Amid the general social dissolution, man [sic] is thrust back into dependence upon those most primitive bonds out of which alone a new and trustworthy objectivity can be constructed. – Karl Jaspers, 1957, p. 26
What it comes down to, if we want to have anything like a democracy, is regard for the person (including self) as a source of insight, support, and inspiration; as a kind of valve through which creativity and fresh energy enter a world otherwise overtaken by entropy. Beyond mere toleration and “live and let live,” we are talking about a positive appreciation and cultivation of difference.
Regard is the simple though not easy secret at the center of the good life as envisioned by democracy. In the journey through the last several tumultuous years, the portal aspect of pandemic opens up so we can see some of these basic things more fully than before. These include awareness that once might have been known as common sense, but which now becomes the imperative of any future worth living.
Of course, there are significant details, beginning with identification of the very particular factors in our lives that make it so difficult for us to be faithful to and nurturing of those relationships that are rich in the quality of regard. This point brings us to the center of a great global moral heritage, one which turns on the root distinction between person and thing, subject and object, Thou and it…. Here is a heritage of presumptive appreciation and trust: until you show me it is unwarranted (which sometimes does not take long), I regard you as an unprecedented event in the cosmos and a source of the vitality we most need in order to live well.
Traditionally this value was “baked into” cultures in limited and uneven ways. And the post-traditional critique which hastened the collapse of tradition was only sometimes about widening the circle of inclusion. Mostly the Twentieth Century tsunami of critique was about the ambiguous project of tearing down all old social and cultural structures, ultimately even those closely associated with democracy and the dignity of the American experiment. It is as if tradition itself had become the enemy. So, as we moderns and post-moderns became experts at deconstruction, we tacitly bought into the profoundly mistaken notion that exercise of this reductionist activity is the same as freedom.
Now, with pandemic of Covid and Trump, we find there are no structures left anymore. We find ourselves in the condition Karl Jaspers spoke of in the time of the Third Reich, as one of “general social dissolution.” The U.S. Capitol becomes a scene of chaos and barbarism. So when we step out there from what had constrained us previously, we are not met with regard, but rather we enter a void. Anything of tradition lies shattered on the floor and mixed with other shards from the past, and the people we might want to talk with about civility and the value of the public have mostly converted to Ayn Rand and Donald Trump. So “the public” as an ideal and a practice of mutuality is really gone. This is how the world comes to be dominated by autocrats who cynically assume – and legislate — the ultimacy of interest and power. It is an environment which is disturbingly similar to what early modern individualists called “the war of all against all.” As Kenan Malik (2015) has pointed out so clearly, the void at the center of the autocratic phase we are in presently is profoundly different from the liberation movements of the recent past. Contemporary fascism does not protest for the sake of a piece of the pie, but acts out of the nihilistic wish to destroy as an end in itself.
The drift into fascism occurs as many people become disconnected from anything like a culture of aspiring to “liberty and justice for all.” As they drift in the process, they often lose all meaningful relationship with other persons. Meanwhile, the autocrats learn how easy it is to manipulate frightened and marginalized people who are in this state, to repeat lies until the people believe them and/or are willing to act as though they were true, even when the lies obviously run square against their interests. The lies – the bigger the better – are prime instruments of the domination. They – and the ease with which they are spread like a virus – both demonstrate and amplify the fascist leader’s power and their underlying distain for “the people.”
As if all this is not crazy-making enough, these dynamics are running wild at the same moment when America – and the world more generally — is struggling to come to terms with the atrocities of the past, both demographic and ecological. Indeed, it is a reckoning which seems necessary if humans – both individually and collectively — are to be able to pass through the heavy turbulence of our time without catastrophic collapse. It is necessary if we want to cross over into a wider and deeper embrace of both the global heritage of democracy and what is magnificent in our separate traditions.
In America, once known as the prow or cutting edge of modernity, we must now overcome what “our” ancestors did to Native and African peoples, and “we” have continued to do. We must expand the circle of liberty and justice in a fully pluralistic (as distinct from relativistic) form of democracy. The task can be absolutely overwhelming (and I do not think I am being overly dramatic in my reading of the moment and what it requires), as we struggle to avoid the clutch of the fascist, while living with the possibility of an even more generalized collapse of society than we have already experienced. The challenge runs so deep that it requires us to examine and revive our natures as limited and incomplete beings, hoping to re-heal on a new plane on which “liberty and justice for all” can be practiced around the globe.
So yes, we are talking about nothing less than a “paradigm shift,” a metanoia, and a conscious act of affirmation of life. But not something impossible or without precedent (see Cornell West, Democracy Matters for a history of the death and rebirth of democracy in the 1860’s, 1890’s, 1930’s, and 1960’s, based on “ordinary citizens’ desire to take their country back from the hands of corrupted plutocrats and imperial elites”) (West, 2004, p. 23).
Some of us think we already have the lineaments of a new worldview and way of being, as well as some institutions which are beginning to embody its core values and ethic. We are beginning to give birth to a world which is life-affirming, pluralistic, relational, ecologically responsible, and oriented to human transformation in the direction of thriving.
But in its present state it is like other forms of new life, wobbly, fragile, and vulnerable. Especially in the midst of all the vulgarity and bluster of our time, the exhaustion and crazed frustration, the survival of this new but not unprecedented lifeway seems completely improbable. And yet we recall previous times in history when a physically weak but spiritually ablaze movement overcame its predecessor which continued to hold a monopoly on force and violence long after their persuasive vision had ceased to energize society.
Western ancestors, with their fixation on the order and control that can be achieved through orthodoxy and hierarchy, probably overestimated the significance of codification in support of vision, a mistake I wish to avoid. But still, articulation and other forms of celebrating a “shared” narrative of meaning and value are literally and otherwise central to any culture that can fly. So what I am hoping to lift up in this short piece is “regard” as foundational to what Masha Gessen (2020) refers to as the reinvention of civilization that is called for by our times, as bedrock upon which we can take up our task. Without fear of reinventing colonialization, I point to the universal experience of regard, of regarding and being regarded. It can be seen as the form of love appropriate to public life, no less significant than forms like justice and caring and unconditional commitment.
Gessen, M. (2020), Surviving autocracy. New York: Riverhead. Jaspers, K. (1957). Man in the modern age. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Malik, K. (2015). The quest for a moral compass: A global history of ethics. Brooklyn, NY: Melville.
West, C. (2004). Democracy matters. New York: Penguin.