The Next Four Years: Agon or Agony?

by: Strummerson

Thu Nov 08, 2012 at 03:47:51 AM EST

The way I see it, we are poised before the alternatives of agon and agony.  Whatever the etymological connection between the terms, they can be construed in direct opposition.  Agon is the ancient Greek term for an athletic or artistic competition, such as their Olympic games and theatrical festivals, events which lay at the center of their political and religious culture.  Sacred competitions staged in honor of their gods.  To participate in an agon therefore had culturally productive value, whether one lost or not.  Both winners and losers served to elicit future blessings upon their communities.  Defeat in an agon was far from a tumble into the agony of defeat.  

Yet agon, especially more recently, also relates to the contentious production of ideas and policies.  Aesthetically, Harold Bloom (I know, I know, for those who know who he is) employs it to describe the struggle of a writer with his antecedents, the productive capacity of the anxious conflict with one's influences.  But it can also be used to describe a productive political dialectic between opposing ideologies and their communities.  The agon, however, which is supposed to bring social benefit, as with the ancients, and spur creativity in art and letters, requires a basic respect for that against which one contends.  It unites competition and cooperation.

One of the most beautiful and compelling metaphors for discursive agon emerged from the contentious environment of England in the 1640s.  As England was riven with intense religious strife and a civil war that would give the term "revolution" a political connotation for the first time and include the trial and execution of King Charles I, John Milton published a pamphlet entitled Areopagitica: For the Liberty of Unlicensed PRINTING as part of a running debate in parliament over the freedom of the press.  Print capitalism in England, centered  around St. Paul's Churchyard, was emerging from its infancy.  Calvinist Presbyterians, who dominated Parliament at the time, sought to control print by demanding that printers submit materials to censors for licensing prior to publication.  Though Milton largely supported their anti-Catholicism and proto-republicanism, he was horrified and opposed them with one of the most beautifully constructed political arguments of his, or of any day.  In the midst of the pamphlet, he addresses anxieties regarding heterogeneity and antagonism in the public sphere with a biblical image:

What some lament of, we rather should rejoyce at, should rather praise this pious forwardnes among men, to reassume the ill deputed care of their Religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and som grain of charity might win all these diligences to joyn, and unite into one generall and brotherly search after Truth....  Yet these are the men cry'd out against for schismaticks and sectaries; as if, while the Temple of the Lord was building, some cutting, some squaring the marble, others hewing the cedars, there should be a sort of irrationall men who could not consider there must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built. And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure. Let us therefore be more considerat builders, more wise in spirituall architecture, when great reformation is expected.

What we have seen in recent years is an absence of the requisite "little generous prudence" and lack of even "a little forbearance of one another" that precludes the "grain of charity" that would allow us to recognize our fellow participants in the edifying agon of civic debate.  And it is clear who bears the majority of the blame.  The violent rhetoric of the contemporary right, both in the media and among its voters and thus too often in our elected houses, "a sort of irrationall men" that ignores the necessity of competition.  These people demonize their fellow builders and would see the stonemasons turn their tools on the wood cutters so they become weapons and believe that the House may be built by annihilating their colleagues.  Instead of agon, we have agony.

The problem, I believe, is short term.  Either the GOP moderates in a fashion that will enable resumption of a more productive agon or it responds to those voices within it who see every defeat as demonstrating the necessity of more purity, more extremism, more commitment to eradicating those who cut from a different direction.  In the latter case, they will see more electoral marginalization.  In the long term, it should sort itself out.  The conservative movement will not commit suicide, but ultimately vindicate figures like David Frum.  Nor do I want to see us go forward without conservative thinkers, ideas, and challenges.  After all, I think the agon both necessary and sacred.  But the short term matters here.  Enduring agony for the next few cycles will produce lasting damage, not ultimately benign delay.  We have pressing challenges and must be able to address them.

The question that confounds me is what we might do from our side.  President Obama was conciliatory to a fault in the opening of his first term.  And no matter what he offered them up front, the leaders on the right responded by disingenuously painting him as an extreme and uncompromising ideologue.  

Are our hands tied?  Is there any way to reach out in a grass roots manner?  Every survey suggests that the American people want more bi-partisan compromise.  This doesn't, however, match voting patterns.  The best we get from the right is a string of false equivalences.  They argue that someone like Rachel Maddow is just as extreme and destructive as Rush Limbaugh, that Lawrence O'Donnell is a left wing Sean Hannity, that Debbie Wasserman-Shultz is as extreme and uncompromising as Michele Bachmann.  Al Sharpton = Allen West?  Really?

Is there anything we can do to prune the 'y' from our civic agony and return to a dynamic and productive agon?  How can we help to recast our partisan disavowals as "moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes" and become "more considerat builders, more wise in spirituall" and in our cas in civic "architecture" so that we may indeed expect "great reformation."

Strummerson :: The Next Four Years: Agon or Agony?
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Speaking of Rachel... (2.00 / 6)
I found this to be quite moving and hopefully germane to your diary:

Acknowledging the historical role, and importance, of a healthy Republican party is a start; the shenanigans of the last three cycles, however, seems to suggest "trust but verify" as our watchwords going forward.

My hope (!) is that we'll see the president (who has nothing (2.00 / 6)
left to lose except whatever legacy) be more overtly aggressive in his dealings with the GOP in public.  While I don't expect him to pull the ghost of LBJ out (that isn't his style) I do expect that POTUS will do a better job of reminding voters who won the election (twice) and what's been done in the last four years.

I also think that the Left is generally feeling a bit grittier this time.  I don't have the whole "hope" and "change" euphoria from the last time.  And that is a good thing because if some of us are honest we thought that the 2008 election was the end of the process but this time we recognize that the election is, if not the beginning, then another step in the process.

I also hope that people are engaging at the local level.  I've been neglectful in that area myself but am making it my mission to get more involved with Vermont and Swanton issues.  (Peter Welch, Pat Leahy, and Bernie Sanders have to retire at some point.)  :)

"When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in teh stupid and waving a gun" ~ Esteev on Wonkette

Not to Mention (2.00 / 6)
The Republicans fell for the sequester arrangement for short-term gain last year.  Now it is the sword of Damacles hanging over the heads of their congressional cohort whom seek to obstruct tax rate reform.  Advantage Obama.

[ Parent ]
Seems the GOP really thought they could hold on for 4 years (2.00 / 6)
and then take back the White House.  Oops!

"When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in teh stupid and waving a gun" ~ Esteev on Wonkette

[ Parent ]
Thank you Strummerson for your diary (2.00 / 5)
Every time I read your work I spend the next hours (days. weeks?) learning. I tend to be intellectually lazy and usually posit my opinions, (whether they are based on factual material or not) in a bloviating and buffoonish manner that is often embarrassing to me after I push post.  Here, let me demonstrate what I mean...

Yeah, I might just be the liberal Joe Scarborough. Just how much of our collective intellectual capacity has been melted due to folks like Scarborough and Blitzer and O'Rielly and Limbaugh. But of course that is your point.

Back to you Strummerson. I had intended to write a diary earlier and then read your post. Subsequently, I spent the next few hours looking up agon, Milton, Votaire (by extension) Howard Bloom, Doris Lessing and Naomi Wolf. It made my brain hurt, but I appreciate the lesson nonetheless.

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

Read on Twitter yesterday that David McCollough believes (2.00 / 6)
young Americans are "historically illiterate."  I wasn't sure if he meant illiterate about history or really don't know how to read and/or comprehend.  Then I realized it could be both.

"When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in teh stupid and waving a gun" ~ Esteev on Wonkette

[ Parent ]
It would seem (2.00 / 6)
that the attacks on education over the past 40 or so years have accomplished at least one thing. In the words of W, "is our children learning"? It would seem that the answer is no. However if you look at the difference between economic classes and their approach to education one finds an interesting phenomena.

Children of upper middle class and wealthy families tend to do far better in school as grade levels increase. For example, when children enter the 1st grade you find tremendous similarity in children from both sides of the economic RR tracks. As the years progress, a disparity appears as poor children fall further and further behind. Now look at what happens for kids as they move from one grade to the next. Upper income families tend to keep their children involved in summer break activities that foster continued education. Poor families generally do not have this option. So when the children come back to school in the fall, the kids who have been going to camp, participating in reading and builders, etc will do better in school than kids who's parents are working two or more jobs just to pay the bills. As the years progress, this gap grows until the time that young adults are ready to go to college, many poor children simply do not have what it takes to make it in higher education.

Add to this the exploding costs of college and university, and I am not sure the current generation has much of a chance.

Ahem. Concepts and ideas mostly stolen from others and may not be correct:~O

Oh, oh, and all of that is not even addressing the stresses we place on children to succeed in primary, secondary and college setting. Ooh ooh, and don't get me started on how certain legislators in Texas want to ban critical thinking from school curriculum. Yaaaaay. Let us worship ignorance and anti-intellectualism to it's fullest....

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
Well... (2.00 / 5)
Doesn't seem to be working out too well for them.  Perhaps reintroducing mandatory civics classes would help, at least in one case of domestic violence.

[ Parent ]
We've all heard of Obama Derangement Syndrome (2.00 / 5)
But that's not just over the cliff, it's burrowed through the Earth's mantle and is headed for the core.

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done subjunctively.

[ Parent ]
You are far too kind!!! (2.00 / 3)

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
No (2.00 / 3)
not kindness but rather awe at your beautiful writing skills and the knowledge base you posses.  

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
Oh, oh (2.00 / 3)
and every time I read your work, I learn so much new (to me) information and a universe of big ideas. Thank you for banging on my brain. Of course we have such an amazing collection of brilliance here at the Moose, and now that I can read and comprehend again, I am grateful for all of you.

Perhaps I come away from these comments with brown goo dripping from my nose, but I say again, I am honestly and deeply thrilled to read your writings as well as those many names to mention I afraid. I just believe the group that hang their pencils at the Moose are rather astonishing. Thank all of you for bringing a piece of sanity into my tattered life.

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
fank u, and ur wellkum! (2.00 / 1) amazing collection of brilliance here at the Moose, and now that I can read and comprehend again, I am grateful for all of you.


Earth is the best vacation place for advanced clowns. --Gary Busey

[ Parent ]
See little fog (2.00 / 2)
You are one of the peeps I wouldn't want to accidentally leave off my rock my friend!!!  

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
Uh (2.00 / 3)
Just how much of our collective intellectual capacity has been melted due to folks like Scarborough and Blitzer and O'Rielly and Limbaugh. But of course that is your point. least part of your point. I think I get it, I think I get it, I think I get it...heh.

This is just one of the comments that cause me to hang my head in shame and be mortified with embarrassment...  

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
Oddly, Romney gave a huge shout out to "teachers and professors"... (2.00 / 5) his concession speech!

A bit late to the party, I'd say.  The right spends so much time tearing down the academics and journalists (the term intellectual was first applied to pro-Dreyfus journalists in France during the affair) and calling liberals brain dead and opposing data with beliefs and feelings (which I also think important, just not in opposition to reasoned analysis of phenomena) that it cannot raise the level of our civic discourse.  There are indeed some smart writers on the right, but they are in league, whether they accept this or not, with the Becks and Limbaughs.

Speaking of feelings, saw a spot with Peggy Noonan, who has made a career lately out of caricaturing the President as "arrogant" and "aloof" and non-responsive to the reasonable GOP congressional caucus.  She suggested that Obama's win is an opportunity to be "MAG-NAN-I-MOUS" (as she enunciated it).  By that she means to reach out to which she means completely cave on tax and deficit policy.  But I don't think Ms. Feelings is being cynical, she believes her own tripe.  I'm sure if Romney had one by the same margin she would have counseled him to be magnanimous by raising taxes on the top 1%....  It's like demanding that the gold medalist hand over the medal to the silver medalist to be sporting.  Then she said that Obama could do this because his side is so happy about winning they wouldn't mind.  Really?  Ugh.  And Peggy is supposed to be one of the gracious and reasonable opinionators on the right.

And Michael Medved is joining the chorus following Karl Rove around whinging about voter suppression, by which they mean the success of Obama's summer negative ads.  Apparently they gave otherwise civicly enthusiastic independent and republican voters an enormous sad and, given that they didn't have any zoloft on election day, they were too depressed to vote.  That ain't voter suppression, it's voter depression.  In the list of things he considered unfair negative ads were the constant demands for Romney's tax returns and the critical depiction of the effects of Bain on working people (ok, I'll give him the cancer ad, which I thought was beneath us).  These are fair and Romney failed to respond effectively.  Of course, isn't this the party that detests Obama's "blame games"?  These weren't exactly swift boat attacks or Willie Horton ads, which I'm sure that Mike applauded.  Couldn't have anything to do with Romney's refusal to demonstrate any leadership.  All he had to do was give a scathing speech aimed at his party's Gang of Rape legitimators.  All he had to do was mount a reasonable defense of the business background he was running on.  And might his loss have something to do with the fact that exit polls clearly established that most of "the American people" whom they love to ventriloquize at EVERY turn agrreed with Obama on taxes?

The whole thing is ridiculous.  And they use the constant drone about media bias to justify their own hackery.  

But what can WE do about it?

The future is unwritten

We Can... (2.00 / 4)
Keep beating the stuffing out of them on election day.  And as for Ms Noonan, well...

Mr Romney's air of peaceful dynamism was the product of a false optimism that, in the closing days, buoyed some conservatives and swept some Republicans.

Peggy Noonan - Noonan: 'People Are Afraid of Change' WSJ 9 Nov 12

I reckon she was on a bender, frankly; one can practically hear the cheerful clinking of ice cubes in the tumbler.  I can think of no other explanation for such painfully bad writing.  Not to mention being totally wrong.  This is the essence of punditry "untouched by logic, unfettered by sense, unbound by sanity. This is the raw stuff from which everything else in their universe is formed."

[ Parent ]
Funny (2.00 / 5)
in the same interview she said Obama should have 40 republicans over for cocktails every night like LBJ (or maybe that was Doris Kearns Goodwin who said that).  That's when Obama is having dinner with his family and helping with homework before reading briefing books.

It wouldn't work anyway.  Republicans considered LBJ's presidency legitimate.  This drum beat of Obama's negative campaign suppressing/depressing the vote is just another way to deligitimize him.  Grover Norquist is on board.  He said Obama won by calling Romney a "poopy head."  I KID YOU NOT.

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
What adult uses "poopy head?" Seriously? (2.00 / 4)
And, IIRC, POTUS actually called Romney a bullshitter, FWIW.

"When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in teh stupid and waving a gun" ~ Esteev on Wonkette

[ Parent ]
Well, I've been known to use it (2.00 / 2)
but if I had a platform as large as Grover's I'd try not to demean it.

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
Lulz (2.00 / 2)
I saw that too and almost broke my nose snorting with laughter.

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
Generally when I listen (2.00 / 4)
to Ms Noonan, I encourage her to just take another 'lude or more xanax and STFU.  

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
Self-medication... (2.00 / 2)
Would certainly explain the "thousand points of light."

[ Parent ]
Heh (2.00 / 2)

I am years behind and decades ahead. ~ Somebody else, I am certain

[ Parent ]
...and her attention to "vibrations" (2.00 / 2)
I really feel sorry for her grandchildren.

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
Actually (2.00 / 2)
simply continuing to beat them until they are marginalized won't serve the agon at all.  As a matter of fact, long term it would likely split the democratic coalition, as the debate between progressives and blue dogs would become more significant in the absence of opposition.

The question is how we get to healthier opposition that goes beyond brinksmanship and obstruction.

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
OK (2.00 / 2)

Split the democratic coalition, as the debate between progressives and blue dogs would become more significant in the absence of opposition.

You say that like it's a bad idea...  

[ Parent ]
It's a destabilizing idea (2.00 / 3)
and given where we are economically and with the middle east I think it's better to have the two major parties functioning rather than splintering.

It would be one thing if the US were parliamentary.  Abolish the Senate.  Have a multi-party uni-cameral legislator.  And have the leader of the majority coalition hold power comparable to a PM.  Then fine.  But as things are now, realistically I think that would be a bad thing.  Though I would like the Democratic party to hew a bit leftward, stand up to drone strikes as it stood up to torture, be more vigorous with regard to civil liberties, fight for the re-institution of Glass-Steagall, and for a public option.  The fastest way to achieve this isn't for two parties to splinter, but for both to function more productively.

And then there's the possibility of a three party system with moderate reps and blue dogs forming a centrist party backed by wall street and the corporations with a socially repressive party on the right and a quixotic social-democratic party on the left.  Who wins in that situation?

As I've said many times, the revolution seems like a beautiful moment, but they always end up shooting the Jewish professors and that's probably not gonna work out for me...

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
I Was Thinking Long-Term... (2.00 / 2)
I assume it will take a while.  Wouldn't we be likely to lose the blue dogs to a moderate, functional Republican party in the first instance?

[ Parent ]
Don't think so (2.00 / 2)
A moderate functioning GOP would still hew to the right on social issues.  And there are definitely blue dogs who are more in line with Democratic perspectives on reforming the tax code and on a diplomacy first foreign policy.  There are also cultural motivations for most blue dogs staying dems.  We often reduce party affiliation to a judgment on policy preferences.  People's party allegiances often have quote a bit to do with rhetorical style, as well as historical and cultural experiences.  The shift of southern blacks to the democratic party and dixiecrats to the the republican party was not without trauma for both sides.  MLK's father couldn't imagine himself aligned with the words Democratic Party.  And it took a lot to push southern dixiecrats into Lincoln's party, the party of reconstruction.

The future is unwritten

OK (2.00 / 1)
But it seems to me that blue dogs are aligned with their constituencies.  Pro-life or pro-choice and so forth.  Party affiliation seems a pretty flexible component of a politician's career.

[ Parent ]
If it were (0.00 / 0)
Arlen Spector would have switched under the Clinton administration.

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
Hang On (2.00 / 1)
These blue dogs were the cohort which set the limits of what we could do with, say, the ACA.  How is that any different from the 80s or 90s when legislation was constrained by the number of opposition votes which could be found?  I take your point about the "historical and cultural experiences" but it always comes down to votes, no?

[ Parent ]
Sure, but (2.00 / 2)
when both parties are functioning, they rarely vote as monolithic blocks on every issue.  We can deal with blue dog "defections" on this issue or that one if the same is true regarding liberal republicans.  Northeastern republicans once voted with Dems on various issues, especially social issues.  But Lincoln Chaffee is not the independent governor of RI and Olympia Snowe is exiting the senate blaming Obama for her lack of political courage, blaming him for her own party's intransigence that kept her from voting as a sane person.

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
Yeah... (2.00 / 1)
Well we agree about that.  That's my point; I'm not sure the branding makes much difference except among voters whom strongly identify by party and not issues, which seems to be in decline.  But that's why I said basically that a reformed, moderate Republican party or a blue dog/progressive split of the Democratic party in their absence would probably be a wash in terms of how we legislate with the opposition.

[ Parent ]
OK (2.00 / 3)
but in the short term I want dynamic stability, not structural and institutional upheaval.

The future is unwritten

[ Parent ]
No Argument There (2.00 / 2)
It's the Republican party which seems the source those kind of problems.  They've stirred up our demons.

[ Parent ]

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