Bonnie Honig – Change Maker Chat

Bonnie Honig – Change Maker Chat

 

Bonnie Honig is one of the world’s top democratic theorists and is based at Brown University.  A scholar and commentator in the United States, Bonnie is the author of numerous books, including Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair, published in 2017. She  runs us through her approach to democracy and critical thinking, showing us how it can help us interpret and respond to the crises and shocks that we are experiencing now.

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Transcript

Amanda Tattersall:

So welcome Bonnie to Change Makers. It is truly an honor to have you on this program.

Bonnie Honig:

It’s my pleasure.

Amanda :

And it’s going to be an interesting journey for our listeners as well because Bonnie is one of the world’s leading thinkers on democracy. And we’re going to get into all that. But Bonnie, just to start, you’re a thinker, you’re a researcher, a philosopher, a commentator, to me you’re certainly a change maker. How would you describe how you try and seek to make change in the world?

Bonnie Honig:

I guess there are probably two registers in which to answer and one it has to do with my teaching. And the other with writing. So in my teaching, I want to say my method is probably a bit Socratic in the sense that I start every semester trying to figure out where the students are and then move them. So it’s not a matter of indoctrination or substantive belief as much as it is getting them to have self criticality in realizing that inherited beliefs can be affirmed critically or revised critically depending on, you know, how they come to see things through reflection and critique. So there’s changes that happen in the classroom over the course of a semester with students who sometimes have not yet had the opportunity to question things they’ve learned at home or thought about or come to think about them differently or even having, just to defend them.

They don’t necessarily have to change their position, but finding out that they’re not consensus positions in the society they live in but maybe need defending. So the students undergo a fair amount of change. I think over time, when teaching is done that way, that would be the first part of my answer. And the other is writing. And there, there’s two kinds. Honestly, for the last four years I’ve started doing more public writing rather than just scholarly writing, although I continue with both. Um, and I think with public writing, the aim too is to intervene in a way that just makes people maybe thoughtful about things that they might not have thought needed thinking I can say it that way.

I think very often what’s telling for people is not the predictable positions, but the kind of telltale detail where, you know, they didn’t stand out. It’s kind of like, I dunno, I remember when my son was quite young and he was still crawling. If there was a tiny little nub sticking out of the carpet in a large room, he would find it, he’d like crawl around and he’d get stuck on this little thread sticking out. And I feel like, we don’t spend enough time finding those little threads. I just remember being struck by that. Like there’s this whole room full of carpet and he found this tie. He’s found it and he won’t let it go. And, but in a way, I think that’s a model of a certain kind of, political cultural work, which is we’re so used to the room and we know the carpet and we don’t see, it’s tiny little differentiations. But those can be very telling. They can be very telltale details. They tell a whole tale if you pull on them.

Amanda :

It’s like an insurgent idea in a way. Something that not everyone might necessarily see, but something that changes the dynamics of everything. Bonnie, I’m hoping you could share with us a little bit about where your political awakening came from, where your interest in some of these questions came from, you know, that all the way back, you know, in, in terms of how you became interested in things like democracy and conflict and so forth early on.

Bonnie Honig:

I think that I have several responses to that question, but I know what the first one is, because I was asked recently to give an account of my first political memory, and that made me stop and think about what it was. And I have to say that what it was, what were the years, 1970 to 71, during which there was a crisis in Quebec, of a conflict between, French resistance to English domination of the province. And the French majority was dominated by the English minority within the province, the province, however, being part of Canada in which the English have a majority more broadly. And there was a group then called a terrorist group, the front for the liberation of Quebec, the FLQ. And they had kidnapped, I believe the British trade minister James Cross. They had, I believe, also kidnapped and murdered a member of the provincial government named Pierre LaPorte.

And what I remember very clearly in, it’s probably my first childhood memory to be honest, is there, I believe that there were pictures on the front pages of the newspaper, of the dead body of Pierre LaPorte in the trunk of a car where it was found and those were just printed on the front page of the newspaper. I assume it was affectively disturbing to me. I don’t remember that, but I remembered those pictures. and I remember those events. And the thing that I really remember from that period is my parents had me in a private Hebrew day school in a predominantly French neighborhood of Montreal, which is where I was born and grew up. And I do remember very large, they looked very large to me, soldiers on the corners of all the streets near our school, anticipating the possibility of violence there as well with their machine guns and big chains of bullets across their chest and all that stuff.

And you know, this was, I was 10, so I, I’d never seen anything like that. I’ve never seen men that big, much less guns that big, much less bullets that big. So all of that left very strong impression on me. I came out of that, you know, I don’t really have a continuous memory, but I do know that in by 1976, there was a referendum for the separation of Quebec. You know, so just five years later, that separatist position had been somewhat mainstreamed and I was very supportive of separation at the time, although the ballot lost. Although the Québécois won, I believe provincial power for a period of time and, uh, and, but I did think at that time that, you know, obviously there was this minority population that, I mean, majority population that was being governed as if it was a minority population.

The French not being allowed to be, as they said, masters of themselves and their own place. So I, I became increasingly educated about those issues and found myself very drawn to that cause of supporting, the right of people to be self-governing. While granting rights that are appropriate to the actual minorities in the province who were English. And so that’s, I think that shaped a lot of my thinking in ways that at the time I might not have been very consciously aware of. As I say, I was a child. and certainly no one in my household or community would have been anything like sympathetic, to the separatists cause. So I don’t know exact other than the fact that I’m a minority and that we were Jewish, my parents were European and I’m female and from a traditional background.

So I had like triple minority experience on top of that. We were being raised English and Quebec. So I was minoritized a lot of ways and my sympathies were with those who were minoritized, which in this case were the majority French population. That’s where my sympathies were for them as well.

Amanda :

That’s interesting. So, you know, when you then look at how you went to university and then did a PhD soon after in the United States. When you start to think about how you began developing your early approaches to questions like democracy and conflict, how do you see that those ideas came with you as you, as you started writing?

Bonnie Honig:

On that I’ve never really thought about before. That’s a great question. I think I had to fight pretty hard to make room for myself to think my own thoughts and I think I was very suspicious of by nature and by experience of consensuses consensi.

I don’t know. We don’t necessarily like it though. Consensus. Yeah. I will say I was first generation college student. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I went to university and I certainly didn’t know what I was doing when I went for a PhD, and so that sense of being sort of, not really part of the empowered majority in every setting I was in stayed with me. And I certainly had a very, honestly, I think I had a very vexed time of it. My family of origin really had no understanding of what I was doing, getting an advanced degree in Wisher as they told me repeatedly that I was ruining my life. And, so that was difficult because I had to leave in more ways than one in order to be able to do the work.

Bonnie Honig:

And at the same time, that sense of trying to find power out of powerlessness, you know, at the personal level probably stayed, uh, with me and drove some of the passions in the work at the same time. Um, so I think the personal and the political probably converged to some extent there. Um, and then as it happens, I moved to the US in 82 to do graduate work and that was just the second or third year of the Reagan presidency. And it was quite shocking to me. I’m coming from Canada and uh, which is a more, or at least was then a more sturdy social democratic kind of apparatus. Um, at least the things we said were more social democratic. They weren’t always fully institutionalized. And then coming to the U S and being just thrown into the current of Neo liberalization and privatization and government being a problem and never a solution and sort of encouraging people to find their satisfactions only in the private realm or only in culture and never in political participation. I’d lived abroad other places but never for a long period of time in the U S like that.

Amanda :

So it sort of firms, you know, you said sort of fake consensus or consent. The outward of consensus is concerning. I mean cause actually it’s, you know, you can pretend that everyone across the world’s the same or different English speaking, you know, global North countries are the same maybe. But actually it’s actually in the difference that they’re so interesting. So almost like you were journeying and exploring that physically as well as intellectually.

Bonnie Honig:

Yeah. Well, you know, I have a very international background. I’m the only member of my family that was actually born in North America. Everybody was born in lots of different countries just because of the war effects of the second world war. So I was quite comfortable with some kinds of difference. Everyone in the family spoke several languages and there was a lot of the monolingualism of some countries and this sort of mono culturalism of some communities, was alien to me. But at the same time, nonetheless, moving from Canada, I didn’t come directly to the U S I lived in England for a while first, but then moving to the U S was definitely very different.

And then there was a fury consensus when I got to the U S where everyone was reading, A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. And that was the right answer to all of our questions.

Amanda :

There’s one theory of justice apparently.

Bonnie Honig:

And, and it was, that was a very strong consensus, not so much in the particular political theory program that I was in. I will say at Johns Hopkins there, that was a bit of a contested position there, but generally in the U S people, that was the, the hegemonic position. And I found it a very odd position. It seemed to me, you know, it’s a book written by a philosopher whose aspirations are systematic in the role of theory, not criticism as I was mentioning earlier. And the aim is to solve all these political problems through clear reasoning and incentive structuring.

And now that all sounds, both routine and still contestable, but then it was neither routine nor contestable and it seemed to be like, you know, the preferred answer for people who had deep questions in political theory. And that was surprising, the confidence of that project, which is mostly what people really admired about it. Because it took over from essayists, like Isaiah Berlin and other skeptics like maybe Wittgenstein and others who were doing political versions of linguistic philosophy. Suddenly there was someone who was willing to do something systematic. Even as I say that, I hadn’t thought about this before, but I’m wondering now that my own way of thinking about what I do is more like criticism than like theory at this point in time is in a way the turn. And I think that’s true for a lot of political theorists right now. They may not identify it that way, but I think a lot of people are doing work that’s deliberately not systematic

Amanda :

Sort of covering the whole space with one meta-narrative. Like sort of intervening.

Bonnie Honig:

Yeah, exactly.

Amanda :

A little thread.

Bonnie Honig:

Because we have a critique of that urge to cover the whole space.

Amanda :

Very practically not going so well.

Bonnie Honig:

It has a minoritized effect on certain voices and modes of living and forms of life and indigenous cultures and others. So you know, we’ve done as feminist, we’ve done critiques of that. So we’re sort of in a way coming out the other side and starting to think about how to still be ambitious in thinking, but not to make the mistakes that came with that earlier. What we now think of, I shouldn’t say we, I mean, some of us do. Um, that what many now think of as the mistakes of that earlier era. And I want to say when I’ve written on Rawls though, I will just say this, that I have a huge appreciation of the effort to try to provide a firm foundation for a certain kind of organization of social justice for the public. And you know, when you read Rawls in the 80s, he sounded kind of conservative and now you read Rawls. It’s a measure of how far we’ve gone, that, we would long for that, but not necessarily for the apparatus that comes with it, which is it’s rationalism and incentivization. And economism, was in some ways a conduit for some of the dimensions of neoliberalism that we’ve come to be rightly concerned about, especially as we face climate change and other things that maybe resist those kinds of solutions and demand others.

Amanda :

So you, I mean, you, you’ve using your critical mode as opposed to your theory mode. You’ve written extensively around questions of democracy in sort of over the last 20 years. Maybe you want to explain a little about bit about public things and sort of your sort of as the living, breathing and physical manifestations of democracy. You know, it’s a different way of coming at a question of liberalism and, and public life than say John Rawls.

Bonnie Honig:

So Public Things is a book that I published just, I don’t know, three years ago maybe. And it’s subtitle is democracy in disrepair. It’s sometimes misremembered as democracy in despair. But it’s not meant to be a despairing book at all. I hope it’s a hopeful book, at the kind of thread or that little carpet piece that we were talking about earlier that motivates that project is just thinking about how instead of thinking about how as many democratic theorists do, how we need to have an idea of who the people are, how to shape or educate the people in a democracy. In other words, where the focus or the problem of democracy is the demos and how to unite people around difference or how to give them a sense of common cause, which is also important. And people do that.

And instead of thinking about the procedures and mechanisms through which we, you know, allow voting or participation to occur, which is another set of debates within democratic theory. And we need to do that too. I thought there might be a third thing that would be worth thinking about. And that was public things and whether they were also a necessary feature of democracy. So in a way, the question in the public things book is, you know, what if you had a unified demos and everybody you know, was onboard with trying to get along and figure out how to do things together and they had an agreed on set of procedures and electoral mechanisms and fair representation and all of that is that enough? Would you, would you call that democracy? And my answer in the book is, well, you would also need something for them to deliberate about, to care for, to be oriented by like, so in other words, it’s not enough because in a democracy that satisfies those first two conditions, you also have this third set of things and they’re called public things.

And they might be national parks, but they might be jails and they might be sewage treatment plants and they might be recycling plants and other kinds of things like that. In other words, that unless you’re, the things that you’re doing together are in some sense shared. And unless they manifest themselves in public in their thingness then you have something democratic, but you don’t really have a full blown democracy. So what it means to be a democracy is to be faded, to share in finite things and to have to come to some agreement because of their finitude and their fate. That’s the argument of the book. And it does the theoretical work largely through, Arendt and Winnicott, Hannah Arendt mid century, mid 20th century political theorist and uh, DW Winnicott, a mid 20th century psychoanalyst from the object relations school.

Amanda :

I loved what I read of Public Things and I have to be an honest person. I wasn’t able to finish every word, but what struck me was in that text, because it’s a text that discusses sort of things that, how our democracy is embodied and changed by being able to see evidence of that, which is, you know, sewage systems or other public squares to facilitate, um, protest or whatever those things might be. But I wondered in this moment globally where authoritarianism is just so terrifyingly on the rise. So across the world, you know, we’re in a moment where our public things are under threat. Do you think that there is anything in your work on public things that gives fuel for those who are trying to contest and protect and advance democracy? Like for those who are trying to campaign for a better democracy, how does your analysis of public things help them think about what to fight for and how?

Bonnie Honig:

That’s a great question. I want to say two things in response. The first is that public things aren’t necessarily sites of consensus. So one of the examples I have in the book is of the Mercier bridge in Montreal, which was occupied at a certain point by the Mohawk in the early 1990s. The tribe that was protesting real estate developments on their land and it became clear during those protests what was clear historically anyway, that the iron work for that bridge was done by members of the tribe. Largely the design of the bridge at the time was done by a French architects and engineers. This was well before, Quebec became more independent. In other words, it was in the early 1910s, I believe that it was built and to have this public thing, the Mercier bridge that was built with French ingenuity at a time when many French people in Quebec were not successfully going through college educations.

They were not well represented in elite professions at that time was a point of great pride to French people in Quebec. The Mohawk looked at that bridge and they saw the handiwork of their ancestors who were great iron workers. They weren’t seeing the same thing, the two communities that were in conflict over the bridge, but they were both very invested in the bridge. So even a public thing that doesn’t unite or cause consensus but is itself a site of contestation enables a contestation that maybe needs to happen. And in its absence, this is why a lot of people favor certain kinds of privatization. The contest also disappears, but the contest is an essential part of democratic energizing. So a dump, a democracy in which the different communities do not enter into agonistic struggle with each other, is a dishonest democracy.

So getting rid of the bridge, which you can imagine now this is now 25 years later, almost, someone might say, let’s just build another bridge. Like let’s get rid of the, you know, the Mohawk and the French are never going to believe, you know, come to agreement about what needs to happen on their land and the bridge is causing conflict. Let’s get rid of the bridge. And then they won’t look at it and see different things. But what’s important about the bridge is that they both see positive things in it, but different positive things that speak to each of their independent but also integrated histories of conflict. And every time we get rid of public things, whether we do it because we prvatise them or we subject them to private control, what we’re actually, or we allow for opt outs, you know, where we increase charter schools and end up, what we end up doing is we end up weakening the public thing.

So when we have charter schools as the solution, we’re taking money out of the public system. Uh, when we take away things that have a kind of history of struggle around them and replace them with something anodyne and sterile historically speaking, it might be a beautiful new thing, but it lacks the historicity. Um, we don’t necessarily solve a problem, but we displace the space of its attachment. And if we don’t have that attachment, you know, people give up, they just give up on the public life of democracy. And when they do that, then we become very available to domination by authoritarian politics. So I think of public things as the infrastructure, as the kind of furniture of democratic life. And it’s just like any house, if you take all the furniture out that you’ve lived with for 20, 30, 40 years and you remember where, you know, your child bumped its head there and your mother collapsed there or you know, your father ran the table for dinner in this way from this seat or whatever it is.

When you take all of that away and put in a bunch of new stuff. The attachment starts to go. The real lifeblood of a democracy is that people have to be attached to it and they have to. Otherwise there’s nothing there. And as I say, if there’s nothing there, then you know, someone else can come in and say, let’s move that table and get rid of that couch. And you don’t care because you’re not connected to it. It’s not part of your history. Even when the history is a painful history or maybe even especially so, of domination or slavery, you know, then people have skin in that game and that’s what brings them out. It doesn’t let them sit back and allow things to happen. They’re activated by that history.

Amanda :

it’s making me think about the fight in the States that happen around the statues. And here we’ve got in Australia we’ve got statues around leaders who were responsible for genocide against indigenous people in South Africa. There’s been similar battles around the road. Statue at Cape town university. How does, like, I can see some of these vexed stuff, but how do you take those examples and apply?

Bonnie Honig:

Yeah. So, you know, those are all things that have to get worked out on the ground, but my own position is not that every public thing is a great thing and that some public things like this would not necessarily be true for something like the Mercier bridge, which I mentioned earlier, but some public things are clearly, they’re not just because they have a past. But because they hope they have a future and the future that they hope to have is not a democratic one.

I remember the author of a book, his name was Howard Mansfield. I cannot right this moment, remember the title, but he did. Maybe it was about monuments, but he did research on all of these monuments in the U S some of them quite unknown, not special monuments, where he just went through all these towns in the country and looked around for when things were erected and some of the, now it’s well known, but I think when he wrote the book, it was less so, some of the monuments to the Confederate war heroes were erected, not during or immediately after the Confederate war, but later periods of time when the aim was to signal what the local government was doing around issues of race and where people’s belonging was meant to be known.

And so, you know, if you were in a moment where there was a race uprising or a race riot, and I mean like a white supremacist riot against people of color, then suddenly that year, 1921, 1924, that town has a Confederate statue. And so he went through several of those. It was eyeopening because of course we all think, Oh, they’ve been there forever. They all look old.

Amanda :

Yeah.

Bonnie Honig:

How would, you know? And and it turns out so a lot of them are not about having even an essentially contested thing like a Mercier bridge where people have different views of it, but nonetheless are all proud of it. but probably for different reasons.

Amanda :

That feels like a coalition interests thing, right?

Bonnie Honig:

Yes. It has a potential to be a coalition. It could also be a site of conflict, but it, it comes from very positive feelings that both side have invested in it.

Whereas in this case, the statues that you’re describing that are, you know, colonial celebrations of colonial power, which is ongoingly contested and hasn’t yet been defeated in a daily, in the daily lives of many, um, that’s different, you know, and that’s a kind of, that’s a subjugating thing that isn’t, is in public but doesn’t quite.

Amanda :

Public thing.

Bonnie Honig:

It does seem that way. And I think, you know, then you can have a further debate about what to do with them. I mean, I, I don’t see any particular problem in putting them in a museum somewhere that people can choose to go to or not, in which they’re very well contextualized in terms of when they were put up and why, with what purposes as I was saying that Mansfield book did, for example. So there are ways without sort of erasing history that allow history to be maintained and preserved.

Amanda :

Like you’re replacing history, like you sort of being able to put it in different place because.

Bonnie Honig:

Putting it in its place.

Yeah. So putting it in its place and doing so as an act of democratic respect and mutuality. So people who continue to say no, it was just about state’s rights. It wasn’t about white supremacy and maybe even some of them really believe that those pieces can be somewhere where they can go on making those arguments or something like them. Hopefully improved by further and better understanding provided by the contextualization. So there are ways to, to think about it. I’m not saying this is absolutely the right answer, but I’m just saying that’s like there’s a range of possible answers that a community might come to that could recognize the inflammatory nature of those things and the legitimate reasons for that and could respond both to any genuine feelings of wanting to respect history along with the desire to be sensitive to the needs of other members of the community.

Amanda :

It’s a real challenge for those who are wanting, you know, for our audience who are wanting to make change in a world, but they’re constantly being confronted by the deep, desperate personal disaster that is the world. What insights or thoughts do you have about how people can find their bearings in times of, of this kind of crisis?

Bonnie Honig:

So I, yeah, I’ve been thinking about this. I’m writing some new work on it right now. The first thing I did when I did start to realize that we were being subjected to the politics of shock, which I as I say that now, it seems like everyone’s known that for three years, but I’m not sure that we saw exactly for what it was. It seems very clear now that shock is being used as a kind of instrument of governance, and not just by Trump, but by many of his supporters in the Congress as well. So the first thing I did was I thought, Oh, I’ll read, you know, a Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine. Surely she has something to say about this.

And she has a lot to say, and it’s a fantastic book. If people haven’t read it, I recommend it. But the one thing she doesn’t talk about that really surprised me to not find there, was the experience of World War One soldiers with shell shock. So her story begins in the 1940s and 50s, I believe with shock treatment experiments that were performed by doctors at Miguel in Montreal, in concert with support and resource and other kinds of support and interest from the CIA, I believe in the U S from the intelligence community in the U S where they wanted to know, there was a lot of interest at the time in how to de program people who would become hypnotized into communism or whatever. And you know, this is the period of the Manchurian Candidate and that’s what, 1960, 61, that film. So it was before that, but that was a reflection that film was a reflection of earlier concerns about new mechanisms of mind control. And the response to that was to try to develop other modes of mind control. Deprogramming is its own kind of mind control. So that’s where she starts things and I think that’s an important place to start because electroshock therapy I think was used largely on women. And so it has a gendered history, which, um, I’m not sure she talks about.

What Klein is interested in is really sort of Milton Friedman style economics of privatization and how they become affiliated with the techniques of shock. So she doesn’t, the book is published I think in 2007, it doesn’t start with World War One, which I wish, I wish it did. So I’m doing that work now. And and it ends before 2007, which is when the book came out and what we have at either end or the kind of missing bookends of the work, which is a really fantastic book. And incredibly creative reading that unites in a very persuasive way. The kinds of things that went on in Chile in 1973 under Pinochet and then in Argentina and Brazil and Korea all over the world.

How, and finally, Iraq mechanisms of shock and awe are used to sort of rock a population back on its heels, rendered them vulnerable to being willing to accept any, anything because they’ve been so deprived of food or control or normality. And then the second round of shock is brought in. So this is her account. And the second round is to having deprived the senses of all the normal stimulations of normal life, then to overwhelm them. And the example that she gives is the template of torture in which the prisoners at first hooded and deprived of all sensory stimulation of normal life and left like that sometimes for weeks at a time. And then the hood is removed and, uh, the lights are kept on in the cell constantly for weeks at a time. And loud music is piped in for weeks at a time.

So there’s this kind of deprivation of stimulation and the senses are, feeling the deprivation, like we long for stimulation as creatures. And then the next stage is this just overwhelming assault on the senses. And the result of that double step is, you know, the creation of very vulnerable people who are or is supposed to be. Of course, not everyone responds identically to this, but on her account, something like that, which was done in torture is done to whole populations. And whole nations, whether in response to, uh, a catastrophe, like a flood or a catastrophe, like a coup, like either a political or a natural one, which she doesn’t cover, which I wished she had covered. But you know, I’m happy to cover it too, is a world war one, uh, experiences with shock, which is where the first cases of shell shock came to be known what we would now call PTSD.

Bonnie Honig:

Shell shock was the same kind of big umbrella term for lots of different kinds of ways in which soldiers were affected by being in war. And she also doesn’t cover what we’ve been experiencing obviously for the last few years. In the context of shock politics, I think the most important thing that comes out of the World War One material is the work of WHR Rivers, who’s a psychiatrist, who worked with shell shocked soldiers. That’s hard to say. In Scotland, as a military doctor and who, unlike others, he’s remembered in the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker and a film by that name as well. And, so his story is told, and he is a humanist. And while others are at the time, incredibly actually using shock therapy to treat shell shock soldiers in order to jolt them back into agency so they can be sent back out to the front.

That’s what was being done in London, in Scotland. Rivers was instead using arts, poetry, exposure to nature, and the suturing bonds of fraternity among the men to bring them back into some human place. It’s a remarkable story. And so when we, so, so the import, and it’s potentially portable cause in the middle of shock politics, a lot of political work just feels like more shock. Like we have to get out there and scream. We have to sort of respond quickly because that stuff’s happening so fast and we have to intervene and we’re sort of in this temporality and in this intensity that’s kind of like shock against shock and awe. And there may be a human lesson from this humanist Rivers who,sought the healing powers of humanistic pastimes and practices, to bring people out of the shock.

And he was acutely aware that he was, when he was successful, they would be sent back in to war. I mean, it was a, it’s a gritty business he was in. But the comparison to the others who were themselves using electroshock therapy in order to cure muteness, which was effective because as you can imagine, people who had been shell shocked into muteness when treated with electroshock therapy could find a voice again in order to stop that from happening to them again. Right. So it’s quite, it’s an amazing story that the sort of foresight and presence of mind and just sheer character that positioned him to make that kind of intervention and to open up that kind of path. And frankly, the decentralized nature of the bureaucracy of the military that would allow for such a diverse array of approaches to coexist without anyone having a command and control idea of how to make everybody do the right thing and fill out the same forms.

Amanda :

So if you were to take, I mean, to me it feels like a metaphor for what we should be doing today. Have you, have you found examples of people, um, challenging the shotgun or politics of Trump with this different kind of energy?

Bonnie Honig:

So one of the details that I really like in the film Gaslight, which I’m writing about right now, which I don’t know if I’d ever seen it before, but I watched it recently and it’s amazingly good, um, is that we now use the term gaslight to talk about the manipulation that the evil husband does to the wife. Right? He gaslights her, he says one thing, it’s really another and she starts to lose her mind. But in the movie Gaslight, the changing power or lightness of the gaslights in the house is the signal that he’s up in the attic doing nefarious things. Cause he turns the light up on upstairs and he’s doing it secretly. And the houses, the lights in the house go down as a result because there’s a finite amount of gas. The woman in the play or in the film, her name is Paula, the heroine.

You don’t expect to find radical feminism in Caslight or Jane Eyre. I like to think of female Gothics and also noir films like Gaslight as resources that we already have that when we reread them we can find the kind of moments of empowerment even in these very tightly boxed in moments of seeming impossibility. And those can offer some inspiration. Not exactly an instrumental map forward, but the idea that even in those kinds of situations we have a cultural inheritance of texts and films that show that those are not losing propositions for those of us who champion though in these cases, the women.

Amanda :

I don’t necessarily feel that it’s very clear and obvious that we know what dynamics to look for as to be the ones that are emancipatory. Like which bit of which social movement is the right bit. That creates a sort of alternative to the shock doctrine shock space. Like I think it’s, I think it’s hard to gather that from just empirical work alone, I think we need those other sources to try and sort of focus the mind.

Bonnie Honig:

Well, I think very often what happens is, you know, the things that are the most directly attacking in a way. So given the conversation that we had earlier on about public things, a group that was really about sort of protecting public things, would look like that’s a really good democratic movement. And someone else who was talking about how to privatise certain bits of the economy and create better incentives for democratic deliberation might look less enchanting.

Bonnie Honig:

But there isn’t really a way to know in advance. A lot of politics is about doing things without knowing for sure. And learning from each of the semi failed semi-successful experiences we have and sort of moving on and building communities time as we go. At the very least, and I think further that a lot of what happens is a kind of rehearsal for the world as we want it to be. So there’s a certain amount of trying to live the life and the values that you are fighting for before you’ve won. And it’s never over either. That’s the other postulate of politics is that you can win today and then find that you’re losing a week later if you take your eye off the ball. So I mean in American the period of reconstruction is the best example of that sort of glorious emancipation and then a period of retrenchment from which really we’ve never recovered.

I guess what I want to say is that some of the direct response work is absolutely necessary. You know, 1100, a former department of justice workers have just signed a petition demanding that the current attorney general bar resign. And that’s a direct response to what’s going on. And that’s really important that that happened. And I’m sure by now it’s a few hours since I saw the newspapers, it must be more than 1100. Which is great. And at the same time, there are other people who choose to vivify our imaginations of the world as it might be by just going off the grid or removing themselves from industrial agriculture or, um, not contributing further to climate change by altering their own modes of travel and being in the world.

Bonnie Honig:

And all of that’s really important. They, there’s no particular reason to put them at odds with each other. Um, it’s very risky to participate in the direct attack and exchange kind of politics because you get sucked into the machinery of that and sometimes you never come out. But at the same time, that work has to be done. And, uh, and the people who are choosing these kind of alternative paths are what I call heterotopias is, they’re really important. Even though it looks like withdrawal, what they’re doing is if they’re pulling themselves out of the direct contestation of political life, what they’re doing is creating kinds of community that could maybe thrive if the world were somewhat altered. And many people need to see that alternative, not just to read about it in order to be able to believe in it.

So it provides that, it satisfies that sensorial need to just see, Oh, you could live like this. Like it’s one thing to see it. It’s another thing to read about it.

Amanda :

Yeah. Yup. So true. And so much of our history, you know, I think that’s how childcare was established. That’s how we have childcare because actually it was through the, just the creation of such centers by moms for other moms.

Bonnie Honig:

Yeah.

Amanda :

So I’m just going to ask you one more question. In this extraordinary journey, which isif you were to reflect on all your work on democracy, new and old, young and old, our listeners are craving to know, what are your reflections? So what is the most important lesson that has stuck with you about how to make change in the world?

Bonnie Honig:

I guess the first thing I want to do is just quibble a tiny bit with the questions. Sure. Well just because sometimes what you want to do is to defend what you have against change too. And I just think that’s really important. There’s so much that we’re critical of and that really does need changing. But there’s alsoin the U S right now we’re just very conscious of the rule of law, which we never quite had, you know, and its full promise and development, being so precarious right now. So I guess the first thing I just want to say is, there are some things that we have to be activated to defend as well as change that we definitely have to be activated to seek. I’m not sure in the end I’ve written about a lot of different things and a lot of different registers and genres.

So I’m not sure in the end if there’s a single takeaway, but I do think that there’s a lot of hard work that has to go into political life organizing and mobilizing, that people change every day. And they also carry paths with them that are often mysterious to others of us. And things happen when we’re together that are unexpected and often difficult. But we’re in it together. And in order, I think one of the reasons that I’ve been drawn actually to Hannah Arendt’s work in my own work over the years is that certainly one of the staples of my repertoire is, that she focuses so much on how, what she calls action and concert, which is just people coming together to act on behalf of either preservation or change. But something democratic is that it’s a pleasure and it’s easy, especially in these times when we’re all exhausted by the practices of shock to which we’re daily subjected to forget just how transporting it is to be with others in common cause.

And one of the things I think that’s really important about Arendt’s work is that, you know, she’s very conscious of how in the private realm there are certain things that give us pleasure. And in the domain of work there are certain things that give us pleasure. And then she absolutely insists that one of the best things about political action and concert is that it gives us, it’s owned, each one has its own distinctive pleasure and politics has its own pleasure and it’s that you have an experience of being self forgetting and all your needs and wants kind of take a back step, a step back. And something else about being together with others transports you into a different kind of consciousness or experience. And I think anyone who’s ever been, even if you’ve only ever been to one march, everyone knows that experience of just kind of looking around you and realizing that all of these strangers in you are there together because you all think similarly about a certain topic or a certain issue in the moment.

And it’s a very unique feeling and it’s a very pleasurable feeling. So as exhausting and you know, all the other things that we feel right now as exhausted as we may be and we may think it’s an exhaustion about politics, that’s a feeling that autocrats like us to have the democratic feeling of pleasure in being together with others. And common cause is uplifting, not exhausting. And those of us who, as I say, even been to a single march, probably have very fond memories of it and should it as often as possible.

Amanda :

Wonderful. Thank you so much, Bonnie, for your time.

Bonnie Honig:

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


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