Toward the end of his presidency, it became fashionable in some quarters to contest Barack Obama’s privileged, almost saint-like standing among mainstream liberals as an embodiment of cool-headed grace, dignity, morality, etc… Often, the criticism concerned immigration (deporting undocumented immigrants at record rates) or his foreign policy (arming Saudi Arabia, extralegal drone killings, etc.)
As a devotee of Obama I found myself resisting these critiques on two levels. I dismissed them as flippantly made by those looking to take on a superficially subversive aesthetic. But the deeper resistance was more personal. I’d invested in Obama as a man of clear-eyed ethical realism and a deep appreciation for complexity, for the moderating pressures of his office, and for the long view. My opinion was largely aligned with that expressed by Marilyn Robinson in her book of essays, What Are We Doing Here? when she writes that Obama “had little help from certain of his friends, who think it is becoming in them to express disillusionment, to condemn drone warfare or the encroachments of national security, never proposing better options than these painful choices, which, by comparison with others on offer, clearly spare lives.” Like Robinson, I believed that Obama was surely aware of his moral compromises. But there were layers to these compromises—the matters wouldn’t have reached his desk if there were not—and I trusted that, while he may not have always made the right choice, he approached his fraught decisions with a value system in line with my own. He was dealing with difficult questions, and I was content to have him be the one answering them.
Then I read a review of Robinson’s book in Dissent, which dismissed such a trusting sentiment as nostalgic, in fitting with the kind of clean metaphysical decorum we might expect to find in dogmatic interpretations of revealed religion, instead of the messy imperatives of our actual political life. Leonard writes that Robinson is “totally unable to deal with [Obama] as someone with power, and whose hands are therefore dirty as hell.”
I first read Leonard’s essay at a time when, having interned at one left-wing magazine, and looking to move on to another (Dissent!), I found my political attitudes swirling, my allegiances aligning ever more with those who tended to gussy up cleanly spaces, to shit on my aesthetic contrivances. Leonard’s critique increased the pace of this political reimagining largely because it caught me so squarely and personally in my own naked, often fairly weird sentimentality (my eyes, I recalled, welled with tears at the news that hero Robert Mueller indicted villain Paul Manafort: you arrogantly defile American political institutions, you face justice!)
In particular, I was struck by Leonard’s use of the phrase, “Hands are dirty.” The idiom tends to have a pejorative slant, suggesting nefarious complicity, double-crossed morals. But it is not clear that Leonard means her point to be taken in such a straightforwardly normative sense. Dirty hands may well play an essential role in the alternative ethic she advocates, wherein shallow, but clean aesthetics of “civil” and high-minded democracy get rattled—in a manner very much in line with the more subversive aspects of the western philosophical tradition—by dissenters and protesters as a matter of course. After all, the organized action whose dissonance she applauds, is by most theories, itself a form of power, implicated, like Obama, by a reality messier than anyone committed to keeping their hands clean could ever hope to accommodate.
A relevant insight into a standard liberal instinct on this matter emerged a few months back, when Current Affairs ran a critical review of Pete Buttigieg’s memoir, arguing that his book betrays the self-centered outlook undergirding his eclectic and impressive-seeming resume. At one point, the reviewer notes, Buttigieg writes of “striding past”—it not appearing to occur to him that joining was a possibility—the “social justice warriors” protesting the low wages of university janitors and food workers, and then Buttigieg writes about his eventual realization that the biggest near-term agents of change at Harvard were not the protesters, but the “mostly apolitical geeks quietly at work in Kirkland House” like Mark Zuckerberg.
Buttigieg’s apparent instinct to dismiss the protesters is endemic to the liberal mainstream, a powerful, self-righteous, and frequently un-self-critical cultural subgroup that regards any and all substantial disturbances of its peace—literal, aesthetic, or metaphysical—with reactionary suspicion. Looking back, I feel some genuine shame for harboring the same sort of suspicion myself toward some of my college’s activist groups, particularly given my outlook as a student journalist, too willing to accept administration’s implicit rhetorical line that running an institution is complicated and that protesters advocating divestment, or more equitable admissions standards, for example—who spoke to some very real and deeply rooted institutional problems—had a reductive worldview, and basically weren’t to be taken too seriously.
The tendency to romanticize certain identity-affirming power structures and dismiss those who question them stems from a human desire for meaning, and is sometimes totally legitimate and pleasant in a personal sense, but it is politically insidious in literally every context, and particularly when the given powerful subject or structure is hegemonic.
That power should be regarded with skepticism, no matter how benevolent it may seem, is on a certain level, a premise of the American press, whose best practitioners strive to carry the banner of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” which, while perhaps a little romantic itself, is a mandate premised on an ethic of dissent if there ever was one.
Fully realized in storytelling form, this dissenting ethic would involve resisting the temptation to romanticize government institutions, as I did in conceiving of Mueller in such heroic terms. These sort of implicitly patriotic indulgences almost always pair with an uncritical submission to the grand narratives, themselves borne of an ostensibly liberal tradition which has, in actuality, under the cover of this righteous teleology privileged countless human lives over others in a grotesque and sordid history the sober appraisal of which quakes the foundations that support these narratives in the first place (critical appraisals which, at their best, clear space such that new and often more interesting stories can emerge.)
And yet, the grand patriotic narrative is ascendant in mainstream liberal discourse. The New York Times completed its editorial endorsing impeachment by imploring “the institutions of American governance… in historic rebuke, to demonstrate the majesty of representative democracy.” The New Yorker, calling Nancy Pelosi an “extremely stable genius,” casts the American political moment in explicitly dramatic terms: and “into this reality has stepped, if belatedly, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, Speaker of the House.”
That both “institutions of American governance” and Pelosi have, by dint of their power—and regardless of how well they’ve wielded it—extraordinarily dirty hands of their own is lost amidst such elevated rhetoric, which trades not on sober and substantive analysis of a subject’s performance, but rather on a form of restorative nostalgia, which galvanizes a secular liberal readership eager for meaning and redemption in the historical structures of governmental power whose stars, under Trump, have dimmed considerably. It is an instinct with which I can identify. I get it both ways. Sometimes it’s nice, and even essential, to rest, to settle into a clean metaphysics, to draw up a wall and hunker in cozy. It is a privilege too many can ill afford. ▩
Andrew Schwartz co-edits Mangoprism. He is a writer and basketball player in New York.