Oct 08, 2021
Review of Jeffrey Israel, Living with Hate in American Politics and Religion: How Popular Culture Can Defuse Intractable Differences (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020). 363 + xxv pages.
Let me start simply: Jeffrey Israel has written an ambitious, thought-provoking, and impressive book. This book should be of interest to scholars across a range of fields, from religious to ethnic studies to philosophy and political theory to cultural and media studies; and it is written in such a way as to be easily accessible to each of these disciplines. Because the book is complex and has a lot of moving parts, my approach in this review will be first to offer a summary of the book’s argument in order to then conclude with some questions that I think the book’s argument poses .
The book’s approach is grounded in a distinct form of liberalism, one that is informed by several theoretical approaches, most notably John Rawls’s conceptions of society and justice, 1 1 John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, 2 2 Martha Craven Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006). and the critique of liberalism put forth by Charles Mills. 3 3 Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). Israel summarizes the argument of the book as the idea “that broadly shared political love is possible if all kinds of Americans can cultivate it together in the common domain of the political, even as we express our divisive unmitigated rage creatively in the domain of play” (29). 4 4 All references in the body of the text are to the book under review. Could it be that Jewish humor is somehow central to what Israel is here describing? Is it possible that Lenny Bruce or All in the Family or other forms of Jewish humor perform (have performed?) an essential function—serving as exactly the kind of “play” that Israel has in mind—that ultimately allows Americans (Jewish or not) to cultivate a joint project of love and citizenship? This, in fact, is a central element of Israel’s fascinating argument.
In order to unpack all of this, I want to note a few of the theories grounding Israel ’s assertions . First, the sense of liberalism Israel invokes throughout is grounded in Rawls’s conception of political liberalism. The crucial aspect is that we allow for the possibility of “a distinct domain of the political where we decide to see each other according to a political conception of the person as a citizen and to judge how well we’re doing as a society on the basis of a political conception of justice” (59). The political love that Israel invokes is “meant to be political in this sense” (60). In other words, Israel, like Rawls, is interested in a conception of liberalism that is robust, public, and accessible to anyone within the polity. The basic idea here—one that has its origins in Rousseau but firmest elaboration in Kant—is that we can view ourselves as citizens from a universal point of view, imagine ourselves in abstract terms that suggest a joint project where we are members of a state as citizens, i.e., where we look out at the world as citizens with certain abstract needs and desires rather than particular individuals with specific needs and desires. We may view ourselves , in Kant’s words, as members of a “kingdom of ends,” where we ought to have certain universal—rational—commitments in addition to viewing ourselves as the particular individuals that we are, with our distinct desires.
Such a view leaves one open to reproach, however, since it may be compatible with holding “liberal views while remaining unperturbedly complicit in racial, gender, and other forms of domination” (60), a problem compounded in Rawls by the fact that he famously suggests that as long as we have allegedly organized our life according to the sort of rational, universal principles invoked in his theory, we insure “that our conduct is above reproach.” 5 5 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 422. This point and subsequent criticism is pursued in Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). In other words, this is where Israel’s invocation of and recourse to the work of Charles Mills enters. 6 6 See especially Charles W. Mills, “Race and the Social Contract Tradition,” Social identities 6, no. 4 (2000); Charles W. Mills, “Rawls on Race/Race in Rawls,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 47, no. Supplement (2009). Mills’s critique of liberalism doesn’t seek to dismiss it, but rather aims to modify Rawls’s basic picture in order to account for the specific Western history of white supremacy and the ways in which it has influenced and interacted with liberalism and liberal polities. Mills aims to correct Rawls’s approach by forcing it to acknowledge “the [racialized, gendered] sociopolitical reality that already exists.” 7 7 Charles W. Mills, “Repairing the Racial Contract,” in Contract and Domination, ed. Carole Pateman and Charles W. Mills (London: Polity, 2007), 119.
Israel acknowledges Mills’s approach and marshals the work of Martha Nussbaum in order to accomplish the task. Focusing especially on her “capabilities approach,” Israel suggests that rather than merely constructing “an idealized conception of justice and the citizen,” we must “confront human animality, sociability, dependence, and vulnerability” (63). In other words, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach allows us potentially to import more specificity into Rawls’s conception of liberalism, making explicit how it ought to be—or perhaps better: is—committed not just to the fair distribution of resources and access but also to the development and maintenance of distinct capabilities that every citizen is entitled to by virtue of being a citizen. 8 8 See Martha Craven Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism,” Political theory 20, no. 2 (1992). I say perhaps “is” may be used since there is now a wealth of literature debating the extent to which Rawls and Nussbaum are at odds here. See, for example, Ingrid Robeyns, “Justice as Fairness and the Capability Approach,” in Arguments for a Better World. Essays for Amartya Sen’s 75th Birthday, ed. Kaushik Basu and Ravi Kanbur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Nussbaum’s approach takes very seriously our emotional lives (which are central to our capacities as humans), but also has built into it the idea that certain kinds of emotions—anger and disgust—can never be “an appropriate political emotion” (68). Israel disputes this, highlighting the potential need for such emotions, especially, in the context of (legacies of) oppression, the justifiability if not even necessity, of an emotion like anger. Indeed, Israel ultimately highlights that there are a range of “remainders” or “perverse ideas and emotions about others forged under conditions of conflict and injustice” that are in fact a standing feature of any polity (74). In other words, the desire to banish these emotions from our polity might be seen as another manifestation of an approach that attempts to overlook our particular histories.
To account for this fact, and where Israel’s account begins to turn explicitly to Jewish humor in the American context, Israel turns to an account of “play,” which, for him, is a “noninstrumental activity that occurs in a circumscribed space/time within which all of the participants acknowledge a difference between what things mean inside and what they mean outside this circumscribed space/time” (156). By means of such an activity—play—citizens can engage in projects that actualize such perverse ideas and emotions. On such a view, for example, “we can make a case against Confederate flags on capital buildings, but then argue that Confederate flags are entirely appropriate for reenactments of Gettysburg in the domain of play” (181). The idea here is that we locate particular instances of problematic ideas or emotions within a particular realm. About particular controversial or painful cases, we can then ask: do they fit within “the domain of the political, within the nonplay domain of the background culture, or within the domain of play” (181)? And we can then gauge whether the material or act in question is appropriate to its domain. The notion of “background culture” referenced above is an idea inherited from Rawls where we may express non-individual doctrines but within the scope of particular communities (e.g., speaking not exclusively as citizens but, say, as Jews or evangelicals or members of the BDSM community). Remainders (i.e., these aforementioned perverse ideas or emotions), grudges held due to historical circumstances, and the sort of utopian impulses that these may produce (181-187) are all usefully given space to be pursued in the realm of play, where they can carefully be isolated (my word) from the political domain while nonetheless affecting the subjects who participate in that polity, possibly reshaping their views if not at least guaranteeing that these views do not enter the political space. On such a view, cultural critics take on a distinct role and urgency, as people who can mediate between these domains (169-175).
With this analytic in place, Israel turns to a close reading of Lenny Bruce, Philip Roth, and Norman Lear’s and Bud Yorkin’s All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979). I think situating many of his interesting and crucial insights about these shows would be another whole review, so instead I only want to note that these forms of Jewish humor, according to Israel, perform a central function within the American context, explicitly by serving as a form of play that blunts harmful remainders that may otherwise run wild in the political realm.
As I mentioned at the outset, this is a sophisticated and compelling account. While perhaps there are ways to pursue particular objections at particular specialized places (in this reading of Rawls or that reading of play), I instead want to raise a few questions that meet the account on its own terms, largely accepting its analytic framework. First, while I understand that this is a lengthy book already, I wonder whether certain crucial Jewish forms of humor are missing. For example, I am especially interested in the sort of Jewish humor exemplified by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (amazingly, neither one of these names appears in this book). If we think in recent terms, I can think of no other Jewish comedians who have had such a profound effect on American humor and thereby life. But does Israel’s analytic framework give us the best means to measure or situate that effect? I can see ways to work them into the rubric of play, certainly— but it seems to me, at least at times, to be a play quite different from the sort that Israel focuses on. At their best, Seinfeld and David focus on what might be termed existential remainders (my term), meaning those facets of modern life that are not exclusively political (although they are not thereby unpolitical), but rather have to do with our very standing as human beings and social agents in a modern world. This is not to deny that in both shows there are also much more explicitly historico-political moments tied specifically to the American context, of the sort that interest Israel . This point about the scope of the humor of David or Seinfeld is not an objection to the views proposed in the book, but it [MS5] does suggest that the sorts of emotions that play addresses do not have merely political origins or significance.
This leads me to a second concern that is also entirely absent in Israel’s book: the development of new technologies and forms that seem to me to complicate the (perhaps too easy) distinction that Israel harnesses between the political, the realm of background culture, and the domain of play. Here, I might suggest that we think of the rise of surveillance capitalism  and the resultant erosion of the border between public and private spheres, expressed as much by the intrusion of social media into politics as by the mining of our emotions by corporations for profit, often within the political realm . When corporations can harness our play for profit, selling the data and metadata that such play produces to agents within the political realm, then the line between these realms becomes confusing and the realms equally so. One way to highlight these concerns would simply be to explore the extent to which Trumpism and associated phenomena (the alt-right, contemporary fascism, etc.) have often been glossed as “cosplaying,” yet have nonetheless produced quite brutal political consequences. It seems too quick and easy to simply say that this was play located or lodged in the wrong realm; the very notion of realms here—as well as the notion of play—seems to itself be undergoing some sort of metamorphosis, if not being itself brought into question.
Of course, these thoughts should not give the reader any pause or hesitation in working through this enjoyable and informative book.