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First Wrap of the Summer
We're having a heat wave
It’s only early June, but here in New York we seem to go directly from April to August. We spent Memorial Day Weekend in the Berkshires, and on Sunday we traveled to Chatham, NY, to see an outdoor concert performance of a new opera. The temperature was in the mid to high 40s and rainy. Today in Brooklyn it reached 95 degrees with a fierce sun.
Democracy and Divorce
Twice this week—first in my column at The Week and then in a post on here—I wrote about the difficulty of saving democracy in an era of hyper-polarization. The column focused on the endurance of the populist right even after defeat, and the difficulty—for the populists themselves and for their opponents—of assimilating that disposition to the normal give-and-take of democracy that requires all sides to accept regular alternation in power. The post focused more on efforts to preserve democracy through legal means and how difficult that is to achieve under conditions of stark polarization.
The conversation continued in a dispiriting Twitter thread and a column from Damon Linker that encapsulated how it felt engaging in the conversation: it’s like listening to a couple headed for divorce. It’s a metaphor that I find extremely potent for our political situation. A polity is ultimately a bunch of people who are trying to make decisions together, and politics is how they do it. If we no longer think of ourselves as a polity—as a single political community making collective decisions together—then we can’t do politics anymore.
I found it so striking the degree to which people engaged in this conversation had no interest in grappling with the point being made. Nearly everyone said some version of “but we are right and they are wrong and that makes a big difference.” Of course it makes a big difference! And yet it makes no difference at all. I don’t have to endorse every argument the Democrats make to recognize that, notwithstanding the ludicrousness of what I have been calling the Animal House Putsch, January 6th was a genuinely scary moment for American democracy, and the categorical determination by Republicans not to grapple with that event has quite reasonably convinced their opponents that they cannot be trusted with power. But that dynamic is precisely what I am describing. It’s not evidence against me; it’s the argument I am making. It’s not false equivalence because it says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of their respective views to note that Democrats and Republicans increasingly believe the other party is as such a threat to the survival of America. You can’t operate a democracy under those conditions, no matter who is more correct or who is more at fault.
Which is why it feels like we’re headed for divorce—except that divorce is not really possible. Even married couples, when they divorce, don’t thereby exit each other’s lives, at least not if they have kids. They remain tethered, just under different conditions than they were. And to the extent that they remain inveterately hostile, even if they never speak, they continue to cause damage, to themselves if to no one else. I remember when my grandfather finally died, my grandmother—who had been thoroughly estranged from her husband for years before his death—still held on to her anger and resentment. Even death brought no peace.
I’m not saying divorce is never worthwhile. People who get divorced usually did so for a good reason. I’m saying that divorce is worthwhile as a means to a better relationship—generally a vastly more distant one, though now and again divorce ironically brings couples closer—rather than the erasure of the relationship that was. That’s what America’s increasingly hostile political tribes will have to have even in a fantasy scenario of disengagement and divorce: a workable long-term political arrangement. It would be nice to get there without trying to kill each other first.
Perhaps we’re not really on the brink of civil war or a turn to authoritarianism, but I don’t know where else a political system that cannot accept the normal alternation of parties in power winds up.
Art and Life
As I mentioned, last Sunday we went to see a concert version of a new opera, mounted by Heartbeat Opera at PS21 in Chatham, NY. Heartbeat generally presents classic operas with stripped-down orchestration and a contemporary political gloss. I’ve seen three of their pieces before this, a BLM-inflected Fidelio, a very meta-theatrical #MeToo-informed version of La Susanna, and a Der Freischutz that took on contemporary gun culture and toxic masculinity. Their latest constitutes their first foray into new commissioned work, and I can say that with this offering they remained true to their form in taking a hot-off-the-press contemporary subject and tackling it with complexity and
The new piece, The Extinctionist, follows a young married woman down a rabbit hole of anxiety and depression as her personal struggle with infertility leads her to decide that humanity must voluntarily choose extinction lest through reproduction and rampant consumption we wreck the planet and bring extinction on the rest of life. Readers of this space know I’m interested in this topic, and I thought the piece did it excellent justice. The music is as anxious and disjointed as the woman’s thought and emotions, and the story does a fine job of revealing the psychological roots of extreme conviction without condescending to the conviction itself. We see that she has come to this conclusion out of personal despair, a flight from her own desire that nature has blocked; but we also appreciate the degree to which her husband’s pleading refrain of “there’s nothing we can do” is a profoundly unsatisfying answer to someone staring into the abyss. I’m eager to see how it develops from here.
The other major cultural foray of the week was my bi-weekly Shakespeare group, where we discussed The Merchant of Venice, the preparatory notes for which I posted in this space as well. I loved the play even more at the end of the discussion than I did at the start.
The World Elsewhere
I had another short piece at The Week about the elections in Israel, speculating on the ability of the Israeli right to move beyond Netanyahu and, more important, beyond Bibi-ism. But the best piece I’ve read explaining what happened and why is by Yair Rosenberg, and I strongly recommend his analysis to anyone interested in arguing about Israeli politics.