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Safe spaces, the void between, and the absence of trust

A conversation about some of the factors behind the campus protests in the United States, and what they tell us more generally about our conditions of existence.

John C Calhoun by Mathew Brady,1849. John C Calhoun by Mathew Brady,1849. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Rosemary Bechler (RB): A Yale student, as quoted in a recent Independent article on the wave of demonstrations at US colleges over race and discrimination issues, says, “It feels like you cannot stand for free speech while also standing against racism in Yale today.”  A sobering dilemma, if true. But some commentators have called this a confusion of the issue. They insist that these protests, which were and are about issues of race, have subsequently been misrepresented as a controversy around free speech. Perhaps you could start, Todd, by giving us your thoughts on what the problem is, the scale of it and its significance?

Todd Gitlin (TG): The scale is hard to judge. There have been by now, I would think, more than a hundred, possibly many more than a hundred incidents, in which protesters, some of them addressing race issues and others feminist questions, are feeling so beleaguered and so angry that they have generated a sense that free speech and anti-racism are incompatible. The upshot is that free speech is at risk of becoming the battle cry of the right wing. That is to say: some – not all – but some of those who are beating back at the anti-racism protesters are presenting themselves as the true defenders of free speech. Some of those who are beating back at the anti-racism protesters are presenting themselves as the true defenders of free speech.

Now when you look down into the details of some of these cases, indeed the claims that are made about racist conduct are actually claims about abusive speech or ‘hate speech’. In other cases not: and there is a kind of a muddle, because issues have been conflated, and it has come to appear – not without reason – that there is a single onward march of the illiberal or anti-liberal left, leaving the right to stand up as the beleaguered defenders of the free speech.

There are differences among the cases. And some of the differences are significant. In the event, we are into the holiday season and I would expect, given the degree to which these eruptions have been accelerating, that they will resume again after the first of the year.

RB: You wrote a column in the New York Times on this, in which you contrasted the experience in the ‘60’s with this current development in the politics of protest, and you were marvelling about how much had changed: how at that time it was the right wing who were intent on censoring people on campus, while now, it can be argued that it is the left doing the censoring. Would you like to comment further on this apparent sea-change in politics?

TG: Well, it’s hard to reduce what I’m thinking and feeling to a formula, but I am proceeding here by ‘feel’ because I’m acutely aware that I am not on or in any of these scenes. But I teach here at Columbia. I travel. I hear what I hear. I try to absorb accounts of different sorts from different sources.

So, let me actually step sideways. There was a related phenomenon that started to appear last year at universities including Columbia – namely, increasingly vehement voices demanding that when vexing matters are about to come up in a classroom, maybe in text form or a video or even simply in conversation, that there should be what have come to be known as ‘trigger warnings’. That is to say, there is an assumption that there may very well be – which often slides over into ‘there are’ – students who having been traumatised by sexual assault or something like that, will find their traumas reawakened in a sort of PTSD – post-traumatic-stress syndrome – sort of way. There is what we might call, a heightened  anxiety and, along with it, a sensitivity to insult.

I started hearing about this last year, and I wondered at the degree of sensitivity that was being displayed. I then poked around. I interviewed the chief psychologist of a large university psychological service who told me that when he first took the job in 1992, something like one quarter of all the students of the university had availed themselves during their years there of psychological services. And now the figure was more like half. Moreover, this turns out to be the case among other college counsellors  – they were discovering equivalent travails among students.

Nothing is conclusive here: we are making speculations. But even though there is today less of a stigma attached to talking about one’s psychotherapy, one’s anxieties and so on, and the services are more available – still, taken in the round, it would seem that there is what we might call, a heightened anxiety and, along with it, a sensitivity to insult. 

One of the outcomes by the way, at Columbia, is that Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was on the mandatory reading list for the first year core course called Literature Humanities, was taken off the list and replaced by another work by Ovid that is said to be less provocative.

My intuition is that it makes sense to look at (1) anxiety about sexual assault and (2) the sense of vulnerability with respect to insults, and a failure to feel comfortable on the part of students of colour, as parts of a more general cultural phenomenon. You can call it a kind of metastasis of sensitivity – that is to say, the spread of a feeling of weakness. The objective of these heroes was not to feel comfortable… they wanted to change the world.

I have been re-reading recently about the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s, especially in the Deep South – Mississippi and Alabama—but also among supporters in the north who learned of the actuality of white supremacist violence. There were people being murdered, pretty regularly, some of them outside the media spotlight. As is well known, when a thousand volunteers went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to work with the civil rights movement, three of them were kidnapped and murdered.  

John Lewis ( far right) with Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Congressman William Fitts Ryan, 1965. John Lewis ( far right) with Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Congressman William Fitts Ryan, 1965. Wikicommons/ Davepape. Some rights reserved.I was not one of those who was bold enough to go to Mississippi or to the Deep South. I was doing other things. But I was awed by the courage of those organizers. They belonged to a movement in which the courage to stand up was central to one’s being. It was not only a freedom movement, it was a courage movement. People like John Lewis who are today well-known, Congressman John Lewis, was beaten up many times and remained steadfastly nonviolent. They changed a great deal. Life for black Americans, especially in the Deep South, was transformed. Their courage still reverberates with consequence. The objective of these heroes was not to feel comfortable. They did not campaign for safe spaces for themselves. They wanted to change the world. A university is a place where one has to get comfortable with a certain discomfort.

What has happened now is that a growing number of students feel that university life should make them comfortable. It’s not only students of colour, who may understandably feel that their teachers don’t look like them. There’s also been the growth of a sentiment that the university exists for its customers, its consumers, who are students, and that life should be sweetened for them. Now, for hard and fast defenders of free speech and of the university as a place of intellectual conflict, among whom I count myself, the point of a university education is precisely to produce a specific sort of discomfort. What happens at a university is that the thoughts you arrived with get jarred, get contested, and you are forced to think. A university is a place where one has to get comfortable with a certain discomfort. 

There was a telling moment captured on video at Yale of a protest involving a university administrator, Erika Christakis – her husband, Nicholas, is the master, and she the assistant master, of one of their colleges. Before Hallowe’en last October, the top administration sent out a caution against wearing offensive costumes. Evidently over recent years there were complaints about costumes felt by some to be derogatory – people wearing Mexican hats, that sort of thing. Erika Christakis sent out an e-mail to students in her college, basically saying, “Lighten up! And by the way, what’s so horrible about being offended ?!” She was then held to be if not an actual racist, tantamount to one. The video shows a confrontation in which a number of the students encountered her husband, the master of the college in question. At one point a student of colour shouted out something to this effect:

“If that is what you think about being master you should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not… It is about creating a home here.”

That is to say, “We don’t want bullies and loudmouths and racists in our house!” The setting of the college – Yale’s model is like Oxbridge’s – was held to be not a place of intellectual life, but a place of home comfort. Let that stand as exemplary of the sort of assumption that is floating around. Underneath the stridency and ferocity of the protest is … a lack of a sense of verve and agency—the spirit that is actually the making of a successful social movement.

Now the categorical defenders of the protesters will say, “Well, it is true that colleges and universities open themselves up to students of colour to a degree that was unimaginable decades ago. Thirty or forty years ago, they were the province of upper class white gentlemen in training, and now something close to half the student body consists of students of colour. So the students of colour have been brought in but not welcomed. The culture feels alien to them. They feel odd-man-out, they feel exposed, they feel different, and not in a kind way.” The argument is therefore made that they need particular protection.

It is hard to evaluate that claim, but one thing that is not often mentioned by those who defend speech incursions is that the percentage of students of colour in the university was actually greater twenty to thirty years ago. It is not actually rising. This fact works to support the notion that there has been a culture change in recent times—a deepening of an assumption of vulnerability and weakness. The point of the piece that I published recently in the New York Times was that underneath the sometime stridency and ferocity of the protest is actually a crisis of confidence, a lack of a sense of verve and agency— the spirit that is actually the making of a successful social movement. 

RB: So we are concerned here with students of colour with a heightened sensitivity towards insult. But I’m wondering if this could be part of a more general phenomenon that is not confined to students of colour, and that is identity politics in general. The subjects of identity politics necessarily have a heightened sensitivity to insult, insofar as they base their strong sense of identity on a new claim of rights. For this kind of politics, this defence of what is owing to one by dint of being who one is, is the major way in which change is achieved in society…  which may also account for its strong sense of entitlement…

TG: That is the premise, yes. And it is not farfetched to deduce that some of the energy that is arising in these protests is actually a deflected reaction, I would say, to the police killings of black men and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. That is to say, there is understandably and reasonably a sentiment, that I share – that black men are prey in America from trigger-happy policemen, which has in turn generated a very substantial and, over the medium to long run likely to be successful, movement to change police practises.

But I think it also must be said that being at risk to police bullets in a black community is a different order of exposure than being subject to a suspicious look on campus. How do you patrol the propriety of looks? Hate is hate, and there’s nothing pretty to be said about it. But then what? How do you regulate the approved decorum of the students representing the majority, confronted with students of whom they may be suspicious or even, at times, hostile? This is a dangerous game.

The thing about identity politics in its strongest form – there are a whole lot of forms of it that are arguable – but in its strongest form, identity politics is premised on the fragility of a self that needs shoring up with assurance that he or she is not alone. There is an attempt to declare one’s-self as a political issue as such. This insistence is, virtually by definition, insular. The protest for recognition then veers toward the parochial.

There is another dimension to this protest. Demands have broken out on a number of campuses to change the names either of athletic teams or of the university’s institutions. So, for example, one of the Yale colleges is named for John C. Calhoun, an articulate and influential white supremacist defender of slavery, a very important man in America’s early nineteenth century. The demand is made that the college be renamed. Activists at Princeton, which was presided over at one time by Woodrow Wilson, want his name taken off the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, on the grounds that Wilson, while an important progressive, was also very clearly a racist. He grew up in a slave-owning family and he never really wrestled with that horrible legacy. He drove many black employees out of government service.  He screened the pro-Ku-Klux-Klan Birth of a Nation in the White House in 1915.

A comparable question emerged at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The college, like the town, was named for the Briton Lord Jeffery Amherst, an Indian fighter said to have been prone to the genocidal tactic of distributing to the Indians blankets that were saturated with smallpox. The college’s sports teams are still called ‘the Lord Jeffs’. For myself I don’t know where I would come down in those contests, but they are interesting problems.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of Pulitzer Hall. Statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of Pulitzer Hall. Wikicu.com. Some rights reserved.I teach in a journalism school housed in a building called Pulitzer Hall. In front is an imposing statue of the slave owner, Thomas Jefferson. Let’s not beat about the bush. The duality of American history has to be taken on. One has to get one’s mind around it. Whatever colour you are, this is the ambiguity of our national history. Our national history is poisoned.  Is there any national history that is not? I don’t mean to diminish the significance of slavery in the slightest. It is actually a very good thing, a necessary thing, that scholarship increasingly demonstrates the degree to which the United States of America in its foundation and continuing development was predicated not just on the existence of slavery but on the centrality of slavery. And slavery was not only a barbaric institution of the American South. New York City had slaves. New York commerce was heavily involved in the cotton trade. So there is no exemption here. American history is formidably tainted by the experience of slavery and there it is. That should be taken extremely seriously: people need to be mindful of it. There was no immaculate conception.

However, what to do about it? I think it is something of a whimsical idea that if we just changed the names, then we have somehow changed the history.

RB: I’m interested in the building named after the South Carolina politician, Calhoun. One of his forthright claims was that, “white freedom relied on permanent black subjugation.” He didn’t mince his words. You can’t get a much more blunt account of a relationship of power. What strikes me about the current demand for ‘safe spaces’ is that they don’t seem to rise to the challenge of that relationship of power. In fact they are more about removing yourself from the Other, rather than impacting on it in any way – would you agree?

Going back to your thoughts about the elusive challenge of how to patrol suspicious looks reminds me of another major development that must be influencing the nature of these new protests: the emergence of hate speech legislation. Establishing incitement to violence no doubt needs careful handling in law, but this is as nothing compared to the Pandora’s box of grey areas that has been opened up over ‘hate speech’ and who is capable of deciding what kind of offensive speech act has gone too far – and on whose behalf? Can law really be the best way in our diverse, multicultural societies to monitor, punish or control speech acts? Isn’t the use of law as an authority in such contested spaces, inevitably a misuse?

In both cases, relationship is lacking - the encouragement of forms of interaction and negotiation between people, so that they can work out between themselves how to live side by side? Doesn’t this encourage us to view profound problems in our societies, all of which - including inequality, oppression and disempowerment - are problems of relationship, as primarily a speech offence?

TG:  I fear that the obsession with egregious or nasty speech displaces imperative concerns about unequal wealth and income, unequal housing, unequal schools, unequal life chances, growing segregation – all the rest of it. It can’t be a good thing to turn the development of a culture of coexistence and decency… into a police matter. Hate is hate, and there’s nothing pretty to be said about it. But then what?

The proposed remedies for ‘hate speech’ tend to be administrative. So in practical terms if you demand the policing of speech, what you want is to beef up the university administration. You are accelerating a process, already under way, toward bloating up the administrative apparatus in an increasingly corporatised university. It can’t be a good thing to turn the development of a culture of coexistence and decency--which is what you were rightly proposing--to turn it into a police matter. I think that is misguided, however motivated.

Largely unacknowledged, behind the demand for ‘safe spaces’ is the demand for the supervisorial university. The assumption that the university stood in for the parents used to be called by the derogatory term in loco parentis. There is something infantilising about it. Many people, and I am inclined to agree, would say that the demand is actually for the reproduction of the ‘helicopter parents’ effect – parents who are always hovering overhead, possibly out of sight, but never out of mind, to ensure that the students don’t fall down and skin their knees. I see the argument in favour. Still, there’s been a striking culture change and it deserves a hard look.

Now all the playgrounds here in Manhattan have a sort of rubberised mat on top of the pavements so that none of the kids gets banged up. This is sounding a bit – “Well, in my day, we were tougher!” – but the obsession with insurability, in a litigious society, becomes awfully confining. So there is a compounding of assumptions of weakness and a carte blanche invitation to the authorities to make everything nice.

RB:  Yet in any account of the campaign for ‘safe spaces’ it is shocking to come across the casual mention that many of the students involved in these protests have received death threats, often via websites that enable the routine dishing out of these anonymised death threats. So one is talking about a form of verbal violence that has proliferated on a new and surely unacceptable scale.

TG: Sure. It is a legitimate concern. I am not a lawyer, but making death threats is not a constitutionally protected activity. The student who I mentioned who confronted Mr. Christakis in Yale, I have been told – I don’t know this for a fact – was subjected to death threats. How often this happens I don’t know.  Every time that it happens is egregious. And how to cope with it is an interesting and serious problem that should not be ducked. But neither should it be addressed by establishing a speech protection corps.

RB: Jim Sleeper commented on this aspect, that, “the instantaneity, interactivity and anarchy of social-media chatter and internet consumption” is also a major factor behind these bitter clashes. As a professor of journalism, do you think open enriching dialogue and civility can be defended on the internet as we now have it?

TG: In First Amendment jurisprudence as I understand it, at some point – I believe it was during World War One – the court made a distinction between ordinary speech and speech that presented the possibility in the language of the court of ‘ a clear and present danger’. So, it is one thing to walk down the street and say, “Woodrow Wilson is awful: he should be shot!”, and it is another thing to stand up in front of a crowd, waving a gun, and say, “Follow me: we are going to go kill the president!” But I think such distinctions have become harder to make because of this crazy type of speech-and-quasi-assembly which takes the form of social-media. Now, online, we have a form of pile-on  shaming which is itself a barbarism… it reflects the development of a lynch-mob mentality.

Right now we face the following problem. I think we do want to monitor people who are recruiting ISIS soldiers for Syria. Or for that matter, to assault purportedly unworthy non-Muslims anywhere. I don’t say that it’s easy, but surely there ought to be a way to distinguish between recruiting an army to commit violent crimes and saying, for instance, “Islam is the greatest religion that ever existed: Christianity and Judaism are barbaric.” The latter type of speech act should not be policed.

Trolling is of course an especially vexing problem in this regard, because one might want to say that the way to make society more civilised is not to criminalise bad behaviour but to shame the perpetrators. But now, online, we have a form of pile-on shaming which is itself a barbarism, and there is no question, it reflects the development of a lynch-mob mentality. 

I was just talking with a colleague of mine last night about a well-known journalist who made what he now thinks is a mistake of tweeting something not awfully enamoured of Adele! That may be unimaginable, but anyway he did so tweet. And now twitter abuse has rained down upon him. So, my God. I don’t know. I don’t want to pop off with a pseudo-solution, but I don’t think there is an easy fix to this. Everyway you turn, you pay a significant price for trying to tame social media.

RB: Let’s tackle another underlying factor – the idea of the shopping mall university, where citizen sovereignty is replaced by consumer sovereignty with students and presumably their parents expecting to have delivered to them a certain kind of commodified, consumable educational package, that can easily fall short of expectation.

TG: I think without question the background assumption of a consumer society is at work here. One feels at the university the way one feels in a big shopping mall. I don’t want to have something offensive thrust in my face. After all, the customer is always right.

Just to show how entangled all this is – in passing, in my Times article, I mentioned the instance of the Columbia controversy over Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  The course in question--Literature Humanities--is one of the few courses in America which are mandatory at a major research university. That is to say, all Columbia freshmen must take that course. (All sophomores must take the follow-up course, too, of which I happen to be one of the instructors – on western philosophy and political theory. There are other required courses as well.) So here the students are in fact being subjected to a mandate which is in a way in violation of the shopping centre mentality. 

To my knowledge, Columbia and the University of Chicago are the only two American research universities that impose a required core of courses. So it could be argued that a student who applies to Columbia should know and has certainly been told that there are these obligatory courses. Then for a student to say, “Well no, I didn’t mean that you could make me read Ovid’s descriptions or even references to rape,” is to violate a contract the student has undertaken. Why do we want to bend over backwards to accommodate students who signed up for this education but didn’t know in advance exactly what they were bargaining for? Was there a no-surprise clause in the contract?

We are living in a culture of comfort and convenience. There is nothing new about it. Tocqueville described it in just about so many words more than a century and a half ago. Now, the means to deliver just the education you want – your personalised this and your personalised that – has diffused into a background assumption that “nobody should make me feel weird, disconcerted, uncomfortable…”. Such a disposition is inimical to the educational process.

Let me tell you about a time when I was rendered extremely uncomfortable in a course. I was in college in 1962 and we were studying social and political history, including a segment about Nazi Germany. One day the entire class--many hundreds of us--were ushered into an auditorium and shown Triumph of the WillLeni Riefensthal’s stunning piece of Nazi propaganda to the greater glory of Hitler. And then, without a break, without any intervening words, a second film came on the screen. This was Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, made in 1955, and at the time one of the very few films, perhaps the only one, that showed death camp footage. The juxtaposition was an unforgettable experience. Not only was there torture and cruelty on an unfathomable scale, but it had been perpetrated by the likes of those happily blond Nazi boys and girls depicted by Riefenstahl as they revelled in their splendid Aryanness. The rapture for Hitler was, in our memories, spliced to the pictures of death camps. And rightly so. This was one of the deepest educational experiences I had at university. It certainly did not make me ‘comfortable.’

What is going on in South African universities in this regard is very interesting. There was a quite good piece about this in the New York Times last Sunday by Eve Fairbanks, a young American journalist who moved to South Africa and writes about a campus movement there to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes. In the joy of ending apartheid, many questions of racial inequality were left, shall we say, unattended to, and among them is the question of who gets to go to university and whether there is a hereditary privilege to distort South African history into a story of Boer heroism. There are, here, genuinely vexing and very, very interesting challenges. God knows, I understand the desire to remove the Rhodes statue. I not only understand it, I support it, just as I wholeheartedly supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. I am quite confident that if I were a South African student, I would be on the side of the anti-Rhodes protest. He is not the only colonial racist whose name adorns institutions.

The Rhodes colossus - Punch cartoon caricature of Cecil Rhodes by Edward Linley Sambourne, 1892. The Rhodes colossus - Punch cartoon caricature of Cecil Rhodes by Edward Linley Sambourne, 1892.Wikicommons. Some rights reserved. And then, what are we to do about those of dubious stature who procure naming rights to adorn their philanthropies? Teaching my section of the course I mentioned, Contemporary Western Civilization, I have several times used a classroom designated the J. Ezra Merkin classroom. Philanthropists pay to name everything. Hospitals have named elevators and named water fountains. Mr. Merkin was a hedge fund tycoon who fed funds invested with him into the operations of the swindler Bernard Madoff. Sued by New York State’s Attorney General for (in the words of the New York Times) “deceiving his clients by collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in management fees, when, in fact, he was just funneling money to Mr. Madoff rather than investing it himself,” Merkin agreed to pay a $410 million penalty. The kindest thing to be said about Merkin’s relation to Madoff is that the former turned a blind eye to the impossible returns the latter was claiming. Merkin’s name still adorns this classroom. In the absence of a vision of where to go, people focus on the awfulness of the past.

I just want to mention one related issue, which I owe to a former student of mine, a sociologist now teaching at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, John Torpey. John published a book about reparations movements. He considers a number of case studies where the question of reparations came up. One of them is Southwest Africa, later Namibia, where the Germans perpetrated a genocide before World War One. John asks a very interesting question in this book: leaving aside the philosophical question of justice, how should we understand the upsurge, worldwide, in reparations movements? Why this emphasis? He relates it to the dissolution of future-minded progressive thinking. In the absence of a vision of where to go, people focus on the awfulness of the past. To put it bluntly, the decline in the vitality or even viability of the socialist vision after 1989 is the condition in which reparations demands flourish. Reparation is a very difficult issue but John Torpey’s argument deserves a long hard stare.

Now let me quickly add about reparations that in the climate negotiations one of the major sticking points has been whether the West or global North is obliged to subsidize the global South to reduce greenhouse gases. I see a strong equity case that the US and Britain and other countries that have committed most of the damage to our world must pay dis- proportionately to rectify the situation.It’s undeniable that the greenhouse gases the West or North discharged into the atmosphere during the course of the industrial revolution remain in the atmosphere and continue to warm the planet. That is to say, they do continuing damage. Therefore I see a strong equity case that the US and Britain and other countries that have committed most of the damage to our world must pay disproportionately to rectify the situation. It hardly behoves the developed countries to require the ‘developing’ ones to foreswear what we ourselves did.

RB: Last question. We were talking about students expecting to feel comfortable… but Jim Sleeper commenting on your New York Times column in Salon says that although you mention the “mountainous debt loads” that students suffer under today and the destabilisation of professional work in an insecure “gig economy”, he is surprised that you conclude by ascribing these feelings of exclusion to a “cultural mood that cannot be reduced to political-economic considerations”.

TG:  We haven’t talked about the economic burdens in this conversation, but I did mention them in my Times piece. Among students, for good reason, there’s a background awareness of the economic uncertainties. I would also go so far as to hazard a guess that the awareness that civilisation is endangered by climate change is also lurking in the shadows. It certainly is the case that the assumptions of 1950 through 1975, about an endlessly growing, endlessly more affluent economy, are defunct. So people are anxious, rattled, about their durability, their resilience, their ability to make their way.  This is the agitating surround. But to acknowledge this is not to deny that culture contributes to diffuse anxiety and loss of confidence independently.

The psychotherapist and writer John Ehrenreich will soon publish a book called ‘Third Wave Capitalism”. He thinks highly of some research to the effect that there’s a growing incidence of depression and anxiety in American life, particularly among young people. There’s a growing incidence of depression and anxiety in American life, particularly among young people.To put such an argument on an empirical footing is very hard. For my part, I’m not completely convinced. The argument is not foolproof. But it’s unquestionable that the assumption of fragility now extends so far as to justify medication at an early age, whether for attention deficit or depression or what have you. It can’t be the case that the growing sense of unease and vulnerability is unrelated to, let’s call it, a collective bad mood, by which I don’t mean to trivialise it in the slightest.

There is a social surround to this collective bad mood and it leads to self-doubt, self-accusation, and in the absence of a sense that collective action can actually improve life or by itself create a better life, not surprisingly there is both the blaming of the self and the blaming of the most proximate bad or unfriendly guy… I think that all these worries are operating.

RB: What we have then is this proliferation of enemy images and people being turned against each other, rather than being able to join together to change things more fundamentally. Does this amount to an elegy for liberal democracy?

TG: Well, I hope not. Certainly there is a longing throughout the West – and I wouldn’t presume to speak about anywhere else – for a button to press that can eliminate enemies. What we are talking about is the decline of trust.

Look at the Trump campaign. Trump is a vicious blowhard and more than a bit of a fascist: but part of what attracts about a third of the Republican vote at this stage in the primaries is that he is unbridled. They like the fact that somebody just wants to beat up on Muslims or Mexicans. They like the fact that someone is sputtering ragefully along with them. The American panic to buy guns to protect against gun violence is related. Keep out the Muslims, wall out the Mexicans, carry your own guns—this is desperado talk on the part of people who have lost confidence that society can, in fact, work; can be sociable.

RB: So we’re talking about the resort to force.

TG: What we are talking about is the decline of trust, and this is far worse than a ‘problem’ – it is a condition.


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