It may be that my post on Lauren Winner’s review of Electing Not to Vote yesterday produced more heat than light. The responses were pretty much split down the middle between enthusiastic supporters and militant detractors. Given how much this has stirred the pot, and in light of more information that I have obtained, I’d like to make a few clarifications, and at least one emendation.
Emendation first. It has come to my attention that Winner did indeed carefully read the book in question. As such, if this information is accurate, and I have no prima facie reason to doubt it, I will happily withdraw my charge of not reading it. However, the point of that charge was not simply to claim that she had not read the book, but rather to point out the depth to which the review failed to adequately enter into the thought of the book itself so as to critique it from within. This is what a book review should do. The reason I surmised the she did not in fact read the book was based on the utter failure of her review to actually enter into dialogue with its contents. For myself and many other readers of the review who contacted me, a failure to read the book was quite literally the only explanation we could think of. Winner’s review positions itself entirely outside the book, not engaging with any of its specific contents with anything other than passing remarks. In other words, even if Winner did read the book, she might as well have not, given the degree to which her review refrains from actual engagement or substantive critique.
Moreover, there remains an ethical question to be asked of Winner in that her review, rather than carefully articulating the views put forth in the book and voicing disagreement, blatantly mischaracterizes them for the purpose of making them appear foolish. In many ways, I am even more disappointed to learn that she read the book, given the way in which she mischaracterizes it and the contributors. Intentional misrepresentation I find perhaps more troubling that mere ignorance. The accusation of quietism is just absurd, based on the biographical sketches of the contributors alone. While I am glad to hear that the book was read, I am all the more disappointed to see how it could be read so woodenly, characterized so inaccurately, and argued against so disingenuously.
Now, clarifications. In my response, I put forth three criticisms of Winner’s review, responding to her three primary criticisms of the book. Perhaps the rhetorical verbosity I couched these objections in turned people off. That is unfortunate. However, I think that all three of these criticisms are quite germane and significant. For the purpose of clarity, I shall unpack them a bit more.
First, Winner claims that voting as such should not be seen as idolatrous or sacred, since the problem really just lies in our expectations in voting. If we expect Barack Obama to be our savior, then sure, that’s a problem, but if we just realize that he’s not, it’s fine to vote for him. But for her to transfer the locus of sacral idolatry from the act itself to the dispositions and feelings of the voter is to simply make a move that the whole book is designed to question. The book claims that “the very act of voting itself is problematic in the same way that participating in warfare or in retributive punishment would be problematic for Christians. Below the surface, voting implies a devotedness that cannot mix the politics of the world with the politics of Jesus.” (p. 113) Winner does not engage the argument made for this claim, she merely dismisses it by positing the seemingly obvious claim that it is our thoughts and feelings about voting, rather than the act itself that make it problematic or not. A viable critique would have been one which engaged with the contributor’s arguments for their position, rather than one that merely asserted a seemingly self-evident counter claim. The self-evidence of Winner’s assertion is exactly what the book seeks to question, which is precisely why her objection constitutes a failure in legitimate dialogue and disagreement with the book.
Second, Winner makes the claim that, given that we don’t know for sure if a potential president will commit an immoral action, we should go ahead and vote. I had strong words for this argument, and really, I feel I must stand by them. This is just a terrible argument. It asks us to believe that because we do not have an omniscient knowledge of the future we should just go ahead and act, come what may. There is a profound air of unrealism to this notion. We never know for sure what is going to happen, but we judge persons and institutions on the basis of their history. The notion that we don’t have reliable enough information to reasonably project the sorts of things that presidents will do if elected is just incorrect. Sure, sometimes we may get surprises, but we shouldn’t throw our lot in with the powers in the hopes that maybe they will, contrary to all reasonable expectations, do something good.
Third, Winner argues that ultimately we should vote because not all people in the U.S. are given that opportunity; we should cast our votes “for” them in some sense. This I called paternalistic, and I stand by that claim. The notion that we should make sure to assert our rights because they are not shared by all seems quite counter-intuitive. How could we, in good conscience, practice rights and privileges that are systematically denied to others? Now, to be sure, we do this sort of thing all the time. All our hands are dirty, but that does not invalidate the point in relation to this issue. Surely we are all complicit, but recognizing, rather than denying or justifying it is surely the only way towards addressing it. Rather than voting “for” the illegal immigrant or the convict, what would happen if we followed the works of mercy that are handed down to us in the Christian tradition? What if we visited those in prison, gave clothing to the naked, and food to the hungry? What if we took them into our homes rather than satiated our consciences by casting a vote for the candidate we think will do the most relative good? Winner’s claim that we should get “messy” by voting is problematic, not in that it is too messy, but in that it is too clean and easy. What would truly be messy, complicated, difficult, and substantive would be a theopolitical vision which called upon us to move from aloof advocacy to proximate solidarity. The problem with voting isn’t simply that it is somehow tainted and we must avoid it to be “pure.” The problem is that is far too easy, too deceptive, too simple. What the book in question does is seek to cultivate a theopolitical imagination which moves us beyond the bourgeois fixation on legislation which keeps us happily safe in our suburban homes and jobs, and impels us to seriously consider how we must reorient our lives to actually bear the shape of a solidarity that is not determined by the principalities and powers of our age.
Now, to be sure, I don’t expect many people to agree with this book. Surely a book ballsy enough to suggest that Christians should not, for theological reasons, participate in voting will not get wide affirmation. Nevertheless,all books deserve to be critiqued carefully and on their own terms. The fact that most will disagree with this book heightens, rather than lessens the need for careful and thorough interaction. As such, I remain as disappointed in Winner’s review as I was to begin with. The contributors to the book deserved better, indeed any book under review deserves better.