American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us
by David Bromwich
Published June, 2019
How Words Make Things Happen
by David Bromwich
Oxford University Press
Published April, 2019
What are literary critics good for? Since the middle of the nineteenth century, three main answers have been offered to this question, with changing degrees of institutional prestige and cultural validation:
(1) Judging value or merit: the literary critic separates the wheat from the chaff for the edification of individual readers and the health of the culture. One part connoisseur and one part inspector of intellectual produce, this critic keeps us in touch with ‘the best which has been thought and said’ (in Matthew Arnold’s well-known phrase). Such a mission sounds presumptuous in an academic climate where any notion of ‘the best’ is unlikely to survive the acid-bath of the sociology of taste. Yet this skepticism about judgments of value sits oddly alongside the immense appetite for adjudication among general readers—especially if the attention and money commanded by literary prizes are anything to go by. Comparison affords an afterlife to pleasure and in the abdication of this role by literary academics, journalists, and publishers have rushed in to fill the void.
(2) Bearing witness to the inner workings of a text and/or the responses it inspires: here the literary critic’s authority derives from her capacity for ‘serious noticing’, as James Wood puts it. In its more objective mode, the goal of such noticing is to lay bare the mechanisms by which a work achieves its effects. This is criticism as it is taught and practised within the university, running the gamut from close reading to post-structuralism. In its more subjective mode, the critic’s aim is to render her impressions of the work with the utmost fidelity and vividness. Hostage to the vagaries of individual sensibility, such impressionism (‘aestheticism’ by a more reputable name) has had relatively little purchase in the academy up until quite recently; journalists too have had their Paterian tendencies curbed by the terseness mandated by commercial style guides and word-length restrictions. Reflections on craft by well-known contemporary practitioners are perhaps the most common work in this vein.
(3) Custodian of linguistic conscience: on this understanding, the literary critic’s primary duty is to hold people responsible for their words. Her ultimate loyalties lie not with a particular work, author, style, period, or cultural programme but rather with language itself as a common inheritance vulnerable to the betrayals of sloppy workmanship (Ezra Pound’s ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’) and authoritarian obfuscation (George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’). With such critics, it makes sense to speak of a ‘linguistic conscience’ since their concern with technique is fundamentally moral. They tend to see writing as not only a craft, but also a form of conduct that attests to character. Our use of words can and ought to be judged according to the standards we apply to non-verbal behaviour. Because one of these standards is responsibility (to the welfare of others or the truth of one’s convictions), the upshot is often political, but not in the way that politics has tended to be discussed in the English seminar or tutorial (that is, along the axes of race, gender, class, sexuality) in recent years.
This is by no means an exhaustive schema and very probably every critic does something of all three in differing proportion. But it does go some way to explaining the distinction of David Bromwich, who is the leading living exponent of that third category of criticism.
A scholar of British romanticism and an author of books on William Hazlitt, William Wordsworth, and Edmund Burke, Bromwich has also published a significant amount of journalism, mostly political commentary. Oddly for an exemplar of this third temper, critical labour is not the other side of creative practice. He is, in a rather direct sense, a critic’s critic; his first book on Hazlitt emerged out of a desire to write a dissertation on the calling of criticism. Yet few writers within the academy are as instinctively on the side of the figure Virginia Woolf called ‘the common reader’. Against the academic disparagement of ‘amateurish dilettantism’ or ‘old-fashioned belle-lettrism’, he observed that once we return to the etymology of the individual words:
[S]omething is revealed by the choice of these as dismissive epithets. The professionalists are trying to scour our minds of every ameliorative idea of age, beauty, elegance, delight and love. I cannot agree to despise these things, however shopworn they appear when translated into French and then translated back into English clichés to supply the impressible material for a slating assessment by thoroughbred professionals.
It is a characteristic insight from Bromwich in which the subtle unpicking of rhetoric barely registers beneath the blast of unabashed conviction, at least on first reading.
In a manner reminiscent of William James, Bromwich’s assault on ‘thoroughbred professionals’ was intended to rankle his colleagues. It was James, after all, who exposed the ‘deadly’ effects (including an inability to discuss favourite authors) of succumbing to ‘intellectual respectability’ in his 1906 Presidential Address (Admonition, rather) to the American Philosophical Association, the paper mischievously titled ‘The Energies of Men’.
But what James had been content to identify as merely a collective psychosis (‘habit-neurosis’), Bromwich is liable to diagnose as a psychosis of collectivity. The above quotation comes from his book detailing the effects on American higher education of ‘group thinking’ (or ‘groupthink’), a term used by post-war psychologists to describe the phenomenon whereby collective decision-making is jeopardised by the desire to build a strict consensus. As Irving Janis concluded in Victims of Groupthink (1972), when unanimity and coherence are set at a premium by a group, what tends to speak loudest are the most commonly shared delusions.
In Bromwich’s most recent writing, the term has been dropped but the diagnosis remains: from the ‘soft despotism of social media’ to the cocoon of mindfulness in which we are swathed by the culture of well-being, the range of acceptable thought and permissible intensities of speech has narrowed among educated and politically-minded progressives. At risk is the very thing that makes politics of a non-authoritarian stripe possible: the art of ‘using words to influence people unlike [ourselves]’. In short: persuasion.
How Words Make Things Happen and American Breakdown are very different books, but both are intended for a general rather than a specialist readership. A revised version of the Clarendon Lectures that Bromwich delivered at Oxford in 2013, the first examines the place of persuasion in our literary and political culture; it includes, as a coda or postscript, an essay on censorship published in late 2016. The second book collects some of Bromwich’s journalism on American politics over the last decade or so.
What these books share is an ethical concern with the efficacy of words. Under what circumstances can we count on speaking as a kind of doing? Should we hold an author responsible for the actions her words may come to inspire – even those that militate against her avowed intentions? These are seemingly abstract questions yet they have a particular urgency in the current political climate. Indeed, one of the many incisive characterizations to emerge from Bromwich’s account in American Breakdown is the sharpness of the dichotomy between Barack Obama, who ‘set great store by words … understand[ing] them as a relevant form of action—almost at times, a substitute for action’, and Donald Trump, for whom ‘the great thing about words … is that they are disposable’. The recent ‘breakdown’ of constitutionalist ideals of governance in America has claimed many casualties, not the least of which has been public trust in the political currency of words.
The Clarendon Lectures were given in the early stages of Obama’s second term when disenchantment with his presidency had already set in. One of the most vocal critics of Obama’s penchant for motivational speeches unbacked by meaningful action, Bromwich explores a more basic premise about the relationship between words and deeds in How Words Make Things Happen: words are always written or spoken with a motive in mind, but whether this motive is transmitted as readily as the words bearing its stamp is always open to question.
For Bromwich, acknowledging the unpredictable, perhaps even incalculable, effects words may have should make us re-think our assumptions about two things: firstly, how we go about distinguishing persuasive from imaginative uses of language (a distinction plain enough if we consider that where a range of interpretations is generally expected of a literary work, the deliverer of a stump speech is thought to have the meaning of her words under tighter control); and secondly, how we go about regulating the boundaries of acceptable public speech. As becomes clear in the treatment of the Rushdie affair and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in the book’s final section, genre is intimately related to censorship. Defences of free speech have a tendency to slip from suspicion of the censor’s motives to an appeal to the purity of authorial motives. Once we move from defending the necessity of a plurality of beliefs to justifying whatever is written on the basis of the dignity of authorship, we have changed the grounds of our argument from the political to the aesthetic, from an instinct about preserving the space of persuasion to hallowing the sanctity of the imagination. What we lose in making this transition is the recurrent theme of this complex and stimulating book.
Moving fluidly between poetry, plays, and political speeches in a series of five chapters, How Words Make Things Happen pitches itself on the speculative ‘boundary between rhetoric and poetry … a boundary we generally acknowledge to exist while recognizing that it is exceedingly difficult to locate’. The first chapter, ‘Does Persuasion Occur?’, sets out from the premise that ‘a hunger for belief drives much of human conduct’. Credulity is more basic than skepticism and insofar as persuasion administers to our need to believe and be believed, it is part of the fabric of social life. What Bromwich aims to show here is the way that rhetorical theorists from Aristotle to J. L. Austin all start by assuming ‘the purposive adequacy of language’ before moving outward to register and account for the ‘more than rational force’ words are sometimes charged with, especially in literature.
The first literary case studies are examined in the second chapter, ‘Speakers Who Convince Themselves’, which suggests a new basis for our fascination with soliloquies. In giving the illusion of unmediated access to the drama of consciousness, the soliloquy has often been seen as marking a limit of literature’s imaginative reach. Yet through a careful plotting of the rhetorical manoeuvrings of Shakespeare’s Brutus and Angelo as well as Milton’s Satan, Bromwich suggests another reason that soliloquies compel our attention: they are masterpieces of persuasion, ‘exhibit[ing] in detail the process of rationalization or self-justification’. The chapter concludes surprisingly with a discussion of the climax of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady in which the heroine, Isabel Archer, combs over an impression of her husband and in the process convinces herself of the truth of his relationship with another woman. Bromwich takes this passage – as forensic as it is meditative – to exemplify not the interiority we have learned to value as the end of all narrative technique, but rather ‘a language appropriate to a perceptive mind that sees and tells the truth about people without wanting to have any power over them’. The example of Isabel Archer undoes one of the incurable grudges aesthetes from Oscar Wilde to the New Critics have borne against persuasion, namely, that it can only ever end one way: with the cessation of thought for the stimulus of action. Instead, James’ novel ‘bear[s] witness to a return from action to thought that is also an achievement of freedom’.
Turning from fiction to non-fiction, the third chapter, ‘Pledging Emotion for Conviction’, revisits the speeches of Edmund Burke (on India) and Abraham Lincoln (on slavery) to show the manner in which ‘the cognitive and affective elements of conviction are indistinguishable’. It’s an insight that Bromwich locates not only implicitly in these speeches, but also explicitly in Walter Bagehot’s 1871 essay on ‘The Emotion of Conviction’. This essay isn’t particularly well-known now, but it left a lasting impression on William James who paid homage to Bagehot’s argument in The Principles of Pyschology by observing that ‘to conceive with passion is ipso facto [to] affirm’. Once you’ve managed to articulate a position in its strongest possible terms, you’re already more than half-way to believing it. The intuition gleaned from Burke and Lincoln that ‘we learn … more profoundly what we believe when we hear ourselves say it’ looks forward to the concluding chapter’s remarks on self-censorship.
The fourth chapter, ‘Persuasion and Responsibility’, presents the centrepiece of Bromwich’s argument: an extended close reading of Auden’s elegy ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, a poem that seeks to exonerate its subject of the charge of speaking irresponsibly by flatly asserting, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. This analysis is triangulated by a discussion of Yeats’ late writing and Orwell’s essays on both poets, important circumstantial documents for Bromwich in making his case about the contortions of logic and doubts that led to the making of an ‘elegy for a poet whose politics were by no means hostile to Fascism [that] very nearly ends as an overt appeal against Fascism’. Auden intended to honour the poems which in surviving their maker would be purified of the contaminants of a life increasingly in the grip of a bloody-mind longing for consummative acts of violence. But, as Bromwich asks, ‘could Yeats, could any poet, ever control the meaning of his words while he was alive?’ Some such worry seems to have been sufficiently on Auden’s mind for him to have added (rather late in the day) an extra protection clause about the persuasive impotence (what Austin would have called the ‘infelicity’) of poetry.
Despite the ingenuity and tact of Bromwich’s readings, it is the last chapter, ‘What Are We Allowed to Say?’, that is most likely to draw readers to How Words Make Things Happen. Originally published in the London Review of Books, this polemic against what Bromwich diagnoses as the censoring and self-censoring tendencies in contemporary progressive culture gains in resonance when placed alongside the preceding lectures. The kind of aestheticism that Auden proposes in his Yeats elegy – the kind that ‘espouse[s] the consoling but false hope that verbal art can be an epitome of pure play, an enactment of wonder and pleasure by which we are uniquely humanized’ – tends simultaneously to underrate and overrate the ability of words to make things happen. It underrates this ability by insisting that poetry is merely play and thus ‘makes nothing happen’; but it also overrates it by committing to a consoling fiction about the necessarily humanizing quality of art qua art.
A variant of this aestheticism seems to have stolen into the debates around Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. As Bromwich notes, these works were defended, both erroneously and in bad faith, by Western commentators through ‘a claim for the moral courage and stature of the artist’ rather than through a ‘straightforward political affirmation of press liberty’ that civil liberties activists would have reached for two generations or so ago. The falsifications of this claim for the progressive tendency of art and artists are particularly apparent in the Charlie Hebdo incident, where Rushdie himself defended the cartoonists by affirming satire’s impeccability as ‘a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity’. Even the most cursory scan of a Norton Anthology would suggest otherwise; satire, Bromwich observes, ‘may come from the palace as well as the gutter’ and it is as liable to punch down as punch up.
The contradiction whereby the efficacy of words is both over- and underrated also tends to characterise attitudes towards free speech in Western liberal democracies. On the one hand, free speech is brandished at the level of global politics as a ‘banner-slogan’ of Western tolerance and respect for individual rights, though, as Bromwich wrily remarks, ‘the temptation to strut is not altogether unavoided’. On the other hand, in the identitarian brand of campus politics, he detects new and divergent norms of public discourse emerging: what he characterises as an ‘enforced equability’ and ‘a neutral style of rational euphemism’ on the part of speakers; an ‘expanded field for taking offense’ on the part of audiences. For Bromwich, these developments contribute to ‘a new keenness of censorious distrust’ that comes with ‘a built-in suspicion of the outliers in public discussion’.
‘What Are We Allowed to Say?’ was published just before Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, an event which has hastened the entry of Bromwich’s misgivings about the repressive and stultifying effects of the internet (which ‘isolates users in sectarian hives that become repositories of half-truth and propaganda’) and Facebook (‘to be “friended” … is to be … walled-up and wadded-in by chosen and familiar connections’) into conventional wisdom. But the essay is most compelling when it attempts to fit innovations in campus identity politics into a larger political frame.
When Bromwich synthesizes the communitarian argument that ‘surveillance promotes safety for the sake of community’, he provides a salutary reminder about the ambivalence of safety as a political rationale: insofar as it ensures our participation and complicity in surveillance culture – a culture of being monitored by the government and the mutual monitoring of peers – the mantra of safety subtends both the conservative agenda around ‘national security’ and the progressive cause of institutionalising ‘safe spaces’ in universities and workplaces. In both instances, a recognition of inherent fragility, whether of the individual or the community, licenses a paternalism all the more ‘innocent’ for its bureaucratic impersonality.
A more speculative but nonetheless striking observation in this vein occurs in the essay’s final section:
In 2003 the United States bombed, invaded, and occupied Iraq, and set the Middle East on fire. The event is generally talked of as a ‘mistake’. But there was a legal name for it, ‘a war of aggression’, and in the past several years in America, colleges and other small communities have witnessed the discovery of a new crime: the microaggression. From a certain distance, the concept of the microaggression has the quality of a repressed memory, a recognition of violence elsewhere that surfaces in denial and displacement.
This is an ingenious point about a rhetorical feature that most observers are likely to have registered in some way: the odd militancy of the language in which the therapeutic discourse of identity politics is couched (the term ‘trigger warning’ provides an even more vivid example) – or should one say ‘weaponised’?
For those who are in regular contact with undergraduates, aspects of Bromwich’s analysis will likely ring true. I first noticed the shift in manners towards an ‘enforced equability’ in 2013 when teaching a module on ‘Argument’ to second-year undergraduates studying English at Cambridge. In their assigned essays on Burke’s rhetoric in ‘A Letter to a Noble Lord’, the students repeatedly accused the author of ‘bias’ on account of the high emotional colour of his language. The equation of equability with truth is also, I suspect, partially responsible for the momentary appeal of Jordan Peterson, whose bland gravitas passed for dignified thoughtfulness among the susceptible.
Still, Bromwich’s political commentary has, through the vigour and acuity of his attacks on the left’s complacencies, given some liberal readers the impression that he means to provide ammunition for the right. ‘What Are We Allowed to Say?’ isn’t always helped by its selection of examples. The case of the Education Department official writing to the New York Times to complain about the potentially traumatizing effects of a passage in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence – a passage about a female character who had ‘lost her looks’ – is too outlandish to be edifying and more fit to be a Fox News talking point. And while Bromwich’s discussion of microaggressions is clarifying, it is also narrowly conceived; his hypothetical scenario of a white student who can be caught out for either not looking or looking too long at a black classmate is so Beckettian in its abstraction that it’s unclear what the stakes are. A tone of peevishness also enters the argument in its late stages: the reference to a ‘near-autistic breakdown of political speech in America’ is an unfortunate lapse into the very ‘mock-clinical’ jargon he criticizes earlier in the piece; the advocacy of ‘misanthropy’ as a motive for the rejection of censorship is slightly bizarre.
I would have liked to see a critic of Bromwich’s intellectual resources examine microaggressions and other protectionist micro-political concepts in a more generous context, perhaps with an eye on the long march of civil rights in its various manifestations across the world. How much of the thinking around micro-aggression is influenced by legislation against hate speech, for example? What is gained or lost by modelling a sanction against subtler, and often implicit, forms of prejudicial action on a sanction against violently discriminatory words? Is there a practicable distinction between offense and injury or harm? And if so, should it be legislated?
The Australian legal system affords a useful case study here with Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) providing that an act is unlawful if it is (a) ‘reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people’; and (b) ‘done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group’. The sequence of verbs in the first provision suggests a sliding scale of severity from offense to intimidation, but it speaks to the law’s prevailing assumption that offense does cross the threshold of harm – though it’s not clear exactly how this harm ought to be measured: psychologically? Sociologically? These are questions well within the compass of Bromwich’s argument about the volatile efficacy of words, but he does himself no favours by dismissively characterizing the upshot of identity politics as ‘evolving a right to feel good about ourselves’. If the book’s plea is (as the back-cover declares) for ‘charity in interpretation’ given the vagaries of speech, then surely Bromwich ought to exercise some of this himself. For once we remove the therapeutic gloss from the identitarian discourse of ‘sensitivity’ and ‘awareness’, its fundamental claim becomes harder to dismiss: it is trying to evolve a right to equal dignity and respect.
Bromwich concludes ‘What Are We Allowed to Say?’ by preaching a skeptical humility:
The wrongs of the past, as well as of the present, ought to be redressed in a medium more solid than language; but speech has always been as mixed, as improper, as dirty as action; and unhappily even the cure is bound to carry traces of the impurity of the physician. Whatever led us to expect innocence from people like us?
The enemy of self-suspicion is the moral presumptuousness of sitting as judge in one’s own cause. An example of such presumption is furnished by the empathic concession that ‘the emotion felt by the listener in response to a speech must be treated as authoritative, unarguable, close to correction or modification by other witnesses’; in short, ‘feeling counts because feeling in the offended person is a dispositive fact’. Bromwich’s resistance to this intuition translates a principle from the macro-politics of governance into the micro-politics of sociability. He has never tired of reiterating Burke’s assertion that ‘one of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is, that no man should be judge in his own cause’ – a belief in the virtue of self-restraint that has been a moral crux of liberal-constitutionalist thought since Locke. If ‘What Are We Allowed to Say?’ suggests that self-restraint has been discarded in the realm of identity politics, American Breakdown details the way in which it has been surrendered to corruption and cowardice on the national stage of American politics.
American Breakdown is composed as a political diary of ‘the Trump years’ with glances back to the Obama and Bush-Cheney administrations. A lucid introduction adds historical weight to the book’s analysis of the present by tracing the decline of trust in government to the beginning of America’s involvement in Vietnam. What Bromwich adds to the surfeit of existing commentary is a sharp eye for the moral psychology of character, a rigorous discipline of attention to words, and an appetite for patient explanation (something he has consistently charged Obama with lacking). But more than anything else, American Breakdown testifies to the benefits of having a literary critic as an observer of contemporary politics – an observer whose ability to ‘see life steadily and see it whole’ (in Arnold’s phrase) makes him uniquely fit to chronicle ‘an arrhythmia’ in the affairs of state ‘which renders all estimates uncertain’.
The blurbs on the backcover of American Breakdown are keen to talk up Bromwich’s literary credentials; he is compared to Hazlitt, Orwell, James Boswell, and Hunter S. Thompson. Yet in his ability to dash off a crisp character sketch, the writer he most seems to resemble is Woolf. The introduction is full of trenchant one-sentence characterisations: ‘It was as if, after the Vietnam War and in denial of the discouragement it brought, the American Dream gave birth to Reagan’; ‘George H. W. Bush was the bridge across which the United States walked to achieve domination of a unipolar world’; ‘Barack Obama’s path to the presidency involved a conscious determination to become the world’s number-one celebrity’.
Unsurprisingly for a scholar of the eighteenth century, he shows a sure command of satire. After detailing the reckless facility with which Trump’s inveigled off-the-books loans from the banks responsible for the 2008 financial collapse, Bromwich remarks wryly: ‘Years before he ran for president, he was a human complex derivative’. It is one of the ironies about Trump that the ease with which he can be caricatured has made it more difficult to get a proper grasp on his character. And as Bromwich notes, the Democrats are not well placed to say anything new or change anyone’s mind about Trump by referring to him ‘in clinical jargon as a “narcissistic personality”, toss[ing] about Greek words like “homophobic” and “misogynistic”, “transphobic” and “xenophobic” … abstract language with no salt or savor, and no traction in common speech’ outside the party’s liberal base. After juxtaposing one of Trump’s tweets with an example of Obama’s ‘mix of corporate and technocratic jargon and media cliché’, Bromwich observes, almost with a sense of relief for the effect of transparent vulgarity: ‘[Trump] is the loudmouth at the bar, cocksure and full of himself and you may want him to stop, but you catch his drift’.
Still reeling from the false dawn of the Obama years and the loss of a seemingly unlosable election, the Democratic Party that emerges from American Breakdown is naïve, senile, and one-eyed – naïve for behaving ‘as if the Republican hostility to government-as-such were a curable aberration’; senile because the combined age of the party’s most likely presidential candidates (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden) is 220; and one-eyed in its lack of interest and conviction in the realm of foreign policy. A refrain throughout these pieces is that foreign policy sets a limits on domestic policy – the more you spend on wars and ‘force projection’ abroad, the less you have to spend on infrastructure and basic services at home – a fact that, according to Bromwich, seems to have been lost on the Democrats who ‘have more to say about Obamacare and abortion and trans bathrooms than they do about Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Russia’.
The privileging of domestic policy – think of the political capital spent on a ‘signature’ piece of legislation such as the Affordable Care Act – at the expense of leadership over foreign policy was emblematic of the Obama administration. During those years, foreign policy was largely entrusted to State Department officials and, more disconcertingly, the intelligence and national security apparatus established by Cheney, the expansion of which went unchecked under Obama’s ‘negligent watch’. How else to explain the remarkable continuity between the two administrations on matters ranging from the non-closure of Guantanamo to support of the wiretapping provisions of the Patriot Act?
What used to be called the ‘national security state’ now more commonly goes by the name of the ‘deep state’. Both terms point to the existence of a bureaucratic juggernaut comprised of private and government operatives thought to constitute a clandestine state within the state. But in precisely the kind of reversal Bruno Latour had diagnosed in his essay ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’, the argument against and suspicion of this military-security-surveillance complex is more frequently heard from the right, who gesture towards its cloak-and-dagger machinations every time a judicial or constitutional measure is invoked against the president. It is now the progressive wing of American politics that has committed itself to the power and authority of this sixth estate in their pursuit of Trump for colluding with Russia in the 2016 elections. For Bromwich, this has placed the Democrats in a bind for ‘the age of detesting Trump is the age of reliance on the deep state and trust in the “intelligence community”.’
These two books are the work of a critic out of temper with the times. They contain some unfashionable opinions argued with undisguised rancour; and for that reason, there’s a conviction to be formed and tested on almost every page. As Bromwich makes clear, the danger we need to confront is the complacency of living in a ‘society without opposition’ (as Herbert Marcuse once put it) – whether in the form of a world invisibly surveilled and administered by the national security state or our self-curated silos of self-flattering opinion and organized contacts. ‘Opposition’, as Bromwich observes in American Breakdown, has not been a favoured term among the activist left who prefer the glamour of ‘resistance’:
There is a marked difference between resistance and opposition. Resistance is in order when a person’s civic conscience forbids obedience to laws introduced and enforced by a criminal government. Opposition ought to be more common: in a constitutional system it has an indispensable function when one party dominates unscrupulously and the opposing party works to prevent the damage that would be done by adoption of the majority party’s policies.
In America (if not elsewhere), the heat of ‘resistance’ has died down for the moment; with an election on the horizon, a normal programme of ‘opposition’ seems to have resumed. Bromwich’s aversion to ‘resistance’ as a political strategy seems to turn on the sanction it gives to releasing our hold on ‘the levers of government’. Whether one agrees with him or not, it is likely that some grasp of these levers will be necessary in confronting the biggest opponent of all: climage change. Increasingly Bromwich seems to be the voice of an opposing party within the party currently in opposition. Those dismayed by the frequency and severity of his dissent should keep in mind the words of William Blake: ‘This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend’.
Thanks to Alecia Simmonds and Shelley Jiang for their incitements to be more critical.
David Bromwich, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
Irving Janis, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972).
Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”, Critical Inquiry 30:2 (2004): 225-48.
James Wood, Serious Noticing (London: Vintage, 2019).