Their designs recall radical pamphlets of yore. Their titles suggest what might have once been unfashionable didacticism or naïve breadth: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Demagoguery and Democracy, A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. They are reasonably priced: either to be accessible to the people or to be impulse buys — it’s not clear which.
The books are on display at my local bookstore in the front section by the registers. It is the section I like to call Progressive Identity Items, which also features reusable shopping bags with clever slogans and pretty designs, handwoven baby slings, a variety of leftist lawn signs, political coffee mugs, and bumper stickers.
I buy them all. I can’t help it. They’re so cute.
My understanding of cuteness comes from Sianne Ngai’s analysis of cuteness in avant-garde poetry. In Our Aesthetic Categories, she observes that cuteness is a major aesthetic mode of avant-garde writing. This frequency is surprising, she argues, because “the antisentimental avant-garde is conventionally imagined as hard and cutting edge” while “cute objects have no edge to speak of.”
But there is an explanation. In a brilliant analysis featuring photographs of an adorable squishable bath sponge shaped like a frog, Ngai argues that cuteness pairs a solicitation of maternal feelings (I want to love that darling frog) with a strange impulse toward violence (I want to squish that frog’s adorable face into oblivion). Cuteness therefore turns out to be a way of “grappling […] with powerlessness,” that the avant-garde faces as a result of its inevitable failure to achieve its most radical goals. Cuteness, Ngai finds, is “explicitly mobilized by the poetic avant-garde as a meditation on its own restricted agency, as well as on the fetishization of its texts.” The avant-garde is cute because it knows that its most radical gestures will ultimately fade as they become subject to commercial appropriation.
Could something similar be said of the new tiny political tracts? Is their smallness a sign of their awareness, no matter how slight, of the restricted agency of leftist speech? Could their cuteness be a comment upon their inevitable fetishization, their transformation into bookstore impulse buys?
Or is it worse than that? The avant-garde used cuteness as a comment upon the tension that existed between the radicalism of its intentions and the limitations of its effects. But the new little political books have retained militancy in style only. In content, their stated goals are shockingly weak from the start. Avant-gardes eschew liberal concession but know they will ultimately be squished like the cutest of plush toys. The new tiny political tracts promise to offer strong defenses against a violent status quo, but end up begging for a shred of liberal decency. Can’t we just talk?, they seem to plead, as the world hammers them into submission.
On the outside, they may be small, defiant, and cute, but inside they are one step weaker: they are dry, uninspired, and compliant.
Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Democracy and Demagoguery is tiny but bold, a black hardcover with a spare minimalist aesthetic. The cover’s orange half-circle and red triangle recall a person in profile speaking through a bullhorn. This is what democracy looks like, I imagine the orange dot chanting against the rising tide of demagoguery.
But I am only a few pages into the book before I realize that I have it all wrong. In the book’s view, the orange dot is not the democrat, but the demagogue. Demagoguery, Roberts-Miller argues, is any form of political discourse that “polarizes a complicated political situation into us (good) and them (some of whom are deliberately evil and the rest of whom are dupes).” Combating demagoguery, she argues, demands discussion, compromises, and listening. Chanting through a bullhorn fosters the kind of polarizing political environment that Roberts-Miller writes against.
The problem, she explains, is that we (presumably, leftists) only see demagogues when they appear on their side (presumably, on the right). This is a problem because, as she puts it, “we try to solve the problem of demagoguery in ways that worsen it: We call for purifying our public sphere of their demagogues, often in very demagogic ways.” Demagogues are answered by other demagogues, and slowly but surely the political field becomes a war between equally unreasonable, dangerous people.
I have to say that this is neither the current situation nor the future danger in the United States today as I see it. As I see it, one side seeks to empower those who already have power through policies such as immigration bans, military and police spending, anti-abortion laws, and tax breaks for the wealthy. The other side seeks to protect those who have historically been deprived of power through policies such as anti-discrimination legislation, criminal justice reform, reproductive rights, and economic justice.
When Roberts-Miller invokes the left’s use of we versus them discourse, I imagine she would include members of anti-fascist movements who shut down fascist recruitment events or members of anti-racist movements who insist on the unbridgeable distance between white and black experience in the United States. But the qualitative difference between the threat of something like fascism or white supremacy and the threat of anti-fascism and anti-racism means that those on the left who insist on the existence of a we and them, in my opinion, are doing so wisely and strategically, demanding that those committed to centrism recognize the need to take a side in a time of danger.
But even if one does not share this view, one should be able to identify the book’s formal awkwardness. There is something unnerving about a tiny book appealing to values of compromise, reasoned discussion, and careful listening. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Democracy and Demagoguery is that by couching liberal values in the form of the tiny book, it seems to be suggesting the possibility for a militant form of moderation, a radical centrism, an insistent, take-no-prisoners liberalism.
And that possibility, more than the abundance of we versus them polarization, strikes me as dangerous.
A similar radical liberalism motivates Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The book envisions itself as a handbook against the rise of authoritarianism. Its 20 lessons are all drawn directly from historical precedent. They are direct and actionable. I look at them listed in the table of contents (1. Do not obey in advance. 3. Beware the one-party state. 6. Be wary of paramilitaries.) and I think, I can do this. This makes sense. And most of Snyder’s lessons do make sense. But they are oriented toward a very particular task: avoiding the advent of an authoritarian regime on the model of the 20th century’s most notorious totalitarianisms: Stalinism and the Third Reich. These case studies are interesting in their own right, and they do provide Snyder with ample examples of ways in which individuals have historically given up their power in the face of terror. But by suggesting that our primary threat is the tyranny of authoritarianism, the book lacks an analysis that could provide for anything more than a defense of the status quo.
This is particularly glaring in the book’s presumption that democracy is premised on individualism. In “Lesson 10: Believe in Truth,” Snyder writes, “[The] renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual—and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.” This is hard to argue against. Who would want to defend the renunciation of reality? But is it really the case that individuals are those who believe in truth, and those who do not see themselves primarily as individuals have renounced reality? Or that those who renounce reality inevitably stop seeing themselves as individuals? Is it the case that individualism is the sole category that saves us from tyranny? All of these things are true only if we think that anything other than individualism along with its political ideology, liberalism, is tyrannical.
Snyder’s final lesson, “Lesson 20,” simply reads “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny,” a sentence so old-timey-revolutionary in tone that I had to Google it repeatedly, convinced that it was a reference to an 18th-century colonial tract. It seems, from what I can tell, to be of Snyder’s own invention. But if it was one thing to “die for freedom” in the 18th century, it is quite another to imagine that one will die for liberal values in the 21st after we have seen those values implemented as a global paradigm. As liberalism has taken hold as a hegemonic system of political and economic values and policies, it has become clear that seeing individual freedom as the be-all end-all of political action has led to greater economic inequality. It has also led to the horrors of ecological devastation, as the rights of the individual have overridden the needs of the environment. And finally, it has not cured the problems of racial and gendered exploitation and violence. To the contrary, the notion that each individual is free to take care of herself has led to an unwillingness to address the fundamentally unequal access to power that individuals have depending upon their race, class, gender, sexuality, disability status, nationality, and many other social factors.
Snyder explicitly condemns ahistorical and post-historical attitudes in the post-1989 period, arguing that thinkers on the left and on the right who saw liberal democracy as having triumphed for good “often assumed that the status quo could not actually change, and thereby indirectly reinforced it.” I agree. But Twenty Lessons on the Twentieth Century is a defensive text, not a critical one. It tells us how to avoid the unthinkable, but it tells us nothing about how to change the world.
Even more disturbingly, its aesthetic gestures to the revolutionary pamphlet suggest that our revolution will — once again and perhaps always — be in the name of liberalism.
The seemingly contradictory notion that liberalism can be a radical position in capitalist European and North American countries in the 21st century is not new in political theory circles. Most recently, so-called “third way” theorists such as Anthony Giddens have posited that a non-partisan, technocratic approach to political questions could be not only reasonable, but a radical alternative to the entrenchment of the left and the right. “Freed from an intrinsic connection to either left or right,” he argues, “radicalism reverts to its original meaning as daring: it means being prepared to contemplate bold solutions to social and political problems.”
We know this argument from popular culture, too. Consider the claims of radicalism made in venues such as TED talks and Apple product launches. Radicalism is too often recast in the guise of corporate and technological novelty. What is radical, in this view, is not that which fights against the violence of those in power, but that which promises innovative solutions to social problems. A more user-friendly graphic interface, a new way of organizing corporate work space, or the rise of a new class of healthier fast-food chains can, in this view, have greater impact on the lives of individuals than political changes that would affect broader social policies such as marginal tax rates, healthcare, or public education.
Against this vision of third-way and technocratic thinking, a vision that minimizes the partisanship of politics in favor of a model of the renegade individual entrepreneur, political theorist Chantal Mouffe claims that the notion that it is possible to transcend the partisan divide “is not only conceptually mistaken, it is also fraught with political dangers.” This is because, she argues, collective identities “always entail a we/they discrimination.” This distinction between we and they can be the basis of democratic politics if democratic institutions understand themselves as spaces for the exercise of partisan passion, contestation, and antagonism. But envisioning a political future devoid of we’s and they’s has resulted, she argues, in a situation where “the political is played out in the moral register.” The result is that “in place of a struggle between ‘right and left’ we are faced with a struggle between ‘right and wrong.’”
The notion that our political sphere has become “more polarized” is now a commonplace. But Mouffe allows us to see that polarization has its roots, paradoxically, in the depoliticization of the left. This helps to explain why liberal attempts to remedy polarization with gestures of compromise have failed. It is as if liberals and conservatives have been playing two different games: one that rewards consensus and pragmatism and one that rewards opposition and partisanship. One could certainly say that the former is preferable to the latter, but Mouffe demonstrates that the total disavowal of partisanship amounts to the disavowal of politics as such.
Strangely, then, in trying to rid the world of antagonism left liberals and third-way proponents have succeeded in fostering a culture of outright hostility. The result, as we have seen in recent years, is an increasingly volatile political situation in which possibilities ranging from authoritarianism to civil war to mass chaos no longer seem remote.
Today’s tiny books tell us that in order to defend democracy, we have to be ready to take radical steps to defend liberalism. It’s easy enough to understand why this argument would seem obvious: we have historically believed that democracy and liberalism require one another. But the tiny book as an aesthetic object signals an illiberal position: it allows one to carry one’s credo onto the street, close to the heart, ready for combat. Liberalism, with its values of the primacy of rational discourse, individualism, and autonomy seems as if it should sit in an uncomfortable relation with the tiny book. If this is no longer the case, we might need to start asking about whether what we are seeing is the rise of something like liberal obstinacy, and what the outcome of such a paradoxical position might mean. Are we seeing the rise of something like an anti-democratic liberalism?
WNYC’s On the Media host Brooke Gladstone is interested in that possibility, and she pursues that interest in the form of a tiny book called The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. This is, as I have been suggesting, a fitting form for a rumination on the limits of liberalism, but it is also a surprising form for Gladstone, who generally works in a form with even greater popular purchase than the semi-populist tiny book: the radio show and its trendy offshoot, the podcast. But the tiny book promises to do something that a podcast does not: it promises to be a weapon. As Jad Abumrad of Radiolab writes in his blurb for the book, “I read this in one sitting and at the end, for a fleeting moment, felt like I had a new hammer in my hand.”
“Perhaps you picked up this book because an icy hand grips your viscera,” the book begins. And what follows confirms the notion that it may be our viscera, more than our brains, that are at stake in the current political moment.
Gladstone is interested in umwelt, a concept that originates from biologist Jakob von Uexküll but that she accesses through the work of neuroscientist David M. Eagleman. Umwelt, as Gladstone summarizes it, is an expression of “the idea that different animals living on the same patch of earth experience utterly disparate realities.” For biologists, this is the result of the dramatic differences that exist among different organisms’ sensory apparatuses and subsequent variations in their fundamental physiological orientations toward the world.
Gladstone uses the term to argue that, in today’s polarized political environment, what appear to be mere differences in belief are in fact dramatically divergent perceptions of reality. Our differences are so vast that we possess contradictory umwelts.
The notion of umwelt helps Gladstone explain why liberal attempts at compromise have not worked. If the difference between the left and the right is a difference in umwelts, then learning how to have a more reasonable conversation is not going to help matters.
I love this moment in the book where Gladstone quotes Thomas Jefferson, who writes, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself […] she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error.”
“Oh, come on,” Gladstone’s replies.
yes yes yes, I scribble along the margin, happy for an occasion to gang up on Thomas Jefferson, John Milton, and the rest of the liberal tradition.
“The laws of human nature do not provide for the triumph of reason,” she argues. “History and the internet have lavishly demonstrated that this notion, this stereotype, is false. But that cold truth stands in brazen defiance of the code that rules our world and the laws that govern our country.” The notion that truth will not prevail runs in contradiction to the basic assumptions underlying liberal democracy, which are also the assumptions that underpin the liberal left’s umwelt.
The notion of umwelt as a sociopolitical condition, in other words, challenges the liberal assumptions of writers like Roberts-Miller and Snyder. It means that there may be a we and a them who are, at least for the time being, fundamentally opposed to one another. That the response to the them needs to be militancy rather than discussion. And it means that, contra Snyder, that liberalism, too, might rest on a shared reality that is not entirely based on the facts. That the notion of preserving democracy might be understood to be the credo of a certain we that has benefited from the system in place rather than a universal appeal to the essential good of our existing institutions.
All of this seems as if it should pave the way for a tiny book that could fulfill the promise of the form: a tiny book that strategically polarizes, that calls a militant we into being, that offers strategies and tactics for a political takeover rather than simply a defense of what exists. But in the end, Gladstone too succumbs to the liberal umwelt: “You cannot march to a long-term solution to your reality problem with a cadre of like-minded allies,” she writes. “That is a solitary journey, and it never ends. You have to travel out of your universe and into the universe of others, and leave your old map at home.”
Here, Gladstone’s book slips into an entirely different genre than the tiny political book: it becomes a work of popular existentialism, an ethical meditation on the human condition rather than a work of political agitation. The book makes a promise to its readers on the very first page: you can feel better. And by the end, we see what feeling better entails. It entails replacing a political struggle with an ethical orientation to the self. The revolutionary tiny book becomes a self-help guide.
There is, of course, a different conclusion that one could draw from Gladstone’s premises. In her final paragraph, she writes, “We breed infinite realities and they never can be reconciled. We cannot fully enter someone else’s. But if we really look, we might actually see that other reality reflected in that person’s eyes, and therein lies the beginning of the end of our reality problem.”
We know from Gladstone’s earlier remarks that the end of the reality problem, for her, requires trying to see from the perspective of others. But seeing another reality reflected in someone else’s eyes might also act as an impetus to question the inherent relationship between liberalism and democracy. If we live in different worlds, some of which allow for the basic structures of democracy — such as equal protection under the law — to exist, and some others that do not, then affirming democracy might require illiberal practices of combat, of denial, of negation, of refusing to listen.
But if this is true, we need our tiny books to do the thing that tiny books promise to do: we need them to tell us how to fight for the world we want to have, not just the one we are afraid of losing.
Rachel Greenwald Smith is associate professor of English at Saint Louis University and author of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism.