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ON COMPROMISE by Rachel Greenwald Smith


Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal

by Rachel Greenwald Smith

Pub Date: Aug. 3rd, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-64445-060-4
Publisher: Graywolf

A literary scholar and cultural critic argues that democracy is better served by hashing out conflicts than by compromising.

Ranging widely in art, literature, popular culture, philosophy, and politics, Smith mounts an impassioned critique of compromising, which she insists is “unsatisfying, awkward, boring, haphazard.” Compromises, she writes ruefully, “might be the best we can get, but they do not and should not please us.” Although she admits that compromises are sometimes necessary, she rejects them “as a value, as a way of appealing to moderation” and avoiding radical solutions. They are designed to preserve the status quo of hierarchies and power. “People do lose in all compromises,” she asserts; “it’s just a matter of who feels it.” Accused of being “hostile, critical, even mean” when talking with people whose ideas she opposes, Smith admits that she is drawn to “uncompromising figures”—such as editor Margaret Anderson, who advertised her modernist literary magazine Little Review as aesthetically uncompromising, or even far right icon Ayn Rand—and to illiberal forms, “from the polarizing rhetoric of manifestos to the brutality of minimalist sculpture, from the strident aesthetic of punk to the categorical abstraction of the Russian avant-garde.” The author praises those willing to take strong stands, change their minds, and argue forcefully for a new position rather than those who believe “that unsatisfactory things can be made satisfactory, at least temporarily. That the pain and loss generated by a bad situation can be managed, or made fair, or tolerable, even if the underlying conflict remains.” Democracy, she asserts, is messy and contentious; it involves confronting pain and realizing the limits of our ability to solve every problem with a compromise. Democracy suffers “when we are asked to compromise on our principles in advance in order to be practical, palatable, or unthreatening to those who want to maintain systems of injustice.”

A thoughtful, defiant polemic that should provoke heated discussions.