Based on a recommendation by a good rhetorician friend of mine, I’ve picked up Sharon Crowley’s Towards a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. It seems to me that this issue is one of the core political issues facing the United States political field today– it is certainly one I grapple with on a daily basis with regard to both my students and administration –so I’m looking forward to what the author has to say. According to the blurb on the back of the book,

Toward a Civil Discourse examines how, in the current political climate, Americans find it dificult to discuss civic issues frankly and openly with one another. Because America is dominated by two powerful discourses– liberalism [by this the author means the Enlightenment] and Christian fundamentalism, each of which paints a very different picture of America and its citizen’s responsibilities –there is little common ground. The result is that civic discourse is frustated by incivility and impasse, as Americans avoid disagreement for fear of giving offense.

Sharon Crowly investigates the cultural factors that lead to the formation of beliefs, and how beliefs can develop into densely articulated systems and political activism. She asserts that retorical invention (which includes appeals to values and the passions) is superior in some cases to liberal argument (which often limits its appeals to empirical fact and reasoning) in mediating disagreements where participants are primarily motivated by moral or passionate commitment to beliefs.

Toward a Civil Discourse examines the consequences to society when, more often than not, argumentative exchange does not occur. Crowly underscores the urgency of developing a civil discourse, and through a review of historic rhetoric and its modern application, provides a foundation for such a discourse– whose ultimate goal, in the tradition of the ancients, is democratic discussion of civic issues.

One of the things I find so refreshing about Badiou is his return to militant forms of engagement. Badiou often likes to quote Mao, remarking that “when you have an idea, the one becomes two”. That is, ideas require you to take sides and to follow out the consequences of those ideas. Despite the fact that I had spent years studying the history of fascist and totalitarian movements, ideology, psychoanalysis, etc., I still found myself shocked at what happened to the United States after 9-11. Somehow, I think, I believed that the human race was, for the most part, fairly reasonable, that blind obediance and irrational hatred belonged only to the smallest fringe, and that the dark days of the red scare or the rise of the Nazis were behind us. I thought that the sort of mechanisms described in Orwell’s 1984 only worked in fictional novels, and that the manipulation of media and passions certainly couldn’t work in this day and age. After all, hadn’t we learned the lessons of the past? I was blind.

This leads me to wonder: Perhaps the problem isn’t one of finding a way to promote civil discourse or mediating disagreements at all. Perhaps the attempt to promote civil discourse simply maintains things as they are and actually works to the benefit of the fascists. Perhaps the entire problem is that a rather intellectually lazy and timid left in the United States 1) cringes at the thought of militantly taking sides as taking sides involves excluding others, of willing, in a very Nietzschean way, an affirmation that negates what can’t be tolerably willed to return (this “left” has gotten better, but not by much. the party system is most certainly broken and beyond repair), and 2) believes that some sort of deliberative agreement is possible upon which to base governance. That is, doesn’t Crowley’s error lay in desiring civil discourse, rather than unapologetically defending her Enlightenment ideals and secularism, and willing the end of religious obscurantism altogether and fighting for that aim? Here the Christo-Nationalists (and no I do not believe all or even the majority of Christians fall into this group or are “religious obscurantists”, so zip it with the defenses of Christianity and distracting remarks about how “not all Christians are like that”, I’m not talking about you tender heart!) have the right idea. They do not seek to persuade everyone, they do not seek to find middle ground. And twisted though it may be, these groups thereby occupy the position of subjects (in Badiou’s sense) or as engaged in politics (rather than statist deliberation). Instead of seeking middle ground, they militantly declare their positions and act on behalf of their axioms, come hell or high water. The recognize that the one becomes two and they will the end of that other side, the secular humanists. They act to try to bring about that end, by targeting the centers of subjectification such as schools, churches, media, etc., so as to produce non-secular subjects. Their aim does not consist in getting everyone to agree, but of establishing their power and transforming the very nature of the social field. They are not interested in compromise, but victory and triumph. They started small, initially being mocked and ignored, and now they are a huge movement, that has accrued a tremendous amount of governmental and economic power. Isn’t this sort of unapologetic, militant commitment to the Enlightenment cause precisely what is lacking on the American left? Isn’t there something forbidden in the idea of publically taking a stand and saying something like “this is nonsense” to the Christo-Nationalists that would rule our country, invade our bedrooms, and wage holy war?

Should the aim of political discourse be civil discourse? Does Habermas accurately describe political engagement? Or rather, is it precisely those who make no compromises, take no prisoners, and who unwaveringly commit themselves to their axioms and working out the implications of their axioms that ultimately produce change? In comparison to a “liberal rhetoric” [what Crowly describes] what does a militant rhetoric look like? What do you think?

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