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How The Left Stopped Thinking

Creature from the Partisan LagoonIn the 1950s, movie audiences were wowed by monsters bursting out of the silver screens. All they had to do was put on a pair of paper glasses with a red gel over one eye and a blue gel over the other. Each eye then saw a different part of the image on screen, and the small differences between them created the 3D effect through an illusion of stereoscopic vision. Today, however, people put on a pair of glasses with the same colour gel over both eyes, and consequently see only one half of the image on screen. It is small wonder that when people exit the cinema, it turns out they've been watching an entirely different movie!

There is a long-standing joke about US politics: the Democrats are the Evil Party, the Republicans are the Stupid Party, and every now and then they get together and do something that is both stupid and evil, and that is called 'bipartisanship'. Of course, those on the blue team are convinced its the red team that's evil, and those on the red team think the blue team is stupid (or, more commonly, crazy). The truth, as ever, is not so simple. The electorate in the United States is neither evil nor stupid, but it is spectacularly distracted, in the sense traced by French philosopher Jacques Rancière. We don't so much stop using our intelligence as deploy it almost exclusively to uncover the horror caused by those wearing the other colour gels over their eyes.

I am ambivalent as to whether this perpetual distraction is the result of an intentional collaboration to keep the populace fractious, or whether it emerges blindly from the commercial properties of news media. For instance, consider why George Floyd's murder was singled out for media attention in 2020 and not, say, Donnie Saunders who was killed by the police two months earlier. (There are many more depressing examples I could choose even in that one year.) The Floyd murder was 24 hour news catnip. Those wearing blue gels would respond to either of these dreadful incidents the same way, but those wearing red gels over their eyes would see Floyd as a criminal who had been arrested nine times for drug and theft charges... Whenever you really want to turbo-charge your news cycle, you need a story that sets the red and blue team against each other, ramping up the outrage and cognitive dissonance. I can't rule out that this entails some attempt at supra-political control of the populace (how could you...?), but we don't need to resort to conspiracy to explain how this happens.

However, by the time of the Black Lives Matters protests and riots, the legacy media was already shooting fish in a barrel in terms of stirring up the political left in the United States. For it is my accusation that long before 2020 the left stopped thinking, primarily because they were distracted in Rancière's sense. The evidence of this distraction was felt most astutely in that very year, because nearly everyone on the political left jumped upon a hastily constructed media bandwagon the moment the panic word 'pandemic' had been spoken. In the wake of this, the zeal with which denouncements of 'misinformation' and 'disinformation' leapt above the necessarily-prior task of establishing the facts was staggering.

Although I am saying the left has stopped thinking, I ought to make it clear that this is not the same as the loss of their intelligence. It is simply that those wearing the blue gels have been so distracted by the fault lines being farmed by the legacy media that they apply their intelligence almost exclusively to justifying their hatred for the other team. Yet whichever gels you wear, it's a certainty that you've witnessed the other team engaged in this grubby process of informed hate - it's impossible to miss once you take off the gels of either colour. This is where our capacity for thinking is expended, safely exploded where it can do absolutely no harm to the guilds and houses of the contemporary technocratic empire.

Yet thinking can also means something more than the application of our intelligence. The German existentialist Martin Heidegger asked what it is that calls for us to think. Whenever we are genuinely engaged in thinking, we are not simply pursuing partisan reasoning. He suggests: "Thinking is thinking solely when it pursues whatever speaks for a matter." What calls for us to think is never as readily visible as the moral flaws of our political opponents. That which calls for thinking withdraws from us, remaining hidden and beyond experience. This withdrawal is something more than a blind spot - our own moral flaws, which our political opponents see all too clearly, are unseen to our own mind's eye, but they are not withdrawn from us in Heidegger's sense.

That which calls for thinking is always beyond our intelligence until we learn how to think about it, and that withdrawal creates a kind of draft, the pull of which can be felt even though what is calling for thinking is not there. Like birds pulled along by the wind, we find ourselves thinking only when we take a leap from the ground and let this draft carry us onwards. This is akin to Alain Badiou's idea (inspired by Plato) where truth is something that punctures the order of everyday existence, an event that upends what we previously believed. Thinking is what happens when we let ourselves be caught up in such an event, just as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière were in May 1968.

This traces an answer to the question 'how the left stopped thinking'. If thinking is our capacity to encounter that which goes beyond the dogmas and lazy intellectual accountancy of everyday life, if thinking always speaks for a matter, and never against, then the left stopped thinking the moment it became the left. For the origin of the left-right distinction is the French revolution, and the seating arrangements within the National Assembly. Those who sought to uphold aspects of the traditional structures prior to the revolution sat on the right of the hall, and those who sought greater change sat on the left. But at this very moment the left came into being, the left stopped thinking - because those belonging to the left were immediately and permanently committed to opposing tradition, to political partisanship against the right. And this remains the case, more than two centuries later.

The surest sign of the failure of the contemporary left to engage in thinking is its hatred for the right, and its refusal to recognise the legitimate and even at times admirable ways the political right deploys its intelligence. I read a lot of what is said by those on either side of United States political partisanship (not the politicians, of course, the clever people). At this time, I find the intellectual right using their intelligence far more creatively. They have come to recognise what fools they were for instituting the Department of Homeland security. They have maintained their suspicion of collaboration between corporations and the government. They are applying their intelligence to the question of how to dismantle the corrupt and disastrous federal agencies. In the Bizarro World that is the United States today, the right is closer to the naïve politics that the left explored in the 1960s, while the left is closer to the ghastly politics the right inflicted in the 1950s. What obscures this amazing circumstance is hatred of the other - which is to say, the left's hatred of the right and the right's disgust at the left. This more than anything else keeps us away from any hope of thinking.

If we wish to attempt the infinite challenge of thinking, if we wish to discover all that has withdrawn from us, to find ways to let the truth puncture through the familiar prejudices of our everyday lives, we may need to abandon this split into left and right. Yet we cannot do this, can we...? We must keep the coloured gels over our eyes or else disaster will surely follow soon after we remove them because 'the other side must be stopped'. Horror at the thought of a second term by whichever terrible president it is that you happen to despise compels you to squander your intelligence in partisan in-fighting, and never once to stop and attempt to learn how to think, to seek that which calls for us to think.

Perhaps it is time to abandon our allegiance to right and left, and to give thinking a chance. A future worth sharing lies in rallying those who might attempt to think together, and there is an ancient name for these people: citizens. The left-right divide does nothing now except prevent any hope of thinking, and the partisans of the left and the right need to be contrasted against the citizens of the future. Decide for yourself who you will be: the partisans whose intelligence is squandered upon demonising their political opponents, or the citizens of a future world that is open to thinking. It is calling to us, inviting us to learn how to think together. All you have to do is take off your coloured gels, blink, and look for the first time at worlds that were always far stranger, far more wonderful, than any 3D movie ever imagined.

A journey away from partisans and towards citizens takes two steps forward every Tuesday at Stranger Worlds and How to Live in Them. If you're interested in the challenges of thinking, please join me there.

Eighteen Today

Candles 18It is with a certain misplaced pride that I celebrate Only a Game turning eighteen today. The blog is now old enough to drink in the city of Manchester, United Kingdom, where I just left, but still not old enough to go drinking in Nashville, TN, where I now am situated. My satisfaction is not so much grounded in the fact that we've lasted eighteen years, because this blog is nothing like what it was back in 2005! It is rather that since my first Substack, WAMTNG, reached one year of age two weeks ago, it is clear that my moving into Substack hasn't removed the need for me to have an outlet for my long-form rambling. While I am far happier putting most of my energy into Stranger Worlds, which has grown to the same size as WAMTNG in half the time, it makes me smile that I still have here to retreat to, my little Fortress of Scholartude, to write longer essays and pontificate while stroking my beard thoughtfully.

With unlimited love to all the Players of the Game,