Mic Check

New York
03.16.12

IN THE THIRD MAN, the soulless black marketeer played by Orson Welles considered the relative merits of the Swiss approach to life and politics: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” That’s not entirely fair; they also produced Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century political philosopher, novelist, composer, and citizen of Geneva whose work on inequality and the social contract continues to inspire and bedevil students, thinkers, and activists from across the political spectrum. Part of “ThinkSwiss: Genève Meets New York: A Festival of Global Ideas Born in Geneva,” last Friday night’s event gathered Rousseau scholars, journalists, Occupy Wall Street organizers, and politicians to discuss the question, “What would Rousseau say about our democracies if he were among us today?”

Demos senior fellow Benjamin Barber took the stage and ebulliently outlined the evening. Rousseau thought that commerce and private property were incompatible with democracy, he said, and this problem is still with us today in an America desperately clinging to its sense of exceptionalism (“exceptional because one in four children live in poverty”). He told the packed room that the panel would proceed in three stages: first the scholars, then the journalists/activists, then the politicians. All would remain onstage, tightly arrayed in director’s chairs. The scholars took their seats: Guillaume Chenevière, author of a book on Rousseau; Nannerl Keohane, Princeton professor of French political thought; and Victor Gourevitch, distinguished Rousseau translator, scholar, and, as it turned out, Buzzkill Emeritus of the evening. Having some trouble grasping the operational principles of the directional microphone, Gourevitch threw a cold bucket of water over Barber’s enthusiasm and the premise of the entire event by saying, “I don’t know how I fit into this program; Rousseau was a conservative, not a revolutionary.”

Whether or not they privately agreed with Gourevitch’s assessment, Barber, Chenevière, and Keohane intuitively sensed that this was not the best way to begin a two-hour-long, ten-person panel discussion that was clearly and hopefully skewed toward the idea of Rousseau as a godfather of radical egalitarianism, a kind of White (wig) Panther avant la lettre. Of course, like any interesting person, Rousseau was a mass of contradictions in his life and thought, at one point even writing, “Forgive me my contradictions, but I cannot think without them.” To cite one of a host of examples, Rousseau was a Calvinist who didn’t believe in original sin, which is like being a Marxist who doesn’t believe in the alienation of labor.

The paradoxes of Rousseau, however, are what make him a subject of lively debate in sociopolitical circles to this day and indeed what made this panel possible. Partly proving Gourevitch’s point while trying to counter it, Barber mentioned that Robespierre carried a copy of The Social Contract in his pocket during and after the French Revolution. “It’s not Rousseau’s fault that Robespierre behaved as he did,” Gourevitch replied, wearily. Chenevière and Keohane more effectively problematized Gourevitch’s stance by reading some pretty rad-sounding quotes from Rousseau’s writings. Gourevitch was having none of it: “Rousseau thought that the ideal form of government was a democracy of the aristocracy. He would be opposed to all trends in liberal thought today: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness . . . ” Harsh, dude.

Left: Amin Husain. Right: Pascal Couchepin, Pierre Maudet, and Guillaume Ceneviere.


The second wave of panelists was ushered in: Laura Flanders, liberal journalist and broadcaster; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Amin Husain, Occupy Wall Street organizer. (Art historian Simon Schama was supposed to be in this bunch but was mysteriously absent.) Arm in sling, Husain appeared to have made time for this panel between bouts of Chicago ’68-style police brutality. (In truth, he is currently in the Whitney Independent Study Program.) A former political philosophy student and lawyer, Husain insisted without prompting that he was not a spokesperson for the Occupy movement and said he thought Rousseau was a “tortured realist” when he read him in college. “Occupy is presenting a structural critique,” Husain said, “not limited to capitalism and wealth.”

Muhammad riffed persuasively on the slave-labor roots of capitalism and the American economy, noting that the Fourteenth Amendment, originally crafted to protect newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction, was serially abused by case law in the following decades to lay the foundation for racist “states’ rights” arguments and the doctrine of corporate personhood. Flanders called Occupy Wall Street a “rumbling,” the beginning of a sense that things are not right. Somebody raised one of Rousseau’s most famous quotes: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” For a split second, the audience basked in the lefty resonance of this statement until ol’ bucket-brigade Gourevitch interjected, “Rousseau was trying to show people how to make the chains legitimate.”

At that point, the former politicians were invited onstage: Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York and, as its attorney general, the “Sheriff of Wall Street”; Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey and chairman of the 9/11 Commission; and Pascal Couchepin, former president of the Swiss Confederation. Couchepin said it was “dangerous to guess what Rousseau would have thought of this assembly. Democracy was a utopian concept that somehow succeeded.” He noted that American politics are now far more ideological than in Europe, implying that Europe had tried all the potential ideologies and sensibly realized that they all end up causing wars. For my money, Kean, the type of moderate Eisenhower Republican all but extinct today, delivered the quote of the evening: “We used to fight our own wars and pay for them—everyone was involved. We’re now doing wars by proxy. When everyone’s involved, you have less wars.” Word.

Spitzer, queried about his legal activism against the excesses of Wall Street, said that to be a transformative politician, one must be ready to be intensely unpopular. (This had added, perhaps unintentional, resonance coming from him.) Americans have largely exited the political discussion, he said, and Occupy is the first murmuring of a voice. Husain, who has a sort of dumb angel quality about him—not naïveté but an improbably open, childlike wonder in the face of relentless billy clubs and tear gas volleys—maintained that “the old labels—left, right, Democrat, Republican—don’t work. The point of the General Assembly is to show how diverse people can work together. Occupy is trying to open the conversation.”

With that, Barber opened the floor to questions. A line of academics, activists, and loons with blogs formed in front of a standing mic positioned in the middle aisle. Some asked wacky questions; others attempted to read manifestos or promote their websites. Most notable was a bearded young Occupier in a wool hat who relinquished his space in line to several people behind him. Asked why by Flanders, he said, “I saw a line full of white men, and I thought it was time for a woman to speak.” I pinched myself. I moved back to New York from the Bay Area in 1998 and now they have people like that . . . here? Impressive.

Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” boomed from the PA as people got up to leave. (“Anarchy in the UK” had played on the way in.) The PE was appropriate, less for Chuck D’s revolutionary lyrics than for the Bomb Squad’s dense sample collages, as the entire evening felt like a slicing, dicing, sampling, and repurposing of Rousseau’s thought to differing, at times perplexing, ends. All with Victor Gourevitch as the anti–Flavor Flav, a hype man in reverse who quietly debunked what everyone was saying instead of egging them on with a well-timed “Yeeaah, Boyeee!” The man can rock the mic—that is, when he knows where to point it.

Andrew Hultkrans