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George Scialabba, Radical Democrat

A new collection of far-sighted essays dissects the pathologies of the present moment.

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It may strike a reader new to George Scialabba’s writing as extraordinary that Slouching Toward Utopia, a new collection of his essays and reviews, is not a response to Donald Trump’s presidency. Although the president does not appear by name until a handful of very recent pieces toward the end—earlier he is decorously invoked, just once, as “a famous social parasite”—Scialabba has argued for years that the United States is a plutocracy, administered mainly for the convenience of those who control capital and jobs. His consistent themes have been the corruption of language, the coarsening of imagination, the colonization of attention by technology and commerce, and the seductions of power. The pathologies that the present moment throws into relief have always been the occasions of his warnings and laments. He writes lucidly about benightedness, vividly about purblindness, so that his essays and reviews show thought as a thing possible in a world that can seem a conspiracy against sense and reason.

It is up to Scialabba’s readers to observe this modest heroism in his work, because he will not claim it for himself. He has long insisted on the political irrelevance of criticism. Once, he says here and has said elsewhere, it was possible for the amateur writer to announce a kind of judgment on the lies of the powerful, but those days are gone, consumed by a world of experts and institutions too recondite and sinuous to feel the stone of a judgment launched precisely from a fine syntactic sling.

Yet his stones come flying. You can read Scialabba just for the satisfying crunch of another Philistine’s deserving temple. Of the New Republic in the 1990s, when the touchstone liberal magazine supported cuts in taxes and social spending, attacked affirmative action, and published a cover article slandering health-care reform, he writes: 

Though this rightward move was opportunistic, it wasn’t unprincipled opportunism. Opportunism, after all, was the New Republic’s bedrock principle. Not the uncomplicated, self-serving kind, but the well-meaning, deluded kind that believes above all in maintaining credibility with the powerful, since how else can anything be accomplished except by whispering in their ear?

It isn’t just that Scialabba has insulted them in some satisfying way, for he loathes pseudo-clever putdowns; it is that he has understood them better than they can abide understanding themselves, connecting these elite liberals’ self-congratulatory contrarianism and skepticism with their distorting credulousness toward power. Of one of Mark Lilla’s crusades against radical intellectuals who allegedly defend and possibly adore totalitarianism, Scialabba remarks mildly, “he refrains from naming anyone, and I, for one, have no idea who he means.” A few exacting, quietly empirical sentences later, it is plain that Lilla is wrestling with phantasms, or straw men. Scialabba is not out for blood. It is just that exquisite fairness is more than some systems can take.

Scialabba is angry at the looting and degradation of his country, the immiseration of its working people, and the complacency of its elites, yet anger is not the leading emotion of these essays. As with most great criticism, curiosity and appreciation govern his eye more than umbrage. In essays on little magazines (The New Republic and Partisan Review) and treatments of thinkers from the ur-neocon Samuel Huntington to the near-anarchist Catholic priest Ivan Illich. Scialabba works his way into the movements and sensations of other minds like an explorer seeking the principles of newly discovered worlds: What are the colors here? Which way is up? What do they live for, in this new place? Catholic reactionaries, Protestant agrarians, libertarian feminists, Catholic revolutionaries, and social-democratic social scientists all get an attentive hearing and a sympathetic report. The only people he scorns are those who pretend to think as they serve power, who drape heroic banners on militarized, plutocratic centrism and, at the end of the week, check their bank accounts and congratulate themselves on having held off the irresponsibles.     

Actually, there is one other group he scorns: the slanderers of Enlightenment. Scialabba believes that the one saving possibility in this country is rooted in our imperfect and hypocritical adherence to two ideas: that people are radically equal and that, as equals, they have to be the judges of their own interests and the authors of their own laws. All intellectual melodrama about how we are too frail and narrow to draw our own judgments or govern ourselves, Scialabba rightly takes for a combination of juvenile philosophical elitism on the one hand, and, on the other, unselfconscious apologetics for the political and economic orders that have been profitably hollowing out our capacity for self-rule.

In other words, Scialabba is a democrat, and he sees that, in a world whose forces are arrayed against democracy, a democrat more or less has to be a radical. If his voice is unusual, that is a sign of how few like him there are—bad straits for a principle of rule by majorities. Elitists can take comfort in the conceit that they are above “the herd.” Not so democrats. If there is a political stance more poignant than that of the genuine democrat who often feels that he is part of a smallish minority, I do not know what it is.

What do we live by while we slouch toward utopia—a peaceful, humane, socialist democracy that Scialabba reckons at some five hundred years into the hoped-for future? Besides freedom, reason, and solidarity with the living, there is the company of the dead. Scialabba, a radical, also demonstrates the actual virtues of conservatism—the deeply felt love of the best that has gone before, of what makes the world knowable and habitable. He is for that reason also living proof that it need not be a posture of right-wing politics to believe, as he does, that “for native English speakers, the single greatest moral resource in the language is the nineteenth-century novel,” or that “the American citizenry as a whole, if it ever rouses itself to reassert its sovereignty … will need Mill, Ruskin, Wilde, Morris, Randolph Bourne, and Ernest Callenbach.”

I am not sure that I share either judgment in every particular, but I am quite certain that they are the work of a mind whose temper is the very opposite of the time’s, and a precious thing: self-doubting, passionately curious, and in love with the capacity of the plainest language to disclose the most essential truth, or just to remind us of something indispensable that, we realize upon the reminder, we had almost forgotten. 

This essay originally appeared as the introduction to George Scialabba’s Slouching Toward Utopia: Essays and Reviews