The week of Netroots Nation 2008 seems an odd time to ask whether friendship is passe, because the convention marks the coming together of a historically unparalleled national network of progressive activists – many of whom have become fast friends.
But it’s easy to forget that friendship – an open and trusting, reciprocal relationship of trust and support – might just be the most revolutionary institution of them all. Aristotle thought so. So did Emerson, who wondered why no one had ever thought of basing a nation on love.
Countless authoritarians have done everything they could to disrupt solidarity and bonds of affection among the people they ruled. They seem never to forget that friends are their enemies.
Adam Smith thought a free market, one uncontrolled by selfish authorities, would facilitate conviviality and friendship. Smith, like Aristotle, thought friendship central to the pursuit of freedom. Smith didn’t foresee that the myth of the free market would play a key role in alienation of humans from each other, that runaway consumerism would make such things as friendship secondary to the pursuit of capitalist dreams. The Joneses were to be kept up with, not befriended.
The demands of election cycles and the urgent needs of the people often make us so goal oriented that we forget the key to success might be sitting next to us, sleeping with us, helping us find jobs, mentoring us, calming us, or rousing us to the barricades.
If the question above causes you to think, "Oh no, not another romantic and utopian paean to the past," then I suggest that such a hard-bitten, post-modern reaction proves the point. I’d also add that Derrida wrote extensively about friendship and politics. No one accuses him of being a utopian.
Here is an unhappy truth from my life in politics, which includes several years as apolitical journalist, a few years as a legislative staffer, a few more as a Democratic campaign manager (for the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, among others), a political consultant, author, and activist.
Friendship is viewed as a luxury of private life, not a commonplace virtue of public life. Putting friends first usually means putting careers second, and that’s a sin in today’s world. I say today’s world, but this risk occurred to the ancients as well, and in America, our resistance literature is full of the concern. One could argue that the Adams-Jefferson letters are more like a poem about friendship and politics than a collection of prose letters.
Anyway, the risk of alienation is no longer a risk. It is a fact. Most of my friends and colleagues are forced by the commercial circumstances of this political age to put their incomes way ahead of personal loyalty or moral consistency. This doesn’t make for fast friendships. Or, in the end, very happy lives.
Who hasn’t felt this pressure? It was oppressive here in Texas when some of my friends and business partners – among them Mark McKinnon and Matthew Dowd, with whom I’d worked for several years – decided to abandon the Democratic effort and go to work for George W. Bush.
They had their reasons. I don’t want to analyze their politics or character. I just want to point out that the opportunity to make a buck, the possibility of celebrity, and the nearness to power are all accepted as more important than friendship, loyalty, or moral steadfastness. Not that their move was a betrayal of our friendship. No, the competitive, commodified political world we inhabited together had already made true friendship a difficult thing to achieve.
Most on the fast track know in their hearts that they will be measured not by their loyalty or their friends, but by whether or not they’ve made the necessary fortune to quality as an elite, to join the club.
The elected official defeated at the polls because he or she stood up for his or her friends is called a loser, politically naïve, or ineffective. The alpha and omega of peer judgment in politics is electoral success. Friendships that facilitate that success, fine. Those that don’t, adios.
The alienation is not limited to politics, of course. How many have worked for a boss who constantly and aggressively disrupted friendships among his employees?
It’s curious that the decades of accelerated retreat from the virtue of friendship were also the years of the "buddy" movie, of Fab Fours, of a TV show called "Friends." There’s no hiding from the fact that many male-oriented buddy movies had other things going on. Misogyny, for instance. There are other social and political issues raised by this phenomenon, too. Nonetheless, I think these cultural expressions can be viewed as a collective dream of solidarity.
We miss one another. But what would it mean to make friendship the key virtue in our politics?
Consider first why those in authority don’t want it to be so. Because for most of the world’s leaders today, including most of those here in the United States, authority is a one-way street, and it must be respected above other, more horizontal relations.
Want to scare the hell out of Karl Rove? Refuse his terms. He hates the idea that we are loyal to one another. In fact, I think in his specific case the community spirit of the late 60s and early 70s threatened him so greatly that it helped launch him on his path of destruction.
We should pause just briefly and consider that the health of our friendships has more revolutionary potential than all the genius framing and strategic thinking we could ever do. How so? Because we are in a battle for democracy. And democracy is about acting upon our shared responsibility. It is not about the pursuit of selfish interests. It can only exist if we recognize that we are in it for each other.
In other words, democracy and friendship arise from the same ethical root: responsibility for one another. Not, as Hannah Arendt worried, the loss of self in the other, but actualization of the self as a friend of others.
Many in the new progressive movement understand this. Living Liberally is, if they will pardon my intrusive analysis, more or less founded upon the recognition of the virtue of friendship.
We need more of it. Much more. So, this week, when you see a friend, recognize the revolutionary power of the relationship. We have nothing to lose but the chains that hold us fast in our isolated cells.