Many people are familiar with Einstein’s remark, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” The comment came when the philosopher Bertrand Russell was met with opposition, ultimately successful, to his teaching a class at the City College of New York, his prior remarks on sexual morality having disqualified him in the eyes of some conservatives.
The line is a good one, but of course it has some corollaries we would do well to recognize. For instance, it is the case that in some cases great and decent spirits will encounter support from violent mediocrities. This may be because a mediocrity is confused or because he is devious: he may stumble into support accidentally, irrationally; or, suffering from a poor reputation, he may attach himself to a promising opponent whom thereby to drag down.
The Case of Keith Ellison
By way of example: in February, shortly before the election for the chair of the Democratic National Committee, one candidate for the post, Keith Ellison, a black congressman from Minnesota and the first Muslim member of Congress, was endorsed by a notorious white supremacist, David Duke. Duke had in 2016 endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency, for which Trump received derision. Some dubious reactionaries rushed to ask why Ellison was not indicted by this endorsement, as Trump had been. These included the folks behind the unpropitiously named program Louder with Crowder. “HYPOCRISY ALERT!” they observed. The question is raised whether a politician is necessarily culpable for his or her endorsement by a bigot, and whether politicians endorsed by the same bad person are equally implicated.
Separate endorsements by one person are not necessarily equal; beyond the mere fact of each endorsement’s having been made, substantive distinctions can be drawn between them. We have to decide for ourselves whether a Duke-endorsed candidate has earned Duke’s endorsement, by displaying principles of similar reprehensibility. In the case of Trump, we should suppose that he has earned Duke’s endorsement: he has made innumerable bigoted statements, and refused to push back against those made on his behalf, and thereby earned the support of a notorious bigot. Ellison, who has no similar record, and gives no impression of sharing any principles or priorities with Duke, has not equally earned his endorsement, and is not equally (or at all) culpable for it.
Some events that appear identical are so only in some partial, subsidiary respect, and when considered more fully, in proper context, become clearly distinct and separate. The receipt of a bigot’s endorsement is such a case. By way of further example, in the case of a dispute between exploited workers and a tycoon trying to crush them, each side is defending its economic interest. To this extent the sides are identical. However, the sides are distinguishable by the justice of their causes, of the interests they are promoting: the workers are promoting what may be considered their own just interests, whereas the tycoon’s interest may be considered unjust.
The Problem of Association: the GOP Example
This matter of superficial identity-relations has further applications to today’s politics. We might consider the question of obstructionism committed against a president by the opposition party. We can consider two extremely recent examples: of the obstructionism perpetrated over eight years by Congressional Republicans against President Obama, and a hypothetical equivalent campaign to be waged by the Congress’s Democrats against Trump. I tend not to believe in the supposed “responsibility to govern” that would compel the opposition party to acquiesce at least partly in a president’s designs. Reduction to the absurd serves the useful purpose sometimes of showing us that supposed universal rules do not apply in certain cases and must be rethought, case by case. To give the most egregious example: If the president were Hitler, the Congressional opposition would have no mandate to capitulate to him in the name of “responsible governance,” but would be responsible only for opposing his policies as efficaciously as possible, as their discerning consciences saw fit. This speaks to something about heads of state: as they are powerful, they are dangerous, and must always be contested, in good faith.
So the Republicans in Congress during Obama’s presidency had the right to oppose him as they saw fit, or as was properly seen fit, and the Democrats in Congress now have the right to oppose Trump as far as he should be opposed. If the Congressional opposition to Trump is as inveterate as that to Obama, that does not delegitimize either oppositional program, but leaves us to consider whether the superficially identical oppositions differ as to the legitimacy of arguments that can be given for their propriety. That is, a program of unyielding opposition to Trump may be appropriate, whereas the unyielding opposition to Obama may not have been, depending on whether there is a difference between the two presidents, and in the seriousness of their opponents’ prerogatives. Complicated arguments could be given in each case; I won’t try to give them in this space.
I will be satisfied to say that I think there are clear qualitative differences between the presidencies of Obama and Trump, and that we would be well served to oppose the latter in virtually all cases. Those who would oppose him should remember to make their criticisms properly, without being distracted by the absurdity of their target. The long-running joke about the size of Trump’s hands is an example of a joke that should be more subtle than it is sometimes given to be: what is risible is not the anatomic fact of the hands’ smallness, but that the man whom they belong to is so vacuous and petty as to be mortified to have them.
Trump has a distracting personality. He speaks in platitudes. He often seems nearly illiterate. On Twitter he has self-quoted: “I like thinking big. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” This line appeared in The Art of the Deal, the 1987 book Trump ostensibly wrote, and again in 2012, exactly a month after Obama’s re-election, in the quoted tweet. It seems safe to say that no one who has ever spared a moment’s thought for thinking has ever had this thought, let alone thought to express it.
The promotion of “thinking big” as good thinking might be called an example of proxy-thinking: thinking not in the terms in which we should think, but in terms of (namely, unrepresentative) proxy-terms. All instances of the drawing of false identities – between the shamefulnesses of separate endorsements by a bigot, or between the proprieties of defending different kinds of economic interest, or the opposing different presidents – are examples of proxy-thinking.
Another example would be the indiscriminate privileging of one point on the notional political spectrum over another (without considering the relevant arguments for specific propositions): for instance, the popular privileging of the “center.” Contained here is the supposition that the middle of the political spectrum should enjoy some automatic privilege over either extremity. This interpretation, while convenient for establishmentarian agenda-setters in Washington, seems not quite sensible. Although we are familiar with the term “centrism,” and have an impression of what sense it is supposed to convey, it is still hard to know what “center” really means; it seems difficult to suppose that all political thinking can really be represented one-dimensionally, and that there would be a definable center-point in this dimension. And even if there were some such center-point, there would still be the matter of deciding what about it would serve necessarily to legitimate it at the expense of alternatives. (And none of this is to engage with the empirical reality that “centrist” politicians and their elite allies scoff at programs of redistribution that the average voter, data tell us, would support.)
Other examples clearly abound. For instance, take the executive order signed by the president that mandated that for any new federal regulation to be imposed, two existing regulations be stricken – not a policy that engages substantively with the proper scope and function of the regulatory apparatus, based on the set of specific cases, but a boon to those who wish simply to see an absolute reduction in the number of regulations on the books.
Analogical arguments like the one made by Louder with Crowder are nonsensical under any analysis; they can be believed, but they cannot quite be thought. They are at odds with the rules on which all depend(s). They can only be tropistically imbibed. This suggests that there is an especially potent case of false identity that is the identity of the inconsiderate reactionary, who tries to build an ideology in terms of the incoherent existing framework he has presumed and contrived. This actually may supply some hope: as deprivation may yield depravity, these elements of false consciousness may obstruct real consciences.
To avoid the misfortune of being utterly misguided and self-alienated one can take some steps. We should think precisely. In general, generality should be a matter simply of applied specificity. We should mistrust anyone who tells us, “Trust no one” – if he doesn’t wish to undercut from the first his own statement, he means to mislead: he means, “Trust no one but me, who warned you to trust [no one].” The same caution should apply in cases when we are told to rush, to ignore details, so as to “see the big picture” – the big picture is a function of the collation of the members of the set of smaller pictures, and all of these that are relevant must be seen: this is the “big picture.” It is important to remember that while no one else can expect of you anything better than your best, you can’t expect anything better than that, either.
Image Credit: Michael Vadon