There comes a time when a question loses its force, becoming rather tired-sounding in our mouths. The fundamental question of the left has for some time been: “Who is getting screwed over, by whom, and what ‘infrastructure’ can be built to right this wrong?” It’s not the case, surely not, that people have ceased getting screwed over, both publicly and privately. That has continued and in some quarters become sadly, painfully more acute, and there are plenty of candidate culprits subject to blame: nation-states, corporations, warlords, governmental officials, patriarchs, finance, technology, and, more recently and nebulously, systems. It’s rather to wonder at a deeper level whether this is the fundamental political question to ask. I don’t believe it is.
It’s not as if I believe the right’s chief point of focus on being free to lead happy or excellent lives is all that interesting either. That too sounds terribly boring as a first and chief concern to have. Freedom is often attenuated to the point of becoming market freedom, and happiness looks dried out and musty, too much like bourgeois success.
Shall we go one step further? Let’s. What’s even more tiring is the differend–to use a term from the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard–between the left and the right. The right says, “We want to be free to be happy,” and the left replies, “You mean you want to maintain status and privilege at the cost of subduing, oppressing, and mistreating others.” When the left speaks, yoking itself to victims and bearing witness to perpetrators, the right may roll its eyes, replying, “What of high achievers? Are not strong individuals free to be strong? Birds of prey, as Nietzsche pointed out, love to eat tasty little lambs! Why must the strong be made weak like the rest?” Here are two different languages, arising out of two different worldviews, without any recourse to understanding.
And I think that if I would deign to make any substantive point in this post it would be that what has gone missing is an openness to bracketing our own basic beliefs and to just listening open-mindedly to each other. Where is there room for deeper considerations, far deeper than we’re used to, the considerations that expose us to far-reaching doubts, and where is there time for the birth of a new language to describe what it is to be political animals? If I don’t think we’re served well by either the fundamental question of the left or by the fundamental orientation of the right, then it’s enough to say that I think we could be well-served by a radical act of listening without preconceptions, without injury or merit in the hope–even more radical still–of thinking. I’d like for once to have a moratorium on the tedious thoughtlessness at the heart of our political discussions. I do not say that it would be easy, only during our unsettled age that it would be necessary.