Thursday, July 9, 2020

Quote of the Day (Irving Howe, on Being ‘Disabled Politically’ During Crises)

“In moments of crisis those who try to speak with some awareness of complexity are likely to be disabled politically.” —American editor and social and literary critic Irving Howe (1920-1993), A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (1982)

Last month, I missed the opportunity to comment on the centennial of the birth of Irving Howe, the founding editor of Dissent Magazine. a public intellectual whose entire adult life was spent offering passionate—but informed and civilized—commentary on the issues of the day. 

But events have conspired to make the perspective offered in today’s “Quote of the Day” unexpectedly relevant.

In our age of polarization, those at the extreme edge of political action and intellectual debate are imposing their norms on the rest of their movements. That is occurring not only in the Republican Party—now, for all intents and purposes, a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump—but also the left.

That latter recognition was highlighted this week in a “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” posted on the Web site of Harper’s Magazine. The statement, signed by more than 150 artists and intellectuals, including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, John McWhorter, and Noam Chomsky, warns against “cancel culture,” or withdrawing support from an individual or organization deemed to have spoken or acted questionably.

This form of boycotting may be seen most dramatically in the current trend of removing or vandalizing statues of controversial figures. But in the wake of the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, this has become a form of constricting dissent. As noted in the “Letter”:

“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”

The last point was highlighted most dramatically in the recent firing of editors at The New York Times and The New York Review of Books for articles deemed outside mainstream progressive opinion.

Under normal circumstances, such actions might be deemed a form of “inside baseball” not particularly interesting to non-intellectuals. But the last several weeks have confirmed that such debates have a way of suddenly becoming matters of wide public commentary.

Progressive intolerance of dissent—an oxymoron if there ever was one—does more than ape the worst instincts of the far right. It also closes off any opportunity to engage in the kind of dialogue that can help understand the psychology of believers in reactionary movements, to persuade them—and ultimately, as Howe dreaded after watching the results of the fratricidal conflicts on the left in the 1930's and 1960's, “disabled politically.”

In the meantime, the signers of the open letter at Harper’s are right to warn that “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation….We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”

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