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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Resistance Song

"I had this dream we were in the resistance..." (Jill Sobule, "Resistance Song")

If you only review a book after you think you've fully grasped its message and implications, then let's say this is a non-review of Alissa Quart's remarkable new work, Republic of Outsiders.  But since the next couple of weeks are a time when many of us have a chance to absorb books like this-that both challenge and illuminate our own choices and trajectories-I want to at least to take notice of it.

My earliest dream of law as a career was about advocating on behalf of the marginalized, the dissidents, the rebels.  In this pre-adolescent fantasy, I have to confess, mobsters and Viet Nam War protesters had, absurdly, a certain moral equivalence.  What mattered was that they were, somehow, on the outside of the mainstream, and menaced by it.

Of course, the dream I had was itself, at least in America (less so in Canada, with its lamentable cultural tendency of deference to authority) a mainstream dream, played out in movies, legal thriller novels, and tv series too numerous to mention.

But when, after a long and twisted journey, I came to legal academia, all of a sudden I found that I was expected (by students and all too many colleagues), to be a representative of the establishment, an authority figure.  It was a rough beginning of a teaching career to reconcile my entrenched self-image as a questioner, a rebel, with expectations of authoritativeness in the classroom.

Reading Quart's book, I re-lived much of this psychic struggle but with a sense that there was a whole community of people out there who, in different contexts and different ways, have wrestled with the challenge of maintaing the self-image of an outsider. I wish that Republic of Outsiders had been available back then.

Quart's inquiry is built around the stories of remarkable individuals who have built a sense of their own integrity and created a focused social struggle around facing their difference from the mainsteam, from the prevailing forces of opinion or authority.  We are reminded powerfully that, as Tocqueville was among the first if not the first to observe, "opinion" in a democratic society-whether promulgated or originated by jorunalists or doctors or educators-can constitute an orthodoxy as threatening to liberty of spirit as the enforced belief systems of traditional societies.  Or maybe even more so, if it effectively masks itself as "objective" science or kinowlege.

Some of Quart's outsiders are individuals challenging the sraightforward pathologization of their difference as an illness (people diagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar or autistic who resist being reduced from human originals into patients to be treated or objects to be studied or even fragments of human beings).  Others appropriate tactics from beyond the mainstream to achieve effectively goals of advocacy for recognizable causes-animal welfare in the case of PETA  (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)-a group for which I myself have had the honor to work on a pro bono basis.

One of the most revealing and significant aspects of Quart's conversations with the outsiders is a kind of psychologically delicate but also resolute questioning that confronts a crucial problem with simply romanticizing one's status as an outsider: one risks  losing the opportunity to challenge the very distinction between outsider and insider that is the root source of the original marginalization (here the chapter "Beyond Feminism", about people or are trans-gender or gender fluid, is particularly valuable, in showinng how the challenge of being an outsider can be taken up precisely by destablizing the boundaries). 

Quart's interlocutors are often, though not always, sensitive to the various dangers of fanaticism, self-righteousness and ressentiment that one courts by maintaining an outsider stance.

Leo Strauss wrote that liberal democracy requires a counterpoison to the corroding effects of mass culture, an antidote that protects the ideal of "democracy as originally meant."  Quart's outsiders are dispensers of that counterpoison but also shapers of the mass culture itself.  Somehow they grasp that duality, and the risks and opportunities it presents.   Being an outisder in Quart's sense is no reason for shame-nor of itself, arguably, a reason for pride.   As Quart's reference to the republican ethos in her title evokes, outsiderness is in fact both a privilege and a responsibility. I understood that only many years after putting under my photo in the high school yearbook Goethe's words, "I have never felt at home in the world."  

More later about Republic of Outsiders.  In the mean time, read it.

Posted by Rob Howse on August 10, 2013 at 11:51 PM | Permalink

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