The Contemporary Condition

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.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Who Gets to Demand Safety?

Lida E. Maxwell is Associate Professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and is the author of Public Trials: Burke, Zola, Arendt, and the Politics of Lost Causes.

As protests against racism on campus have rocked the University of Missouri and Yale Universityand spread to places like Claremont McKenna and Amherststudent protesters have come under fire for their call for “safe space.” In particular, writers like Connor Friedersdorf have argued that their demand for safe spaces has created a new kind of intolerance, where all dissenting views are excluded and condemned. This critique of the demand for safety finds allies in leftists who see student activists’ demands for safe spaces as an attempt to avoid rather than address the complexities and realities of the world. In contrast, writers like Roxane Gay have drawn attention to the fact that critics of students demanding safe spaces at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere tend to be those who have never feared for their safety, who experience safety as an “inalienable” right. For Gay, the call for safety is not a call to be “coddled” or not to hear opposing perspectives, but rather for the freedom for all students to voice experiences and views in a setting where they do not feel in danger of being mocked, derided, or physically threatened. While some (white, male, cisgender) students might take the privilege of safety for grantedand, in turn, their ability to speak their views however and whenever they likeothers (notably, black, female, and queer students) may have to demand it.

I agree with Gay that critics of the student protesters fail to acknowledge the privilege of safety that most of them inhabit. However, I think that Gay’s claim that some people “have” safety while others have to ask for it may keep us from seeing a different and perhaps more insidious problem: namely, that some people’s demands for safety are taken more seriously than others. That is, the issue is not that some people simply feel safe while others do not, but rather that some people’s demands for safety are backed up by state violence and law, while others are left at the mercy of that violence. Put differently, the “feeling” of safety that Gay rightly says is a privilege is one that is created through social, political, and legal institutions that frame some people’s demands for safety as legitimate and urgentand in need of violent enforcementwhile framing others’ demands for safety as a desire for “coddling.” 

For example, while black students and their supporters at Mizzou and Yale are often mocked when they ask for a safe space, Donald Trump is taken seriously by Republican voters when he argues that we must erect a United States’ southern border to keep Americans safe from Mexican rapists and criminals. In fact, Trump’s demand that we keep (white) Americans safe from Mexicans has him atop the Republic primary poll in New Hampshire. Similarly, when Darren Wilson says that he felt so threatened by Michael Brown that he had to shoot him, or when George Zimmerman claimed that he felt threatened by Travyon Martin (and thus had to shoot him), or when the Cleveland police officer who killed 12 year old Tamir Rice claimed that he felt so threatened by this little boy that he had to shoot him, these men are taken seriously and their demands for safety are affirmed legally and sometimes politically.

Some people might say that the kind of safety that police officers and Donald Trump and George Zimmerman demand is an entirely different kind of safety than the kind called for by the college students at Yale and Mizzouthat they are talking about physical rather than psychological safety. But can we separate out these two kinds of safety? The safety from racist comments, threats, and (yes) even costumes that these students demand is not just a demand to be kept safe from the violence of speech, but also from the always present risk that hateful speech will turn into hateful violencea risk that many of us have felt when having homophobic or racist comments shouted at us, or when we have been sexually harassed or intimidated. On the other hand, Trump’s, Wilson’s, and Zimmerman’s claims that they felt or feel physically threatened are not at all self-evident; their demands for safety are demands that we see certain kinds of individuals (Mexicans, African-Americans who possess no weapons but who look, in Wilson’s words, “like a demon”) as greater threats than others (i.e. the armed white men who kill or threaten to kill black and Latino individuals).

Surely what the students at Yale and Mizzou are protesting is not simply racism, but precisely this kind of racist view of safety: that is, a view of safety that allows certain lives to count more than others, and that allows some people’s demands for safety to come at the expense of the lives of others

The logic of safety expressed in the violent acts of Wilson and Zimmerman (among others)that in order for some to be safe, others need to be disciplined, threatened, or killedis entirely familiar. It is evident not only in the police violence against (and racial profiling of) black men and women, and in violence against queers and trans people. It is also evident in the cycle of violence that we see re-perpetuated in response to the Paris attacks, where some French and American leaders claim that in order to be safe, Syrian refugees must be kept out, and cities in Syria must be bombed.

In the context of these racist and Islamophobic demands for safetybacked up by state violence and lawit seems more important than ever to support and stand in solidarity with college students’ demand for safe spaces. While their demand for safety could certainly re-enact (on a limited scale) the exclusivity of the violent logic of safety I sketched above, their demand for an ideal of safety as a space of inclusion and equality stands as an important counterpoint to the racist idea that safety depends on the violent exclusion of difference. In this ideal, safety is not contingent upon the exclusion and disciplining of (minority) others, but rather upon the shared commitment to affirm, acknowledge, and find space for the diverse experiences of everyone. Here, safety is not a feeling of knowing that threats to you have been killed or quarantined, but rather in a feeling of knowing that the risk of being who you areexpressing your views, presenting yourself freely to otherswill be borne not only by you, but also by others, who will create a space of safety around you.  
Student protest at the University of Missouri
One thingamong othersthat these student protestors have done is reminded us of an insight of the feminist and gay rights movements: that safety is not a purely physical condition, having to do with whether you are physically threatened, but also a political and social condition. In other words, political and social structuressuch as racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobiaturn certain people (usually marginalized groups) into supposed “threats,” and in turn license violent behavior toward them. The move to create “safe spaces” for women and gays and lesbians was a way to try to create spaces where individuals could feel the freedom and equality that they wanted to create on a broader social scale. In our current political momentwhere demands for safety have been used to license increasingly violent actsstanding with students’ demands for an ideal of safety premised on equality, freedom, and shared risk holds out one of the few hopes of challenging this violent logic for safety on behalf of creating (even if only in microcosm, as an ideal) the conditions of a safe world for everyone.

Student protests at the University of Missouri

Friday, November 13, 2015

A United States to come?

Steven Johnston
is the author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

The Republican presidential nomination contest should be putting enormous pressure on American democracy, which is in crisis. Candidates routinely advocate with conviction positions that should not be taken seriously by any democratic society with minimal standards of reason-driven public discourse. GOP candidates claim they will deport millions of immigrants, build a segregation wall along the Mexican border, and make Mexico pay the bill; they insist that the Affordable Care Act is the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and must be repealed; they will deny women reproductive rights and outlaw abortion under any and all circumstances; they believe that private gun ownership could have prevented the Holocaust; they believe the proliferation of guns into every nook and cranny of American life will make the country safer; they believe that protesting police violence and holding law enforcement accountable for its crimes is tantamount to a declaration of war against cops; they will slash taxes on corporations and the rich and thereby cut deficits because of the economic growth sure to follow; in reality, this will wreck the government’s finances and put them in position to dismantle what remains of the social welfare state; they will do nothing about climate change since it either doesn’t exist or humans have nothing to do with it; either way, the American way of life as they understand it must continue unfettered; they will roll back the minimal regulations that were implemented after the great recession indifferent to the risks involved for ordinary citizens who pay the costs of their reckless speculation; they believe the United States can solve global political conflicts by exercising its prodigious military firepower, that is, through more interventions and more wars; they believe they have a greater chance of enacting this agenda if they wave the red flag of voter fraud and disenfranchise as many traditional democratic constituencies as possible through various legislative schemes designed to deny citizens access to the polls. The list could be extended.

Based on the violence and death these GOP policies and programs would unleash on tens of millions of people (or more) in the United States and around the world, it is apparent that the Republican Party harbors hatreds and resentments that have not been seen in this country since, perhaps, the Civil War when the South was determined to forge through war a second polity on the North American continent rooted in its fantasies of racial superiority. The South attacked the North in a stunning suicidal act that could only bring ruin on its political ambitions, but the rage southerners cultivated could not be contained and it ended up nearly destroying what they loved most: themselves. It is not unfair to say that the contemporary GOP is in many affective respects the heir to the Confederacy. The notorious Southern strategy launched by Richard Nixon “succeeded” beyond even his wildest dreams. The GOP of 2016 can match the ferocity, hatred, and destructive impulses characteristic of the Southern slavocracy. It is a party that seeks, among other things, the (effective) destruction of the national government, the domination and control of what it considers the lower orders, the imposition of its moral and religious values on the law of the land, and the elimination of public criticism through falsehood and intimidation.

What happens, then, if the Republicans seize control of the White House next fall? This would give them control of all three branches of the federal government through which they could unleash their pent up frustration and resentment at having had to settle for eight years of mere obstructionism under Obama. Tom Dumm’s recent posts on the rise of a degraded fascism in America touch on this issue, and I would like to approach it from a complementary angle.

Imagine it is November 8, 2016, and the Republicans have won, fairly or not, the presidential election, putting them in position to make good on their campaign rhetoric. This ascendancy follows years in which their racially-inflected pathological opposition to Barack Obama generated gratuitous untold suffering as they stifled every executive initiative they possibly could. Given the targeted violence and destruction constitutive of the Republican economic, social, political, moral, and environmental agendas, what should democratic citizens faced with the prospect of legislative and judicial onslaught do?

They could work patiently through several election cycles in anticipation of regaining control of the federal government and reversing Republican incursions. They could take to the streets to make known their displeasure and disgust at Republican depredations and hope to exert enough pressure on lawmakers to undo their self-serving designs. These are the standard moves in American politics. How long, though, can a democracy legitimately expect its citizens to pursue institutional remedies when dominant political forces use those very same institutions to enact ambitions that will deliberately inflict serious bodily and mental harm on countless people?

Republicans have become a party of radical extremists and the GOP has converted itself into an entity that defines itself by the damage it can do to other citizens, to other ways of life, to the very idea of government itself, to the possibility of a shared polity. Accomplishments are to be measured by what can be demolished, with the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unions, public education, reproductive rights, and due process in courts some of the favorite quarry. The Republican Party has no interest in democracy except as a tool to legitimize its endeavors. It has no interest in sharing a polity characterized by deep pluralism because it abhors pluralism, which makes it impossible for the party to consider the very idea of common or public things as inherently meaningful and valuable. For the GOP America names a place where like-minded individuals of wealth and influence can pursue unfettered their personal aspirations. They possess a purely instrumental mentality when it comes to politics. This is why using government to wreak havoc and destruction on commonly achieved goods, including government itself, poses no moral or political problems for them. They would, if they could, privatize everything and privatization presupposes and engenders the destruction of what is public or common.

What are democratic citizens to do when faced with an ideological-affective force like the GOP that treats politics as a life-and-death, zero-sum endeavor and fellow-citizens who resist it not as opponents, adversaries, or even the loyal opposition, but archenemies of some kind deemed unworthy of any decent regard? A politics of nonviolence, however noble and admirable, comes at great cost to those who practice it, for they are not only subjected to the violence of others, they are subjected to the violence that accompanies retrenchment, erasure, exclusion, and marginalization. This is one way in which the violence inherent in democracy manifests itself. What might the political equation look like, though, once democracy’s inherent violence can no longer be denied? What kind of signal might newly engaged democratic citizens send a newly empowered GOP on November 8, 2016? Do you have to wait for the violence to come to you to try to preempt it by whatever means democratically necessary? If the state represents not the culmination of the social contract but its principled negation, if the state represents not the people themselves but the rich and well-placed who game the political system to help their friends (themselves) and harm their enemies, what kind of response is necessary to counter a politics that is conceived of as the waging of war by other means? The state’s monopoly on violence, of course, gives it an overwhelming advantage when it comes to firepower, which means that planning any direct confrontation with its agents makes little or no sense. Yet a long-simmering anticipation of a Republican victory and its brutal consequences might lead to a spontaneous outpouring on the streets on November 8, 2016, which might prove to be the occasion for democratic citizens to remind us, as insurgent democratic citizens did on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore in the last year, where the real power, literal and figurative, resides in democracy. If so, now seems like the time to imagine the creative possibilities of such an event.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

Some Catholic economists, perhaps under the sway of recent Popes, embrace a neoliberal image of the economy, supporting extensive inequality, treating job training of the poor for the market as the way to reduce poverty, and emphasizing carbon trading as the legitimate way to respond to climate change. Pope Francis disrupts such a combination, at least for those who wish to maintain congruence between their economic pronouncements and his presentation of Catholic faith. He says unregulated markets foster greed among the super rich and harsh suffering of the poor inside and outside the centers of capitalism. 

Here are a few welcome things he says, in Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home:
“There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means an increase of progress itself.., as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.”
“We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions..,leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.”
“Finance overwhelms the real economy…Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems and argue...that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle...can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world."

With these statements—and more besides—Francis throws the weight of the Catholic Church--with its impressive presence in Europe, North America and Latin America among other places--behind rapid action to respond to the numerous entanglements between poverty and the Anthropocene. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are important points of faith, economic creed, and political priority at which I diverge radically from Pope Francis. I do not confess his omnipotent, personal God. I am not a devotee of the Trinity, though I have come to see how it can provide one way to embrace the complexity of culture. I embrace a woman’s choice with respect to abortion. His commitment to heterosexual hegemony, while softened a bit from that of his predecessors, remains way too strong. I find appalling the patriarchy of the Church and the doctrine that rules women out of candidacy for priesthood. He has begun to relax the creed of papal infallibility, though it would be salutary if he took it on more radically. Maybe he will. He embraces faith in an organic world presided over by God, a world disrupted mostly by ruthless market processes and inordinate consumption demands; I contend that nonhuman processes possess considerable vitality and volatility on their own, so that organic alternative does not provide the strongest reply to the pursuit of mastery. He talks mostly about markets, technology, and wasteful consumption, while I say, with others, that those forces must be understood within the institutions of neoliberal capitalism. He looks to the strengthening of international institutions to cope with climate change; I think it is even more important to ignite cross-regional citizen movements to press dominant states, corporations, banks, universities, consumers, international organizations, and churches into action at the same time.

Quite a list. And yet I do admire this pope on the critical issues of poverty, imprisonment, immigration and climate change, across these differences. While Pope John Paul II labelled people who do not confess a personal God, “nihilists”, Francis resists such formulations. He wishes us well and asks us to wish him well. He acknowledges that several strains of Christianity have treated scriptural discussions of human “dominion” as if they meant human domination and mastery over the earth rather than a deep respect for the diversity of living beings. Most significantly, he addresses his text to “all people of good will”, whether they embrace a Catholic creed, or, it seems, any confession of a personal God. It is up to reformers within and outside the church to show him how this new capaciousness, compared to previous popes, must really encompass women, gays and others.

Francis understands the dangers of regimes eager to go to war to protect historic entitlements: they kill millions of innocent people, wreak devastation on world ecologies, create huge numbers of suffering refugees with no place to go, and delay urgently needed efforts to respond to the Anthropocene. Living in the United States we can supplement the pope’s point by showing how the oil, coal, evangelical, Republican machine here deploys war talk—and often enough wars--to protect their historic entitlements and to set back a host of progressive political movements. We can also encourage recent moves within evangelism to break this ugly historical alliance. 

With respect to the climate Pope Francis speaks to Catholics as he also addresses Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Indigenous peoples, and nontheists about the Anthropocene. He invites what I call relations of agonistic respect across creeds, one in which you articulate publicly the contestable creed that in-forms you as you pursue modes of communication and selective coordination with others with respect to some urgent issues of the day. Of course, you know that some will refuse the invitation. But you make the invitational move, as you keep the critiques alive. Pope Francis both acknowledges the reasonable contestability of his faith in the eyes of others and pursues spiritual relations of agonistic respect with constituencies who join him in concern about world poverty, prisons overflowing with racialized minorities, and the acceleration of climate change. 

Hunger Strike at the Don Hutto Immigration Detention Center in Texas
One way to underline the point is to say that Francis confesses devoutly the creed of his church, that he understands public life to be regularly embroiled in creedal issues that transcend the quaint secular division between public and private life, that he may become open to future shifts in the priorities of his own creed in the light of debate and new situations, and that he pursues lines of spiritual affinity with others who care about the world and confess other creeds. He himself believes “that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more.” But he pursues connections to others with respect to climate, poverty and immigration whose positive spiritualities--in ways that may sometimes surprise him--are anchored in creeds he contests. 
Climate March in Instanbul
Francis is calling for a cross-regional assemblage of constituencies of many sorts to respond to the Anthropocene. He might encourage some of the actions taken, tolerate others, and find yet others to be too dangerous or destructive. That is what participation in a critical pluralist assemblage in the making means. You seek to energize it and you promote proposals for action within it, rather than demanding to preside over it as a Pope, authoritarian Party, Ruler, or unquestionable Prophet.
The power of such a critical assemblage is, first, that it is less likely to replicate the dogmatism and authoritarianism of some of the movements it opposes, second, that disparate constituencies in it may inspire each other to action, and, third, that creative action by one constituency in a fraught situation may also incite creativity by others as they riff off that innovation. 

Idle No More Protest in London
To me, a creed refers to the fundamental beliefs you confess about the most profound conditions and terms of human existence; a spirituality expresses the existential investments you pour into it. Thus we may share a formal creed while some of us secretly resent the world for being that way and others are grateful for that condition. The differences can be manifest in a desire to identify heretics vs. a desire to extend internal diversity, or in punitive desires against those outside the faith vs. propensities to presumptive generosity. Creed and spirituality are inter-involved and yet neither identical nor equivalent.
Suppose cross-regional general strikes erupt in a couple of years to press states, corporations, churches, universities, consumers and so on to make radical changes in the priorities of production and consumption as they reconstitute the energy grid. It seems unlikely to me that Francis will participate directly. But as arrests, fines, jail time, and vigilante beatings are taken against strikers, we can anticipate that he will used his standing to publicize what is happening, demand state and vigilante restraint, and apply moral pressure upon these institutions to initiate radical change. I would count on him in these respects far more than on many neoliberal university presidents I have encountered. In a critical pluralist assemblage not all constituencies take the same action; nonetheless, acting from different subject positions, they can support and sustain one another. 

Copenhagen Climate Protest
I do expect to argue against Francis about key ethical and political questions in the future, including the place and diversity of sexuality, abortion, equality of women, the sources of human creativity, the nature of capitalism, the role of militancy in politics, and the nature of nature. But rather than press such creedal differences now, let me close with a few additional quotes that suggest how Francis both works upon devotees of his faith and inspires others to respond to climate change:
"This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of freedom and responsibility of human beings, who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect and develop its potential.
If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation.” 

*Quotes from the Pope are from Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The End of Boehner

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College
“Some in Congress and the White House hold out hope that Mr. Boehner’s departure and the election of a new speaker will break the fever among conservatives, who have been plotting his downfall for over a year, and grant his replacement a grace period . . . But more prevalent is a sense of dread that an already bitter and divisive political atmosphere is about to get even worse.” New York Times, Sunday, September 28, 2015. 
A recent poll of American voters asked respondents if they could imagine circumstances under which they could support a military coup in the United States. 43% of Republican respondents said yes, while only 32% said no. Overall, 29% of Americans could support a coup, while 41% could not. As frightening as this poll result is, it is embedded in a survey of attitudes toward major American institutions. In response to a question asking if the military wants what is best for the country, 70% said yes, while 12% said no. Asked if Congress wants what is best for the country, the numbers were practically the reverse: 12%, yes, 71%, no.
If the rise of Donald Trump is evidence of degraded fascism coming into the mainstream of American politics, then this poll is but another sign of how at least one major American political party is coming to be synonymous with the authoritarian impulse underlying this fascism. Let us think about what the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives means in this context.
John Boehner wanted the same policies enacted that his opponents within the “Freedom Caucus” – those far right members of Congress who mainly came into the House in the 2010 election – wanted. The difference is that these members believe that by failing to prevent bills on budget allocations and extension of debt from being passed without the amendments they insist upon, Boehner was betraying the cause of true conservatism. It appears that he quietly hoped that his resignation would at least protect those members of the GOP caucus who would still have supported him in a leadership vote, but also who, by publicly voting to retain him, would have risked a primary challenge from the far right in the next electoral cycle. 
What this means at the level of legislative tactics is that the faction that wants to shut down the government in the name of budgetary responsibility and the protection of fetuses, is doing so knowing that this move is but a barely disguised means for further marginalizing the increasingly non-white population of the United States, a minority which threatens to become a majority within the next decade. Destroying the remnants of the social safety net is by design a way to make those people suffer. For some of the members of the coalition imposing such suffering is an end in itself, what they perceive to be an appropriate punishment imposed on those who they believe are parasites. In that sense Planned Parenthood is but an example of the outsourcing of health services to a private entity: the real meat cleaver is to be major budget cuts that are to be taken exclusively from social welfare programs, which were demonized by Mitt Romney in 2012 as the government giving things to people, a sentiment echoed this past weekend by Jeb Bush. 
Posted by the Oklahoma Federation for Republican Women
In this way, because of its timeliness a tactic of political positioning morphs into the substance of policy. The austerity politics that have been a part and parcel of an explicit effort at neoliberal governance over the past thirty years now has a more brutal and blunt political effect. Here is where it is also necessary to ask whether and when conditions could develop which would contribute to a new reliance on “our most trusted institution,” because shutting down the government is a path toward creating the conditions of unrest that would serve as an excuse for the further repression of the poor, the marginalized and those who would dissent, both within and without the institutions of the media and academia. Black Lives Matter is currently being demonized as responsible for shootings of police throughout the country, even though there is no evidence that police shootings have been occurring at a rate any higher than before the rise of this new civil rights movement. A new group called Blue Lives Matter is growing rapidly, and Donald Trump himself has weighed in, not with the insipid response “All lives matter!” but by denouncing Black Lives Matter, and the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, as being a bunch of gang members, many of them, of course, illegal immigrants from Mexico and central America.
The price any new speaker of the House must pay in order to assume office will be to follow the script of the Freedom Caucus. Already threats of a similar fate to Boehner are being made in regard Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader who has behaved in a similar manner, looking in the end for a way to pass the legislation that would keep government running without the trauma of shutdown. 
    This leveraging of power by a minority has its historical precedents in the fracturing of the Second International shortly before the Russian Revolution, when the minority Bolsheviks outmaneuvered the majority Mensheviks at the Party Congress. 
Border Vigilantes, Arizona
   Perhaps a closer parallel would be the historical situation of the early 1930s in Germany, when the Nazi Party, damning the austerity policies of the Centre Party, which ruled through the emergency decrees of President von Hindenburg, succeeded in winning over the industrialists who held the balance of political power at the time. Hitler lost the 1932 election to Hindenburg. But by the end of 1933 his party became the only legal party after his ascent to the Chancellorship, at a moment when the German military, in its wisdom, decided that it needed to throw in its hand with the fascists, believing it could control them, because they, the military, were the most trusted and beloved institution in the country, you know, above politics. The Potsdam meeting of von Hindenburg and Hitler, a sign of the unity of military and political power, led to the establishment of the Reich by the end of that year, with Hitler, of course, as the Fuhrer. 
Fox News Analyst, Monica Crowley
 But the most relevant historical parallel may be the overthrow of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. After the austerity economics introduced into the Chilean economy by Chicago school economics in the late 1960s, Allende was the head of the socialist government elected to end this experiment in neo-liberal economics. In a US backed coup, Allende committed suicide and Pinochet established a dictatorship, presuming to rule in the name of the people, completely ignoring the electoral results, with the help of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in order to impose this non-electoral will.
To invoke these historical examples is always to risk hyperbole, and so to risk dismissal. But at this point, that is a risk that must be run by those who want to resist the direction the politics of the United States is headed in. That every new iteration of fascism looks and sounds differently than prior iterations doesn’t mean that there is no reason to compare the past to present, and the present to the future.
Of course no one can predict the specific way in which democracy in the United States, already hollowed out and degraded by neoliberal governmentality – see Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos for the detailed indictment – might fall. But the way the current political cycle is being run, especially the race for the presidential nomination among the Republican candidates, gives rise to deep concerns. Whether engaging in bald-faced lies that while continually refuted are nonetheless repeatedly told without being called what they are, lies, by the press (see Carli Fiorina’s fictionalized version of beating hearts and brain harvesting by Planned Parenthood ghouls, an accusation cynically made simply to enlist extremists as supporters), or the continued argument for more austerity in the face of all evidence indicating its failure as a means of economic growth, or the continued demonization of undocumented immigrants as criminals when they are among the most law-abiding of residents in the country, the Republicans continue to be a mainstream presence in political discourse. These examples can be multiplied, and they all point toward a level of willful ignorance based in fear that lies at the heart of all fascist movements. The margin moves to the center, and only in retrospect do people wonder why such radically bad political actors were able to take power. It can happen here, and to a large extent it has already begun.