Critique for the people

If we could only see the violence latent in our lives, the violence concealed by history, passed down from generation to generation. The loss is felt but not understood — the loss of nature, of community, of freedom. Both the market and the rule of law were established by conquest, are maintained by the use or threat of force. They have acquired their legitimacy by illegitimate means.

If only we could see it, what then? We would see not only the illegitimacy and the violence, but also that we all are oppressed by it, even we who are its apparent beneficiaries. We could live in a society of equals and a world of abundance. We could be fully human: free-thinking and collaborative. Instead, even we who are not the direct victims of oppression, live in fear and alienation. We inhabit a world in which our material security depends on our advantage over others and that advantage must be vigilantly guarded. This precarious oppression protects the status quo but also threatens it with the continual risk that we will find ourselves trading places with a group of oppressed.

This latent violence by which we keep ourselves oppressed like a snake eating its tail becomes visible, unfortunately, only to those who can afford to critique, a luxury compared to the urgent necessities required to sustain oneself and one’s family on a daily basis. Yet those in the position to critique have less immediate motivation to do so. They are lulled into complacency by their advantage, by their comparative well-being compared to the many more clearly oppressed people.

And so we uncommon critics play a special, under-appreciated role. We have a challenging job, to understand the world and to teach others to understand it. The educative duty is crucial, for equality cannot be forced, neither from the top-down by a philosopher-king, nor from the bottom-up by a popular revolution. Equality must be learned. Yet the traditional dynamic of teacher and student will not do, for what must be taught are not facts but critique. We must teach not what the world looks like beneath its historical mask but rather how to look beneath the mask oneself, without the help of a teacher.

How? There can be no magic to it, no x-ray vision, no secret short-cut. Learning to critique requires the hard, iterative work of multi-perspectivism: adopting another’s perspective as one’s own, applying that perspective as a lens through which to question the way things are and to dream a new way of the world, and then repeating the process over and over. The more one does this, the more perspectives through which to see the world, the more tools with which to critique it, and — most important — the more one identifies with others and overcomes the delusion of difference, the alienation of separateness. Then equality and collaboration begin to become possible.

What better basis could there be for a democracy than multi-perspectivism? Democracy by its nature requires disparate people to come together as a unitary actor. If the unitary action results merely from one majority group or majority coalition of groups enacting policies that appear beneficial from their narrow perspective, democracy remains yet another form of oppression. But if people learn to see beyond the blinders of their narrow perspective, truly pluralistic democracy may be achieved, in which we relate to each other not as competitors in the zero-sum game of political and socioeconomic advantage but rather as equals with common interests in living properly human lives of creative collaboration.

Critique is power

Critique is our solace in a world of ugliness. Be warned, it will not make us happy. But it will provide what we most want: power. Every critical insight reveals a little more about the nature of domination, the awareness of which is the beginning of freedom from it. But critique must not only negate, for criticism presupposes a standard of possibility  — a glimpse of what could be otherwise. Critique thus affirms that We are better than this.

No thanks

To Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe, or God, or Mother Nature — to whomever Americans give thanks today — I say, “No thanks.” I wish you had sent them back where they came from with a message that their guns, their God, their diseases, and their theories of property and dominion are not welcome in this world. Instead, you opened your arms and shared the secrets of the land with those who would, in turn, wipe out your peoples and pillage your lands. For that I am not grateful. I am sorry.

The future

Don’t take solace in the fact that young voters would not have elected Trump. We have decades ahead of us while older generations will enjoy electoral and institutional power. During this time, older generations will tend to continue advancing policies that will sap youth of their progressiveness, e.g., constraining education funding, concentrating media, and placing our economic security at risk by weakening health care and retirement programs. The time for change is now.