Friday, November 03, 2023

Concessions Required

"I cannot approve of the policy of the Israeli government, but I also don’t want to condemn it, because I do not want to find myself in the same camp with the anti-Semites I detest." > Jean-Paul Sartre

Superficially this seems like a bold and broadly admirable sentiment, one that many media commentators today might do well to imitate.

Yet, as with a lot of this famous Frenchman’s public utterances, we possibly need to factor in some of the other things he said and did.

That and the times he lived in. For the world had only recently gone to shit almost completely, whereas for us that traumatic experience lies ahead in the near future.

Another government Sartre was very reluctant to criticise, indeed was often actively apologetic of its actions, was that of the Soviet Union. This public approval for Stalin cost him his friendship with intellectual fellow-travellers such as Camus and Merleau-Ponty.

Shortly before his death he was challenged in an interview to state who or what had vanished when he finally relented in his support for the totalitarian ideal. 
"Who died," asked Benny Lévy, "a sinister scoundrel, a dimwit, a sucker or a basically good person?"

"I'd say a person who was not bad," was Sartre's honest answer. 
Being wrong but basically good is a posture that has gained wider traction today, even amongst dimwits, scoundrels and suckers. (As has covering for the worst excesses of extremist ideology.)

Indeed in a much earlier lecture at the Collège de France Sartre had referred to those who pursued the cause of the oppressed no matter where that might lead them morally as "wakeful...while others sleep", a notion with more than a little contemporary resonance.

To be wrong, but with the right kind of ideals — perfect ideals — was Sartre's defence against those other existentialists who had seemingly found a way to be right which involved compromise or a disconcerting ability to juggle multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives.

Sartre confessed that for him any argument was an all or nothing affair. He would continue relentlessly until the other side surrendered and agreed with him unconditionally, or he himself gave up his starting position entirely. He found people who were willing to mention intractable obstacles or awkward paradoxes in the middle of a debate utterly infuriating.

Merleau-Ponty told Sartre that he needed to have a longer-term perspective to understand history (correct) and that he could not keep on reacting over-enthusiastically to each event as it arrived, treating all of these moments as moral tests of his state of engagement with the issues (also correct).

But it was Camus who best exemplified being correct with compromised ideals  because for Albert an ideal packaged with concessions was in effect the true ideal that all would-be rebels ought to pursue.

Rebellion must be self-regulating, self-limiting, he insisted, because if it is geared towards an ecstatic utopian vision it will always, inevitably, lead to a new tyranny.

In this way, moderation is not the failure Sartre wrongly believed it to be, but a process whereby rebellion maintains its lasting effect as a counter-balance to the oppressors.

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