I’m going to try for something relatively short, here, in the way of a follow-on attached to the previous post, mid-June, about democracy talk. Again I take my cue from recent Vlad Vexler video content. He’s making it so damned convenient!

The convenience is just in the character of his project, though, really. Vexler’s continually returning to certain over-arching themes — something you hardly need listen to every video he posts to pick up on.

As it happens, Vexler’s topic of the moment in the quickie-format fireside-chat video I include here, below, leads him to thoughts that come close alongside, if not exactly up against, longer-running ruminations of this blog on lines it’d be a shame if I missed the chance to make some comment about. This topic of the moment is developing story around the Putin government’s new, perhaps not ultimately disastrous crisis of rebelliousness sprung from among the complex of forces under Russian command — which I won’t have anything to say about. Where that takes Vexler is in response to something the New York Times has run in the way of assessment, commentary and maybe provocation addressing this wobbly (and, a few days later when I’m writing, apparently no longer top-headline-worthy) internal situation in Russia.

I’ve set play to start about halfway in, where for us, here, the few minutes of relevant bit begins:

The first thing I’ll say, for immediate purposes and for the sake of being clear, is that Vexler takes up the call against modes of governmental and journalistic irresponsibility we’ve become notorious for in the N. Atlantic anglosphere, delineable now through a period of two or three decades at least, in a way that’s plainly salutary and ought to be absorbed and by one means or another reproduced in active political expression by all his listeners.

The second but really principal thing I want to say for immediate purposes is the trickier thing, the thing that has to do with what I’m working through over time and will bring to no nice conclusion, you can be sure, in this post. I’m going to refer now — with apologies — to something I wrote in much longer and ramblier fashion, three years ago, than I hope to manage here. I point to that post because the view I fumble through attempt to get stood up there is view I still hold, am still working out and working from. And I point to it because I find myself in this view standing in some interesting, probably pretty durable opposition to things Vexler says often, and in the video above says for our convenience very compactly, about democratic institutions.

‘Politicizing intelligence in highly polarized societies with declining trust in institutions is dangerous,’ he says in this video, and about that Vexler is undoubtedly right in a general way. But we can agree about this and be at odds still about what it might mean that these Western societies he’s most concerned with should be so polarized, and we can disagree about the problem of characterizing trust in institutions as historical phenomenon, what kind of shape this trust might be in or what shape in time it might be taking. And we can disagree again then at bottom — affirming his cautions in full while still appreciating the weight of the questions outstanding — about what constitutes democracy to begin with. I do mean in this post, in short, to echo and give a degree of new focus to what I write in the last.

Being able to say what democracy and the democratic fundamentally are, I’m going to avow here, is only our problem in a partial and always finally limited way. It’s rather the story of democracy that matters first. Vexler would back me in this, I think, possibly with big qualifications. In any case, it’s certainly my judgment that Vexler’s project (or e.g. Tim Snyder’s) is more about our getting a story of the democratic than about our appreciating a concept of it. If we take up the story, take our place in it, I think he thinks, roughly, we’ll also hold (to) a reasonably good concept as far as people need to, broadly, for the expectation of a shared political well-being yet to be achieved in turn to hold its shape. I think something like this is pretty much how it in fact works, myself, on one hand, and I suppose also, on the other, that Vexler depends on similar assumptions.

I think further, though, that the story of the democratic as he believes we need to take it up has some serious holes in it. I have real trouble, major trouble (as the kids sometimes still say), in the end, calling these societies Vexler and I are most concerned with democratic at all — which isn’t to say that I think we’re without any story of the democratic to be taken up but that the main lines, the main features, of the story as we really should be following it don’t perhaps indeed much run where somebody like Vexler will say we’ll find them.

What I don’t say, conversely and hopefully to be clearer still — what I wasn’t saying three years ago and am not saying now — is that the NYT needs to be thrown down. I think the NYT and the greater institutional order of things in which the NYT sticks impressively, these days, as a key piece are in foundational ways anti-democratic to at least the same extent as that to which they’ve become now basic to such experience of democratic possibility as we know. I think, accordingly, that on many fronts they ought to be opposed. I think indeed that they ought to be rebuilt, reconstituted on sound principles of public accountability, contrary to their principles of origin and the principles on which they’re sustained. I think moreover that it’s not much different to say so now than it would have been to say so 100 years ago or 150 years ago. But pace Vexler, to say so needn’t be understood, now or then, as proclamation of wiping of the slate and making all anew, pending only the moment of ignition.

Folks like Vexler and Snyder will fall into a socially-habituated tendency to a civil-faced, abstracted sort of anti-anarchist alarmism, suggesting the dark image of a near future in which certain vivid fixtures of our mental landscape of the politically normal and intact have been lost forever. We ought to anticipate it. It’s a tendency that has its place, I’ll affirm and even insist (as a good liberal), but it’s a tendency to something finally deficient in truth. We shouldn’t let their wonderfully confident and coherent account of the way things are induce us to forget or look aside from that. We don’t have to rely on a story pretending that hyper-polarization and collapsing social trust are recently developing emergencies, say, in order to keep at the challenge of finding our common way to hanging together politically and also, at the same time, to keep on turning up the thread of the really open, mutual and democratic that persists, strangely, even today, with us.


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