Talking to Strangers book review

Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of EducationTalking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education by Danielle S. Allen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Talking to Strangers, political philosopher Danielle Allen diagnoses the persistent problem of interracial distrust in America as a problem of defining and realizing democratic citizenship, i.e. how we are meant to act within our democracy. This is something that our country struggles with from its founding but is brought out most strongly by the Civil Rights Movement. Allen tells the story of how we developed this collective anxiety, diving into the choices of language, philosophy, and values that have led us here.

Starting with the iconic 1957 photograph of Black high school student Elizabeth Eckford being cursed by a white woman in front of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Allen illustrates how the civil rights movement marked a change in the experience of democratic citizenship among Americans. Brown v. Board of Education and later the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act upset a status quo preserving de facto and de jure White dominance. This represented a clear loss of power for Whites, especially in the South. The new law of the land demanded that Whites respect the rights of their fellow Black citizens and curb their deep-set norms of racial inequality. Arguing the Civil Rights Movement was effectively a civil war in the South, Allen suggests that social trust and political friendship at the core of democratic citizenship never recovered. Trust in the federal government declined after it was seen as usurping state and local control by Whites, and trust in fellow citizens declined as the polity was recast as the heterogenous and equal mix it was always meant to be.

In this same historical moment, Allen notes that the Pledge of Allegiance was revisited adding “under God” after “one nation,” emphasizing the idea of oneness. The success of this re-wording effort is more than just about religion, Allen argues, it put forward a strong vision of a homogeneous nation. (In the same way, the original pledge was developed to spur national identity during the rise of immigration in the 1890s.) Allen argues that the American predilection for oneness (cf. E Pluribus Unum) ultimately hurts the cause of democratic citizenship and interracial distrust. Because it matters “how democratic citizens imagine ‘the people’ of which they are a part” (p. 17). Customs and practices follow from this imagined body. Allen prefers “wholeness” as the metaphor we should be striving for because it allows for multiplicity, heterogeneity. The toxic reaction to Eckford’s attempt to attend her desegregated school illustrates a desire to reassert oneness.

Part the practice of citizenship as either oneness or wholeness is sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice is a virtue of democratic citizenship. We give some of our liberty to the state for protection and accept policies and decisions that serve a majority we may not be a part of. To paint this picture in the age of oneness, Allen dives deeply into Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, reading its political philosophy as a meditation on Black political sacrifice. Eckford’s ordeal in Little Rock represents this same type of sacrifice. In her case, she gives her dignity in that moment to the cause of the larger civil rights movement. There is a long tradition of such sacrifice in the Black community. During Jim Crow, it took the form of subjugation to the domination of Whites. This is an involuntary sacrifice. In this form of citizenship, oneness is preserved through the unequal treatment of the minority. But as Allen argues, sacrifice should be seen as a virtue; it should be respected. A more just and productive form of democratic citizenship respects the sacrifices of others in a polity. Citizens in this case should let sacrifice be a guide to a more mindful politics; they should honor it by finding solutions that listen to the voice of the minority and seek justice for them too.

This is the foundation of trust and what Allen calls political friendship. She suggests that friendship should be our guide to what citizenship ought to look like. A friend would listen to another friend even though they don’t agree with them. A friend would consider their friend’s feelings and well-being when making a decision. When a citizen can generally count on another citizen to look out for their interests, this reciprocity is the foundation for social trust and for democracy. This requires that we change our cultural norms to embrace this ideal of citizenship. It also requires that we transform our institutions to enshrine this respect for the wholeness of our nation. Unfortunately, America has yet to change its norms and transform its institutions in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, we have retreated to ideological, and in many cases geographical, enclaves and maintained or developed postures of lost oneness.

Between these bookends, Allen develops a cogent philosophical critique of the underpinnings of American democracy. She finds a fatal flaw in Hobbes’s formula for government of the people and goes back to the Greeks and to rehabilitate rhetoric from its ambivalent reputation. Across his various writings, Hobbes successfully diagnosed the problems of human nature and politics and even points to how a culture of reciprocity might aid the effort of political agreement (p. 97). However, his prescription for the Leviathan form of government oriented citizens toward the sovereign institution of the state rather than toward one another, which is clearly illustrated in the frontispiece from his publication, wherein citizens’ heads are turned toward the sovereign.

This conception of the people—subjugating their own power to the sovereign in the interest of security and stability—contrasts with a one of equal, empowered citizenship. In American democracy we imagine the will of the people arising from equitably powered citizens themselves rather than the unitary voice provided by monarch or court. Locke and the founding fathers rejected this form of the social compact in which the people are ruled by the sovereign, and instead adopted a system of limited government. However, the perfectibility of Hobbes’s system is still seductive in light of his social analysis that consensus of the multitude’s wills is impossible. For Hobbes, stability and security can be achieved through repression. Alternatively, the promise of American democracy is that popular engagement may secure trust between the multitude and the institutions of government. And most often we see this as being through pure rational discourse among equals.

At this point, Allen goes on to propose a possible antidote to distrust and Hobbes’s view of the people. She defends the art of rhetoric, following Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s model of a perfectible republic, arguing for the fundamental imperfect nature of politics among individual citizens. In this, Allen also critiques of Habermas’s ideal of dispassionate, consensus-based political discourse. While having such a utopian vision is an important goal to strive toward, Allen notes that unanimity in consensus “idealizes the wrong thing and fails to establish evaluative criteria for a crucial democratic practice—the attempt to generate trust out of distrust” (p. 85).

Aristotle offers a favorable comparison between a rhetoric and medicine: “a doctor aims not only to cure as many patients as possible but also to treat properly ‘even those who recovery is impossible.’” “So, too, a rhetorician seeks not perfect consensus but maximal agreement coupled with satisfactory treatment of residual disagreement and those emotions in which it is often registered: anger, disappointment, and resentment” (p. 91). Allen concedes, that the utility of rhetoric can be used for good as well as for ill, just like medicine can be—the Greek debate over sophistry comes from concern over how rhetoric can exploit trust and distrust. However, without rhetoric we lack the foundation for an intersubjective experience of democracy—for reciprocity—whereby we consider the interests of others and appeal to both majority and minority, crafting our arguments through negotiation and affective feedback.

In practice, this is a citizenship of political friendship—an orientation toward each other, viewed as equals, and a willingness to empathize, to persuade, and to be persuaded. This also means an acknowledgement of histories of inequality and disempowerment, and an interest in pursuing a restoration of equity for our fellow citizens that can allow us to enjoy the wholeness of our nation. And Allen implores us to make this part of our everyday civic practice.

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