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Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States

Ajume H. Wingo

Ajume H. Wingo. Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States. Cambridge University Press, 2003. $55.00 (cloth) $22.00 (paper)

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By partially concealing the otherwise recognizable features of a thing, veils have the ability to make the mundane intriguing and the extraordinary plain. For a person, veils can create a new public self, allowing the wearer to present a version of themselves, which is at once true and untrue. Ajume Wingo's Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States seizes on the veil's powerful quality as a metaphor for the way in which we conduct ourselves politically challenging the boundaries of liberal political theory. He writes, "Political veils - political symbols, rituals, mythologies, and traditions - serve the same kind of veiling function. Where ordinary veils smooth rough edges, mask wrinkles, and highlight a body's best features, political veils gloss over historical details or aspects of the political apparatus, offering instead an idealized image of the system or a stylized representation of a civic virtue" (4).

Wingo argues that modern liberal states are marked by the use of political veils as a specific, "... style of politics that recognizes the force of veils and intentionally uses them for political purposes" (5). Because veils always imply some degree of concealment of the "truth" behind them, we are left skeptical of how they can be acceptable given traditional liberal commitments to transparency. Wingo's central question is thus one of compatibility: how can liberal states dedicated to transparent and rational political deliberation co-exist with veils that by definition are opaque and motivate the public based on half-truths? Wingo argues that despite our initial assumption that veil politics and liberal politics are incompatible, veil politics in fact, "... can be thought of as a means of implementing a particular political system, making the degree to which a system intentionally uses veils ... lie ... on an axis orthogonal to the political spectrum" (5). That is, it is not the presence of veils themselves, but only the content of veils that may be incompatible with liberal attachments. The form of the political veil, and the practice of so-called "veil politics" is itself structurally compatible with liberal commitments. We must, he argues, engage is liberal veil politics. "Veil politics," he writes, "brings good news for friends of liberal democracy, opening up as it does a new path to the establishment and maintenance of liberal states" (46).

An example from the closing chapter on the role of veils in liberal civic education, looks at alternate biographies of George Washington. The mythical version, exemplified by Mason Locke Weem's Life of Washington, recalls the founder in glowing symbolic language: " pious as Numa, just as Aristides, temperate as Epictetus " This is in contrast to the more realistic and nuanced version in Garry Wills' Certain Trumpets, which recalls Washington's treacherous back room deals against Lafayette, his intentional subversion of the Articles of Confederation, and the secrecy with which he guarded minutes of the Constitutional Convention from the public. Wingo argues that this is a perfect example where the fiction in the "false history" captures the truth of Washington (for civic purposes of building a liberal community) far better than the "messy truth" does: "[T]he surface image is clearly false, but false in the way an insightful caricature is" (123-124). The veil is indeed opaque, hiding and obscuring Washington's complex character, smoothing over the troublesome wrinkles of history, but in a way that elucidates an important civic myth upholding liberal principles of a virtuous founder.

Our discomfort and trouble with veils stems from a misunderstanding of liberalism, Wingo argues. The traditional liberal requirement of rational deliberation defines an overly expansive space of reasoned debate and political thinking that leaves no room for the ways in which seemingly autonomous individuals are actually encumbered as persons found in specific cultural contexts based on seemingly irrational aspects of life. In the face of this worldly irrationality Wingo writes, "The liberal conceit is that we can ignore non-rational factors without losing anything important to our understanding of politics" (36). This leaves us either ignoring veil politics as irrelevant or condemning them outright as "antithetical to freedom of individuals' reason and self-determination" (37). The mistake, Wingo argues, is that liberalism cannot be so all encompassing as to explain all political arrangements, but rather that reason-based politics exists alongside important "complements" of irrationality. It is from this apt criticism of traditional liberalism that Wingo argues for a vital place for the right kind of veil politics: veils that promote autonomy and liberal principles. His final chapter on civic education, a critique of Amy Gutmann, argues that Gutmann's model of liberal civic education is incomplete because it is to be implemented solely on a rational basis. In this chapter, Wingo makes a compelling case for the use of political veils, like the mythical story of Washington, in the socializing and education of the next generation of liberal citizens.

In all, Wingo's critique of liberalism, as is well put by Jeremy Waldron in the forward, is "not to discredit liberalism" but rather to save it from an expansive myopia; by trying to cover all things, its sees everything as a part. Wingo's analysis, however, suffers from the same condition: his definition of political veils is so broad as to make it incapable of adequately distinguishing what is rightfully like a veil over a person's face, selectively concealing and enhancing in the same moment, and those things which are like a sack cloth over the head.

Wingo's basic analytical tool, the veil metaphor, seems driven by the evocative strength of the metaphor rather than its explanatory power. The veil stands in for an amazingly varied and diverse set of social and political phenomena, while entirely neglecting an important specific implication of the real world version of the veil: the gendered way in which they are used socially - the evocative image of the veiled person is almost always female. Veiling is a social practice deeply associated with specifically female gender roles such as mourning wives or "blushing" brides, and as a troubling catch-all category for Islamic hijab, headscarf, or chador. There is a real-world veil politics with a meaning all of its own which Wingo leaves out entirely.

The metaphorical veil politics, on the other hand, is overly broad, focusing on national monuments, currency, and historical documents as examples of political veils in the American context. But he seeks to include myths, symbols, rhetoric, and rituals in his definition as well. The veil's power as a physical metaphor stands in for these much more complex concepts. But these abstract concepts each have their own exhaustive literatures that Wingo does not fully engage. For example{s}, the conceptual framework for analyzing public mythologies laid out by Roland Barthes (identifying the subtle way in which ideas become naturalized through the mythical interaction of signs and their signifier) and Slavoj Zizeck's conception of ideology (noting the way in which the public treats ideas which are known to be false as if they are true) not only mirror Wingo's concerns but are far more robust than the language he uses of "deep" versus "superficial image," which we can only presume are similar concepts.

Wingo's commitment to a board understanding of his category leads him to make anything a veil, including outright lies, what he calls oddly calls "opacity politics." This extreme version of veil politics implies a perfectly opaque veil, that rather than distorting an underlying political truth, completely conceals it. There must be some difference between actions that both conceal and enhance the truth (veil politics) and those that utterly disregard or destroy truth (opacity politics), but Wingo takes them as categorically the same, differing only in degree. The philosophical differences between secrets, outright lies, and misleading statements are well discussed in Sisela Bok's seminal texts Lying and Secrets. Wingo collapses the fascinating and important shades of gray characterizing such varieties of untruths into extreme points on a spectrum of opacity. To generate an analytic category so broad as to include both popular political myths and lies is, I fear, to generate a useless analytic category. That these phenomena may share the common characteristic of hiding or masking some part of the truth is not a matter degree, but a matter of multiple distinct (although similar) phenomena. Surely there is a fundamental philosophical difference between outright lies about Washington and popular myths about him. Is this difference best described by a continuum of veil opacity or by noting that lying and myth making are distinct phenomena? I tend to think that the latter would provide better analysis, by restricting the definition of what we should properly call political veils.

The veil is an intriguing analytic concept, but I think that it, like liberalism for Wingo, needs to be saved from reaching too far. The veil is compatible with liberalism on his terms not because it fits nicely inside of liberalism, but because it fits nicely alongside liberal commitments. But Wingo's account of the veil suffers the same sort of misunderstanding. Veil politics is a useful category only so long as it allows basically different concepts to remain different, allowing lies and myths to remain conceptually alongside one another rather then both inside the veil. And I believe this is what Wingo really has in mind. The cases he explores in greater depth, the Declaration of Independence, the "false-truth" of the melting pot myth, the mythical George Washington, or the numerous examples of public monuments capture the version of veil politics most useful to liberalism: it presents a thing as simultaneously true and untrue. But the extreme cases of pure transparency or opacity have other names, whose disregard only does a disservice to the concept itself.

Andrew Dilts, The University of Chicago

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