by E. John Winner
There can be a profound difference between confrontation and conflict. Confrontation simply involves facing the world as it is, and facing others as they are. Doing so can bring out the most creative of our resources; the most charitable toward others. Conflict can establish unbreachable barriers between ourselves and others, sometime only resolvable with violence. And as we have seen politically recently, there are those – in America as on January 6, 2020, or in Russia as of this writing – who see violence as a necessary component of their identities. “I hurt others, therefore I am; I kill therefore I exist.” There are ultra-conservative thinkers who would deny this, but it is self-evident. Violence is embedded in any Fascism. Its glorification and justification forms the defining moment of Fascism. Violence also may be the only ethical response to Fascism, when the latter is enacted and sustained violently. But perhaps we can prepare a stronger ethical response to its threat that may at least encourage resistance to the irrational demands of the far Right.
Let’s be clear. I am to the Left politically, but I am sympathetic with traditional conservative views. Policy disagreements in a liberal state should result in politics, not warfare. My chief charitable donations have been to Catholic Charities, despite my atheism (35 years), the Anti-Defamation League (which was strongly conservative at the time I initially donated my support, thirty-five years ago, when there was a rising public expression of anti-Semitic views) and lately, the past two years, the Lincoln Project, an organization of traditional conservatives who recognize the profound danger to American democracy that Donald Trump represents. But here I am addressing the rise to prominence (globally and domestically) of an extreme “conservativism;” the revolution on the Right that can be noticed as Fascism; the hope of a replacement of the modern liberal state by one dedicated to maintaining old and out-of-date values, violence against ethnic “others,” and authoritarian government. Yes, there are authoritarians on the Left in colleges and certain government agencies. But these will not invade other countries, slaughter others wholesale, burn books or silence (not just individuals but) entire professions. These may argue alternative histories, but they usually don’t rewrite history to suit themselves. They may celebrate their own victimization, but they won’t spin that into the kind of ideology and policy program as we see on the Right.
Fascism is not a coherent ideology. It differs nationally, between the 19th century ethnic superiority claimed by some Russians, to the nostalgic worship of British Imperialism by some in Anglophone cultures such as Australia (disseminated world-wide by Right-wing propagandist Rupert Murdoch through News Corp. and Fox News). A Deweyan liberal who votes Democratic (and yes, an unrepentant non-theist), I have been accused of being a dangerous “Romantic” or even “utopian” Marxist (and told “go Brandon” which is troll-speak for “fuck you”), but while none of this is true, I’d rather be a dangerous Marxist promoting ”pernicious” ideas of national sovereignty and personal liberty in a liberal state, than a fascist promoting nostalgia for lost glories and ethnic purity; an apologist for Trump or for Russian thugs invading Ukraine. (And I find it amusing to be accused via guilt-by-association of being Marxist, by those who praise the openly Stalinist, ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin. But why be surprised? Marxism is a now poorly understood complex of theories of economics and politics expressing a hope for progress in social relations. Stalinism is just another form of Fascism.) There is nothing good about such a point of view; nothing defensible. Yet this is not to say there is nothing to be learned in the confrontation with such a perverse way at looking at the possibility of a liberal society. Every “no” generates a new “yes.” The recalcitrant pave the way to their own degeneration into the ash-can of history.
Confrontation, not imagination, defines intellect. Too many are simply cowards. That is, they are “cowed” before a reality too rich, too complex, too variant, too multivalent for them to understand, let alone move through with any ease. And of course, they are never at ease, which is why they constantly demand distraction. Yet the excitement of real confrontation, the adventure of intellection, frightens them. It must be stopped! It must be managed somehow and properly controlled! It must be destroyed! Everything must be the same! After all, if the universe is filled with entities all of which are the same, then they can be known ahead of time (that is, before they are even known at all) to be readily available for consumption, use, or destruction.
To confront a thing or event in the matter of which we speak, one has to allow the unknown – even the unknowable – the opportunity to exist; to catch us unaware; to redefine existence; to reshape consciousness; and to make us other than we are, even if this sometimes ends in death. What doesn’t, after all? Yet, some believe they cannot die. Impossible numbers of young people flock to war, believing in their hearts that they will never die in battle. If so, then why are they afraid of a confrontation with the Real? If they can never die, it cannot threaten them. But the terror in their heads; the gnawing doubt. They could be wrong! And they don’t even know what that might mean. Yet their cynicism pours forth like a hot flood of vomit, disguised as an “opinion”: “In my opinion, nobody does anything for nothing.” “Just as matter of opinion, I believe all those ideals to be crap, mere excuse for getting all you can, just like me.” “Well, it’s only an opinion that fair laws can be written; frankly, laws only excuse the behavior of those who can steal and get away with it!” And so forth.
Yet for this ideology itself – for which they willingly go to war – all of this cynical determinism disappears. It is supposedly a result of freedom of will. Indeed such a choice is often presented as a struggle “for freedom” (the freedom to be cynical, I guess). But, in fact, people making such choices are forever beset with vaguely discernible indeterminacies of possible responses to stimuli thought evaded simply in the choice of ideology per se. Preferred items of consumption disappear from the market; one’s employable skill suddenly becomes meaningless. What one says, words one repeated so faithfully, no longer matters. It is in the nature of reality, however defined (both “inner” and “outer”), that it is forever changing, however minutely. But, that’s not what was expected! The ideology promised that all things would ever be the same – predictable and dependable. In fact, just in the nature of the given universe as given, nothing is ever exactly the same from moment to moment. Inevitably there is difference, which demands that we must always respond to these changes.
Yet, it must be pointed out, these changes are not progressive or developmental. The inevitable changes within the material universe, the changing configurations of the universe as a whole, may indeed proceed according to mechanical laws, but just for that reason, there can be no progress. I’ll put this in the most pointed terms: We like to think of the evolutionary changes that the Neanderthal underwent that eventually arrived at the generation of Homo Sapiens as progressive and developmental. But this is not the case. The Neanderthal was simply another form of life. One cannot even call it an “earlier” or “precursor” form of life to our own. It happens to be in the nature of evolution (the real thing, not the social interpretation of it) that it was entirely possible that Homo Sapiens could have appeared in one location, while Neanderthals continued to reproduce elsewhere, blissfully unaware. In short, we could well have found ourselves on this planet with not one but two – perhaps more – intelligent life forms, all looking something like us, but of a different genetic structure (the real definition of an animal species). It just happened otherwise.
It is precisely the non-progressive nature of changes of this sort – especially when they occur in a social setting, as part of the very warp and woof of human society – that allows the civilized intellect a playing field in which to undertake the kind of reasoning and innovation that brings real progress into the world of human beings. The darkest moments often call forth the most brilliant light. Yet this light may have long been shining – it was only necessary for someone who could see it – and stupid people cannot stop intelligent people from seeing it. If Rome had not at last been sacked, Augustine might never have given us the City of God, one of the most innovative, most critical, and most civilized texts in Western literature (and yet one utterly conforming to a previously established religious faith). One doesn’t need to accept Augustine’s religion to see that. One only has to appreciate the sparkling audacity of his argument. Augustine gives all credit to God, but the real hero is Augustine himself and his profound commitment to his own powers of reason. It doesn’t matter whether these are God-given or are born of his genes. It doesn’t even matter whether his claims and arguments are true or false. City of God furthered the progress of human thought. People in the West were suddenly more than they had been and had much more to look forward to than before. It may not have been a “great leap forward.” Perhaps it was only a step to the side. But it was movement, and human intellection stagnates when it can only move backward.
But let’s not rush all the way up the intellectual ladder to Augustine. Rather, let’s consider a rather small matter. Students are frequently taught that the invention of the microscope was a great innovation contributing to the progress of Modern society. Could it have been otherwise? The images seen through the microscope could have easily been interpreted as some sort of devilish illusion, a micro-spectacle of unreal shapes guaranteed to drive the viewer mad, and indeed, at the time of the microscope’s invention, some religious zealots made claims exactly like this. Really, the human mind is capable of any number of explanations for the phenomena of experience. Whales can be explained as fish, sea-monsters, demons with fins, gods in disguise – even, I suppose, as a kind of animate statue made of stone. Any explanation would do, were it phrased properly, and if all one wanted was an explanation. We are quite mistaken to believe that philosophy or science begin as explanation, which must then be assigned philosophers and scientists as their principle task. Explanation is the task of parents: it is the verbal component of the education of their young.
The scientists who continued to work to develop the microscope, and who, in that process, came to believe they were witnessing real entities, not illusions, of a size otherwise impossible to see with the naked eye, did so because in contemplating various articulations of vision – the camera obscura, certain trends in the visual arts, records of experimentation written during the innovation of the magnifying glass – they began to realize that the material universe around them could be considerably more odd than had long been thought. But, they also believed that the proper response to this oddness was learning. Rather than assuming they were deluded – and thus somehow gullible and culpable in a devilish plot to control human intelligence – they chose instead to allow their discoveries to unfold before them and to respond to each as it occurred. The logic of their attitude was actually fairly simple: if a shape under the lens moved about as though alive, chances would be good that it lived. Yet, the decision to adopt this logic demonstrated an amazing leap of faith, though not in God or the Bible, or even one born in the negation of the Bible or the denial of God. Theirs was a faith in human intelligence itself.
In denying the possibility of death, one never learns what it means to live. Those who are civilized accept that one day life ends, and through this acceptance, prepare the way for life to come. Surrendering intellect boldly to discovery of the unknown, the civilized find the path unfolding itself, sometimes rapidly, sometimes haltingly, but always continuing. There is no final confrontation. Yet, some look forward to a day of “final reckoning” with all rivals, adversaries and otherwise suspicious characters, all of whom will be either silenced (perhaps through shaming, perhaps legislatively) or eliminated. I suppose this originates as a fantasy of personal redemption through climatic, genocidal conflict during which the faithful (at least according to the fantasy) demonstrate superior skills and perhaps even superhuman strength and cunning. At the end of such a conflagration, the faithful hope to remain standing alongside adoring loved ones, because of their deep-seated belief that civilization actually constrains rather than promotes their ability to realize themselves in their greatest and most admirable capacities.
One has to grant the Western religious traditions their due: They charge us with a purpose, even if it has little to do with our concerted experience. Nonetheless, surely, according to them, there comes a final reckoning; a judgment day when all wrongs are righted, and we at last achieve the purpose for which we presumably have been created. But, this is really too easy. And all it has accomplished for modern culture is a resiliently recurring angst that many simply shrug off by resorting to sensory distractions or “entertainments.” Many moderns are rigidly insistent that religion can save their souls, but rarely do we find any practicing this.
Any imaginable Armageddon in the Judeo-Christian tradition would bring upon the Earth a devastation leaving none standing; the souls of the Saved will be entirely transformed beyond our capacity to recognize them. But, despite their totalitarian usurpation of Christian rhetoric, many moderns remain only pagans in the last analysis. They do not wish to be saved into the City of God. They want to triumph as masters of this Earth. Their divinity really plays at creation like a hyperactive adolescent at a video game. All reality is virtual, and after one dies three times, one simply feeds coins into the slot to start again. Nothing hurts, and even the pain one’s opponents manifest is performed solely for pleasure for oneself. This is as true for Islamic fanatics cutting off the heads of unbelieving victims as it is for Christian Americans insisting on control over women’s bodies. Their “beliefs” may be dogmatically apocalyptically religious, but their practice is Bacchanalian distraction from the banal necessities of common daily life.
And yet, how can we condemn them? The vacuous entertainments with which we amuse ourselves, secure in the supposed privacy of our own homes, away from any tangible social intercourse or community, is surely a pagan worship of private gods – sports heroes, musicians, movie stars – and irrational political pundits blathering bytes sounding vaguely like truisms, when all they can give us is a depleted rhetoric that effaces, rather than confronts, our shared reality. Surely we must find something deeper than this, not because there really is such a thing, but because in the search for it, we delve deeper and build deeper into ourselves, as something more enduring than our distractions. So we think to find something beyond the given distractions; the possibilities of what it might mean to be human beyond our predilections for greed, fear, and violence. For the time being, then, the way of intellect is the way of preserving a different possibility than the cultural reality into which we have been born.
Civilization in the West sometimes appears headed into eclipse. If so, we do not as yet have any sense that a new civilization will develop out of its ruins. But the hope that is at the origin of every civilization: that the community of men and women do walk this Earth as human – not crawling on their bellies in fear; not raging at the sun because it shines on oneself and one’s rivals alike; not wasting resources in self-celebratory demonstrations of gluttony or exercise of raw power, as if all that the naked ape could accomplish is embarrassment to any claim of superiority for the primate family as a whole – but as men and women, capable of reason, moderation, compassion for others, and passing these virtues down to the next generation. This hope cannot vanish from the world of human beings as long as there are human beings. And when there aren’t, that world ends.
But until then, it is my belief that human life and intelligence, which are inseparably dependent occurrences, are also accidental ones. The universe could have been wholly other than it is. There could have been other life forms on other planets; even perhaps some form of intelligent life unimaginable to us. All of this could be the case. And it is the wonder of existence; that it is somehow never within the compass of our thinking or our hopes; and that somehow, every day, we must meet the universe anew, on its own terms, in an attitude of discovery and creative sharing. This attitude is confrontational, but not in a conflictive sense. We are here to face the universe and through it ourselves. This is inevitable – it will be the case, whatever – and so we might as well cooperate, so long as we are able.
Primitive peoples need not make such an acknowledgment, because their tribal living is itself that acknowledgment; a direct response to living with it on a daily, even hourly, basis. But many in “developed” societies now refuse to give any such acknowledgment, and in doing so, re-enact and perform suffering on themselves and others. It takes quite a while and quite an effort to reach the recognition that an honest attempt to confront and comport ourselves cooperatively provides a moment of realization that resolution of any existential angst we feel – our fears and rages, our disappointments and frustrations – will always be found in living compassionately with other human beings regardless of our differences. This itself constitutes the only possible “perfection” of the rational animal; perhaps unachievable, but preferable to its opposite, which only results in blood, death, misery, and destruction; the wet dream of fascists and “strongmen” the world over. Fascism may indeed prove the order of the day. But to every day comes a night, followed by a dawn. I’m no utopian, and that dawn may be worse yet. But it will be different, and any paradise one might have hoped for will be lost; even at its best it will be different than any future we could imagine. But together we will face that when it comes, whether we would or not.