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For SLU prof Rachel Greenwald Smith, compromise is not a virtue

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Virginia Harold
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Rachel Greenwald Smith is an associate professor of English at St. Louis University.

Rachel Greenwald Smith is interested in compromise. The compromises we make in politics — and why that’s generally perceived as a good thing (wrongly, she argues). The compromises we make in art — and what it means when we bend our vision in search of a bigger audience. The compromises made by Riot Grrrl’s Kathleen Hanna and the members of the fictional band Stillwater (of “Almost Famous” fame) and David Foster Wallace and Margaret Anderson, founder of an influential arts and literary magazine just before World War I.

Smith has read widely and thought deeply and is ready to push you out of your comfort zone. Herself a former Riot Grrrrl with progressive politics, she’ll quote a Nazi approvingly. She’ll throw a bone to Ayn Rand. Her new book of essays “On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal” may leave you deeply discomfited. It may also elucidate everything that’s wrong with politics and art in 2022.

An associate professor of English at St. Louis University, Smith discussed the book on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. She explained that while much of it is focused on compromise in politics, it actually grew out of her interest in compromise in art.

She began thinking about how many writers didn’t feel like the uncompromising risk-taking of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce was possible in this modern era.

“I set on a journey when I was writing this book to understand what the political, economic and social circumstances were that made it such that writers weren't capable of thinking about such projects as possible anymore,” she said. “And that took me beyond the realm of art and into a whole lot of other domains that, frankly, surprised me as I was going along.”

Despite Smith’s catholic interests, the common thread running through her chapters is a critique of liberalism — and by that she doesn’t mean “liberal” in the Fox News sense, but the classical liberal idea that democracy lets us be free to be you and me.

“Aside from valuing liberty, liberalism also tends to value moderation, forms of rational discourse, forms of sort of a compromise for its own sake,” she noted. Her book takes issue with that, suggesting not only that many compromises are temporary but that they’re also ugly (see: the Missouri Compromise).

In taking on liberalism, Smith acknowledges finding with seemingly strange bedfellows — including the aforementioned Nazi, German political scientist Carl Schmitt.

Listen: Rachel Greenwald Smith's 'On Compromise'

“As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I take it very seriously to entertain thoughts from somebody who had his positions,” she said. “And yet, I do think this distinction between friends and enemies is very useful in a moment when the left, I think, is sometimes unwilling to consider a split between its own positions and the positions of the right, partly because of a sort of liberal belief in in negotiation and discourse — which I think is noble, but may not be working in our current circumstances.”

Smith is a native of Portland, Oregon, “a second-generation countercultural colonizer of a working-class logging town,” in the words of the book. Her parents’ liberal sensibilities left her with almost too much freedom.

“My parents were ‘60s social movement people who were part of a kind of general culture in Portland at the time that really wanted to see children have as much choice as possible,” she said. “And at school, I found that what that turned into is that someone like me, who really thrived on structure and organization, felt very lost at times.”

She credits her job in academia — and particularly her work as director of graduate studies for SLU’s English department, which involves a fair amount of administration — for helping her gain a new appreciation of the compromises she critiques in her essays.

“Looking at the history of punk and the avant garde, it's quite easy to just say, ‘What's with all these compromises, we need uncompromising attitudes, need uncompromising art.’ And I still believe that on the level of art,” she said. “Being in the scene of institutional negotiation makes things much more complicated, and I think that helped me with the political valences of the book, be much more specific about what I wanted to target and my critique of compromise.”

She added: “One of the reasons I put myself in the book so much is to demonstrate the bad feelings and ambivalent relationships that most of us end up having in so many aspects of our lives as we have to make compromises. Because the world demands that of us. And if there's hope in the book, it’s for a world that maybe doesn't demand such awful compromises from us, that gives us more opportunities for justice, that gives us more resources, so that we can more easily make compromises that don't feel so dire.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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