civic problems: time vs money and working together vs liking each other

I wrote an article for Slate recently that tried to get at the problem of democratic culture and a public or (civic) sphere in an increasingly atomized world.  There’s a lot to say about this, but my basic argument (pulling from Taylor’s ethics of authenticiy and this consumerist notion of “being your best self”) is that for those who aren’t desperately trying to raise enough money to stay alive and/or to take care of our dependents, many of us (myself very much included) are too pulled into practices of self-cultivation. Those practices extend to projects of cultivating our children and/or our immediate private sphere, but not necessarily to society at large.  Here’s a representative tweet that gets at the awakening Trump has given us, and it reflects to some degree a change I experience too, even if I think I felt glimmers of it much earlier in the campaign.


My article has a few problems, and here’s two of them: first, I needed to distinguish better between a political campaign and a civic space.  Was my being on Hillary’s campaign civic action?  Maybe. Maybe not. It certainly doesn’t do anything to get us past the big sort. Though HRC did win Nevada.

Next, I still haven’t sorted through a distinction I want to push further: that the civic sphere is not the private sphere, meaning that we don’t have to like each other to work together.  That has further stakes because it complicates the old line that the personal is political.  Of course that’s true, just as the political is personal is obviously also true.  But it would be a mistake to think of these statements as either definitional or descriptions of categories. The personal is not political in the way that blue is a color, for example, and neither is the personal political in the way that a scissors are two blades joined at a point.  Rather they are, as I am understanding them, different spheres that necessarily overlap.

There are hard questions here about the differences between understanding, empathy, verstehen, and forgiveness.  I don’t quite know how to answer them, except to say that it would be naive–and actually dangerous–for a white straight dude like me to pretend that my positionality has nothing to do with my take on the answer. Which is to say, like a lot of people have been saying lately, that if convincing Trump voters to go another way falls on anyone, it falls on people like me.

Here’s another thing: I’m not entirely sure how to think about engaging with Trump voters, primarily because the kind of civic work I want to do already overlaps with my ideological interests.  Giving money runs into a different but similar problem. I certainly am enthusiastic about giving money to civic and political organizations, and many of my friends have been talking about doing exactly that on social media.  Yet money is not the same thing as time and physical co-presence.  Money is much more efficient: it is an excellent means of helping all of us even more exquisitely divide our labors into things each of us are already good at doing. You’re a good organizer! Great. I’ll give you money to do that, because I want it to be done, and I am not a great organizer.  Etc.

What I worry is lost there is the collective experience and sensibility we gain by actually doing political and civic work together instead of paying other people to do it for us, even if it’s work we’d rather not be doing (I hate–but hate–phone banking) or work we’re not as good at as the work we could be doing for our jobs. Now look: these places really need our money, and often volunteers aren’t that useful and it’s better for the organization just to hire a paid staffer, which is only possible if we all chip in. So please, please, please do not read this as me saying donating money is bad.  And I’m not even saying only donating money is bad, but I am suspicious it’s part of the problem.

Yet this still leaves the problem I described earlier: how do we get past the problem that even where we organize (or donate) , those organizations are rarely where we could meet people who think (and vote) very, very different from us?  Part of this is bullshit, of course.  Cosmopolitans–by their very nature–have a deep tolerance (even preference) for difference. The idea that cosmopolitans  care about superficial differences but all think alike is a canard. Have these critics been to the coastal cities they’re so busy decrying? I have many Muslims friends who are much more conservative than I am, for example.  It’s true that few are Republican, but that hardly means they’re a monolith.

But it’s the white working class (whatever the hell that term means) that we’re supposed to encounter, or, at the very least, the Trump voters.  So where do people like me–people who should be expected to change minds–go meet them?  I don’t know, and I’m sure the answer will vary widely.  But this is where the spheres thing, I think, comes back and meets up with the experience thing.  It seems to me that to change someone’s mind–especially someone with whom you’re talking about issues deeply related to identity and self-image–you have to have a relationship of trust already worked out.  You can’t lead with politics, and by that I refer not just to the conversation (everyone knows you start a chat with small talk) but to the relationship itself.  For some of us, that common cause is already there: we went to school together, we’re family, etc.  But for others, it comes through, well, public spaces: softball leagues and neighborhood organizations and school boards.  Sometimes we’re too sorted even for these to create that opportunity, and sometimes we treat these things only as a means of our self-cultivation.  We might meet someone at the gym or a kid’s soccer game, but we’re more focused on our own experience that building relationships (or at least I am).

I’m honestly not sure what to say or do in this post-Trump week, except I have a strong hunch that physical co-presence is a big piece of the answer, and often physical co-presence with people who are quite different from me.  That’s only a starting point though: again, you might be physically co-present at the gym but nothing happens.  That’s where the public/private distinction matters because I don’t have to like everything about someone else (or even most things) to realize we have common causes and concerns.  We might well come to like each other, even to enjoy working together.  But that’s not the point.

Written by jeffguhin

November 13, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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