I can’t depend on things that I have long assumed. Democracy in America, flawed as it has been, can no longer be counted on; social progress can no longer be anticipated. Indeed, the survival of the species is becoming less and less likely.
Many on the left and the right contend that, therefore, these desperate times require desperate, radical measures. But I don’t think so. I think, to the contrary, it is a time for close focus and deliberation, with recognition of the dilemmas woven into the fabric of our social world, appreciating the need to proceed both forcefully and carefully. In an upcoming series of essays, I will present my understanding of this: first, by highlighting the political sensibility that I think is required to adequately address the problems of our times: gray is beautiful. Next, by analyzing the way the specific sociological composition of our problems should be understood: a careful analysis of the social condition. And then by exploring ways to democratically respond to the problems, which I believe adds up to constituting what I call the radical center. Here I open with reflections on my own political coming of age: a brief account of how I came to appreciate the political attraction of the gray.
Gray Is Beautiful: coming of age, politically
There was a time when I was certain where I stood. I knew that there was something fundamentally inhumane in the order of things. I was appalled by injustice, and I had a clear sense of where I should look for the means to right political, economic, and social wrongs.
In high school, while I attended a compulsory class, “The Problems of Communism,“ (with the text authored by J. Edgar Hoover), I read The Communist Manifesto on my own. Seeking role models, I did research on “The Wobblies” and Big Bill Hayward. I was a very early critic of the Vietnam War: when I presented my ideas in a social studies class, I was severely criticized by my teacher and fellow students, including one whose father was then fighting in the Battle of Hill 861. A year later in my first year of college at the State University of New York in Albany, I presented the same paper in a public speaking class to raves from my fellow students and an “A” from the instructor.
I was then in tune with the times, which were “a changin.” I was a part of a grand progressive march, more and more engaged in what we called “the movement.” I helped establish a “stay clean with Gene” campaign for Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war challenger to President Lydon Johnson in the Democratic Primary in New Hampshire. Then, I took a radical turn, joining a SDS spin-off group, grandly named “The New Left Organizing Committee.” We were about a dozen undergraduate and graduate students, and professors. We were on the fringe at first, little more than a radical reading group, but as the events of 1970 unfolded, we came to lead the student strike following the U. S. incursion into Cambodia and the deaths at Kent State. We were well positioned to do so after together attending a radical rally to free the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale in New Haven and planning a student strike. I saw Eldredge Cleaver and Mark Rudd and met, and worked with, William Kunstler, sitting next to him on a stage at a protest rally. I helped lead a student strike (and I taught my first college class in our alternative university: on Herbert Marcuse’s essay on repressive tolerance). I also helped organize the first Earth Day and marched in solidarity with my dear friend Joe Borgovini (who later died of AIDS) in the first gay pride demonstration in Albany.
Yet, although I was committed to radical change, I had some doubts about the course the New Left was taking. I remember marching down the streets of Albany, from the University to the State Capitol building, demanding social justice in the name of “the people,” while being booed by the very working-class people for whom we were marching. I remember a violent demonstration at the university, during which the library was sacked. I saw a particularly aggressive protesting friend, who I had known until that moment as being completely a-political. I was bewildered by her rage, as she attempted to break the windows of the library entranceway. I remember friends in the small circle of the New Left Organizing Committee going to the rifle range, preparing for “the revolution.” I remember meeting people in the Weather Underground at the New Haven demonstration. I was not as sure as many of my friends about the course of history, and surer than they that imagined dreams can turn to nightmares.
I read my Marx, and Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. I read critical sociology, C Wright Mills and Alvin Gouldner, et al. I knew which side I was on. But I also knew that thinkers on the other side had something to say. While I read Sartre, I also read Aron.
This political and intellectual reticence soon would constitute the core of my political identity. Yet, at first, it led only to a momentary hesitation and bewilderment. What led my friend to kick in the glass doors of entrance to the library? What led others to throw the books off the shelves?
And what led the extremely well-read history graduate student, with whom I studied American history, to go to the rifle range? It seemed silly, but with later experiences, I realized that it was profoundly dangerous. Just a few years later, in 1974, I met former Stalinists in Poland, and realized that they had been much like my New Left friends in their youth. And just recently, I read in a sympathetic biography of Zygmunt Bauman about his Stalinist past that reminded me of my early discomfort with my friends.
This discomfort has since become the grounds upon which I have based my general understanding of the political world. I came to this position, following my student days, through my research in Poland and Central Europe, in the comparative inquiry of cultural freedom and free public lives, and in my studies of cynicism, the role of intellectuals in democratic societies, the politics of small things, and the reinvention of political culture. In other words, I dedicated my intellectual and scholarly career working through my youthful discomfort. It has also led me to my online publishing adventures, including the creation of Deliberately Considered, Public Seminar and this platform of The Democracy Seminar.
Along this journey, I had the honor to work with and befriend extraordinary political thinkers and activists, especially from Central Europe. In exploring their political insights, I wrote a book on “the post-totalitarian mind.” Later, a lecture by one of them, Adam Michnik, entitled, “Gray is Beautiful,” compactly summarized my own political sensibility.
Michnik, with whom I have worked over the years, gave this lecture at the New School for Social Research seven years after the transformations of 1989. I was moved on the spot, and the feeling has stayed with me. It was a charming presentation, opening with an ironic joke about a frog princess and closing with a sharp argument for “gray democracy” against the clean reds, blacks and blues of the ideological projects of the left, right and center, with the joke’s up to date punchline.
Michnik reflected upon the similarities and the differences between the youthful protests on both sides of “the iron curtain.” On the one hand: “’The world as it is’ meant an unjust world.” While on the other: “the students of Berkeley and Paris rejected the order of bourgeois democracy, as the students of Prague and Warsaw were fighting for the freedom bourgeois democracy guaranteed.”
He explained why he and his colleagues in the democratic opposition in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and beyond opposed communism: ‘it was a lie, and we were searching for the truth.” But also, he explained how the certainties of those times that brought socialists, conservatives, nationalists, and religious critics together in the opposition posed dangers after the Communists left the political stage. It’s the danger of absolutism, of certainty, of excessive political clarity.
“The heroism of the people who resisted repression has shown its second face: intolerant, fanatical, and opposed to new modernizing ideas. This is a natural turn of events in post-communist democracies.”
Thus, he called for a “gray democracy,” animated by competing ideals and utopian visions, but not overwhelmed by the visions to the point that “all sides become incapable of compromise”:
“Democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of passions, emotions, hatreds and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.”
This rings true to me. While Michnik focused on his experience in Poland and around the old Soviet bloc, I have been working on broader implications far beyond that region. Inspired by his essay, I’ve published a series of pieces in Public Seminar on the topic, commenting on the politics of the day and enduring political problems. While he considered the transition from communism and anti-communism to post-communism, I have been considering present challenges facing democracy in both long established, though consistently flawed liberal democracies, such as those in North America and Western Europe, and from polities with little, or practically no, democratic experience, such as the polities of East and Central Europe, but also of those of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. I have done this not only in the posts on Public Seminar, but also more recently in posts and webinars I’ve published here on the platform of The Democracy Seminar.
Now with the rising tide of authoritarianism, xenophobia and racism, the increasing inequality, the Covid 19 pandemic, and the troubling responses to these, I want to demonstrate how “them” and “us” black and white solutions are not simply inadequate and dangerous. They are a primary cause of our pressing problems, experienced globally. I intend to analyze this with a series of “sociological snapshots” carefully interpreted. Here an example, the first in the series.
Thanksgiving: A Snapshot
Thanksgiving: unlike Christmas, it is purely secular. It is not connected to the beliefs of a specific, albeit dominant, religious community. Unlike the birthdays of Martin Luther King Jr., and Lincoln and Washington (i.e. Presidents Day), it is not a celebration of the achievements of individual national heroes. Unlike Memorial Day and Labor Day, the commemoration is more focused on its symbolic meaning, less on seasonal change (i.e., the socially imagined first and last days of summer). Unlike, Juneteenth and Veterans Day, broadly observed ritualistic practices constitute the celebration. And unlike July 4th, it is a public holiday, with special and parades and sporting events, but it is mainly observed in shared private practices. In a nation that is deeply fractured, these practices cut across political, cultural, religious, racial, regional, and economic divides.
The holiday has a long history, filled with controversies, from Thomas Jefferson’s objections that it crossed the boundary of church and state, to the objections of indigenous Americans and their allies, who criticize the holiday, and the way it’s origins are recalled by the broad public and taught to American school children: celebrating friendly relations between the European colonists and indigenous people, covering up genocidal colonialism. Yet, despite such creditable objections, it is notable how broadly and deeply the holiday is observed, and with my gray sensibility, I think this is a good thing.
Years ago, I had a conversation with my dear friend, Beverley McCoy–the receptionist, and social center of gravity, at the Theodore Young Community Center, where I go swimming– that suggests vernacular wisdom and the deep significance of Thanksgiving. Beverly and I became friends after I had collected signatures from the staff and members of the center, who are overwhelmingly African American, to get Barack Obama on the ballot for the New York Democratic Presidential Primary in 2008. At that time, they were skeptical, not knowing who he was and knowing quite well Hillary Clinton, their Senator who lived nearby. Of course, they came around quickly and enthusiastically. Ever since that campaign, Beverly and I have been close, comparing notes about the fate of “our guy,” as well as our communities, friends, and families.
At the end of November 2010, knowing the pool would be closed for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I made sure to go the days before and chatted with “Miss Bev.” On that Wednesday, she would be driving to her son and his family in Central Pennsylvania. On the days before, she was preparing, doing her packing, and making the cornbread stuffing, a must for her family with branches in Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York. Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Bev’s down home stuffing, a specialty of the South.
I shared my similar, but slightly different, expectation for my Thanksgiving dinner at my sister-in-law, Geraldine’s, place in Brooklyn, across from the museum. She and her husband, Bernard, cooked the dinner, but one of the necessities was prepared by my other sister-in-law, Lana, the kugel (a traditional Jewish noodle pudding). As Beverly’s Thanksgiving requires her cornbread stuffing, ours wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Lana’s kugel.
My daughter, Brina, felt this deeply when she was spending her junior year abroad in Paris. When the program director organized a potluck Thanksgiving dinner for the Brown students studying there and their French friends, Brina immediately thought of the kugel, which was a big success, even as it puzzled the French Thanksgiving guests, a sweet dish that wasn’t dessert. And as it happened, Brina met her future husband that year. Now, living in Paris, when she and her family, and an American friend and her family, prepare a Thanksgiving meal–alas not on Thursday because it is a workday– Brina never forgets to prepare the kugel, following Lana’s recipe.
There is a vision of America that imagines a country of similar small-town values, common religious practices, a common cultural identity, as Norman Rockwell immortalized in his famous depiction of a Thanksgiving dinner. But the painting Beverly, with her family, and I, with mine, paint in our actual practice is more interesting and realistic, I believe. We share common values but are also separated by significant differences. Sometimes the differences present serious problem. But on Thanksgiving, we symbolically transcend these. Turkey and kugel, turkey and cornbread stuffing, turkey, and many other national, ethnic, and regional specialties, define the holiday and the plural identity that America is.
Thanksgiving: A Gray Reading
There are, no doubt, those who imagine Thanksgiving in Norman’s Rockwell’s rendering. Ironically, this includes both those who celebrate and who reject it, those who want to “Make America Great Again” and those who readily denounce Thanksgiving as the quintessential “settler colonial” holiday. I was reminded of this last November when I received a message from the provost of my university. The telling passage:
“I wish you a restful few days off later this month, whether or not you recognize or celebrate Thanksgiving. It is time off that you have earned and I wish you some respite and joy with your friends, loved ones and kinfolk.”
I was perplexed when I read this, but as far as I know, the message didn’t yield any negative public response. The provost was apparently distancing the university community from the Thanksgiving holiday: Some celebrate. Some don’t. Each to his own. Perhaps I was being oversensitive. It seems that even though most in the university community do likely go to Thanksgiving dinners, many do so with an understanding that there is something wrong with the holiday, and they respect those who therefore question it and abstain from celebrating. Therefore, the provost’s message and its acceptance.
But something seems wrong here. The university is unnecessarily distancing itself from holiday rituals that cut across our fragmented society. I think of them as rituals of a gray democracy. The complete rejection of the holiday overlooks meaningful holiday practices, such as the ones that my friend Beverly and I share with our friends and family.
It’s an unusual situation. It is often the case that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves fall short of what we do and how we live; think of invocations of the greatness of American democracy, racial justice, equality and so forth. But in the case of Thanksgiving, there is a reversal of this pattern. What we do and how we live meaningfully go beyond the limits of the story we tell. There is a temptation to dismiss the significance of ideals by noting the distance between them and reality. Such dismissal confuses cynicism with criticism, and as I tried to demonstrate in The Cynical Society, it significantly undermines the possibilities of democracy in America. In the case of overly dismissive approaches to Thanksgiving, ignoring the significance of social practices, being overwhelmed by a problematic origin mythology, I fear leads to the same result.
To discard Thanksgiving is to challenge one of the rare moments in American life when we actually engage in a collective ritual that helps us see ourselves as part of a coherent whole, acting together in our differences. This is a kind of collective solidarity that sociologists, following the classical work of Emile Durkheim, have long maintained is crucial to both social order and social change in modern societies. There is no other time of the year when this is achieved. This holiday is especially significant, given the deep polarization of American society, and the problematic relationship between universities and the greater society. By being overly critical of nearly universal practices that express both commonality and diversity, the academic community is distancing itself from the society at large, ironically across the political spectrum, and the problems of American society escalate.
Yet, I believe, a “gray is beautiful aesthetic” provides the way out, exemplified in the way memory monuments and museums have developed in recent decades. Maya Lin’s extremely popular and critically acclaimed Vietnam Veterans Memorial is visited both by those of us who in 1970 marched in the streets of Albany between the university and the state capitol, and those who booed us. Lin’s bold minimalism helps us to remember together, differently, about the challenges of those times when we were last polarized as deeply as we are today. It opens up space for people with profound disagreements to gather together and perhaps even talk with each other, situated on the Washington Mall, close to the Lincoln Memorial. And Lincoln, it seems to me, had exactly this in mind when he offered an official proclamation establishing Thanksgiving a national holiday “to heal the wounds of a nation.”
At a time when cultural war threatens to become a new kind of civil war, using the occasion of the holiday to deepen its narrative, rather than to reject its practice, is imperative. And note, as Lincoln created the national holiday, he did so, not as a way of accommodating with the racist regime of the Confederacy, but as he and the Union forces fought to vanquish it.
When I was coming of age politically, I knew where to look for illumination, seeking certainty and radical change. I think radical change is more necessary now than any other time in my life. But I also think that certainty should be avoided as it causes many of the problems we now face, as Adam Michnik’s prescient lecture underscored. More on this soon, starting with a piece on the controversies about the date of the founding moment of the United States: 1619 v 1776.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Emeritus at The New School for Social Researchand chair of the Democracy Seminar.