Sunday, June 20, 2021

For the Record: Hypercritical


Edward Burne-Jones, title page to William Morris's A Dream of John Ball (1888), via Wikipedia.

You don't need a weatherman to say which way the wind blows (and if it's one of those Weathermen, they probably don't have a very sound idea of how to proceed anyway), and you don't need a Marxist to say there's injustice in the world— 

When Adam dalf, and Eve span,
Who was thanne a gentilman?

asked John Ball, the "mad priest of Kent", during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, when nobility and clergy divisively owned all the land while peasants did all the work for no pay, and many centuries before that, the author of Proverbs 22:16 said, "He who oppresses the poor to make more for himself/ Or who gives to the rich, will only come to poverty." 

Of course Ball was also supporting a violent revolution, and that was pretty divisive too, I'm not gonna lie. As did Marx and Engels occasionally, which seems like a very harsh kind of criticism. If, as George Bernard Shaw said, "Assassination is the extreme form of censorship," then extirpating the class enemy root and branch by beheading them all would be practicing critical theory in its extremest form; you could say revolutionaries practice hypercritical theory, and from our own historical viewpoint it looks pretty deplorable, not only unkind but unsuccessful (as injustice appears to persist in societies that have had a revolution, pretty much every time).

A merely critical praxis, on the other hand, can be intrinsically unifying, offering as it does a prescription for bringing everybody together by the simple means of some people giving up some privilege and others taking some, through policies like free education, promotion of home ownership, and redistributive taxation that really don't hurt anybody at all and lead to more just societies everywhere from Sweden to Costa Rica to of all places South Korea in recent years (it strikes me that the brilliant portrayal of social injustice in Bong Joon-ho's film Parasite is an instance of critical praxis that goes along with real progress in inequality reduction since the 2017 election, and the fact that it was made there rather than in the US is an indication that they're farther along than we are).

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