The Sound of Settling

On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal BY Rachel Greenwald Smith. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 208 pages. $16.
Cover of On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal

In the 1982 documentary All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story, an unseen male interviewer asks the late singer and actress whether she would “compromise” for love. Kitt’s brow furrows, and she faces the camera. “Compromise?” she demands, “Compromising for what reason? . . . What is compromise?” Surely Kitt knew the meaning of the word, but she’s not seeking definitions here. Rather, her question—“What is compromise?”—fastens a severe and distinctly skeptical beam of light on the concept. Such scrutiny might lead us to the word’s darker resonances: to spoil or imperil. After all, there is risk in being too solicitous. And most of us prefer to get what we want, without the humdrum necessity of making concessions.

The emotional and material experiences of compromise may be aggravating, even anticlimactic. Yet the concept wields all the cultural heft of a cardinal virtue, one touted as both quintessentially and splendidly American. As Rachel Greenwald Smith makes evident in her new book, On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal, interrogating the purpose and stakes of compromise means questioning a deep-rooted national value. A willingness to negotiate, or to accommodate someone’s opposing preferences, is not merely a proclivity or personality trait, but instead an index of high-mindedness, lauded for its attendant associations of moderation and sensibility.

To compromise, then, is to be a reasonable person, someone well-suited to romance or politics. Kitt’s bafflement implies that she does not share this widely held position, that in fact, she prefers, and is determined to live, in a stoutly uncompromising way. From this resolute and implacable place, she seems to eye compromise as a suspicious, distasteful undertaking—never a default measure, but perhaps, in drastic circumstances, a last resort.

On Compromise approaches its subject with similar scruples. Smith, like Kitt, sees neither beauty nor sanctity in striking a bargain, especially when those bargains entail the sacrifice of political justice or artistic possibility. Her book rigorously divests compromise of its honorable trappings, exposing an insidious American mythology, reiterated across history, in which an act characterized by stymied progress is gussied up as an indication of healthy politics, creative intuition, and heroic, sensible hearts.

Ardently, and with meticulous, wide-ranging explication, Smith enjoins her readers to see beyond this mirage. Despite being wielded as “a political, ethical, aesthetic, and personal value,” compromise—the “begrudging acceptance of half wins and half losses”—is not, as she maintains, an unqualified good. Compromise can be necessary, even unavoidable, but rather than embrace it as an agreeable denouement, Smith insists that it be treated as the muddled narrative middle, “ugly, makeshift, disappointing.” With this shift, compromise loses the luster bestowed by fetish; no longer varnished by that confounding sheen, it becomes a space for careful inquiry. Smith is asking, “What is compromise?” but she also wants us to consider what it ought to be—what, in fact, we need it to be if politics and art are to remain spaces for inspired, solidarity-driven work.

Rethinking compromise is no mere intellectual exercise—or at least it shouldn’t be. On Compromise makes no bones about what Americans have to lose, should we cling to a national fiction where settling masquerades as auspicious momentum. Seeing compromise clearly—that is to say, seeing it as a sometimes obligatory, yet unsatisfactory and, importantly, temporary measure—is crucial to propelling any meaningful social reform. As she distills the hazards of both venerating and leaning upon this “American ideal,” Smith runs her finger along the ramshackle scaffolding of liberal capitalism held precariously in place by so many compromises. Enshrining this wobbly, vexing act as a political and cultural lynchpin—treating it as a stabilizing force, rather than as an aggrieved pause—secures nothing, beyond the certainty that systemic injustice will wreak enduring havoc. “I believe we are now late in the age of compromise,” she writes. “The foundation on which the center has stood—a foundation built on exploitation and inequity—is unstable.” There is, perhaps, no coincidence that “late in the age of compromise” evokes a more well-worn term, “late-stage capitalism,” because On Compromise regards capitalism and compromise as inextricable. Smith never states directly that reconceiving of compromise must be accompanied by a larger socio-political reckoning, but trenchant analysis makes her conviction evident. Demoting compromise may be our only path towards art worth fighting for, and a democracy all of America’s inhabitants can survive.

Like any confirmed American ideal, compromise’s noble narrative has roaming tendrils, and Smith traces its influence in the domain of politics, historical and present-day, as well as in the disciplines of music, literature, visual arts. This is a capacious, yet stunningly cohesive project: Smith’s analysis travels from the slavery-based legislation of the nineteenth century to the Riot Grrrl revolution to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and ultimately, to the failures of America’s COVID-19 response. Recurrent is an abiding leftist excoriation of liberalism—the Enlightenment-born “belief that individuals are free by nature, meaning that any imposition of values is a threat to that primary freedom”—a system whose claims to liberty and humaneness are, as Smith reveals, punctured by its reliance upon a history of subjugation and violence, from slavery to drone strikes.

Throughout this broad inquiry, Smith entwines critique with personal testimony. Recounting moments of interpersonal friction, Smith depicts herself as a woman who might be accused of being “too much”: someone inclined towards intensity, oppositional aesthetics, and vigorous conflict. A former bass player for an early 2000s postpunk band, she bristles when her bandmates ask her to soften the edges of her confrontational sound. Frustrated by the political attitudes of fellow white parents, she tries to engage them in debate—and then spends the evening sending apologies over Facebook.

Rachel Greenwald Smith. Photo: Virginia Harold
Rachel Greenwald Smith. Photo: Virginia Harold

But if Smith finds possibility in striking an uncompromising position, it is not for the purpose of apologia. She seems, instead, to be making a call for both discursive and affective multiplicity, for conflict that breeds creativity and forges bonds, precisely because it is unhampered by demands to reach across the aisle. “I used to believe that both democracy and social relationships required an attitude of moderation, of being nice,” she writes. “But I am beginning to wonder what other forms of solidarity and collectivity are available to those of us who value the communication of strong feelings over measured, rational debate.”

Rhetorically, On Compromise models this expression of solidarity: Smith draws on contemporary scholars and briskly takes them to task. She puts even more muscular pressure on her own intellectual trajectory, illuminating the limitations of ideas she once held, but has reconsidered. “Making no compromise,” she explains, “means being willing to take strong positions and then, when one is moved to do so, to change one’s mind and take other strong positions.” It demands, then, the sort of mental flexibility typically regarded as antithetical to an uncompromising attitude (and that is, by extension, posited as crucial to compromise).

But for Smith there’s no unwieldy paradox here. She believes in “seeing conflict as generative” and “seeking it out in many directions, among friends and enemies.” This idea is aptly illustrated by the 2014 antiracist uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, located just twenty minutes from her home in St. Louis. To many, this revolt, catalyzed by Michael Brown’s murder by white police officer Darren Wilson, seems an obvious and necessary rupture after centuries of Black death at the hands of prejudiced cops. Others preached the virtues of nonviolent protest. Still others, like Smith’s virulently right-wing neighbor, “warns . . . of deadly riots in advance of the grand jury decision on the prosecution of Darren Wilson.” His son, Smith observes, has branded his truck with a “thin blue line” bumper sticker to signal his proud support of the police.

Smith does not attempt to engage her neighbor or his son in debate. Although she insists upon the generative potential in conflict, she remains attuned to its circumstantial limitations. Not every fight yields fertile ground: in this case, the brash chauvinism of her neighbor’s politics forecloses any prospect of mutual understanding or illuminating dissent. “I do not believe in a universal community of humankind,” Smith writes. “My neighbor’s political positions are positions that I want to exclude.”

Smith considers the Ferguson uprising in the context of the state’s racist legacy: brought into the Union as a slave state, with the Missouri Compromise purporting to maintain balance by equalizing the number of free and slave states. But as Smith observes, “by making concessions to both sides, it gave both sides power, definition, and tacit support.” Formalizing a balance between irreconcilable ideologies is no method for assuaging conflict. And if such compromises are politically untenable, Smith’s book emphasizes that they are also wrong-headed, feckless grasps at solidarity. Accepting the inevitability of friends and enemies rechannels our political energy where it can breathe and build. It means, too, rejecting the folly of bothsidesism.

On Compromise urges us to instead nourish the solidarity of friends who are similarly committed to an uncompromising struggle against oppression, and who cherish art and literature that express that same dedication. “I know that politics is a matter of inclusion and exclusion,” Smith writes: one must decide what ideologies, and what sorts of political convictions, to admit into one’s orbit. Abhorring racist police brutality and advocating for abolitionist reform demands certain exclusions. Smith is delivering us a rousing argument for proudly asserting one’s allegiances. And although she reminds her readers not “to confuse individual morality and choice with the structural conditions that are the fundamental material of politics,” it seems to me that she is nonetheless calling for a sort of courage. Who, after all, are we willing to exclude as enemies? These delineations, when they sever the intimate bonds of family or friendship, have the capacity to break hearts.

Or, perhaps, they demand the reappraisal of a looming, liberal hero. Chapter Three, “Compromiser in Chief,” opens with a quote from Barack Obama’s 2004 New Yorker profile, where he likens “a good compromise” to “a good sentence or a good piece of music,” reasoning that, in each case, “everybody can recognize it.” This endorsement of compromise issues a quality of masculine gentility, and of course, so does the interview’s context: lunch with New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue on the speakers. It resides in stark contrast to the too-muchness of Smith, Kitt, the Riot Grrrls, and Margaret Anderson, the queer, “stormy-nogginned,” radically uncompromising editor of the early twentieth-century arts and literature periodical, the Little Review.

Drawing this parallel between compromise, music, and wordsmithery implies that all three occupy the domain of art. And if Smith disputes the former president’s assessment of compromise as, in her words, “logical and pleasurable,” she demonstrates over the course of the book that a meaningful critique of the concept is, at base, a study in aesthetics. In the domain of contemporary literature, compromise often manifests as “hybridity”—not “as vessels for tension,” Smith emphasizes, but “by taking provocative experiments and embedding them in an easily consumable shape.” Her term for art that is concerned with its palatability, and thus engages a hybrid form in order to reconcile aesthetic and ideological tensions is “compromise aesthetics.”

When I think about compromise aesthetics, I think, too, of the pink pussy hat, which Smith invokes at the start of her book to identify a specific variety of white, watered-down liberal femininity. The provocation of unwieldy sexuality rendered diminutive and sweet, the fluidity of gender flattened into one crocheted, overdetermined signifier: a symbol rendered so digestible through its exclusions and concessions, that all meaning is annihilated. Upholding compromise as an ideal, as something burnished and final, means the tacit acceptance of progress that looks like this: paltry, pitifully mewing. Real progress, the kind that expands and explodes, is too painful—too unyielding—to be pink.

Rachel Vorona Cote is the author of Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today.