Culture Magazine

Thomas Chatterton Williams on Living in the Muddle [abundance]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Thomas Chatterton Williams, An Incoherent Truth, Harper's Magazine, February 2020.
Like Nietzsche (and Schmitt), Hannah Arendt argued forcefully that life is perspectival: reality appears different from different angles. It is made most legible through an abundance of views. It is only “guaranteed by the presence of others.” Depending on one’s standpoint, progress can seem like regress just as stasis can look like motion. The rapid demographic shifts of our society—and the increasing visibility and audibility of many identities and voices—may appear to one American as a threat, while to another they are a form of hope and even deliverance. This is to be expected, and it is the duty of the thoughtful person not to proscribe, ignore, or “cancel,” but to take measure, persuade, and engage. Of course, edifying sermons about a moderate and compromising consensus will never pierce as deep as the primal and particular certainties and grievances that animate our politics.
An inconvenient fact of human life is that we cannot and never have been able to neatly add it up. To do so would be a distortion of what it means to be alive. “Something in the soul . . . seeks release in transgression or transcendence,” wrote Mark Lilla about the life and work of Daniel Bell, himself an erstwhile adherent who demonstrated that modern societies could never be interpreted through a single set of laws. “Every orthodoxy brings in its train heterodoxies and heresies that would destroy it. The more rigid the orthodoxy, the more likely they are to prevail.” What our society sorely misses now is not some sterling ideological consistency but rather a genuine liberalism that is strong and supple enough to look for ways to build on who we are, in all our human incongruity. Yet we must also acknowledge that one of the more frightening lessons of the Trump victory has to do with the implacability of tribalism and extremism in our society. A total reconciliation may never come about, and this lamentable enmity may be a permanent fact of our lives.

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