Back in the late 1920s, Stalin was asked by a journalist which deviation is worse, the Rightist one (Bukharin&company) or the Leftist one (Trotsky&company), and he snapped back: “They are both worse!” It is a sad sign of our predicament that, when we are confronted with a political choice and obligated to take a side, even if it is only a less bad one, quite often the reply that imposes itself is: “But they are both worse!” This, of course, does not mean that both poles of the alternative simply amount to the same. In concrete situations, we should, for example, conditionally support the protests of the Yellow Vests in France or make a tactical pact with liberals to block fundamentalist threats to our freedoms (say, when fundamentalists want to limit abortion rights or pursue an openly racist politics). But what it does mean is that most of the choices imposed on us by the big media are false choices – their function is to obfuscate a true choice. The sad lesson to be drawn from this is: if one side in a conflict is bad, the opposite side is not necessarily good.
Let’s take today’s situation in Venezuela: Maduro or Guaido? They are both worse, although not in the same sense. Maduro is “worse” because his reign brought Venezuela to a complete economic fiasco with a majority of the population living in abject poverty, a fiasco which cannot be attributed only to the sabotage of internal and external enemies. It is enough to bear in mind the indelible damage that the Maduro regime did to the idea of Socialism: for decades to come, we will have to listen to variations on the theme “You want Socialism? Look at Venezuela…”. However, Guaido is no less “worse”: when he assumed his virtual presidency, we were without a doubt witnessing a well-prepared coup orchestrated by the United States, not an autonomous popular insurgency (which is precisely the “better” third term missing in the alternative of Maduro and Guaido, who are “both worse”).
And we should not shirk from applying the same logic to the struggle between populists and establishment liberals which characterizes Western democracies. With regard to US politics, this means that the answer to “Who is worse, Trump or Clinton (or now Pelosi)?”, our answer should also be: they are both worse! Trump is “worse,” of course: an agent of “socialism for the rich,” systematically undermining the norms of civilized political life, dismantling the rights of minorities, ignoring threats to our environment, etc. However, in another sense, the democratic establishment is also “worse”: we should never forget that it was the immanent failure of the democratic establishment which opened up the space for Trump’s populism. The first step toward defeating Trump is therefore a radical critique of the democratic establishment. Why can Trump and other populists exploit ordinary people’s fears and grievances? Because these people felt betrayed by those in power.
What does this amount to, concretely? Among other things, it means that, obscene as this may sound, the Left should not be afraid to learn from Trump. How does Trump operate? Many perspicuous analysts pointed out that, while (for the most part, at least) he does not violate the explicit laws or rules, he exploits to the extreme the fact that all these laws and rules rely on a rich texture of unwritten conventions and customs that tells us how to apply explicit laws and rules – and he brutally disregards these unwritten guidelines. The latest (and, till now, the most extreme) example of this procedure is Trump’s proclamation of a national emergency. His critics were shocked at how he applied this measure, clearly intended only for great catastrophes like a threat of war or natural disaster, in order to build a border to protect the US territory from an invented threat. However, the Democrats were not the only ones critical of this measure. Some Rightists were also alarmed by the fact that Trump’s proclamation set a dangerous precedent: what if a future Leftist-Democratic president proclaims a national emergency on behalf of, say, global warming? My point is that a Leftist president should do something like this precisely to legitimize fast extraordinary measures. Global warming effectively IS an (not only national) emergency. Proclaimed or not, we ARE in an emergency state.
Let’s now move to a more complex case: Western liberal universalism versus the assertion of (“anti-Eurocentric”) particular identities. In this choice, too, both terms are worse. Why? There is a well-known joke about Jews gathered in a synagogue to publicly declare their failures. First, a mighty rabbi says: “Forgive me, God, I am nothing, not worthy of your attention!” After him, a rich merchant says: “Forgive me, God, I am a worthless nothing!” Then a poor ordinary Jew steps forward and says: “Forgive me, God, I am also nothing…” The rich merchant whispers to the rabbi: ”Who does he think he is, this miserable guy, that he can also say he is nothing?”
There is a deep insight in this joke: to “become nothing” requires the supreme effort of negativity, of tearing oneself off from the immersion into a cobweb of particular determinations. Such a Sartrean elevation of the subject into a void, a nothingness, is not a true Lacanian (or Hegelian) position: Lacan explains how, to do this, one has to find a support in a particular element which functions as a “less than nothing” – his name for it is objet a, the object-cause of desire. Let’s take a political example. The Politically Correct prohibition of asserting the particular identity of White Men (as the model of the oppression of others), though it presents itself as the admission of their guilt, confers on them a central position: this very prohibition to assert their particular identity makes them into the universal-neutral medium, the place from which the truth about the others’ oppression is accessible. And this is why white liberals so gladly indulge in self-flagellation: the true aim of their activity is not really to help others but the Lustgewinn brought about by their self-accusations, the feeling of their own moral superiority over others. The problem with the self-denial of white identity is not that it goes too far but that it does not go far enough: while its enunciated content seems radical, its position of enunciation remains that of a privileged universality. So, yes, they declare themselves to be “nothing,” but this very renunciation to a (particular) something is sustained by the surplus-enjoyment of their moral superiority, and we can imagine the scene from the quoted Jewish joke repeated here: when, say, a black guy says “I am also nothing!”, a white guy whispers to his (white) neighbor: “Who does this guy think he is to be able to claim that he is also nothing?” But we can easily move from imagination to reality here. A decade or so ago, at a round table in New York where Politically Correct Leftists predominated, I remember a couple of big names among “critical thinkers” one after the other engaging in self-flagellation, blaming Judeo-Christian tradition for our evils, pronouncing scathing verdicts on “Eurocentrism,” etc. Then, unexpectedly, a Black activist joined the debate and also made some critical remarks about the limitations of the Black Muslim movement. Upon hearing this, the white “critical thinkers” exchanged annoyed glances whose message was something like “Who does this guy think he is that he can also claim he is a worthless nothing?”…
This anecdote makes clear the problem with fake Left-liberal “antiracists.” In their zeal for identity politics, they all support the effort of the black communities to retain and strengthen their cultural identity. They worry that black communities will lose their specific identity and get drowned in the global universe defined by white categories, a world in which they are a priori in a subordinated position. However, the reason white liberal “antiracists” support black identity is a much murkier affair: what they really fear is that the blacks will leave behind their particular identity, assume “being nothing” and formulate their own universality different from the universality imposed by the hegemonic white culture and politics. THIS option is the “better” one, the one with regard to which both terms of the original choice (liberal universalism or marginal particular identities) are “worse.” Malcolm X saw this in an exemplary way: instead of searching for particular black roots and identity, he accepted the X (the lack of ethnic roots) as a unique chance to assert a universality different from the one imposed by the whites.
“A student from Covington Catholic High School stands in front of Native American Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips in Washington, US, in this still image from a January 18, 2019 video by Kaya Taitano. (Kaya Taitano/Social Media/via REUTERS )”
And here is our last, even more problematic, example of “both are worse.” A couple of weeks ago, a video clip went viral on the web. It shows a tense scene near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington: at the end of Indigenous Peoples March, an elder Native American man steadily beats his drum while singing a song of unity urging participants to “be strong” against the ravages of colonialism that include police brutality, poor access to health care and the ill effects of climate change on reservations. He is surrounded by a group of young, mostly white teenage boys, several of them wearing “Make America Great Again” caps; one of them stands about a foot from the drummer’s face wearing a relentless smirk. Now we know who these two are: the native American is Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, a veteran in the indigenous rights movement, and the smirking young boy is Nick Sandmann, a student of a Catholic high school.
The video of this confrontation fully deserves its fame: it provides a kind of condensed index of our ideological predicament. As expected, the predominant liberal reaction to it focused on Nick’s insolent smirk, seeing in it a pure expression of alt-right racism, mocking not only protests against our injustices but also authentic displays of minority cultures. I fully endorse this view: for me, Nick’s smirk stands for the worst of Americanism, so when I saw the clip, I was personally disgusted by the expression of Nick’s face, and I was haunted for days by its ignorantly-brutal self-satisfaction. (Nick is now defending his actions, claiming that he was just trying to defuse the tension: “I was not intentionally making faces at the protester. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry…” The absurdity of this counter-claim is breath-taking: if his smirk expresses benevolence, then it is the most arrogant and patronising benevolence the world has seen, similar to that of a father trying to contain his wild child.)
However – this is my professional deformation as a philosopher -, I feel compelled to take a critical look also at the opposite side. As it was reported in the media, Phillips is not only a veteran of Native American protest movements, but also a Vietnam war veteran, which means that, for him, maintaining his authentic cultural roots posed no obstacle for him to get engaged in the most efficient modern military machine. We can easily presume that, sincere as it undoubtedly was, his continuing immersion into Native American culture even made his participation easier. There are many similar examples of an “authentic” traditional cultural practice rendering possible the efficient participation in modern war at its most brutal. (According to some sources, Phillips never actually served in Vietnam. If this proved to be true, presenting himself as a Vietnam veteran makes his identification with the US Army military operations even stronger: not something that he regrets but a declaration of faith.)
Everybody who is acquainted with the recent history of Zen Buddhism in Japan knows how, in the era of brutal military expansion of Japan (1930s and 1940s), the large majority of the Buddhist establishment actively supported war efforts, even providing justification for them. For example, D.T. Suzuki, well-known in the hippy times as the ultimate popularizer of Zen, wrote in the 1930s a series of texts in which he tried to demonstrate how the experience of Zen enlightenment makes a soldier more efficient. If you are aware that you don’t have a stable Self and that the world is just a dance of fleeting phenomena, it is much easier to kill. In Suzuki’s own words, when a soldier attacks an enemy with a sword, “it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy.”
What this means is that, to put it in a brutal (and for some people undoubtedly “insensitive”) way, in spite of my full sympathy for and solidarity with Phillips, I unconditionally want to assert my right to consider performing such “authentic” rituals stupid, inefficient, and even counterproductive. Yes, of course, we should fight people like Sandmann, but not primarily by way of drum beating accompanied by ritualistic chant. If anything, our almost hypnotic immersion into the numb rhythm of such performances deactivates our critical rational thinking which, today, is needed more than ever. We don’t have to become animists in order to fight military imperialism.
All our choices are, luckily, not of this sort where both sides are worse. Over the last month, children all around the world went on strike to protest our (the adults’) ignorance of ecological dangers. One should support them unconditionally, and reject all the claims that children “don’t understand the complexity of the situation,” etc. The most disgusting reaction was that of a Belgian politician: instead of striking, children should rather stay in school and learn… Learn what? How to ruin the chances of having a future the way their elders (those who are teaching them) did?
Yes, children “don’t see the complexity,” namely the complexity of how our politicians are desperately trying to water down the emergency of our predicament. They seem to be the only ones who take seriously (which means here: literally) what scientists are telling us again and again. In January 2019, an international team of scientists proposed a diet “it says can improve health while ensuring sustainable food production to reduce further damage to the planet. The ‘planetary health diet’ is based on cutting red meat and sugar consumption in half and upping intake of fruits, vegetables and nuts.”[i] We are talking about a radical reorganization of our entire food production and distribution. So how to do it? “The report suggests five strategies to ensure people can change their diets and not harm the planet in doing so: incentivizing people to eat healthier, shifting global production toward varied crops, intensifying agriculture sustainably, stricter rules around the governing of oceans and lands, and reducing food waste.” OK, but, again, how to achieve this? Is it not clear that a strong global agency is needed with the power to coordinate such measures? And does not such an agency point in the direction of what we once called “Communism”? And does the same not hold for other threats to our survival as humans? Is the same global agency not needed also to deal with the problem of exploding refugees and immigrants, with the problem of digital control over our lives?
While the adults know this very well, they add the usual “but nonetheless…” which prevents us from acting upon our knowledge. Children just know it. The only really “complex” thing is the emperor’s new clothes. Children simply see that the emperor is naked and demand from us that we act upon what they and we know.