the Occupy movement fizzling, how can non-plutocrats influence politics?

I’ve been reading a lot of apocalyptic commentary on the current state of American wealth distribution, which is more unequal than pre-fall ancient Rome: Chrystia Freeland, Christopher Hayes, Chris Hedges, Mike Lofgren, and so on. It fascinates and frightens me. If there is no possibility for reform, is a drastic collapse really coming?

There is no doubt in my mind that Citizens United changed things decisively, and really sealed the trends toward greater wealth concentration and total capture of the political system. I saw Mark Halperin give a talk a while back, and he was asked if the Court’s decisions rendered the politics of personality irrelevant. He denied it, saying people still focus on the two guys facing off for the top job. That’s true, but it misses the point. The politics of personality are now fully revealed as a mummer’s play, an avoidance ritual. They command attention even as the massive structural shift to what we ought to call capito-democracy continues to roll into place.

I think the best response to these trends lies in a kind of fugitive democracy, a democracy without politics: maybe something like Deleuze and Guattari’s line of flight or the Situationists’ dérive. But this is the answer of a socialist who finds anarchism more and more attractive.

5. Why must we save the City? And how can we do so?

The French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre liked to refer to “the right to the city”—the idea that each and every occupant has an a priori claim on all the possibilities the city has to offer. This includes so-called positive externalities such as entertainment, public spectacles, and sexual opportunity. It likewise includes access to public space, that much-abused concept. Most of what is called public space in cities is in fact private or municipal space. We all know what happens to private space when its owners decide to exert control, and with politics more and more subject to commercial influence, municipal space cannot be counted upon to remain free and accessible.

So here my thoughts mesh with those of the last answer, since taking and enjoying public space, maybe in stealthy or playfully transgressive ways, is one way to exert the right to the city and practice a little fugitive democracy at the same time.

6. “All in the Game,” an address to Barack Obama as he began his first term, discusses the necessity of rhetoric in politics. As we endure the rhetorical excesses of election season, what positive role do you see for rhetoric in the democratic process?

Rhetoric used to be one of the liberal arts—part of the medieval trivium, or three roads to wisdom. The other two were grammar and logic, and they went along with the scientific quadrivium of arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. The ancient philosophers argued that rhetoric in the service of truth was not only a great art but an essential condition of thriving civic life. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, not of manipulation or cynical denigration of an opponent.

But already in Plato’s Republic we see the implicit problem. In the figure of the Sophist Thrasymachus, Plato satirizes the growing influence of rhetoric-for-hire, the kind of thing in today’s attack ads—and indeed in debates and stump speeches—that has reached a high pitch of uncivil personal charges and misinformation. This is the steed of rhetoric unhitched from its tether to the truth, and there will be no path to wisdom found while riding that rough beast!

That was me being rhetorical. I experimented with tone and form in this collection—there is second-person monologue, first-person dialogue, the usual third-person argument, and so on—in part to try different ways of making arguments, of doing philosophy, of thinking. Rhetorical excess, like incivility, is a symptom of a deep malaise in the body politic. It’s going to take a lot of imagination to get our diagnosis right, and even more to start work on a cure.

I’ll be honest: I go back and forth on the odds for success in this most important of democratic projects. But we’ve got to try. For one thing, there is no other option. I mean, what else are we going to do? After all, to quote The Skinhead Hamlet, an awesome parody of Shakespeare’s original that I discuss briefly in one of the book’s essays on civility: “The rest is fucking silence.”

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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