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.”