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  • 12 Angry Men:Care for the Agon and the Varieties of Masculine Experience1
  • Bonnie Honig (bio)

Visionary realist (E.J. Dionne's words to describe Michael Harrington, "He preached vision to those worn down by a tired political system, and realism to those trying to change it") apply to William Connolly.2 It is his visionary realism that draws Connolly, in his prescient book, Capitalism and Christianity, to both Fred Hirsch, the political economist, and to Tiresias, the Greek tragic seer. Connolly is also an agonist committed to the perpetuity of struggle that brings out the best in us and commits us to the world. Agonism postulates equality, difference, and a world in which to struggle and excel; hence Connolly's eco-egalitarianism, egalitarian pluralism, and the world of becoming, key themes and ideals championed by him in a series of field-altering books over the last 30-plus years.

Standing out, throughout, are what we might call Connolly's care for the agon and, in connection with his reworking of pluralism as pluralization, his interest in the varieties of masculine experience (this last made explicit with his recent turn to Theweleit in Aspirational Fascism). Both are central themes in the 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, to which I turn here.3 Working with Connolly's texts and concepts, I proceed by way of a reading of Sidney Lumet's classic, which I take to ask: who is worthy of the agon, who can rise to its challenge, and how might received practices of masculinity thwart or further efforts to do so? Mostly received as a naïve realist example of what Joseph Litvak calls "middlebrow piety," the film's pieties, I argue here, are more agonistic democratic than middlebrow, pluralizing not pluralist, and all this is made apparent when we approach the film as more stylishly noir than naïve realist.4

Resonances: 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men is cited almost daily by Donald Trump when he tweets about "13 angry (and conflicted) Democrats" in the Mueller investigation (though as of August 3rd, 2018, it was 17 and counting). Citing 12 Angry Men, Trump manipulates what Connolly, with Deleuze, calls the resonance machine, seeking to kill two birds with one (Roger) Stone: that is to say, with this citational phrase, Trump targets not only [End Page 701] Mueller, but also Henry Fonda, the star (and co-producer) of 12 Angry Men (and all those like him) who personified gentle masculinity and liberal fairness for mass audiences not only in this 1957 film about white prejudice but also in several other films from roughly the period to which MAGA supporters seem to think they want to return (Young Mr. Lincoln [1939], Mr. Roberts [1955], Advise and Consent [1962], and more).

The meme of "13 angry Democrats" actually resurrects the one true villain of 12 Angry Men and makes him the hero: the most virulent white racist, Juror #10, who says early on "I'm sick and tired of facts." Later on, Juror #10 will let loose a lengthy racist rant, which leads his fellow jurors to turn their backs on him in a kind of ritual shunning. As a result, when the majority later votes to acquit the defendant on trial, an abused adolescent who appears "ethnic," in a way that could be read as Jewish, Italian, or Puerto Rican, Juror #10 yields to the rest.

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12 Angry Men (1957)

The message today from the White House is: "You don't need to yield to them anymore." This, from the man who, in the 1980's, called for the death penalty for the unjustly accused Central Park 5. He is "sick and tired of facts," too, as we know.

Juror #10's shunning and yielding leads many critics to fault 12 Angry Men for betraying the ideals it seems to want to promote. It's the wrong way to win, they say, given the film's expressed commitment to reasonableness and proper procedure. I think this misses the film's most important point, which is precisely the insufficiency of reasonableness and proper procedure to justice. As Wittgenstein said, "at...