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It might seem decidedly out of step with the times, but I've been thinking about the French postmodern philosopher Gilles Deleuze's elevation of "the right to say nothing" as a right worth honoring. This right to silence is under appreciated and, in its own way, quite beautiful. Not to gratuitously mix high and low culture, but Justin Timberlake echoed this sentiment more recently with the line: "Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all." (I was not aware of this, or much of anything about Justin Timberlake, until I read Slate's big takedown of Timberlake last night).
What's interesting about the context of Deleuze's quote is that he associates the right to silence with democracy.
Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing.
Silence is resistance, in this reading.
As it happens, I was also not aware that on November 4, 1995, Deleuze jumped to his death from his apartment window in Paris.
I was in France last week, including a 5-day bout of relative isolation on the island of Corsica. I had told my AirBnb host to disconnect the WiFi. She did, and I told her not to give me any hints about where I might find the router. And so I came back to find myself completely unaware of a series of ominous developments in Europe, particularly the Balkans. But there was a relief in deciding that I didn't want to know too much. Since I didn't know enough to actually have an opinion, I was liberated from having a position in the first place.
I wasn't aware, also, that the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse was happening, which meant that I was caught off guard when the verdict was handed down. What I found most interesting (yet unsurprising) was the diametrically opposed reactions from the people I follow on Twitter. In part because I write about and think about rightwing thought, I go out of my way to follow proper right-wingers, and my understanding of the world is richer for it. Let's just say that they have a very different view of Rittenhouse than the folks on "my side."
What seemed clear to me is that there is no "reality" of what happened the night of August 15, 2020. There are a string of facts, and those aren't so much in doubt. How we interpret those facts, connect them, and contextualize them very much is. For example, how you feel about open carry laws—Rittenhouse was legally carrying a semi-automatic rifle—is likely to affect how you view the verdict. How you view the protests of Summer 2020 and to what extent they were justified and good is likely to shape how you view the overall context in which Rittenhouse descended on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin that night.
The trial itself was not about any of these bigger questions. As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic:
[The trial] couldn’t say something about the state of race relations in America. The jury could never have rendered a yea-or-nay verdict on the saturation of guns in American society.
In politics as in life, the most important questions in politics aren't about "facts"; they are about values. And the centrality of values over facts means that these debates feel existential, because they relate to foundational differences regarding the common good. As I have said before, there is no such thing as "the common good," or at least not one we can agree on.
The rise and fall of Justin Timberlake
Which brings me to Justin Timberlake. Since I wasn't aware that his star had fallen in recent years—Pitchfork's review of his last album, Man in the Woods, is painful to read—I was trying to process a lot of new information in a short amount of time. Apparently, Justin (or the idea of Justin, as Deleuze might say) is undergoing a bit of a cultural reckoning. It's not about anything he's done in the last 10 years, but rather things he said in the early 2000s that were deemed acceptable then but no longer are.
Basically, it all started when Timberlake, who had an acrimonious breakup with Britney Spears, told a radio show that he had, in fact, had sex with Spears. Spears' virginity subsequently became public fodder. She was demeaned and shamed. This undermined Britney's girl-next-door aura, especially since she had said that she wanted to remain celibate until marriage. Timberlake would routinely offer up thinly-veiled attacks on Britney in his songs, most famously in "Cry Me a River." Then there was his role in Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. The onus of the fallout fell almost entirely on Jackson, whose career never quite recovered. Why was a white male able to escape unscathed, and why was a black woman punished for what, in hindsight, seems like something pretty trivial?
How do we reassess the past in light of new cultural norms? Cultural revisionism has its dangers, of course. The standards of rightness are always changing. Obama opposed gay marriage in 2008. But he supported gay marriage in 2014. Can that really mean that Obama wasn't a liberal in 2008 but became one just a few years later? There's also the tyranny of the tastemaker, running with trends, particularly those having to do with wokeness that might themselves have to be reassessed in in due time.
All of that said, I couldn't finish the takedown of Timberlake without thinking that progress is real. The 2000s sound awful. The Bush years were uncurious, chaste, and conformist. For God's sake, the Dixie Chicks were canceled for saying something that seems pretty innocuous in retrospect about George W. Bush. Also, I find some solace in thinking that it would be difficult for mainstream media outlets to shame Britney Spears today the way they did in the early 2000s.
But perhaps it's more accurate to say that all eras suck, they just suck in different ways. We'll likely look back at the woke excess of 2018-202(?) and lament that it could have gotten so bad. And we will be right, but only up to a point. It might seem tragic that there is no common good to be had in today's America. But a "common good" is only possible if there is consensus, and consensus isn't necessarily a good thing. There is a reason I like quoting the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe on this. Except on the most obvious things, any consensus today is likely to be artificial and imposed. Consensus is only possible when there is already a consensus, and there rarely is. “All forms of consensus are by necessity based on acts of exclusion,” she notes. In other words, that we so fundamentally disagree with each other has its benefits as well as its costs.
This might be presentist bias, but I would take 2021 over 2003 any day.
What I'm reading (and watching)
I absolutely loved the most recent episode of Succession, which includes (perhaps for the first time in a major television show) and explicit reference to the recent popularization of "integralism" on the Catholic right.
There's also this rather amusing quote:
A well-regulated election is a transmission frequency for God's grace.
Meanwhile, I'm belatedly trying to finish Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters, which is the third in the triptych of semi-depressing novels I set myself out to read over the summer. For more context on why, see this piece.
Also, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I'm currently reading Stephen King's On Writing, intriguing subtitled "A Memoir of the Craft."