I am borrowing here the title of Adam Michnik’s lecture at The New School in December, 1996, in which he reflected upon “democracy in Central Europe.” I will use his lecture’s title and argument for a series of posts on dilemmas that arise in the pursuit of democracy and social justice, commenting on recent contributions to and controversies at Public Seminar. Today, I introduce the theme. In upcoming posts, I will offer variations, starting with Michnik’s key critical position.

“Radical movements — whether under black or red banners — gladly use democracy in order to obliterate it. In the meantime, democracy is neither black nor red. Democracy is gray, is established only with difficulty, and its quality and flavor can be recognized best when it comes under the pressure of advancing red or black ideas. Democracy is not infallible, because in its debates all are equal. This is why it lends itself to manipulation, and may be helpless against corruption. This is why, frequently, it chooses banality over excellence, shrewdness over nobility, empty promise over true competence. 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 is why the seekers of a moral state and of a perfectly just society do not like democracy.”

I often find myself thinking about Adam and his distinctive kind of critical thinking, along with the thinking of his friend and colleague, Vaclav Havel – recently especially because of the publication of Elzbieta Matynia’s beautifully edited and introduced collection of their public conversations, in her An Uncanny Era.

Adam’s appreciation of the beauty of gray, and his friend Vaclav with his understanding of the power of the powerless, come together in my thoughts as I think about pressing and enduring problems.

I have a gray view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a gray view of neo-liberalism, a gray view about capitalism and affect, a gray view of militant democracy and a gray view of socialism. When many of my colleagues, friends, and indeed even relatives, see things in black and white, not to mention in red and green, I see ambiguity and complexity, want nuance, expect the less than ideal, but hope for, and do what I can to make possible, the better, knowing that to do what I can requires an appreciation of the power of the powerless, the power of the politics of small things in my terms. To be clear, I am not calling for moderation, or acceptance of the ways things are. I am radically committed to democracy and pragmatically committed, with qualifications, to non-violence. As I appreciate the beauty of gray, I also appreciate the limits of violence.

There is a power that people have to act together in concert. It no doubt has it limits, but on many occasions it can overwhelm, or at least resist, the power of empire, the militarized state, the institutionalized forces of racism and sexism, and much more. My first hand experience of this power was as a participant observer of the democratic opposition in the last decades of the Soviet Empire, in East Central Europe, the opposition in which Michnik and Havel were key figures. I believe the power of the powerless, with an appreciation of the gray, provides a sound, underutilized way to oppose oppression, to present alternatives to emotional manipulation and market fundamentalism.

An appreciation of the beauty of the gray and the power of the politics of small things, are my guides. The first application, Gaza, coming up later this week.

One thought on “Gray is Beautiful: An Introduction to a Series of Reflections on Democracy Dilemmas

  1. As you know, Jeff, this is also my way of seeing things, and I look forward to participating in this conversation.

    As a preliminary matter, I want to note that while some may consider us noncommittal or, as some insist, “conservative,” I see the “gray” view, as you and Michnik call it, as the realization of what it is we should be doing as people with special knowledge. We should be using the knowledge gained from our studies to help direct understanding of these important issues in accordance with the full body of critical insight available to us. This means recognizing bigger principles above partisans, greater meanings over movements. It means not jumping into the stream of righteousness as a matter of course, no matter where it leads, but instead standing back initially and being honest about what’s in the water and what it will actually cause when it reaches its destination. It means recognizing that sometimes, maybe even often, the intentions of well-meaning actors are betrayed by the very causes they support.

    As we know all too well, the world is quite capable of making rash decisions with good intentions. It doesn’t need the help of intellectuals to do this. If we’ve made it our mission to know and understand the world at a level that is uncommon, it behooves us to make actual use of that understanding, even when the pressure of the current is commanding us to jump in.

    When we see the water is clear, we can jump in.

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