I assign all Americans but a single book a year, and they must discuss it with their neighbors as part of an effort to reconstitute the local. I don’t think this is too much to ask. (Past assigned works have included Reinhold Niebuhr‘s The Irony of American History, James Baldwin‘s Notes of a Native Son, James Agee and Walker Evans‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Hannah Arendt‘s Between Past and Future.) This year’s book is the first new release ever assigned: Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.
Paul Manafort helped [former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych] to pursue a “Southern strategy” for Ukraine reminiscent of the one that his Republican Party had used in the United States: emphasizing cultural differences, making politics about being rather than doing.1
– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (2018)
If politics is speech and action, as Hannah Arendt claims, then Nixon’s and Manafort’s strategies weren’t politics at all. For Arendt, there is no “politics of being.”
Arendt also wouldn’t like today’s “identity politics,” the liberal version of the conservative politics of being, even though this liberal mix of being and politics demands action instead of inaction.
While true politics (and timely action or inaction) is not being, it must be rooted in being. Politics’ roots are ontological: equality is political identity since it points to each person’s relationship with others before God.
But equality on paper is not what equality leads to, which is suffering and (eventually) maturity. A culture that recognizes maturity generally adopts lively, long-lasting politics and political institutions.
Immaturity is another term for the false self. The immature man puts pieces of himself together to serve as identity much as a child puts pieces of the world together to create generalities. This inductive reasoning eventually succeeds in putting the functional world together but doesn’t lead to maturity — that is, to true identity. Only suffering does.
To bring maturity, suffering must have two components, permission and pain. Both permission and pain were present in the word “suffer” during King James’s reign. In the Bible James commissioned, Jesus bids his disciples to “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” Jesus himself is made “perfect through sufferings.” Though both of these uses of “suffer” involve both permission and pain, the former use emphasizes permission, and the latter use emphasizes pain. The opening we give to the universe when it waits at our door, peddling pain, and our long, fitful intercourse with this visitor, bring maturity.
I leave out how love figures in this.
The kingdom of God, like Arendt’s politics, is action. The action comes from maturity (i.e., true identity). God’s kingdom is the model for civil government and the authority for legitimate civil government. Other visions of politics, like Nixon’s and Manafort’s, are groundless imitations that keep us asleep on the couch.
Republican virtues, like private virtues, are important, but only if they get us off the couch and to the door when the universe calls. Virtue only prepares us for transformation. We have to be not what we thought we were to see the kingdom of God. And we need a few such men and women to lead the rest of us to virtue, which itself is but a path to our own front door.
- Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (pp. 141-142). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. ↩
My favorite part of a favorite book (Philip Gorski’s American Covenant, published last year) involves competing concepts of political time. Liberals understand political time as linear, pointing onward and upward on a graph (x = time; y = progress) – time as never-ending progress. In contrast, many conservatives understand political time as cyclical. For them, no new thing appears under the sun, and the future eventually leads back to the past.
Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, released two weeks ago, is largely structured around these time concepts. In Russia over the past decade, though, a cyclical cycle became “the politics of eternity” as Putin sought to keep power by way of creating crises and pretending that outside forces were acting to challenge the Russian people’s inherent innocence. Eternity is in the present; there is no political future — no plan of succession and no plan for a polity’s self-correction.
Russia has, therefore, already arrived in the political millennium. Putin’s millennium is different than the end of history Marx envisioned and the Soviet Union was working toward. Marx was, after all, a “Left Hegelian,” while the white nationalist philosopher championed by Putin, Ivan Ilyin, was a “Right Hegelian.” But all political eternities involve magical thinking as a replacement for history and facts, so Putin, in championing the old Soviet Union as an ideology-free Russia, can ignore Ilyin’s detestation of the Soviet model. Ilyin, as Snyder points out, would have loved Putin’s revisionism.
The ease by which Russia switched from cyclical to “eternal” thinking may explain how easily virulent nationalism has infected American conservatism over the past two years.
True American conservatives, mostly known by reference to their conquerer as “Never Trumps,” are already reassessing what went wrong and exploring how their political understanding was so quickly routed from the nation’s consciousness. Liberals, though preoccupied in opposing to Trump, need to reassess how their worldview also aided Trump’s rise.
How was liberalism complicit in the political atmosphere that gave rise to Trump’s election? Three things come to mind. First, American liberals failed to see how their “politics of inevitability,” as Snyder characterizes it, blinded them to Russia’s response to the failure of its own “politics of inevitability” in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Russia is, in this sense, thirty years ahead of us, Snyder argues. Our purblind politics is evident in retrospect: we laughed in 2012, for instance, when Mitt Romney declared Russia as our greatest adversary.
Second, American liberals failed to understand how their lockstep pro-choice position on abortion has for decades alienated half of the American electorate and undercut their fundamental argument about the primacy of life as a moral guide in crafting other areas of public policy. For many pro-life voters, national elections have for years represented a deflating contest between their hearts (morality) and their heads (middle- and lower-class oriented policies; financial regulations; steps to combat global warming, etc.).
Third, both the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity purport to be irresistible. In this sense, both deny agency, and therefore both have little need of or care for a vibrant public sphere. Because the politics of inevitability is irresistible only in the long run, it better protects the public sphere and the positive freedom that the public sphere requires. But not much better. This failure to regard public freedom (i.e., positive freedom, as opposed to negative and private, First-Amendment freedoms, generally understood as freedom from politics) should be a matter of liberal self-reflection, too.
If liberals take up self-examination along with the conservatives, self-examination could become, to a large extent, a joint conversation, maybe the first sane and extended one between the two factions in generations. The means by which such a conversation would occur could p0int to the rebirth of the public sphere.
[Photo of Timothy Snyder taken in 1996. By Frauemacht – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47883997 ]
Buried in today’s local section, a Washington Post article reports that “a rare parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence” has been unearthed. John Quincy Adams’s State Department had ordered two hundred copies printed, and this exhumed copy was one of two from Adams’s edition given to former president James Madison. This copy was first hidden and then forgotten – hidden during the Civil War by those who knew its value and forgotten since then by those who didn’t.
Its rediscovery – and past reports of rediscoveries of several other copies – remind me of the discovery of the Mosaic covenant while the Bible’s King Josiah was having God’s temple repaired.1 Today we’re missing the covenant’s public reading and the subsequent repentance, though, that would complete my analogy. Maybe in the future, the rediscovery of a rare copy of the Declaration might cause the kind of self-examination and action that good King Josiah models.
This is not impossible. In his 1854 Peoria address, Lincoln called for a Josiah-like rediscovery of the Declaration:
Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.
Lincoln’s initial notion of what he called “political religion,” as he had articulated it fourteen years earlier in his Lyceum address, had involved merely a call to obey law and to exercise reason. By 1854, though, Lincoln’s concept had grown to incorporate a biblical understanding of covenant.
American civil religion is based on covenants, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration, and it has its prophets, such as Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, and others. These prophets don’t predict things – or, if they do, they’re not functioning in their prophetic capacity, strictly speaking. Instead, prophets unearth covenants, which terrorize the powerful like the stalking corpses exhumed by Jesus’s crucifixion. Civil prophets practice what Walter Brueggemann calls “a historical imagination”:
The practice of imagination is a subversive activity not because it yields concrete acts of defiance (which it may), but because it keeps the present provisional and refuses to absolutize it. The practice of a historical imagination maintains the possibility of a future that is not continuous from the present. 2
Covenants give the phrase “historical imagination” – otherwise, a political oxymoron – its sense. America’s civil religion allows us to understand the past through covenants in order to imagine together a common future.
This relation of past and future confounds most political thinking today. A desired future is not a wholesale rejection of the past, as some progressives envision it, nor is a desired future a replica of a golden past, as some reactionaries envision it. A desired future is especially not the fixed continuation of the present, as authoritarians would have it.
A covenantal future, instead, is promising: it can be the result of actions taken consistent with commitments to one another. After all, a covenant by definition involves two or more people and nourishes their relationships in the future. A covenant acknowledges a society, it creates responsibility, and it offers a realistic future of both promise and contingency among its members. Above all, covenants allow us to participate in the freedom of God since the future is unknowable to all but him. Covenants in which God participates thereby give us the confidence to act as if actions matter.
The best American covenants are both normative with respect to the present and aspirational with respect to the future. The most easily recognized American covenant is the Constitution, which in its primarily normative capacity serves as a legal yardstick. The Declaration, by contrast, is a covenant with a more primal and spiritual normative function. With it we can take a more essential measure of our candidates, our leaders, and their policies, as I did in an exercise involving candidate Trump over a year ago.
The most aspirational aspect of either of these two covenants is the Declaration’s Equality Clause. Compared to this clause, Lincoln said with a certain irony, the rest of the Declaration is “merely revolutionary.” “All men are created equal,” Lincoln asserted, was “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” though it certainly wasn’t in practice when he spoke those words about it in 1859. The Equality Clause is both a yardstick and an aspiration.
How do civil prophets move from a normative assessment of the present to an aspirational view of the future? (As I understand it, timing means a lot in prophetic speech and action.) My question may be part of a larger one: once the powerful succeed in making the future into a frozen present, how can the future – and with it the present – be thawed? How can political time resume?
This prophetic movement from the normative to the aspirational – using Brueggemann’s terms, the movement from “gestures of resistance” to “acts of deep hope”3 – mirrors a covenantal view of American history. In this view, Americans make a compact, fall away from it, and return to its spirit to either renew the old compact or to cut a new one. The prophetic voice during the slow slide from a covenant is normative – it is resistance arising from lamentation. As Brueggemann says, “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve.”4
While our present politics are not at the stage in which “acts of deep hope” would serve anything more than what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” or “the false consciousness,” the time for such acts will come. But whether our actions stem from legitimate grief or legitimate hope, they create political space that has never existed before.
In politics, to move from the claustrophobic present to a desired future takes what Hannah Arendt calls “the work of faith.”5 Against such works are arrayed “historical processes” that “can only spell ruin to human life.” Because human action, over time, always devolves into this future-denying “automatism,” Arendt sees no event that can ever, “once and for all, deliver and save a man, or a nation, or mankind.”6 In this sense, the need for political acts of faith is more obvious in some times and places than in others. History, to Arendt, amounts to long “processes of stagnation” interrupted by “human initiative.” 7 This human initiative creates “freedom,” a word that Arendt, like Brueggemann, associates with deliberate action that creates public space.
This post is an outline of my still-early understanding of the prophetic in civil religion. My view of today’s news about the recently discovered Declaration copy is itself perhaps a small prophetic exercise, one that finds the spiritual side of American covenant peeking through our consciousness as something like what the New Testament calls a “shadow.” A “shadow” is something concrete serving as an analogy for something more abstract, and it is something from the past serving as an analogy for something in the present or future. (Examples of Biblical “shadows” are in Hebrews chapters 8 and 10.) Some friends and I have broadened our concept of “shadows” to include things in the cultural sphere that serve as analogies for something current in the political or spiritual spheres.
There is one further detail from today’s “shadow” that I should explore, the one that I started with: the Post buried today’s story by putting it in its local news section. I speak facetiously, however, since I am beginning to understand the local’s importance to national concerns. I agree with both Brueggemann and Arendt that an effective response to an ignored covenant must start with recreating the local. Brueggemann speaks of the necessity and difficulty of creating a “subcommunity,” which he defines as “a community of peculiar discourse with practices of memory, hope, and pain that keep healthy human life available in the face of all the ‘virtual reality’ now on offer in dominant culture.”8 One of Arendt’s major theses in her 1963 book On Revolution is that the American Founders erred in not structuring local political participation into the Constitution. Action, she believes, is the essence of politics, and my watching the news and voting each year isn’t sufficient action to create the public space necessary for a healthy democracy over the long term. Instead, smaller local communities must be created or re-purposed to involve us socially and politically.
Social media, which economic and now political powers have begun to control and use for their own aims, is no substitute for public space.9 If you use social media, you may find it expedient not to look at it as a substitute for public space. The Pilgrims entered into a compact face to face on a small ship heading to America. Communities like that came together two centuries later in Philadelphia to, in Lockean terms, move from a state of nature into a national community. To realize the Equality Clause, we may have to do the kind of hard, face-to-face work that preceded the Founders’ covenant on July 4, 1776.
- 2 Kings 22 ↩
- Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Kindle loc. 2503. ↩
- Brueggemann, loc. 178 ↩
- I have seen an example of this capacity to grieve at an exhibit by Teju Cole in Chelsea last summer entitled “Black Paper.” The exhibit featured a black wall covered with small photographs suggesting the process of grief Cole undertook following the 2016 elections in the United States. ↩
- Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, 166. ↩
- Id. at 167. ↩
- Id. at 169. ↩
- Brueggemann, loc. 178. ↩
- As Timothy Snyder says, “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen.” On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 83. ↩