Jeffrey C. Goldfarb. Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1998, 253 pp., $US 22.95 paper.

This is a superb book by an exceptionally thoughtful, learned scholar. It is a serious “invitation to the democratic intellectual” (p. 217) to become more involved in public life. This invitation is grounded in Goldfarb’s observations of American public discussion, from John Dewey and Walter Lippmann to contemporary times, and in his active participation in civic debate in Eastern Europe. Goldfarb’s major concern is the “deliberation deficit,” the lack of serious, non-ideological, democratic discussion unaffected by political cynicism.

Goldfarb defines intellectuals as “special kinds of strangers, who pay special attention to their critical faculties, who act autonomously of the centers of power and address a general public, playing the specialized role in democratic societies of fostering informed discussion about pressing societal issues” (p. 37). Engaging in public, democratic discussion is a worthy task for these intellectuals. It is not necessary for the intellectual to become a politician, and it is certainly not advisable for her or him to be an ideologist. Civil discussion implies acknowledgement and serious consideration of others’ views: ideologies preclude such acknowledgement. The task of the intellectuals is to nurture an “autonomous non-partisan public space” (p. 101). In arguing this, Goldfarb is not removed from reality: he does recognize the difficulties intellectuals have in engaging in public discussion in a world dominated by the mass media. Nevertheless, he contends that there are spaces for intellectuals, perhaps not to present grand (and possibly overly ideological) narratives, but to comment on everyday events.

The intellectuals’ dual function, Goldfarb maintains, is to civilize contestation yet also to subvert common sense (p.206). It is necessary to be civil, as Toni Morrison was when she brought together a group of leading African-American intellectuals to discuss the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. But it is also sometimes necessary to be subversive of “common sense,” as Malcolm X was in the United States, and as feminists are at present in an Eastern Europe flush with male intellectuals who disregard or ignore the subordination of women (in one famous case, that of Josef Skvorecky, referring to the issue of date rape as a creation of “lesboid feminism”) (p. 192).

Democratic deliberation alone, says Goldfarb, can have an extremely powerful effect on political life. The decision of many Eastern European intellectuals under communist rule to act as if they were free opened up a public space to articulate visions of a democratic society. In a post- Soviet world influenced by the revival of nationalism and traditionalism, it is important to continue that democratic discourse. But not only the Eastern Bloc has suffered from a deliberation deficit. So also did, and does, the Western world. The Malcolms and Morrisons, but especially the Morrisons, are needed.

In this respect Goldfarb believes that academics too should act as public intellectuals, not confining themselves to narrow, specialized and arcane discussions. His view is especially pertinent to Canadian sociology, which is perhaps even more dissociated from public life than the American academy. The influence of postmodernism, with its belief that different social categories constitute incommensurable social groups who cannot communicate across identity boundaries, undercuts the possibility of civil discourse. Says Goldfarb, “The task of subversion is pressingly needed when the problems of race and gender cannot be addressed through the prevailing common sense. But subversion unbounded by civility yields dogmatism and worse” (p.71). Nor does public policy work on contract to various agencies fulfil the requirement of public intellectual life. In such contract work, the contractor, not the scholar, defines the terms, and debate is not the essence.

In arguing for the intellectuals’ dual function of “civilising contestation and subverting common sense” (p. 206), Goldfarb explicitly rejects Stanley Fish’s contention that there is “no such thing as free speech.” Goldfarb argues for maintenance of that freedom — indeed, acting as if there is such a freedom, even if there is not — however constrained the situation might be. Goldfarb notes that Fish “does not seem to realize that the operating ideal of free speech has the power to transform constrained situations” (p. 135), as it did in Eastern Europe and in the U.S. during the era of civil rights movements. The democratic intellectual has an obligation to act as if she is in a democracy, even if she is not.

I have only one minor cavil about this otherwise excellent book. Goldfarb frequently refers to the paucity of political discourse in the West prior to 1989, because the Cold War dominated all discussion. In this, he falls victim to the common American tendency to equate the entire Western world with the United States. In Canada, public debate was not so dominated by Cold War discourse after the 1950s. But that we were not dominated by Cold War rhetoric in the past serves us ill in the present, if we now voluntarily box ourselves in with academic jargon and remote languages designed more to advance ourselves in the narrow world of academia than to contribute our knowledge to public debate and understanding.

Rhoda E. Howard
McMaster University

January 1999
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