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The Left, The Enlightenment, and Being Woke

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Susan Neiman:  Bryan Stephenson, one of my heroes, says, you know, "Nobody should be reduced to the worst thing they ever did." And my question is, why do we wanna be reduced to the worst thing that ever happened to us?

Alex Chambers:  This week on Inner States, philosopher Susan Neiman on why the left should be wary of wokeness. How Germany's reckoning with the Holocaust has become more complicated lately, and why the differences between two European philosophers, Immanuel Kant and Michel Foucault matter for politics today.

Alex Chambers:  A few years ago, I went to this week long workshop for community organizing, it was to help people learn how to do that. There are a lot of different kinds of people there, people from different backgrounds, there were Somali-Americans, and we were in Minnesota. There were black folks, white folks and Latinx folks and you know, lots of different backgrounds. One of the things we were asked to try to recognize or kind of sharing an understanding of was the ways that the system is hard for all of us. We didn't deny the ways that it affects u s individually, that ways that you know, a white man like me, versus a black woman or a Somali woman or a Latinx man might be affected in different ways, you know, that the larger system is going to affect us in different ways. But, what we were trying to see was the ways that we all share in needing to struggle to make things better.

Alex Chambers:  Susan Neiman, who's on this week's show might not be as into that particular approach. She might see that as being a little to focused on the oppression side. We're all oppressed, kinda thing. From my perspective at the time, it made sense because there was a way that we were all trying to find ways to struggle together, as I said, to make things better. I think she would like us to be not so focused on what she would call "Victimhood." Susan Neiman is a philosopher. She writes about the enlightenment, moral philosophy, metaphysics and politics. Some of that might sound esoteric, but she sees philosophy as a living force for thinking and action, so her books and articles are as much about contemporary politics as philosophy. She came to Indiana University as a patent lecturer in early March and she'd been invited on the basis of her 2019 book, "Learning from the Germans." That book looks at how the Germans reckoned with the Holocaust as a model for how Americans might address the legacy of slavery. Since then she's written a new book, "Left is Not Woke", where she argues that the left has to return to what she says, are its core values, a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power and a belief in the possibility of progress.

Alex Chambers:  That's what's coming up. We talked about how her childhood and adolescence in the American south shaped her politics and philosophy, how she got into philosophy as a way to think about big questions that matter to people, not just obscure abstract concepts. And why she's such a passionate defender of the enlightenment. Here we go.

Alex Chambers:  I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about your origins? You grew up as a Jew in the south during the Civil Rights Movement.

Susan Neiman:  Right. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and hated it when I was growing up, dreamed of moving to New York City or Europe, neither of which I had any clue about, but in fact, I'm glad that I grew up there, it influenced my life in some really important ways. My mother was very involved in the school desegregation campaign, enough to get threats from the Klan. I was, myself, when I became an adolescent involved in a theater school with the three eldest children of Martin Luther King, so that was the meilleure that I grew up with, and it was the meilleure that cared very much about universal social justice, and took it for granted that good people stand up in favor of it. My mother was a housewife at that point. She was not a school political activist of any kind. But, the message that I got was, this is just what good citizens do when injustice is going on. And moreover, this is what we do as Jews, which unfortunately is not a message that one hears everywhere in the Jewish world today, but that's because the universalist Jewish traditional has unfortunately receded. I mean, there's still a strong minority of us.

Susan Neiman:  One a year, at Passover, which is my favorite holiday, we are all supposed to say, "We were slaves in the land of Egypt." Not our ancestors were slaves, not our, you know, anything like that. There's a whole set of rituals and even superstitions around not using the word "We." And what I was taught by my mother and I guess by the very progressive Rabi of the synagogue who worked closely with Dr King for which reason the synagogue was bombed in Atlanta, I was taught if we say, "We were slaves in the land of Egypt," then our place is to stand with the people who were slaves in the land of Georgia. I didn't realize this is a universalist position, I just thought it was obvious and of course, now looking back on it, I think it probably played a role in my life in a very strong way. I didn't go in a straight line. I hated school and dropped out of high school when I was 14. Joined what there was at the time, it seemed like there was a revolution, there was a very strong anti-war movement following the Civil Rights Movement. It all seemed like a piece of the same project. And it was much better than going to a third rate high school [LAUGHS] in the south. It now seems crazy to me, but that is what I did for a couple of years and then somewhere along the road I discovered and I wish I knew how, works of Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoire and I thought, "Gosh. I think I'd like to be a philosopher."

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. I had seen it in your book that you feel in love with the two of them. What about their work made you decide you needed to be a philosopher?

Susan Neiman:  So, by the way, what's very important is I didn't used to admit this, because it's not something that professional philosophers are supposed to admit. I think even in France these days. What I liked was, and of course, I wasn't in a position to understand Satre's metaphysics, but I certainly read his plays. De Beauvoir's ethics of ambiguity and her very detailed autobiography and it seemed to me that there was no better way to think about all of the really important stuff in the world. Also to be politically engaged, to be engaged with artists and you know, all the things. So it was quite a disappointment when I realized, well, let me go back a step. The fact that it was accessible, that it was not addressed to a specialist audience, but that it was written with the hope of social change but not in a narrow way. Simply addressing questions about meaning and how we orient ourselves in the world that most everybody has when they're a thoughtful 16 or 17 year old, which is what I was. So, all that appealed to me, I moved to New York City which at the time, I don't know if it's still the case, they had an open admissions program at City College of New York. If you took a GD high school equivalency test and established residency, you could go to college.

Susan Neiman:  So, I worked downtown in a little publishing company during the day, went to City College at night and transferred to Harvard after two years of that and of course, immediately discovered that it's totally uncool to say that you were interested in philosophy because you read Sartre De Beauvoir neutre[LAUGHS]. And nearly threw in the towel at a certain point but then I did fall, fortunately, into the hands of some quite wonderful mentors at the Harvard Philosophy Department. My life, for eight years, became much narrower than it was before, or since, but I got a very solid training in philosophy through people like John Rowles, Stanley Cavell, who of course, many people also don't consider to be philosopher. [LAUGHS] Mistakenly.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, we can go into that. Yeah, he's interesting for you.

Susan Neiman:  Yeah. So, those and another person were less known were my mentors, and I was, I should say I existentialism was not an option and I'm glad it wasn't an option. I really wasn't very interested in contemporary philosophy, either of the analytic, or much of the so-called Continental variety, even if I could have been exposed to it. So I started doing the history of philosophy. And was fascinated by the Enlightenment period. Roughly covering the entire 18th century, when philosophers were also not writing for other philosophers, they were not writing for their graduate students, 'cause they didn't have any. They were writing with the aim of improving the world through the sweet voice of reason. And so, many of them wrote very, very well and very accessibly, even Immanuel Kant, who is the least good writer among them, wrote 15 important essays for the 18th century equivalent of the New York Review. So, the most famous one being "What is Enlightenment?" Enlightenment is human kind's emergence from itself incurred immaturity. I've written a whole book on that called Why Grow Up? I mean, it starts from that, it's not only about that, but riffing on that and talking about why growing up is hard, what it means, why it doesn't mean what we think it means, it doesn't mean resigning yourself to the world as it is and your limited possibilities in it. It means exactly the opposite. But that was much later.

Susan Neiman:  So, while I was working on Kant and a few other people in German philosophy, it seemed like an obvious thing to do to spend a year in, in Germany and there were plenty of fellowships I could apply to.

Alex Chambers:  OK. I think I just wanna understand actually a little bit more about why, why Kant and the Enlightenment at that point in your life became the subject.

Susan Neiman:  Because the Enlightenment wrote the metaphysics of universal human rights. And in fact, I wouldn't have seen it this way at the time, but it completely hooked up with the moral and political influences of my childhood.

Alex Chambers:  You got interested in thinking about these big questions through the existentialists, but then went to school and started studying with, sort of, some of the great philosophers of their time. Maybe no longer our time. And so, to a certain degree it was those early experiences that then connected with your interest in understanding these thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Susan Neiman:  Yeah, well, I'd put it a little bit differently now. I didn't get interested in those questions because of the Existentialists, it's just that the Existentialists were directly addressing questions that I believe every child asks. OK? Which is why when I later went on to write my book Evil in Modern Thought, I argue that this is bringing philosophy back home to the questions that animate every thinking person, that is to sum it up. There's a huge gap between the way the world is, and the way the world ought to be. And that gap runs through our lives. Runs through the world. Nietzsche called it the metaphysical wound at the heart of the universe. And when we notice that gap, that's when reason gets going and is able to ask "why?" Because if there were no gap, if we really did in the best of all possible worlds, no one would ever have a reason to ask why, either about science or certainly about ethics and political philosophy. So, I believe these are questions that everybody asks, unless they've been so deadened that you know, they stop thinking or caring.

Susan Neiman:  It's just that initially I thought, OK, those question were asked and there was an attempt to answer them in the Existentialists, framed as, "How do we live in a world where the gap between the way it is and the way it ought to be is so large and evident? " How do we navigate that? Do we become cynics? Do we become resigned? Do we give into some dogma or another that says, "Yes, yes, the world really is the way it ought to be." Which a lot of religions do. Leibniz does, made fun of by Voltaire in Candide as Dr Pangloss. You know, this is is best of all possible worlds. That is what would make sense to us. Would make sense to our reason. But, of course, when we look at the world when we have experience, we see how rarely goodness, virtue and happiness seem to coincide. OK? So, what I eventually did, and I'll come back to some other things that I did in a minute, I wrote a book called Evil in Modern Thought, which rewrites the history of modern philosophy. We're usually told that the history of modern philosophy after Descartes is about the problem of knowledge. How do we ever know anything? Can we ever prove anything? Are we real as the external world real.

Susan Neiman:  I always had a really hard time [LAUGHS] understanding why this could possibly get, you know, 100s of years of philosophy going and as the matter of fact, none other than Immanuel Kant himself says these are questions for pedants. He says it in the Second Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason. But it's not the stuff that people read, normally. And I began studying, you know, more intensely the history of philosophy, not even marginal figures in the cannon, but people who were major figured in the cannon, like Kant and [PHONETIC: Hune] and Leibniz and Hagel and realized no-no, actually there's a very different and much more interesting story to tell about the history of philosophy. And it comes much closer to the problems with which 17 year olds approach philosophy. So, that's my book, Evil in Modern Thought. It's done very well in 15 languages and many editions and I'm glad to think that even though it does go against the way most people teach the history of philosophy, I'm helping to change that through that book. So that's in a certain sense a basis of the way I do philosophy and then everything that I've done after that has been, I suppose, based on that particular versions on questions of good and evil and how we navigate and narrate them in the world.

Susan Neiman:  But I should first say that my life was deeply changed in 1982 when I thought that I was going to spend a year in Berlin as a Fulbright fellow and wound up saying things like, "There's more philosophy in any bar in Berlin than I ever met at Harvard." this was obviously an exaggeration. I was an angry 27 year old. But the truth is, there was something about Berlin in particular, I suppose, I mean, in Europe in general, it's still true, it's not just in Sartre and Beauvoir's days. There's a lot of public thinking going on, it's subsidized infrastructure. People do go to plays, but they also, they go to talks and discussions and stuff. Just what people do. There's great public radio all the time, you know. Huge numbers of different radio programs, television, politicians, at least from some parties, the Social Democrats really like doing public discussions with philosophers. I mean, like the President of the country or the chancellor of the country. I mean, this is a thing in Germany which is very hard to imagine in the States. And I suppose other than many things I don't like about Germany, that's one of the things I do like very much.

Susan Neiman:  So, that's part of the culture in a way that I think shows, you know, no, everybody doesn't want to be watching Netflix. I mean, I watch Netflix sometimes. Sometimes there's good stuff on Netflix and, you know, we go to the movies and there's no disinterest in popular culture, on the contrary, there's something more of a seamless move between whatever it is people are listening to or watching at the moment and what here would often be called "High culture that isn't accessible and isn't what the people want to hear." Well, you know, if you give it to 'em, especially if it's free or not terribly expensive, you'd be surprised how many people would like to engage in pretty high level discussions of you know, interesting problems.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a break. You're listening to a conversation with philosopher Susan Neiman, whose book "Left is Not Woke" comes out this month. When we come back, we'll talk about her 2019 book, "Learning from the Germans," about the German reckoning with the holocaust in relation to the US reckoning, or non reckoning with racial slavery. We'll be right back.

Alex Chambers:  This is Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers and I'm talking with philosopher Susan Neiman about how she hoped Americans could learn from the Germans as they each reckoned with violence in their own histories.

Alex Chambers:  I want to get to your current project and I'd like to do that through "Learning from the Germans" which was a book that was very much in conversation with a lot of different people, there's almost a journalistic aspect to it, I feel like. You went and talked with lots of people about the memory of the Holocaust and how that was dealt with in Germany and how the memory of slavery in the US is, or is not being reckoned with.

Susan Neiman:  Sure.

Alex Chambers:  So, take me to that.

Susan Neiman:  Happy to do so. The other thing that I wanted to say about why being in Berlin in 1982 changed my life, is that it's a place where both the memory of World War II and the Cold War is intensely present and discussed all the time whether in a bar or on television or in a movie or in an exhibit or whatever. You cannot get away from it and that affected me very powerfully. I wrote about it in my very first book, noting that it, even, even back then in my first book, it would be a nice thing if Americans actually began to think about some of the evils in our past as seriously as the Germans do. And then in 2015, watching President Obama's eulogy for the nine black church goers who were murdered in Charleston, in my Berlin apartment with tears in my eyes, I thought, "Gosh, America's beginning this process of historical reckoning, it's the first time that any major politician, much less a president, said, "We need to look at our racist past or it's going to continue into the future. It's funny because eight years later it now seems kind of obvious, but it was a bit moment in 2015. And I thought, "Gosh I have been following this development for three decades in Berlin, maybe I can contribute to this conversation."

Susan Neiman:  So, I decided to write a book called "Learning from the Germans" and I did, it was the only time in my life that I've ever done imperial research. I had a great time doing it, I have to say. I interviewed many, many people both in Germany and I had sabbatical, so I spent half a year in Mississippi deciding to go to the deep south, which is of course, you can't say that Mississippi is typical although many people do say Mississippi has the best and the worst of America. And it's like, everything is under a magnifying glass. So, I stayed there following activists who are working on dealing with this history, and learning from them and interviewing them. And yes, you said journalistic, I had two separate people in Germany who are completely different from each other describe the book as a road movie which I'm rather pleased by.

Alex Chambers:  [LAUGHS] Yeah, it kind of has that element.

Susan Neiman:  And, I mean, I have to be very clear about this. The Germans after the war did not initially want to do any form of atonement at all. In fact, one of the insights that I had when I was working on this material was, they sounded exactly like defenders of the lost cause. Germans, particularly west Germans in the early decades after the war would say things like, "Well, we lost the war and our cities were in ruins and ashes." And, "We lost seven million citizens and our men were in POW camps and we were hungry, just barely alive." That's a citation, I don't know if anybody will recognize it, but there was a moment when I was driving on the highway in the States and Joan Baez "Is the Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" came on the radio and I thought, Baez sang in Selma when white people were getting killed in Selma. Baez was not just virtue signaling, she was on the right side when there was a cause to be on the right side and she is singing a hymn to the confederacy. It's a beautiful song, but I started imagining, what if I were singing, you know, The Night They Drove The Wehrmacht Down? You know?

Susan Neiman:  So, this lost cause mythology is a deep part of America, even among people who would deeply surprise you. So, the Germans spent a good four decades really resisting any kind of gestures of atonement of apology and the story of how that changed is a very important story, I think for American activists because it shows that it's very normal not to want to see your ancestors as criminal. It's very normal to want to see them as heroes or, if you can't do that, to see them as victims. And Germans were the first people to put being perpetrators in the center of their national historical narrative. OK? So, that's basically the thesis of the book which I've come, not really to revise, but to change, or at least expand in light of events that have happened both in Germany in the last three years since the book was published and in the United States. And let me try to sketch them as briefly as possible.

Susan Neiman:  It's really very hard to describe the German scene to Americans because it seems so weird. But, because the Germans finally became official German policy, we were perpetrators, the Jews were our victims and nothing will ever make us forget that. And in particular, the state of Israel is part of our raison d'être, as Angela Merkel sometimes said. So what do you do if the state of Israel is massively violating human rights? So, what do you do if you're a guilt ridden German, about that fact? You tend to react by rote. And I understand the guilt and I understand the uncertainty, the deep uncertainty for a German of my generation or even younger, the very worst thing they can possibly be called is an antisemite, alright? But what's happened in the past two years is a wave of McCarthyism, banning people, including Jews and Israelis who live in Germany from criticizing the Israeli government. And the people who have it the worst are non-Jews, of course, we've had a Palestinian-German television personality fired because she liked a tweet from a Jewish, a left wing Jewish organization, American Jewish organization.

Alex Chambers:  And it was critical of Israel?

Susan Neiman:  Yeah. We've had a Congolese German fired from his children's program because he visited a Palestinian children's festival. I mean, it's very, very intense and I've been involved both in being the target of such accusations but also in trying to organize with other people to push back against them. So, if I would have given the, let's say, you know, Germans B+ a couple of years ago, I spend most of my time when I'm in Germany criticizing what they're doing in the name of historical reckoning right now. What lesson does that have for Americans? Doing things by route is always a mistake. OK? And I think there is way too much tendency in this country now I'm pleased, obviously, that we have moved so far in the direction that I was urging. My book came out in the same month as the 1619 Project. Now, I, along with other people, have some criticisms of the 1619 Project and the way that it's been defended in particular. There's a tendency to react to any criticism of the work of the 1619 Project as racist and I find that extremely problematic.

Susan Neiman:  I mean, just to take one example, it's going on in many cases all over the country. There's also a tendency to dismiss black thinkers like John McWhorter or Thomas Chatterton Williams who criticize some of these woke excesses, dismissing them as conservative or, God forbid, Uncle Tom. Neither them is as far to the left as I am. I identify as a leftist and a socialist. Both of them would identify as standard liberal democrats. Or take Adolph Reed is another, Adolph Reed and Touré Reed. I mean, there are black thinkers who are almost left out of the conversation because the view is if you're black, you see yourself as a victim and you see that is the standpoint that you want to be seen from. And what's of course, so interesting to me and has been so formative in my own thinking about this stuff, which I'm still revising, I spend, you know, a good 60% of my time recently, in the last two years in Berlin saying, "No, I'm not a victim." Yes, I'm a Jew. But I do not reduce all Jews to victims.

Susan Neiman:  I see massive human rights crimes going on in a state that claims to speak in my name and that any time it is criticized, Israel of course I mean, brings up the Holocaust and that's not how I identify, OK? So, I think they're parallel, the other thing that has bothered me so much about woke, which is hard to call a movement, exactly, in any sort of strict sense, but it's closely allied with post-colonial theory. Post-colonial theory, of course, has many variations, I don't want to reduce it to something but one thing that all variations of post-colonial theory have in common is a rejection of the Enlightenment and an idea that the Enlightenment was a racist colonialist movement that was bent on imposing white European values on the rest of the world in order to colonize them. This is entirely false. This is not just a nuance. This is completely wrong. And my book Left is Not Woke is a defensive enlightenment from a left wing perspective, showing that actually enlightenment thinkers were the first people to attack colonialism. The first people to complain about Eurocentrism and to say that white Europeans had a great deal to learn from other cultures.

Susan Neiman:  So, what the post-colonialists don't realize is that when they're making those claims, they're actually speaking in the voices of the Enlightenment. When you throw out the Enlightenment, you're not only being historically unjust, you throw out three principles that I think are crucial to any left or liberal perspective. One is the principle of universalism over tribalism. And this used to be a principle of the left that, well, let me put it differently. Tribalism used to be the principle of the right, that is, you only have deep things in common with people who belong to your tribe and you only have real obligations towards people of your tribe. For the left, the circle of people you could connect with and have obligations to encompasses the whole globe. And that's an Enlightenment idea which has been entirely lost in post colonial and woke discourse, where tribal identity is the center identity and the weird thing about this, is of course, we all have lots of identities.

Alex Chambers:  Time for a break. This is Inner States and you're listening to a conversation with philosopher Susan Neiman about identity politics and woke culture. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers and I'm talking with philosopher Susan Neiman about how aspects of woke culture have been taken up by conservatives and how she thinks the left needs to be wary of woke culture too. When we left off, we were talking about how tribalism used to be a principle of the right, but that's changing. I'd like to just stick with that for a minute because it actually ties back to a question I didn't ask a minute ago, before you got to the Enlightenment, which is part of, I think, the argument that is made from the perspective of what maybe has become what we call "woke", from the identity politics perspective is that there are particular identities that experience more oppression and that some of these also get piled on top of each other, is one way to put it. There's the idea of intersectionality and that in order to struggle against those particular forms of oppression and racism, sexism, etcetera, we need to think about the particular experiences of the people coming from those positions. Think about the Combahee River Collective Statement. Black feminism and the argument that they made that you have to be putting these positions together and understanding what it means to have that intersection of experiences.

Susan Neiman:  I don't think any serious person would deny that, OK? What bothers me about the discussion of intersectionality is the way in which is privileges the identities which have suffered the most. And the ways in which it sees of our very many identities, which are way more than just gender and ethnicity. It privileges the ones where we were most hurt and where we have the least agency. And the question is, do we want to be reduced? Bryan Stephenson, one of my heroes says, you know, "Nobody should be reduced to the worst thing they ever did." And my question is, why do we wanna be reduced to the worst thing that ever happened to us? You know? This is all the subject of my next book that won't be out for a good year and a half because I want to write about heroism and victims and the way that those categories have changed historically.

Alex Chambers:  That does seem also central to this question that you're bringing up about post-colonialism as well, I think, in terms of people kind of positioning themselves or their groups, or their nations historically as having been victimized.

Susan Neiman:  Yes, so do you know what Modi is doing that right now?

Alex Chambers:  Talk about that.

Susan Neiman:  The prime minister of India, now the world's largest country, is not just suppressing the rights of Muslims, who have historically constituted the largest minority in India, he's preparing and in some cases encouraging what my Indian friends call a "pogrom". What happens, and I mean censorship is terrible and opposition views have a very hard time getting play. Again, my friends, who know a number of Indian languages and are often there on the ground, although some of them can't go there anymore 'cause their lives are threatened, call it fascism. What does Modi do? "Don't come talking to me about human rights, those are western categories, you oppressed us for so many years. The Moguls oppressed us, the Brits oppressed us. We are Indians, we have our own values."

Alex Chambers:  But is that his appropriation of that language, does that mean that that position itself should be thrown out? Or is useless?

Susan Neiman:  I happen to know a number of people working on colonial history against post-colonial theory. That is, of course it's important to learn about colonial history, nobody would be, you know, nobody would deny that. But both in India and in Africa, there was a good book by a man named Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, a Nigeria, there are two Olúfẹ́mi Táíwòs. This is the oldest one. Against Decolonization. OK? Who feel that, first of all, that many of the things are being trashed as western values, idea of universality, the idea of human rights were not imported in Europe, but they can find plenty of examples in the thought of their own country and resent like hell. I mean, I happen to know more the way that Modi is abusing this kind of a move just because it's so large and public and enough of it is in English so I have access to it. I know people are working on it.

Susan Neiman:  But, the similar things are happening in a number of African countries. You know, and the question is, are we going to throw out things that are labeled as western values, which may have been first theoretically deeply formulated in the Enlightenment but have plenty of echoes in other cultures, in other parts of the world. And the first one I said was universalism versus tribalism, there's a second and third which I want to mention very quickly. One is the belief that there's a hard distinction between justice and power. OK? That working for justice is not simply a smoke screen, you know, a manipulative form of power grabbing. Now, we know that that's happened, OK? Throughout history. Perhaps one of the latest examples that are still fresh in people's minds here was the Iraq war where Bush and his cronies claimed to be... Well, as soon as you saw that they came up with six different rationalizations for invading Iraq, you had to know without having any access [LAUGHS] to any classified information that something very fishy was going on.

Susan Neiman:  First it was weapons of mass destruction and then it was spreading democracy. And of course, we know that that's not what they were doing. But, from that, many people on the left, or on the so-called left conclude, it is impossible ever to make a distinction between seeking justice and seeking power. And someone like Foucault, who is the most influential thinker in post-colonial thought, was very clear about it. There is no distinction between justice and power. And that's a very dangerous assumption that has seeped into thinking of the so-called left in the last 40 years or so. And the final principle, Enlightenment principle that's absolutely crucial for the left that's being thrown away, is the idea that progress is possible. It's sometimes charactered as the idea that progress is necessary, no genuine Enlightenment thinker ever thought that.

Susan Neiman:  But the idea that human beings working together could actually change their circumstances to make them freer, more dignified, more happy, was a new idea. You know. If you had notions of time that were circular, you had notions of time that said, you know what, maybe when the Messiah comes, or maybe when you die and go to heaven, but otherwise, life on earth is a veil of tears and there's nothing you can do about it but accept it. And it was the Enlightenment that allowed us to say, "You know what? Actually, we can do something about slavery, feudalism, disease, poverty." And so, when you get, again, a thinker like Foucault who argues that every apparent form of progress is actually a more subtle form of subjugation, you run the risk of a real kind of resignation. And I see this all over the town that people on the left want to spend their time, let me see if I can think of a recent example.

Susan Neiman:  Somebody told me, "Well, this person is investigating instances of racism in early American socialism." And I said, "Well, that's a project." [LAUGHS] OK. How about given that the socialists were less racist than any other group of people in American history, how about trying to convince Americans that socialism is a live option, that it's not something to be afraid of, first, before you go deconstructing it?

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, and I think that's both, that's a philosophical question and also a strategic one at the same time.

Susan Neiman:  Yeah, exactly.

Alex Chambers:  These concerns about, even while knowing how important it is to acknowledge the experiences of different positions, that we also need to be thinking strategically about whether it's a good project or not, if we actually wanna make changes.

Susan Neiman:  Well, the question is let us acknowledge the realty of progress that link and held some racist views, although less and less as his life went on. It's not a reason to cancel Lincoln. He died for the civil rights of African Americans, OK? No, he was not as far along as we are, but whatever progress we have made is on the backs of people like Abraham Lincoln, he should be first of all, honored but second of all, let's be happy that we actually have moved forward, you know, to thinking about racism and sexism since 1865.

Alex Chambers:  So, last thing, you wrote at the end of, and it may have been even in the sort of the postscript to Learning From The Germans, this idea that hope is a moral obligation.

Susan Neiman:  Yeah. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is a statement about the way the world is. Hope doesn't make any predictions. It's not about facts, it's an attempt to change them. OK? And therefore, it's not something that can be proved or disproved. It's a moral obligation because there is one thing that we know for absolutely certain, sure, is that if we stop hoping, the world really will go down the drain, OK? The only chance we have to save it on the whole, you know, bunch of levels on which the world is threatened at this moment in time, is if we believe that our efforts can make a difference to stopping the climate crisis, to stopping the rise of fascism, if we keep deconstructing, saying "Oh, the thought they were making progress but look that they didn't." You know, that's an intellectual exercise that obliges you to do absolutely nothing but sit in your room or your classroom and deconstruct some more, OK? We are living in a time of peril, I don't think there's much serious doubt about that.

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Susan Neiman:  And the only chance we have is if we commit to the idea that we're obliged to keep hoping because hope is what sustains action. Now, that's an argument made by Immanuel Kant but as I once told Noam Chomsky who makes the same argument, Noam Chomsky also makes it, so. He didn't know that there was a Kant in our, you know. But it's the form of the argument that is exactly Kant's and they're both right in this case.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah. Great. Well, thank you so much.

Susan Neiman:  You're welcome.

Alex Chambers:  Philosopher Susan Neiman, her book Left Is Not Woke comes out this week. And if you're looking for another perspective on these challenges, I have an article to recommend. It's by Maurice Mitchell, he's the executive director of the Working Family's Party. The article is called Building Resilient Organizations and like Susan Neiman's book, it is also trying to reckon with what we might called "woke culture" in organizations that are trying to fight for social change. But it's a very different kind of argument. I'll put a link on our website.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Jack Lindner, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Susan Neiman and to Indermohan Virk, the Executive Director of the Patten Foundation for helping to make this conversation happen. Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was watching the hot water kettle. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.

Susan Neiman

Susan Neiman (Courtesy of the Indiana University Patten Foundation)

Susan Neiman is a philosopher. She writes about the Enlightenment, moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics. Some of that might sound esoteric, but she sees philosophy as a living force for thinking and action, so her books and articles are as much about contemporary politics as philosophy. She came to Indiana University as a Patten Lecturer in early March, and she’d been invited on the basis of her 2019 book Learning from the Germans. That book looks at how the Germans reckoned with the Holocaust as a model for how Americans might address the legacy of slavery. Since then she’s written a new book, Left is Not Woke, where she argues that the left has to return to what she says are its core values: a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress.

We talked about how her childhood and adolescence in the American South shaped her politics and philosophy, how she got into philosophy as a way to think about big questions that matter to people, not just obscure abstract concepts, and why she’s such a passionate defender of the Enlightenment.

These questions about the relationship between identity and politics are coming up a lot right now. For another perspective on all this, I want to recommend an article by Maurice Mitchell, executive director of the Working Families Party. It's called Building Resilient Organizations, and he, too, is grappling with the ways - as he puts it - "Identity and position are misused to create a doom loop that can lead to unnecessary ruptures of our political vehicles and the shuttering of vital movement spaces." Along with analyzing how we got here, he offers a number of solutions - solutions, I should say, that do not involve ignoring identity.


Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Jillian Blackburn, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Jay Upshaw, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music

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