Over the past year as I’ve been working on Ways and Means, I’ve been thinking about interdependence, stewardship, and agency. I’ve been mulling how becoming accountable to a shared space and ethos is an intentional act, and how it’s similar to citizenship and being accountable as a political being. On Election Day, an article exploring the relationship between neighborliness and politics seemed especially salient to me, both as an artist and a voter.
Joshua Rothman’s “Enemy Next Door” (New Yorker, November 7, 2016; appears online as “Red Neighbor, Blue Neighbor”) is worth reading in its entirety; here’s what struck me.
Like many, I’ve struggled to stay engaged and optimistic about democracy and fellow citizens’ judgment. Rothman perfectly describes the sense of delimitation I’ve been seeking in response, as well as past feelings about being an activist simultaneously with being an artist.
Politics matters enormously; it’s right to care, to feel alarmed, and to argue. … And yet politics can become a poisonous influence in our lives. … It fills us with unwanted passionate intensity. Perhaps, somewhere in the territory of the self, a border marks the place where our lives as citizens end and our sovereignty as individuals begins.
What qualities contribute to interdependence and collaboration? Acceptance and open-mindedness.
Throughout American history, [author of Good Neighbors Nancy] Rosenblum finds, … good neighbors are “decent folk.” Decency, here, is a circumspect sort of virtue. Being decent doesn’t necessarily mean being good. It means accepting the flaws in others and returning, despite disruptions and disappointments, to the predictable rhythms of reciprocity.
I’m interested in self-initiated acts of agency and mutualism, because the empowerment and optimism that follows are compelling. It feels nice to move forward to an ideal, rather than merely pushing back against an existing system.
When politics turns against us—when we can’t trust Congress, the courts, or the police—we still look to neighborliness as a source of “democratic hope untethered to public political institutions.”
I’d venture that many social practice projects have similar rationales—that an aesthetic interpersonal gesture might temporarily reconfigure social and political relations.
…these moments of neighborly kindness aren’t, strictly speaking, political. In fact, they are anti-political. They come about because neighbors insist on relating to one another as individuals, rather than as members of parties or groups….
If temporarily reconfiguring political relations through a social practice project is anti-political, so be it. But Rosenblum warns against equating neighborliness with citizenship, through theories of holism versus pluralism:
…the implication was that, by tapping into a reservoir of neighborly good will, we might arrest the slide into polarized dysfunction. This is a comforting idea. As individual voters, we can do very little to reform our broken political system, or to change the apocalyptic tenor of today’s political campaigns. But, as neighbors and friends, we can redeem politics through ordinary human decency.
Rosenblum is skeptical of this theory. She describes it as a species of “social and political holism.” Instead, she argues, American life is characterized by “pluralism.” … We are, simultaneously, citizens, workers, neighbors, parents, lovers, [and artists, activists] and souls; in each of these spheres, we observe and uphold different rules and values. … Our values aren’t conveniently unified. They’re discontinuous.
If we can accept this contradictory nature of our selves, it seems, then we can accept our fellow citizens.
…It’s tempting to commit a kind of moral synecdoche—to take a part (e.g., voting for Trump) for a whole (being a bad person). [“The reverse is true, too, of course. Our “good” political beliefs don’t make us good people all the time,” Rothman added in a later passage.] To the extent that we avoid this, it’s by adopting a pluralistic view of the people around us. … In its strongest form, pluralism is a theory of selfhood. American democracy, Rosenblum thinks, is founded on this theory. We have in common the understanding that we contain multitudes. Reconciling ourselves to the contradictions of pluralism is what makes it possible for us to unite as a people.
Finally, the best way to make political change is to make political change.
After the election, the return of neighborliness will be reassuring. It shouldn’t be. The political stream is still tumbling along out there, as turbulent as ever.