Dear Eli,

I find myself repeatedly disagreeing with your judgments as expressed here on Public Seminar. I have fleetingly shared this with you via email, in Facebook comments and in The New School hallways, but here I will try to explain more fully. I will be doing so addressing a paradox: although I am by just about any measure on the left in my ideals and actions, and you most definitely are, “a man of the left,” I find myself opposing your positions over and over. I think it is my gray outlook that mostly accounts for our contrasting judgments, more than our specific substantive commitments. I’ll explain by starting with the specifics.

You maintain:

The feminist movement undermined the New Left, as the black power movement didn’t. Apparently, in your judgment, this because the latter involved a genuine nationalist struggle, while the feminists, along with other identitarian movements, crossed class lines, and undermined the proper class basis of new left struggles. Further, sexism didn’t push women out of the left, rather, feminists abandoned the New Left. And today, the concern about rape culture “in which rape is normalized due to invidious gender norms, is a false and malicious one that should rejected by all progressives.”

And then there is Obama: The President himself is responsible for “the faux-progressive sludge of the Obama era.” He is a weakling, and as such is responsible for the re-election of Netanyahu in Israel. Obama’s elitism is responsible for the Trump phenomenon.  And in the face of reprehensible statements by Trump, you see stark choices: Trump’s blunt politically incorrect honesty or Obama and Hillary Clinton’s “core hypocrisy and deceit that seeks to cover up the greed and violence at the center of the American story,” or to “go forward to some more truthful politics.” (My first response was to declare to you two cheers for hypocrisy.)

Your stark black and white covers up the gray. You bluntly assert that we must choose which side we are on, that of the good class conscious new left or of bad identity politics, the good and honest leftists or the hypocritical and manipulative liberals, the radical feminists or the regressive ones. You further reduce the successes and failures of Barack Obama, to failure for which he is primarily responsible, dismissing academics, such as me, who would suggest that Republican intransigence, racism, a culture of fear and global complexity account for the limitations of his record, along with his failings as a leader.

On many of these issues, I disagree with your judgments. Having met too many survivors of rape and harassment, I can’t easily dismiss or too quickly overlook the problem as a lived experience of too many young women. Somehow, I believe, we have to muddle through the complexities, trying to be both responsive to the dangers of sexual assault and harassment, and supportive of sexual freedom and exploration.

Judging that there is no clear and systemic alternative to capitalist systems (I prefer to think of capitalisms in the plural), I applaud both liberal reforms and radical actions that work to lessen contemporary suffering and injustices. I don’t see a sharp line between the liberal (in the colloquial American sense of the term) and the leftist, what I look for is the democratic (in the full sense of that term).

And I see Obama as a significant success, with some important failures: on surveillance and the escalation of drones. But it could have been much worse, given the positions of his electoral opponents, Republican and Democrat.

Yet substantive differences in judgment aside, I want to refer to our central formal difference, using the color gray to underscore my point.

I recognize, you often make sharp important points: the college experience does provide an opportunity to explore new ways of living, to experiment in thinking and acting, and this includes, not insignificantly, matters of sexuality. You are also right that there is a tension between solidarities based on race, class and gender. And how these solidarities articulate with political projects of the left, and also of the right, is problematic. Capitalism does present many problems, and market fundamentalism is undermining many social, political and cultural goods.

Yet, I am not as sure as you seem to be that there is a clear and coherent position of the left that can address all this in a unified way. I think that there are shades of gray that need to be explored in a free public space, such as this one, Public Seminar. I am as skeptical about the bright and beautiful futures of the left, as I am profoundly opposed to those of the right, and I think that bright and beautiful features of the left and the right are enemies of democracy and freedom. I believe even if the bright and beautiful could be realized, the intimate relationship between utopia and dystopia would be revealed. My love of the gray is not only a matter of practicality and realism. It is, as well, a matter of principle. I think that compromise is a good thing, most of the time. It recognizes what Iddo Tavory, some of our students and I describe as the social condition. It is the business of public life. It makes room for democratic politics, as it is a refuge from the tyranny of theory, what Hannah Arendt describes as the dangers truth poses for politics.

Now, I confess, I am writing to you here, openly, because I believe that our differences are not at all personal or individual. As you know, but the readers of this open note should realize, we are friends and when we have expressed our disagreements to each other it has been with warm smiles and mutual respect, even as I find myself dumbfounded by your comments on Russia and Ukraine on your Facebook page. I am writing this to you here because my disagreements with you are very clear examples of my disagreements with many of our friends and colleagues on the left, who I wish to challenge in this “gray is beautiful” post and future ones, colleagues who seem to believe that there is a clear line to be drawn between the progressive and the reactionary, or that one should be found, on Charlie Hebdo, on events in Gaza and Israel Palestine, on neo-liberalism and on electoral politics in such places as Greece, Poland, Turkey the United States, Great Britain and in Ireland, to name countries on which we have had, or will have soon, running reports.

I do realize that among these a key reason why I disagree with my colleagues is because of my ambivalent attitude toward capitalism and my commitment to actually existing liberal democracy, my gray sensibility concerning both. Given my experiences with the previously existing socialism of the Soviet bloc, I think there is no systemic alternative to capitalism, while you believe with many of our colleagues of the academic left, that such an alternative exists, and you are deeply committed to its realization and think democracy is dependent upon it. More on this in my next post on neo-liberalism and political critique.

2 thoughts on “Gray is Beautiful: An Open Letter to Eli Zaretsky

  1. May I suggest that Americans tend to give more importance to this Trump phenomenon than people who are also familiar with politics somewhere else? Americans are somewhat protected from foul-mouthed irrational demagogues by the workings of the 2 party system, but Trump-like characters appear pretty much everywhere else on a regular basis. I am sure scholars of American history will also recall similar candidates in the past. (Perhaps Trump and Carson and Palin et caterva foreshadow a disintegration of the Republican Party into a more rational and a completely irrational faction, but I am not competent to make predictions on that 😉

    Be that as it may, I don’t see how one could judge the whole Obama presidency on the basis of the brief, as it now seems, Trump leadership in the polls.

    1. How wrong I was! Not only Trump won the election, the Republican party is completely unwilling to oppose him. And the far left is still fighting against Obama and Clinton…..

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