Thursday, February 17, 2011

Indignez-vous? Not so fast ...

Adam Kirsch has a very interesting review of Stéphane Hessel's best-selling Indignez-vous! which he regards as a misguided and even "dangerous" perpetuation of the apolitical moralism of the Resistance into a period in which such an understanding of public life can only cause trouble:

It might seem hard to object to Hessel’s message, which, on one level, is as platitudinous as a high-school graduation speech: care about the world you live in, fight injustice, cherish non-violence (“I am convinced that the future belongs to non-violence, to the reconciliation of different cultures”). Yet there is actually something quite troubling about the huge popularity of Indignez-vous! and about the political use it makes of the Resistance legacy. For what defined the years 1940 to1944 in France was, precisely, the absence of politics: a country under foreign occupation is deprived of the opportunity, and the responsibility, of self-government. This is a source of humiliation and suffering, but it can also, to those brave people who continue to engage in public life, be a source of exhilarating clarity. Especially when the occupier is as unmistakably evil as Nazi Germany, and especially when the resister is half-Jewish, like Hessel, the compromises and uncertainties of ordinary politics are abolished. “Resisting, for us, meant refusing to accept German occupation and defeat. It was relatively simple,” Hessel recalls.

And what could be more natural than wanting to carry this simplicity and urgency into the realm of ordinary politics, where everything is so maddeningly complicated and drawn-out? “We are determined to replace politics with morality,” Camus wrote in an editorial in Combat, the Resistance newspaper, on September 4, 1944. “That is what we call a revolution.” Yet, within days of the Liberation—as you can see dramatically in the remarkable volume Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947—the Resistance’s exemption from politics began to crumble, as the compromises involved in actual governing returned.

Since I am the translator of the Camus volume, and have also been struck by the abrupt transformation of Camus's thinking occasioned by postwar divisions and purges, I am pleased by this comparison. But no doubt it will make some readers indignant, because Hessel's book has become a rallying point for many.

4 comments:

Mark said...

Being reasonable always sounds like the best and the most prudent way to proceed while getting angry looks irrational and counterproductive. However, when being reasonable in the face of what seem to be the constant failures of politics to actually achieve what a majority of people aspire to, and when a minority of private interests seems to have a headlock over the public sphere, continuing to be reasonable then ceases to be so because it now looks like complying with an immutable and monolithic status quo. Democratic politics surely is about human beings achieving together a kind of collective self-determination; we can achieve together a new level of freedom that is beyond us individually. If being reasonable today makes us helpless before the status quo, what then are we supposed to do? You can only be reasonable if those you are negotiating with act in good faith. We can see in the US how those who act in good faith are forever forced into unreasonable compliance (you can call it a compromise if you prefer) with those who do not and have no intention of doing so.

Mark said...

The following is meant in a gently tongue in check way, Art.

It's funny you criticize Hessel up at the moment many in the middle east have decided that they are as "mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore" to quote Peter Finch. What would be your counsel to them? Patience, prudence and peaceful dialogue (when graced with the opportunity)?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Mark, with your tongue in cheek I think you may have missed what Kirsch and I are driving at. We aren't extolling "reasonableness" or "patience, prudence, and peaceful dialogue." On the contrary, we are combating the **illusion** that at bottom there are no fundamental political differences, that all "good people" agree (as they could in the Resistance about the one overriding goal), and that if only a few bad eggs can be smashed, then comity will reign. Instead, we believe that political conflict is permanent and therefore that intelligent compromise and wily maneuver are necessary. The idea of an end to conflict is utopian, and unity in indignation masks innumerable underlying disagreements that it would be better to bring into the open.

Mark said...

I did grasp that, but doesn't it come to the same thing in the end? Traditional complex politics stagnates to a point where a consensus forms, perhaps indeed an evanescent one I'll concede, around the idea that the status quo isn't working. I understand that better is the enemy of the good, but what if the good isn't good? The equation of the resistance with some kind of totalitarian utopian ideology is quite unfair and false I think. I am getting into deep waters here but wasn't the resistance multipolar for a time at least during the war rather like the revolutionaries of 1789 until that all went pear shaped later? A few bad eggs? I mean we live under tutelage of permanent wall street directorship that as we've been told too big to fail. But does that mean we have to assent to it in every aspect? We have seen the fact that the so-called free market isn't rational, fair or even free. Isn't it time to come up with a new politics? A complete reframing of the debate? I suppose things will have to get even worse before this can happen....