The Contemporary Condition

Monday, July 25, 2016

Donald Trump's Campaign of Feeling

Lida Maxwell
Trinity College 

In the promotional video that the RNC aired about Donald Trump on the last night of their convention, Rudy Giuliani said that, as president, Donald Trump would “make us feel like what we should feel like: that we are exceptionally lucky to live in this country.” Giuliani’s gloss on Trump was revealing. Trump’s campaign is – as many have noted – a campaign of fear. Trump stokes fear of “radical Islam” and “illegals” and solicits a desire for the safety and security offered by a strongman (him). But his campaign is also one that solicits and relies on a more general politics of sentimentality: his audience’s feeling that feelings are powerful. That is, his campaign fuels the (self-help-ish) idea that feeling good about something makes it good – that feeling like America is great will make America great. 
This was evident in his speech at the Republican National Convention. Trump’s speech (and campaign) had almost zero policy prescriptions (besides building a wall), but he nonetheless suggested that the very day that he gets into office, everyone will be safer. It is difficult to make sense of this claim unless you put it in the context of Trump’s campaign manager’s interview with Jake Tapper earlier that evening. Tapper had seen a draft of Trump’s speech, wherein Trump claims that we need a “law and order” approach in a moment when violent crime is on the rise. Tapper confronted Paul Manafort with data that shows that violent crime has been going down for decades. Manafort responded by saying that he didn’t know the statistics, but that people don’t feel safe. The problem Manafort and Trump are addressing, in other words, is a problem not of actual crime, but of a feeling of insecurity. And if the problem is a feeling of insecurity, then having a feeling of security – when Donald Trump is president – is solution enough. 
This politics of feeling is – in many ways – nothing new. As Lauren Berlant argues in her essay, “The Subject of True Feeling,” sentimentality has long pervaded American politics. In particular, Berlant suggests that minority and subaltern groups have often challenged dominant groups in America, and sought redress for their injuries, in the register of feeling and sentimentality: “[s]entimentality has long been the means by which mass subaltern pain is advanced, in the dominant public sphere, as the true core of national collectivity” (53). Berlant (sympathetically) criticizes the attempt to use sentimentality and pain to create legal change and national unity, arguing that the focus on the pain of individuals blinds us to the structural injustices that produce that pain. Berlant also argues that the discourse of sentimentality creates a “sense that changes in feeling, even on a mass scale, amount to substantial social change” (54). In other words, Berlant is suggesting that casting our political claims in terms of our feelings of pain and trauma creates a culture where feeling better seems to mean that things are better.
I am not trying to suggest that minority groups’ claims of pain and injury have paved the way for Trump’s alienated whites’ politics of feeling – Berlant places minority discourses of suffering in the context of a broader American sentimentalized politics. Rather, I want to suggest something a little different: that Trump and his core supporters (alienated male whites), like other conservatives before them, are coopting progressive politics. If many important demands for justice and freedom – for LGBT, immigrant, and other minority rights – have had to proceed in part through a display of suffering, feeling, and pain that aims to elicit the sympathy of the dominant class, then Trump’s campaign is about proclaiming that the feelings of that dominant class should be a (no, the) matter of common concern – hence the strange slogan for the last night of the RNC, “Make America One Again.” What this approach leaves out, of course, is that the bad feelings of the dominant class are not produced through structural injustices aimed at white, male Americans, but have rather emerged as a belligerent response to policies aimed at redressing the structural injustices that have long been done (and continue to be done) to women, people of color, immigrants, and queers (among others). 
One way to respond to Trump’s campaign of feeling is by unmasking Trump’s claims about national (in)security, and the alien threats that supposedly menace us, as lies – lies that wrongly encourage hatred toward minority groups, and which distract us from the real problems this country has to deal with. This is largely the approach taken by the Clinton campaign and, while many Democrats certainly agree with this approach, it doesn’t seem to be diminishing Trump’s luster with his core constituency. And there is a reason for this. The whole point of Trump’s campaign is that facts don’t matter – feelings matter. Throwing facts in the face of feelings is, in this election cycle, pretty pointless unless you are addressing an audience who is already convinced that facts matter.
An alternative approach to responding to Trump’s campaign of feelings would be not to try to unmask it, but instead to offer an alternative politics of feeling – one that diagnoses, as the product of diverse forms of structural injustice, the bad feelings of insecurity (economic, political, social) that plague many Americans (white men and others), takes them seriously, and addresses them with material solutions. This is, to a large degree, what Bernie Sanders’ campaign did. In his Michigan debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders was asked whether unions protect bad teachers. Instead of addressing this small issue, Sanders put that issue in the context of the bigger crisis of public education. He said:

“What our campaign is about, is asking people to think big not small. And when we think big and we talk about education, we’ve got to ask ourselves a simple question – how is it, starting at college that hundreds of thousands of bright young people are today, unable to go to college because they can’t afford it? How is it that maybe your kid – and when I was growing up, we didn’t have any money – were not even dreaming of going to college because they knew it was another world. So starting with the top, now I know some people think it’s a radical idea, I don’t. I believe that every public college and university in this country should be tuition free.”

What Sanders does here is offer a savvy diagnosis of why we are even asking questions about unions protecting “bad teachers,” and encouraging a shift in how we think about “solutions.” Specifically, he is suggesting that concern about whether unions protect “bad teachers” is rooted in a broader, material insecurity: about whether our children are receiving, and able to pursue, the education they deserve – an education that, in turn, will allow them to achieve an equal place at the social and political table. That problem is a big problem that demands, Sanders is arguing, a large scale shift in our political imagination – a shift that allows us to see a good, full education not as the privilege of a few, but as a basic right for everyone in a democratic country.

In this moment and others, Sanders’ campaign acknowledged how bad many people in this country feel – how their lives feel insecure and pointless, and how (in contrast to previous generations) it feels like the future might get worse and not better. Sanders did not treat those feelings (as Trump does) as truths in themselves. Instead, he explained them as the product of concrete human decisions, policies, and laws – decisions, policies, and laws that could be otherwise. In turn, he offered his audience a radical political imaginary – a vision of what government and law could be and do if we just, simply, changed it. 

Sanders, of course, is no longer in the picture – and I don’t bring up his campaign simply to wax nostalgic. Rather, I bring it up to suggest that Hillary should take a page from his book: to move away from only trying to unmask Trump’s sentimentalism, and toward also offering an alternative sentimental politics akin to Sanders’. While offering large-scale political dreams is not Hillary’s strong suit – she excels at pragmatic compromise (which is also an important political virtue) – she has shown a remarkable capacity to shift and change during her political career. And if Sanders’ campaign got us to imagine that our politics could be otherwise, could we not imagine that Hillary could be otherwise, too? What if we saw, during the remainder of this campaign, a Hillary who returned to the way she viewed politics when she was at Wellesley College, where she said in her commencement speech that, “for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible”? What if we saw a Hillary who didn’t try to turn us away from the realm of feeling, but diagnosed feeling, and offered a concrete vision of what equality and freedom would look like right now? Such a vision might solicit and create feelings of a different register than the one on which Trump is working: feelings not of alternating fear and greatness, but of possibility, freedom, and solidarity – feelings, in other words, that might embolden political action and participation on behalf of freedom and equality, rather than encourage deference to a huckster. 
 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Suicidal Tendencies: Trump and the Rise of the “F#*k it All” Republicans


Jake Greear
Johns Hopkins University

Before the current political cycle no one could have predicted the rise of Donald Trump the candidate. Not with any certainty. But now, with the primary endgame looming, no one can deny its importance. What accounts for his surprising success? We hear that he is tapping into the frustrations and fears of the working class in economic decline. But it isn’t as if Trump is the first candidate to try to speak to a falling lower middle class.

The current narrative attributes his success to his status as an “outsider” who “tells it like it is.” American political institutions are suffering from a great crisis of public confidence. Insiders are out, and the financial independence of Trump’s campaign plays into the “outsider” narrative. Most candidates are dependent upon donors, and therefore upon allies. Trump’s obscene wealth means he needs no donors. He needs none of his peers on his side. Good thing for him, because he has few. Trumps Id-driven rhetoric plays well with spectators, but not with friends. And as famous people often attest, at the end of the day fans are no substitute for friends. Bullies frequently act from a place of friendlessness, not just because meanness arises from an emptiness of the heart, but also because of the simple calculus of having little to lose by playing the ass. So, there is some explanatory power in the “Trump the outsider” storyline. 



An additional explanation is that Trump is tapping into the repressed “dark underbelly” of the republican mind--i.e. white racism. This is true, and of course it is enabled by his outsider status, for the reasons just mentioned. Given his bald-faced bigotry and unapologetic fascistic tendencies, it is painful to see Trump given even the dignity of a Sunday talk show, much less a podium on a national debate stage. However, while this is a particularly foreboding aspect of Trumpism, it too is only a partial explanation.


Trump’s rise has something to say about the politics of wealth, media, and demagoguery. It also has something important to say about just how far we have not come since segregation. But what these story-lines miss is the suicidal nihilism that sits alongside xenophobia at the heart of the Trump movement. 


The nation is experiencing a certain kind of economic decline, but most of the voters supporting Trump are not starving and homeless. They are not even altogether jobless. They are more likely to be trapped in low-income jobs or chronically underemployed. They’ve seen a long, slow decline in real wages, quality of life, job security, and meaningful career opportunities. The truly destitute might demand answers, ideologies. But Trump supporters require no such things. They are done with all of that. Over the last two decades the GOP has taken them there and back again to no effect. They’ve tried the purest strains of imperialism, libertarianism, Christian fundamentalism, Constitutionalism. But the slow motion deflation of the American dream continues apace, and it seems ideological fervor has now given way to suicidal tendencies. 


A kind of suicide, I believe, is what is on the minds of a significant contingent of Trump fans. Many express no loftier motivation than to simply watch it all burn. This is a new brand of Republicanism, born of the pessimism of majoritarians. A post-conservative non-ideology that has been festering on mouldering couches in basement apartments. The Trump movement is harboring the overfed manchild of the Republican party, and the prospect of a Trump Presidency is his idle fantasy of going out in a blaze of glory. Burn the Republican party. Wreck the establishment. To hell with the Constitution. To hell with the republic itself. What we are seeing is the rise of fuck-it-all Republicanism. We should not underestimate its appeal. And we should be little surprised if we find some crossover Democrats among its ranks. 



The Democratic nominee will be tempted to attack trump for his bigotry, his bullying, his fabrications, his disastrous half-baked policy suggestions, or his debasement of what little dignity is left in public service. Democrats should advance on these fronts if only to defend decency in the public sphere. But shaming Trump will not work as a campaign strategy. The most effective strategy will be to saddle Trump with the cowardice and pessimism that actually undergirds the destructive nihilism he is feeding upon. In some cases suicidal individuals experience a period of relative elation after they finally decide upon death. A similar phenomenon seems to hold for the collective, spectacular suicide of a republic. But suicide here is a cowards way out, as those bent on it surely know. We should not mistake the death-driven glee of Trump’s timid nihilists for true joyfulness. 



True joi-de-vivre is the only antidote to this strain of sadness. “Hope” will not be enough. And Hillary’s johnny-come-lately “make America whole” (again?) tagline is too remedial, too backward looking. I worry about a possible Trump candidacy not because the numbers are on his side. They’re not, yet. I worry because I am not sure the Democratic candidate will be able to conjure up the vigorous, courageous, outgoing, future-oriented optimism that is needed to counter Trump. Without it we may be surprised again by Trump’s effectiveness.



Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Danish Struggle

Lars Tønder
  University of Copenhagen

International new reports and social media postings suggest that the intellectual community in the United States and elsewhere is beginning to realize that Denmark no longer is what it once was: a progressive welfare state that cares for the weakest and that actively works to create greater equality at home and abroad.


Make no mistake. The much-discussed jewelry law that allows Danish police to confiscate jewelry and other valuables from asylum seekers is only the tip of the iceberg. The law itself certainly invokes images from Nazi Germany, but it will most likely be inconsequential, in part because the police do not have the training needed to assess the value of specific items, and in part because most asylum seekers have very few possessions when they arrive at the border. It is more accurate to see the jewelry law as a symbolic gesture. The law is designed to satisfy the government’s coalition partner—the xenophobic far-right Danish People’s Party—while forcing the opposition to accept anti-immigration reform or face the consequences at the next election. Any negative effect on the number of asylum seekers is an added bonus.


Far more consequential are the laws and provisions that accompany the jewelry law. Reinstatement of border control, lowering of the subsidies for asylum seekers, new obstacles to family reunification, and harsher citizenship requirements—these policies are the ones that will have the biggest impact; contrary to the current PR campaign orchestrated by the Danish foreign ministry, these policies are destined to make Denmark a global “leader” in anti-immigration reform.

One should not be naïve and think that these anti-immigration policies are detached from the government’s broader efforts to dismantle the Danish welfare state while pretending to save it from economic collapse. Not even the government’s own officials believe that such a collapse is imminent, and in fact there is every reason to believe that Danish economy will grow in the coming years. Still, Prime Minster Lars Løkke Rasmussen and his right-wing cohorts insist that the public finances must be squeezed in order to make space for tax cuts that nominally will go to both the rich and the poor, but most likely will benefit the former rather than the latter. To make ends meet, this approach has led (among other things) to an unprecedented attack on the universities, which have been targeted for some of the deepest budget cuts seen in the last 25 years. As a result, the next 2 – 3 years will see the closing of a number of so-called non-productive programs, including Classics, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish.

All this is to say that the narrowing of Danish culture and its openness to the world at large certainly is taking place. At the same time as the government both symbolically and physically is closing the country's borders for outsiders, it is preventing its own citizens from studying some of the world’s most important languages, cultures, and traditions. It is imperative that we recognize this for what it is: a broad-based ideological struggle seeking to undermine social critique and political transformation. The Steve Bell cartoon published in The Guardian on January 27, 2016 captures this better than most of what has been circulating in the last days and weeks.
Steve Bell on Denmark seizing refugees' assets.
What to do in the face of these developments? Some have pointed to Ai Weiwei’s decision to withdraw from a Danish art exhibition, and suggested that the international community should follow suite, boycotting Denmark BDS-style. If things continue the way they are now, this may very well become an option. But we are not there yet. While the government has been successful in passing its laws, there is still opposition to the policies imposed by it. 


Most recently, critique has been aired by Mogens Lykketoft, former chairperson of the Social Democrats and current President of the United Nations General Assembly, who in a leaked speech has called Prime Minister Løkke Rasmussen “a fraud,” accusing him of tricking the Danish electorate into accepting policies it does not want. Three of the Social Democratic Party’s MPs deflected from the party line and voted against the jewelry law, and prominent members of the government-party Venstre have openly criticized the party and either resigned or become members of competing parties. Moreover, one of the most successful parties in the June 2015 election—the newly founded “Alternativet” (The Alternative)—ran on a platform criticizing the capitalistic mode of production while calling for greater social inclusion and economic redistribution. A similar trend is present in Danish civil society where associations like “Welcome to Denmark,” “Refugees Welcome,” and others work to counteract the government’s policies, welcoming refugees into private homes, helping them to either escape registration by the Danish police or ensure that they get the legal and emotional support they need.

None of this is nearly as prominent and powerful as the forces driving the current anti-immigration reforms. Still, rather than seeing the current events as part of a unidirectional trend, the examples indicate that we must consider the Danish situation in terms that are different from the ones invoked by the Weiwei-supporters. Complexity theory suggests that tipping points are defined by certain thresholds that, once passed, qualitatively can alter the state of a given entity. Danish culture and society may well have reached such a threshold. But here’s the point: the transformation is not yet complete, and there is enough resistance to suggest that more must be done before we know the final outcome. The resistance, anger, and care for another Denmark suggest that we are in the midst of a multi-dimensional struggle, one that remains open for new input and redirection.


There is no doubt that the Danish intellectual community can do more in this regard. Like the Corbyn-opposition in England, Danish intellectuals must encourage the Left to set up a new economic council that can formulate the critiques and alternative ideas necessary to counter the current ideology of neoliberal austerity. Like the Podemos-party in Spain, Danish intellectuals must emphasize the need to reconnect with civil society through new modes of organization. Some of this is already happening, but the corporatist, consensus-seeking dimension of Danish politics is keeping alternative voices at bay, making them less powerful than they could have been. We need a change in political culture now more than ever.


Moreover, a struggle like the one envisioned here calls for more (not less) interaction with and from the outside world. To keep the system moving, and to alter its current composition and direction, we need scholars, intellectuals, politicians, and NGOs who are willing to both criticize and engage with Danish society through visits, debates, cartoons, and other interventions. My wager is that such interventions will encourage the progressive forces in Denmark, and thus help tipping the trend in the other direction, moving the policies toward greater equality and inclusion of asylum seekers and other people in need.

So friends: Do not turn your back to Denmark. We need you more than ever!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Obama's Tragic Equanimity

Steven Johnston

Barack Obama has delivered many superb speeches in his national political career. A gifted orator when inspired, Obama can stir and spur others. Obama’s address to the nation from the Oval Office on December 6, 2015, following the slaughter in San Bernardino, California, may not have moved many citizens, but for that very reason I would suggest it was perhaps the most important speech, even the best speech, he has made as president. As Republican presidential candidates compete with one another to corner the political market on mindless machismo in response to terrorism—with Ted Cruz the apparent winner by insisting that he would order the Defense Department to carpet-bomb the Islamic State into submission—Obama remains preternaturally cool, calm, and composed. When under fire, the world’s most powerful nation-state needs self-possession in those who govern. Ironically, this sensibility seems to frustrate even those well-disposed to Obama. Frank Bruni, sounding eerily similar to David Brooks slandering John Kerry in the 2004 election, “question[s] the intensity of Barack Obama’s focus on the Islamic State and the terrorist threat,” insisting that “we didn’t see quite the passion that this moment demands or quite the strength that a fearful country craves.” Bruni, alas, is too focused on dissecting the fearful bigotry of Donald Trump to notice, let alone admit, his own undue fear of the “barbarians” at the gate.


What was remarkable about Obama’s speech—and about his presidency as a whole—was its utter lack of ressentiment. This is a president with every reason to be furious. The Islamic State is a murderous force that could not have come into being if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had not indulged the neo-conservative fantasy of regime change in Iraq. The blood on their hands knows no apparent end or limit. But he has refused to single them out and hold them responsible for what they have wrought. Obama not only declined to prosecute them for their various crimes against the Constitution and humanity when he first took office. Despite their horrific legacy, he effectively assumes unqualified responsibility for the Islamic State and asks Congress to join him by authorizing the use of military force against it. If Congress really believes that the United States is at war with the Islamic State—which individual members can’t say often enough—then it’s time to prove it with something other than rants and raves.


Obama addressed the nation on December 6 and offered the American people a lesson in “tragedy.” This kind of political education is precisely what many Americans gripped by fear and panic do not want right now, but it may be exactly what is needed. It can provide necessary distance which, not to be confused with indifference, is critical so we don’t blindly make matters worse—not despite but because of actions we take. The tragedy to which Obama referred is not (just) that fourteen people “were brutally murdered.” The tragedy is that the United States, as I mentioned, created the circumstances that made it possible for the Islamic State to emerge and nothing we do can rewrite the past or lessen our culpability. The tragedy is that the Islamic State has “turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common” in the United States, which means that while we can defend ourselves (and can do more to defend ourselves), we will never be able to provide a foolproof guarantee that more terrorist attacks won’t take place. We have engendered that kind of hatred. The tragedy is that Obama must insist, whether it’s credible or not, that the United States will overcome terrorism, destroy the Islamic State, and ultimately prevail “by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.” Yet to prevail here means that the Islamic State cannot and will not be destroyed by American military power. To privilege a resort to arms is self-defeating and self-destructive: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like [the Islamic State] want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. [Islamic State] fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”


Unlike Jeb Bush, Obama knows that the Islamic State cannot “destroy Western civilization.” The tragedy is that the United States has mortal enemies that wish it deadly harm and there is nothing that we can do to eliminate existential enmity and the nihilistic violence it inspires. The world is not ontologically or politically predisposed in America’s favor. The tragedy is that the best we can do is contain and control the Islamic State, a necessarily modest policy that is already showing signs of success in Iraq, which also means that the Islamic State has already made plans and preparations for its strategic retreat to Libya—when the time comes. And should it be driven from Libya in a few years, under a different president, no doubt it will relocate elsewhere. The drive to eliminate evil actors altogether from the world cannot be redeemed. The tragedy is that successful terrorist attacks in the United States do not mean that the Islamic State is not being effectively countered. The tragedy is that it means that the United States is again experiencing the kind of violence that much of the rest of the world experiences routinely—and for which the United States is often responsible.


Barack Obama spent part of his national address suggesting “what we should not do.” He understands better than the Republicans running for his job that the United States must be careful not to betray its own values in the effort to protect the country from terrorist attack. Above all else, we must not become the enemy we oppose and fight, a problem the United States did not negotiate well during the country’s prior global struggle with the Communist Other in the Cold War. Unfortunately, it is a fate to which the United States has already succumbed—that is, long before the United States started thinking publicly about denying refugees that it helped create entry into the country. George Bush resorted to illegal war, rendition, secret gulags, and torture, all in the name of defending the so-called homeland. As I said, no one knows this descent better than Barack Obama, not only because he made a conscious choice not to prosecute the criminals that preceded him in the executive branch. Obama knows this dissolution well because, among other things, his own drone war has killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians in a callous disregard for life and limb in the pursuit of national security and to protect our way of life. The tragedy is that we may not have become our enemy, but we are not as different from it as we would like to think either, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The difference may or may not be small, but it is still significant and that is what Barack Obama tried to tell the nation on December 6, especially when he implored us to “make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional.” The tragedy is that it doesn’t look like very many were listening—or capable of hearing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Paris’s Everyday Heroes


Steven Johnston
is the author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.
In response to mass murder in Paris, Jeb Bush would launch a third family war in the Middle East. Donald Trump would register all Muslims in the United States and monitor mosques. Paul Ryan and Chris Christie would prevent any and all Syrian refugees from entering the country. Republicans gravitate to horrific moments such as these, especially when they happen elsewhere, because it enables them to articulate and legitimize their reactionary vision of the United States and concentrate politics on a terrain they think they can dominate: national security. Republicans are always prepared to talk tough and demand immediate, decisive action, but they have no real plan to defeat the Islamic State. 
In issuing calls for action, Republicans act like the good patriots they believe themselves to be. When their country is in trouble, when the nation is under attack, something must be done. It is time to act. Patriots can, do, and must act—where action is defined exclusively in security and military terms. They cannot do otherwise. What they usually want to do when faced with external danger is unleash the nation’s awesome military arsenal. They want to launch strikes. They want to punish enemies. They want to kill those who kill us. They are willing to kill—and have many die—to defend their country and its principles, burdens unduly assigned according to class. 
 Republican apparatchiks know that when they advocate for war neither they nor their families will be put in harm’s way. This testosterone-driven response presumes, among other things, that the world is susceptible to American intervention and control—of just the right kind. If danger persists, it is because those who exercise power lack the competence to wield it properly and effectively. America creates its own reality and the world falls into place. Predictably, this ontologically narcissistic neoconservative approach to international politics helped create the conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. More of the same cannot eliminate it. To defeat the Islamic State means redressing those conditions, but the coalition of forces America and France would like to assemble to escalate the war on terrorism would see that approach as a threat to their power and interests (unlike perpetual war). 
Those who oppose a foreign policy rooted in hyper-aggressive state violence open themselves to criticism, ridicule, and worse. To question strong action when the country is threatened supposedly separates true patriots from the rest. It means that you are not prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, namely, life, to defend your country, its principles, and way of life. This is the political slander of choice during wartime. It is designed to silence and marginalize, even humiliate those who do not worship at the grave of military zeal.
Is there only one way to understand what it means to take decisive action as a citizen when the polity is under lethal threat? How might a democratic people with a tragic sensibility approach the political dilemmas foregrounded by the Paris slaughter? For one thing, they might take some cues from Parisians. On the Sunday following the attacks the people of Paris were back in public drinking wine at cafes, eating at restaurants, watching films, listening to music, walking in the streets. They did not ask what new steps, what enhanced security measures, the government might take to protect them as they did these things. They took it upon themselves to resume a way of life they prized not just despite but also because of the dangers involved. These citizens were in effect risking their lives for the sake of their country and what it represents at its best. They were enacting and defending their freedoms. They chose to take a different kind of risk, but it too was a defense of their way of life. In doing so, they converted everyday spaces into new nonviolent, nonpatriotic monuments and memorials—to life. 
 Citizens who refuse to sacrifice liberty for security do not take the politically easy way out, panic, and identify themselves with state power and its violent manifestations. It’s not just that the specter of terrorism is cultivated by constituencies that exploit it for political gain and ambition. It’s that freedom entails conditions one of which, in these times, is the responsibility to discipline what Hobbes called a continual fear of violent death. This kind of citizen action is every bit as valuable (and brave) as soldiers willing to don a uniform, strap on a gun, and head to front lines that, ironically, no longer actually exist. Military personnel have no monopoly on courage. If anything, unarmed civilians willing to affirm their way of life given the contingencies of wholesale slaughter might be more admirable. William James once wrote that it did not take any particular bravery for young men to rush into battle, even if they might well be killed, as long as there were plenty of other young men willing to do likewise accompanying them. James’s claim was not meant to denigrate military service, but to give it some much needed perspective and reduce its status and standing in democracy. 
 In the aftermath of a deadly attack, there is always temptation to demand that the state do more to protect its citizens. This is perhaps an understandable reaction, but it should not be the default position from which decisions flow. There seems to be a sense that the French state failed in its fundamental duty to guarantee the lives of its people. Even if the French state did fail, the first question to ask is not what greater powers can be given to the government’s intelligence and security services. The focus of inquiry should be to determine whether or not the state utilized the powers it already possessed to their fullest extent. Given what is known, for example, about inter-agency cooperation in every government, the answer is likely to be no. Aggrandizing government power and militarizing the state do not simply translate into greater security. 
Activists at Paris Climate Negotiations Being Assaulted by French Police.
 More importantly, it’s important to question the assumption that the French intelligence services missed something and that they failed to detect a conspiracy before it unfolded. No state can surveil a population so that it is rendered utterly transparent. Such powers do not exist and they should not be sought. If gun-toting fanatics, whether foreign or homegrown, are determined to murder large numbers of citizens in a democracy, they will succeed sooner or later, at least on occasion. It takes little imagination or thought to execute people in crowded public spaces. Killers can take advantage of a democracy’s openness to inflict terrible carnage. This is a fact of democratic life, something the Marco Rubios of the world do not understand and cannot face. Defeating terror and terrorism requires acknowledging that it cannot always be prevented, which makes it more likely that you will not destroy yourself as you engage your enemies. 

The state is more than willing to “ask” its citizens to assume the dangers inherent in military service. It will honor and salute soldiers who die for the state. It will build monuments and memorials, write songs, and conduct rites for them. Why, then, isn’t the state willing to ask citizens to accept that there are risks inherent in the daily living of a democratic life? Perhaps because it does not feel like we would be doing anything, or that drinking a glass of wine at a café does not amount to a heroic act. As Parisians have taught us, nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to legend, the military does not make the democratic freedoms we enjoy possible. The people themselves do.