From the beginning of “On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal,” a collection of essays by Rachel Greenwald Smith, it’s clear what she thinks of compromise.
She’s against it.
Smith does make it obvious that she’s not against everyday domestic compromises, such as when people take turns doing the chores nobody likes. It’s political compromise she finds objectionable, especially the tendency she sees in center-left Americans to see compromise as an idea in itself and an end rather than a means.
Disagreement, she argues, is necessary for democracy. “Because democracy refuses absolute authority, it requires a general acceptance of dissenting views, comfort with internal conflict, ad hoc alliances, and discouraging capitulations.” She also writes that “it has become a commonplace to say that polarization has put the US democracy in danger. But I think polarization is good for politics, good for democracy. Polarized people disagree. They argue. Sometimes they change their minds.” And sometimes, she writes, “power is disrupted, reallocated, or even undermined.”
Compromises, however, she sees as “ugly things that should display their ugliness for everyone to see. They should hold themselves up and say: ‘This is what you get when you give up your ideals. You get a policy that skimps on justice.’”
As an example, Smith brings up the Missouri Compromise and other legal compromises that kept slavery and later forms of racism going. The three-fifths compromise in the Constitution, the Slave Trade Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 and the “separate but equal” determination in Plessy v. Ferguson — all of these left the structural violence of racism in place. And that is unacceptable.
Her essays on compromise in art are a little more complex, partly because the issue itself is a little less clear-cut. Smith has some fascinating passages about diluting the artistic integrity of a work to attract a wider audience, including the story of Margaret Anderson, publisher of the early 20th century arts and literary magazine the Little Review, which was the first to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses. Smith quoted Anderson as saying that she loathed compromise and would rather publish blank pages than run something less than beautiful.
So she did. The Little Review was not a commercial success.
The consequences of refusing to concede to marketable taste has made the news recently, outside of Smith’s collection. “Trouble in Mind” opened on Broadway in late 2021, a play about lynching put on by a company of mostly Black actors. It was written by Black playwright Alice Childress in 1955 and almost produced on Broadway then. The white producers of the play wanted Childress to write a more upbeat ending. She refused to compromise, and the play was not produced in her lifetime.
Is cooperating with mainstream media an unacceptable compromise? Smith writes about Riot Grrrls, a punk feminist movement that started in Olympia in the 1990s with Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill. Riot Grrrl spread to at least 20 other countries and gained Smith as a fan when she was 13 years old. But in 1992, Riot Grrrl bands decided they had been misrepresented by the media and quit talking to journalists. It was part of their stance of no compromise. Smith writes of researching the Riot Grrrl movement recently, “The more I read, the more I find myself wondering if the fear of hierarchical power … contributed to a missed opportunity for action.”
Smith draws from a wide range of sources, from the song “Tiny Dancer” to Nazi political theorist Carl Schmidt to her own interesting life. She combines revelations from MFA studies at the Iowa Writers Workshop with her experience as a bass player in a female-fronted post-punk band in her essay “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Then Smith asks, “[W]hat was punk, but the desire to make songs worse?” And we’re off in a reminiscence about writing a song with her band, inspired by her sudden ability to let a terrifying high note fly singing along with Axl Rose, “as if I had always been led to see aggression as a powerful form of seduction.” Inspired by her newfound talent, the band put together a song for her to sing. “And it was a perfect compromise. My bass line could be rough. Choppy. My vocals could be pitchy and the tempo could race. It was what the song wanted.” As she sings this compromise-based song at an important gig, she “soaked up the shrieks and cheers as I tabulated the bodies in the room, the bar percentage, the merch we would sell.” Compromise led to her own capitalistic triumph.
There are plenty of books with a few interesting ideas and one or two quotable lines. Smith includes provocative ideas and meme-able quotes on almost every page. For example, she writes that she agrees with Ayn Rand about compromise, even though she disagrees with nearly everything else the icon of the far right stands for. Rand condemned compromise as a violation of the very concept of justice, which Smith admires.
Before Rand fans get too excited, however, they might want to consider that Smith has the same sort of admiration for the coronavirus: “I can’t help but admire the virus for its stubbornness, its refusal to cooperate. It will not just be reasonable.”
Still, Smith writes, we try to bargain: “I’ll give you restaurants if you give me dentist appointments.” But white Americans now have a glimmer of what racial injustice means. “The experience of being repeatedly exposed to the threat of death no matter what you do may be novel for some, but for Black Americans it is a fundamental fact of existence.”
She emphasizes that democracy is “made in conflict, in refusal, in actions that might seem excessive or extreme or too much, in the militant protection of those who are most vulnerable.” Democracy suffers when we compromise with those who want to maintain systems of injustice, and that must stop.
“On Compromise” is only 197 pages long, but it is not a fast read. There’s a lot to think about. There are some points to argue with. Smith is a clear, cogent writer and an engaging storyteller. Just don’t think that what she’s going to tell you is going to be comforting.
Read more of the Jun 22-28, 2022 issue.