The Contemporary Condition

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Calling in Sanders: Black Lives Matter, Public Disruptions, and the Antiblackness of Progressive Optimism

Chad Shomura
Johns Hopkins University
One day short of a year since the murder of Michael Brown, Bernie Sanders was to speak at a public event in Seattle, Washington. After he thanked Seattle for “being one of the most progressive cities” in the US, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, two black women, took to the stage and demanded to be heard. Before yielding the stage, a white male organizer said, “We are trying to be reasonable... We are going to give you the mic—after Senator Sanders.” Those remarks continue the long-standing racist and sexist dismissal of dissent by black women. They signal a progressivist version of liberal colonialist attempts to confine blacks to what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls the “waiting rooms of history."
  Refusing to be made to wait, Johnson passionately denounced colonial settlement, gentrification, racial profiling, Seattle's proclivity to punish blacks from a young age, and the fact that she had to fight her way through a crowd to insist that her life matters. She was met by cries of support and a flood of angry boos. By denouncing white supremacy before a largely hostile white audience of supposedly progressive allies, Johnson and Willaford demonstrated a bravery that beneficiaries of white privilege largely do not understand.
It is important for black protestors to change the distribution of speakers, issues, and affects of public spaces. Along with Martin O'Malley, Sanders was first interrupted in July at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona, by Black Lives Matter activists Tia Oso, Ashley Yates, and BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors. They emphasized the importance of “holding the space” to address the state of emergency in which blacks have been relegated for centuries. BLM has rattled the intimate public of the Left, which has found in Sanders the best chance to pursue the unfinished business of progress that has fallen flat during Barack Obama's tenure.
 To protect that optimism, Sanders has been defended across social media and news outlets, oftentimes through criticisms of BLM. Some defenses have been thoughtful; others have ranged from dismissive to explicitly racist. The most common have included: (1) Sanders is the best ally of minorities, as evidenced by his legislation and participation in the Civil Rights Movement; (2) BLM has not shut down events held by Clinton or any of the Republican candidates, who would make better targets; (3) BLM has not supplemented disruption with positive proposals; (4) BLM activists are being disrespectful, selfish, childish, and even opportunistic (one comment on a Facebook thread accused BLM protestors of harboring careerist motives. Though the author retracted that remark after it was challenged, the “likes” it received still stand); (5) Johnson and Willaford have been damaging to BLM and the pursuit of racial justice more broadly; and (6) BLM is an episode in the Left defeating itself through division or identity politics, which amounts to a win for bourgeois, conservative power.
   These responses to BLM—a movement founded and led predominantly by black women—have been advanced overwhelmingly by whites (more often by men than women) and less frequently by blacks and non-black people of color—a fact that is reason for greater reflection. This pattern repeats the trend of whites championing non-whites who agree with their positions and enable them to deflect accusations of racism. That non-whites iterate the same criticisms as whites, however, does not necessarily prove the validity of those criticisms. It suggests that respectability politics is one of their common frames—a frame that props up whiteness by abjecting black voices and radical actions, of BLM and of black women in particular. That abjection is happily supported by the Right.
  It is wrong to say that criticisms of BLM are necessarily racist and patriarchal. It is also wrong to say that defenders of Sanders must be racist, sexist, or playing white. Nonetheless, the pattern above is striking. More alarming still is when defenders of Sanders decry BLM with a similar vehemence to that of the Right. One could easily imagine a game in which criticisms of BLM are shuffled and players guess whether a comment is from a defender of Sanders or from the figureheads and viewership of Fox News. Players might be surprised half of the time.
  For that reason and others, there is an antiblack strand within the most progressive zone of presidential politics today. If there is a history lesson here, it might be that hierarchies of race and gender have been employed to protect optimism in shots for a better world.
Wangechi Mutu, A Shady Promise, 2006.
To be clear: I am unsettled by how quickly, how self-assuredly, and how aggressively defenders of Sanders—especially when they are white men—have blamed BLM protestors—especially when they are black women—for “disrupting” and “shutting down” Sanders's events, for not thinking or acting strategically, and for diminishing the ostensibly best possibility for social and political progress. Because there are many counter-arguments to defenses of Sanders, one might expect greater forbearance and thoughtful reflection, especially from those who are not black. I am writing this piece as someone who supports both Black Lives Matter and Sanders and whose body is not marked for poverty, intense surveillance, incarceration, brutality, and premature death. I hope that supporters of Sanders who are similarly privileged will consider the following points and that those who do not share that privilege will correct me where I am wrong: 

-A view of BLM as “disruptive” might marginalize black voices by implying them to be outside of and even threatening to Sanders's campaign rather than as integral contributors from within.
-It might be appropriate to say that BLM has “interrupted” Sanders's speeches but inaccurate to say they “shut them down.” As Cullors said at the Netroots event, “It's not like we like shutting shit down but we have to.” When non-blacks say that BLM shuts down Sanders's speeches, it is not because they recognize the agency of black protestors; they are playing a blame game that overlooks the fact that Sanders could have listened and responded to specific concerns on the spot.
-A view of BLM as only interruptive overlooks its demands, which include demilitarization of law enforcement, publication of the names of officers involved in the deaths of black people, and redirection of funds from law enforcement to housing, education, and employment for impoverished black communities.
-It is not enough to say that Sanders has now incorporated BLM demands into his racial justice platform. Defenders of Sanders have to acknowledge that the direct action of black protestors played a significant role—even if they (the defenders) felt deeply upset by the interruptions in Phoenix and Seattle. Non-black defenders should further acknowledge that the pursuit of racial justice will make them uncomfortable and that bad feelings are not sufficient reasons for shouting down black voices and challenging black tactics.
-One could view Sanders and many of his defenders as slow to respond to the rich and powerful BLM protests across the nation. Couldn't Sanders have proactively reached out to BLM to shape his racial justice platform so that it would not have to interrupt him? When those interruptions have happened, why has he not listened and respond to BLM's concerns on the spot? Why did he threaten to leave in Phoenix? Why did he leave in Seattle? Wouldn't reaching out, listening, and responding to BLM on the spot have given Sanders enormous political capital—something desired by his defenders? Why haven't defenders been supporters by holding Sanders accountable, not for purposes of political capital but for racial justice? Is this deficit of accountability shaped by race?
-When they refer to his record, defenders of Sanders seem to believe that blacks can be absorbed into the category of “people of color” while they lump together differently racialized, gendered, and sexualized groups under the conveniently flat label of “minorities.” This presumption, as scholars such as Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton have pointed out, denies the specificity of antiblack racism—something that could be more greatly acknowledged by Sanders and his supporters.
-It is possible that some in BLM have been targeting Sanders because they view him as their greatest ally and thus hope that he'll address their concerns.
-It can be patronizing for non-blacks to proclaim which presidential candidate will best serve black lives. The complexity and diversity of black needs cannot be encapsulated by presidential platforms nor can they be determined by non-blacks even when some blacks agree.
-To demand that BLM comport with presidential politics is to determine its function and thus deny its agency. That demand is incompatible with the movement's recent announcement that it will not endorse any political party.
-To say that BLM is threatening the nomination of Sanders or the possibility of a unified Left is to subordinate black voices to those of non-blacks. If so, then the progressivist optimism of Sanders's defenders relies on the extension of antiblackness.
-Claims that Johnson and Willaford have damaged the push for racial justice: (1) presume that non-blacks or some blacks know what is good for all black lives; (2) subordinates the pursuit of racial justice to terms that would be acceptable to non-blacks; (3) perpetuates the minoritization of blacks by turning challenges into appeals; (4) maintains the whiteness of public space by marginalizing black outrage to preserve non-black comfort; and (5) conceals these power plays through seemingly innocent terms like “strategies.”
-Dismissals of BLM as “identity politics” presume that police brutality, mass incarceration, and other offshoots of what Saidiya Hartman has called the “afterlife of slavery” are “black issues” that do not implicate everyone in the US. The label of “identity politics” is not only misguided; it absolves non-blacks of the responsibility to dismantle the systems of power that privilege them.
-Why not believe that the Left splinters itself when it does not proactively address antiblack racism? Who defined the core of the Left, centered it around Bernie, and made fights against antiblack racism a peripheral concern anyway? One suspect is “whiteness.”
-Finally, most appalling has been paternalistic claims that BLM needs to educate itself on Sanders's record and on how to organize, strategize, and effect change. Part of that criticism shifts the definition of political action into the hands of whiteness, with men as determiners and women and “respectable” people of color and blacks as supporters. Condemnations of the tactics of BLM presume that black protestors have not already been planning in ongoing, rich, and productive ways—a presumption that is particularly condescending given the magnitude and widespread success of BLM that is due to the wits and resilience of black activists today and to long histories of black resistance and radicalism that have literally changed the world.
Given this array of points (which is not at all exhaustive), my stomach turns when defenders of Sanders hastily close the disagreements that they arguably opened by not holding Sanders accountable for building a platform shaped at the outset by the demands of BLM. Some of the points raised by defenders are indeed important, such as the need for positive proposals and to think about the broader political field. Those points, which had already been made by blacks, are not untrue, just contestable—as are a number of the points I have made. We could go back and forth on numerous issues because objective standards of evaluation are unavailable.
   I am not saying that non-blacks cannot challenge BLM. That might be permissible if those of us who are not black exercise extreme caution because even well-meaning challenges can disqualify black voices through feats of speaker privilege. Antiblackness rears its head not only in explicit remarks and harsh tones but in quick assertions as well. We might wait for the emergence of black reactions to events, commit to an ethos of generous listening, identify the black voices with which we agree, and explicitly acknowledge the validity of black voices that disagree. These and other actions of patience and care might lead us to raise questions and suggestions rather than proclamations and judgments.
    Many defenders of Sanders have not acted in these ways. They have proceeded as if their arguments lie on solid ground and have presumed that BLM has not given thought to their issues, either properly or at all. Given the rapidity with which BLM has been criticized, I am worried that defenders of Sanders will begin to use the “We stand together” chant, which was designed by the Sanders campaign for the purpose of drowning out disruptions by black protestors.
 I am not wishing to call out Sanders and his defenders so much as to call them in, as Ngọc Loan Trần has put it. Sanders has indeed been more responsive to BLM than other candidates have been. Since the Netroots event, he has rolled out racial justice goals that accord with BLM's demands, responded to #SayTheirNames in his speeches, and hired the black criminal justice advocate Symone Sanders as his press secretary after she pressed him on issues raised by BLM. These shifts are genuine reasons for hope. They are not, however, reasons for an unchecked optimism that can be a vector of antiblack racism and sexism when it discredits blacks, speaks over them, shouts them down, and confines them to the waiting rooms of US history, whether progressivist or otherwise.
   To close this article and send off this call in, I offer the words of Sanders—not Bernie, but Symone: “Do I think everyone in the movement agrees with the way the protestors commanded the stage today? No. Am I going to condemn the protestors for standing up and expressing themselves? No. Because their voices matter.”

*Many thanks to Diana Leong and Jairus Grove for their helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this piece.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Meet the Death Party

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

Scott Walker’s July 13 announcement that he is running for president brings the number of candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination to fifteen. This is not a sign of party division but an expression of its unity. There are no moderate or reasonable and thus suspect Republicans in the field. The GOP is an extremist party. While Republicans insist that they stand for cherished American ideals of limited government, balanced budgets, individual freedom, energy independence, safe streets, small business, job creation, and states’ rights, they also cherish violence and death. The GOP is a minority party that attacks the conditions of possibility of economic, social, and political life for the majority of American citizens—as a matter of principle. It does not accept the legitimacy of alternative perspectives or parties and will paralyze or shut down government to prevent others from ruling. It thinks that it alone represents the nation and should act on its behalf. It will take actions that effectively cordon, marginalize, silence, subordinate, disempower, immiserate, and kill (sometimes spiritually, sometimes more literally) those it believes oppose or imperil its domain and dominion. The GOP cannot abide having to share a democratic country with others. It’s not that the Democratic Party does not seek to govern on its own terms, but Democratic terms allow for the lives of others to flourish. For the GOP, its terms are the only terms possible or tolerable. Its success is to be measured by its casualties.

When it comes to economics, labor, health care, immigration, education, criminal justice, environmental regulation, voting, and the democratic process itself, the Republican Party is governed by a militarized neoliberal ethos that devours the means of its enactment and threatens to destroy the ends of its ambition. 1) It favors a plethora of violent austerity measures that exacerbate unemployment and reduce or eliminate assistance to those in need, aggravate home foreclosures, worsen hunger and homelessness, all targeting the lower orders and designed to keep them in their impotent, impoverished place. 2) It would dismantle public (and private) unions and roll back the hard-won achievements of generations of workers because they had the audacity to rise above their appointed station and make a better life for themselves and their children. 3) Because it loathes the very idea of a government initiative that might succeed, it works obsessively (and will tell any lie) to deny insurance for basic life-sustaining health care to millions who suffer unnecessary ills and premature death without it. 4) It would uproot and deport millions of hardworking honorable people who come to America seeking a better way of life and tear apart their families because the United States is and can no longer be a mirror of their racial reflection. 5) It starves, kills, and renders unaffordable the greatest public university system the world has ever produced because it is public and also because it teaches students to think critically about the very the country that produced it. It thereby saddles millions of students with inescapable debt thereby subverting their life prospects before they have fully begun. 6) It advocates the routine and gratuitous execution of death row inmates in whatever cruel fashion is available because it must kill them as an expression of its insatiable ressentiment at a world it can’t control. 7) Through its knee-jerk crusades for deregulation and energy extraction, it blithely degrades the earth and poisons the air and water in the name of unbridled capital accumulation and unsustainable consumer appetites, compromising the planet beyond repair and dooming generations to come to unknown hardships and hells. 8) To cement these necrotic ambitions into place, Republicans would deny millions of voters the right to exercise the franchise with bogus claims and hysterical fears of voter fraud that would return many so denied to a condition of democratic racial inferiority. 9) As for elections, Republicans, aided and abetted by an angrily aggressive and activist Roberts Court, would reduce democracy to nothing more than a private check-writing exercise by contending plutocrats who think their arbitrary economic position entitles them to political hegemony.

When it comes to gay marriage, reproductive freedom, religious privilege, and foreign policy, the Republican Party is governed by moralizing reactionary imperatives that require others to conform to its manner of living and codes of conduct regardless of their compatibility with an egalitarian democratic sensibility rooted in mutual dignity and respect. 1) It endeavors to exclude citizens unlike themselves from the enjoyment of life-defining and meaning-giving institutions such as marriage, even vowing to change the Constitution to legitimize discrimination. If you’re like Scott Walker, you’ll wrap this apartheid in professions of love, professions that conceal their anger at the formation of a world that runs counter to your system of values. 2) In its unyielding determination to eliminate abortion and force pregnancy on women, it would deny them access to health clinics for proper medical procedures and care, despite the lethal dangers such denial entails as women are forced to seek other options, where they can exercise fundamental rights to control their bodies and lives. 3) It believes that Christian fundamentalists should be able to indulge any creedal whim they entertain, in any area of life, give it the force of law, and require its intended targets to accept second-class civic treatment and status. 4) It believes the American war on terror across the globe grants it exceptional license to unleash its apocalyptic military power wherever and whenever it pleases regardless of the consequences, whether to regional stability, innocent civilians, or American citizens. Those captured instead of killed on behalf of a new Pax Americana would find themselves rendered to Guantanamo, the inmate population of which should be increased, and possibly subjected to farcical judicial proceedings in kangaroo courts or just left to rot behind bars.

Republican predations involve more than presidential campaign posturing in an election season. In the spring House and Senate Republicans presented budget plans featuring drastic spending cuts coupled with no new taxes in the name of balancing the budget by the middle of the next decade. As Paul Krugman argues, the American right would happily see Greece-style devastation unleashed on the nation they claim to love if it furthers their economic, social, and political goals. They would also, ideally, privatize Medicare as part of their ideologically-driven mission to destroy a successful Federal social program precisely because it is successful. Social Security remains a target of choice for privatization. Hatred of public things is a deadly disease with them, which is also why they refuse to invest in public infrastructure projects and public education. Unless, of course, the spending increases the defense budget, which both enriches American defense contractors and enables America to maintain its imperial will-to-power in a recalcitrant world. And also kill. Republicans seethe at a nuclear arms deal and they very idea of diplomacy with Iran because it takes the military option off the table.

Republican commitment to violence and death expresses itself best not perhaps in austerity measures or its culture wars but in its will-to-kill in the criminal justice system where it enjoys freer rein (though here there is some neoliberal pushback given the absurd costs of capital trials). Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts denounced the Unicameral’s abolition of the death penalty, insisting, against all evidence, that it was a deterrent and necessary for public safety. He seemed to believe that since Nebraska has only 10 people on death row, the legislature had no real reason to act. This supposedly judicious use of the death penalty (it’s only ten lives), a perverse calculation indeed, obviated the need for legislative action of any kind. Despite this clear democratic expression of popular will, Rickets insists that he will kill the ten men who still sit on death row and try to force a referendum on the issue. Ricketts can’t not kill.

Dale Cox, a Louisiana prosecutor in Caddo Parrish, articulates the Republican ethos even better than Ricketts when he argues that “retribution is a valid societal interest.” Society can rejuvenate itself through precision killing. Not content to let this kind of ressentiment speak for itself, Cox does his best to stoke irrational fears, citing an alleged “increase in savagery” in American life that leads logically to, yes, cannibalism (killing and eating babies). Because the death penalty is principally and properly about revenge, the state must “kill more people.” Republicans not only seek to impose their ways of life on others without apology. They also act as if the casualties they leave in their wake are proof positive of the truth of their vision as well as their commitment to it.

Republicans, of course, do not understand themselves as the party of violence and death, but the signs and evidence proliferate. When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, Antonin Scalia issued a bitter dissent. It is a remarkable piece of writing—not for its legal acumen but for Scalia’s sense of personal insult. To defend traditional marriage, Scalia complains, is to be deemed an “unhinged member of a wild-eyed lynch mob,” an “enemy of human decency,” and even an “[enemy] of the human race.” Scalia’s complaints amount to an inadvertent projection-cum-confession about how he views his political opponents. Accusing others of hate and of deeming their adversaries “monsters,” Scalia betrays the broader Republican mindset perfectly. In trying to deny, exclude, remove, restrict, impoverish, disappear, and disempower their enemies, they reveal the hatefulness that is at the core of their philosophies. No wonder, then, that compromise in unthinkable and defeat is unbearable. Peaceful coexistence is a condition to be overcome. The very real damage they can inflict on others thus appeals to their constituents. It shows that they are serious and to be taken seriously. The defense of principles, for them, must have consequences—especially for others. They come to life by denying it to them. The melodramatic style in which Republicans advance their causes and pursue their political agendas, positing irreparable world-historical harm to their sacred identities and identifications, to their moral values and their religious freedom, to their Constitution, and their American way of life confirms the dastardly, even monstrous nature of those who won’t let conservatives be and who seek to change the world for their own narcissistic ends. Conservatives must not only protect themselves from the claims (read: assaults) of those who invoke basic rights or equality. In the interim they must find new ways to reverse losses that cannot be allowed to stand. Believing their way of life is in danger; they do not hesitate to place others in like (or worse) danger. The GOP is in a rage. It cannot live any other way. The rest of us, if we’re not determined, will pay a steep price for their deadly ressentiment, as Nietzsche warned.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Trashing Greece—and Europe?

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.
For some prominent US commentators, not surprisingly the Greek vote to reject the troika’s (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) final bailout offer—even with its draconian terms—was an irrational act. Greeks had petulantly expressed and hoped to recapture their national pride. CNBC’s neoliberal ideologue, Joe Kernen, wondered if national pride would be able to feed the Greek people. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to keep an economy going. 

Kernen to the contrary, the appeal to nationalism during this controversy hardly started with the Greeks nor was it confined to them.  Germans had long imbibed a modern version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Their version has it that sober, hard working Germans save a lot. With the inauguration of the Euro, German savings were then lent to Greeks. These Greek grasshoppers borrowed more than they could ever pay back to live a life of luxury, and now the Greek grasshoppers expect hard working ants to bail them out. 

If this charming tale of ants and grasshoppers has accomplished anything it has intensified divisions in Europe between the more prosperous states and the periphery. The crisis has, however, revealed the intellectual and political bankruptcy of the major social democratic parties. These parties had from the beginning accepted the logic of the Euro, the belief that membership in a monetary union would enable substantial capital inflow and promote development. That financial bubbles were also very likely was seldom acknowledged.  In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Mark Blyth points to the role that major European banks and their high risk leverage strategies played in fostering a bubble: “European banks’ … (loans and other assets) expanded massively throughout the first decade of the euro, especially into the European periphery... [W]hen the crisis hit, French banks held the equivalent of nearly 465 billion euros in so-called impaired periphery assets, while German banks had 493 billion on their books. Only a small part of those impaired assets were Greek… Greece made up two percent of the eurozone in 2010, and Greece’s revised budget deficit that year was 15 percent of the country’s GDP—that’s 0.3 percent of the eurozone’s economy... the Greek deficit was… not a reason to panic. Unless, of course, the folks holding Greek debts, those big banks in the eurozone core, had, over the prior decade, grown to twice the size (in terms of assets) of—and with operational leverage ratios (assets divided by liabilities) twice as high as—their 'too big to fail' American counterparts  In such an over-levered world, if Greece defaulted, those banks would need to sell other similar sovereign assets to cover the losses. But all those sell contracts hitting the market at once would trigger a bank run throughout the bond markets of the eurozone that could wipe out core European banks. Clearly something had to be done to stop the rot, and that something was the troika program for Greece."

Perhaps the saddest aspect the current crisis is the unwillingness of established Left parties, including especially the Socialist Party of France, the Social Democratic Party of Finalnd, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), even now to come to the defense of Syriza. Having accepted the harsh austerity as the remedy for financial crises—and absorbed the consequence of near catastrophic unemploymentthese parties joined in condemning Syriza’s resistance to the troika’s demands. 

If the crisis has had any salutary effect, it has been to expose the dark side of neoliberalism. For public consumption neoliberals often refer to markets as natural outcomes of political and economic modernization. They know—and act—differently. Paul Krugman argues that the pension and tax changes the troika is demanding of Greece are ones they know he cannot accept politically: “The purpose must therefore be to drive him [Tsipras] from office.”

Mark Weisbrodt, Co-Director of the Center for Economics and Policy Research, adds: “There is considerable evidence that this has been the European authorities’ strategy since Syriza was elected on January 25.  Just 10 days later… the ECB cut off its main line of credit to Greek banks, even though there was no obvious reason to do so. Shortly thereafter, the ECB put a limit on how much Greek banks could lend to the government – a limit that the previous government did not have.”
Angela Merkel and her allies also want to send a signal to all Eurozone governments that in the face of crisis any attempt to defy mandated austerity programs will be met by efforts to completely derail its economy.

Kernen might want to consider an alternative narrative, one that exposes the real beneficiary of the bailout. Columbia University’s Bruce Robbins points to a fact almost universally neglected by corporate media both here an in Europe: 90 percent of the so-called bailout money merely passes through Greece, ending up back in the pockets of the European banks. He adds: “the citizens of Europe should not be on the hook for bad investments made by financiers, just as Greek taxpayers should not be held responsible for shady deals cut by corrupt politicians in cahoots with Wall Street. The banks made an investment they knew to be risky. It must be nice to lose money on a visit to a casino and then make the locals pay for your losses.” 
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has been among the few to point repeatedly to the real beneficiary of the bailout, the German banks. For his troubles, rather than be refuted, he has experienced repeated personal attacks, including even for his choice of clothing. Upon his departure he highlighted the stakes of the current crisis: “Why did they force us to close the banks? To instil fear in people. And spreading fear is called terrorism. In a final riposte reminiscent of FDR: “I will wear the creditors’ loathing with pride.”

That Greek government is corrupt was also widely known, but this stigma also had a class tint added to it.  The varieties that corruption can take are hardly exposed in mainstream media. Nikolas Katsimpras, a lecturer at the negotiation and conflict resolution graduate program of Columbia University and a Senior Fellow at the Hellenic American Leadership Council, has said: “It would be hubris to equate the traditional 'baksheesh' to speed up a transaction, to the injurious norm of public officials’ bribery in exchange for detrimental terms in contracts with the state; or the de facto culture of elite contractors inflating costs for public contracts… It would be equally false to equate the majority of the Greek pensioners, civil servants and employees in the private sector who could never avoid paying taxessince it was deducted from their salarieswith the corrupt elites and oligarchs who criminally evaded taxes." And the remedies for this corruption also have a slant with emphasis placed on regressive sales taxes rather than taxes on the rich. The troika has claimed that wealth taxes deter growth, but given the results of austerity plans that even IMF economists acknowledge won’t work, they are hardly in a position to give advice on this subject. 
If Kernen is concerned about nationalism, he might consider the political fall-out from years of austerity in Europe.  If, as is likely, established Left parties continue to endorse austerity, the real winners of the Greek referendum may be the ultra right nationalist parties, which have opposed not only the common currency but all other forms of political collaboration.  Following the referendum, Reuters reported: 
Eurosceptics around the EU were jubilant at the rejection of what French far right National Front leader Marine Le Pen called 'the European Union oligarchy.'
'It is 'No' vote of freedom, of rebellion against European 'diktats' of those who want to impose the single currency at any price, through the most inhuman and counter-productive austerity," she said in a statement.
The troika’s rigidity has put at risk the entire European experiment. One ray of hope may lie in new left parties and movements in Europe, such as Podemos in Spain.  They may both pressure their own governments and support Syriza in dealings with the troika.  Debt relief channeled through ordinary citizens rather than banks could well catch on throughout the Eurozone.  Building alliances across borders while pressing for greater domestic equality is a gargantuan task that will entail many hardships and blind alleys.  Can Syriza and its allies proceed with less hubris and more democracy than its opponents have demonstrated? In other words can the birthplace of tragedy and democracy find some sustenance from both? Or will it be necessary for Greece to withdraw from the European Union? None of us knows for sure what will happen if that takes place. But it could possibly, after a long period of extreme hardship, sow the seeds of a future Greece much better than the neoliberal regime that now governs Europe. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Too Hard to Keep

Alexander Keller Hirsch is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He can be reached at

Since 2010, the artist Jason Lazarus has been collecting and curating photographs deemed “too hard to keep” by their owners. The growing archive of images contributes to what he calls a “repository of photographs, photo-objects, and digital files” that are, for whatever reason, considered “too painful to live with any longer.” This is a public receptacle for excessive affect, a place where we can deposit material objects charged with the aura of a feeling that is, as Lazarus writes, “too difficult to hold on to, but too meaningful to destroy.”

A brilliant project. But this phrase“too hard to keep, but too meaningful to destroy”may be misleading. The “but” is too quick. It might be that some of these pictures are too meaningful to destroy because they are too hard to keep. One must jettison the relic of a memory if it betokens a grief that is overwhelming enough. But, precisely because that grief is so overwhelming, one must take care not to obliterate its artifact, for doing so would threaten a source of meaning and intensified aliveness.

As Kaja Silverman puts it, “A photograph is the umbilical cord connecting us to what we have loved and lost, to what is gone because we failed to save it, or to what might have been, but now will never be.” The Too Hard to Keep archive is flush with photographs that index such a loss. But it also calls attention to the impasses faced by those who inhabit an afterness where it is not only loss that is at stake, but also the loss of loss itself. Lazarus requires that the owners of photographs “truly part” with the images they donate to his project. He accepts digital copies only on condition that other digital copies be deleted: “If you’re going to part with it—part with it, then what you’re seeing hastraction… It is the remnant of the decision to relinquish the image from theirarchive into a public archive.”

Lazarus’ exhibitions are, in this sense, intensely political. Though most of the images depict subjects and themes that are sometimes considered too intimate, or perhaps too quotidian, to be political—the most common motifs include people, open landscapes, pets, death beds, sun sets, erotic connections, empty rooms—indeed, with Too Hard to Keep, it is precisely this ordinary intimacy that becomes a patent source of political experience. The exhibitions summon into a public domain the pain of those who have suffered private loss by inviting witness-spectators to the gallery. By doing so, they reflect a mise-en-scène of grief that builds a felicitous connection between strangers. A demos is assembled at the site of an aesthetic object that beams forth what is too hard to keep, and too meaningful to destroy.

One of the photographs, a black and white taken in what must be the early 1970s, pictures a crowd of a dozen or so friends posing for a group shot. Everyone is smiling and joking around. One man is sitting on another man’s shoulders, dragging on a cigarette. Beneath them a dog is climbing into a woman’s lap.

Everything appears normal, but for the lower right hand corner, where one of the persons originally pictured has had their shape cut out. They have been deleted, and replaced with the trace of a blank white empty space. The effect is disquieting. In an effort to censor a portion of the photograph, the owner has attempted to purge the image of someone, presumably the source of some wounding or loss. But, tragically, as with all cases of censorship, the eye is drawn to what is repressed. Hardly spirited away, the entire photograph becomes about the cut out and, by extension, the person who is no longer there but whose spectral remainder continues to haunt the image as the presence of an absence.

Another picture in the collection appears to be self-conscious about this. The photograph features a woman who is raising her hand to shield herself from being photographed. The corner of her face is glimpsed, as is a curtain of hair clinging to her jaw line, but her face is otherwise obscured. The backdrop, a shock of over exposed green flora, brightens the image, as it shapes and lends dimension to the aegis of her hand.  The owner of the photograph need not edit the image, the woman is already censoring herself. And yet, one wonders whether this attempt to self-erase is itself a part of why the photograph is too hard to keep and too meaningful to destroy.

Lazarus’ submissions are received anonymously, and without explanation, and the images, when exhibited, are displayed without reference or description. The effect is powerful. The viewer cannot help but imagine what makes this empty landscape too hard to keep, or what renders that person’s image too painful to live with. The result is that the art nearly becomes the story we tell ourselves about what happened.

We recognize, of course, that the story we tell cannot possibly encompass the reality behind the images, even if some pictures invite more or less accurate educated guesses. Whatever the distance between fiction and reality, the story we tell reflects the irrepressible desire to craft narrative around an unsettling and furtive object. Great art, Theodor Adorno once wrote, depicts something that we do not and cannot know. He might have added that, in part, what makes such art resonant is that its audience must try, and then generatively fail, to come to terms with it through storytelling.

In this way, Too Hard to Keep suggests an interesting avenue for reckoning with afterness. Instead of placing the emphasis on punishing perpetrators, or capacitating victims through forgiveness, Too Hard to Keep hones in on the role of the witness. In the standard literature, witnessing is often described as a mode of observation, whereby a bystander sees an event unfold, and then later bears testimony to this experience. But with Lazarus’ project witnesses cannot see the event. The photographs offer evidence of something beyond our ken.

And the exhibitions are hardly Truth and Reconciliation hearings. The TRC in South Africa, for instance, invited victims, perpetrators, and witnesses alike to enter into a public sphere and share stories about past suffering such that, A) The truth of atrocity could become official record, and B) Rituals of mass forgiveness could set restorative justice in motion. But with Too Hard to Keep, the goal is manifestly not to be released from resentment through forgiveness. Indeed, the very premise of the collection is that these images represent a source of pain that is too meaningful to neutralize through reconciliation. And rather than focus on delivering an accurate portrayal of what we have observed, witness-spectators are instead acutely aware that their testimony will largely be fantasy.  

“God,” writes Samuel Beckett in Watt, “is a witness who cannot be sworn.” In part, God cannot be sworn as a witness because in vowing to bear truthful testimony He swears an oath to Himself—He promises to tell the “whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” An exercise in tautology. With Too Hard to Keep we are also cast as witnesses who cannot be sworn, though not because the authority of our testimony is rooted in a redundant promise to ourselves. Rather, our inability to be sworn is due to the fact that we cannot offer testimony to an event that remains crucially hidden from us.

Remarkably, in the case of Too Hard to Keep, this invisibility of the event, and the accompanying lack of an ability to tell the truth about it, is precisely what gives witnessing its power. In part, this power is located in the affinity that is struck between witness-spectators and owner-victims in the political space of the gallery.

But unlike most other genres of affinity, this one is not quite grounded in empathy. If empathy is like sharing in and responding to another person’s pain because one knows it and has experienced it before, then the feeling nurtures a shared horizon of understanding anchored in memory. With Too Hard to Keep, however, witnesses cannot develop empathy for the photograph owners, because it is unclear what the loss is, and as such it is uncertain whether one too has taken part in it. Instead, the affinity that connects witnesses and owners stems from what I call inverse empathy: a tenderness toward the suffering of the other that is rooted in a creative imagining of what may have been. This inverse case foregrounds conviviality not in a collective public memory, but rather in a shared imaginable.  The emphasis lies not with the truth of what clearly happened, but rather with the fantasy of what might have taken place, and with the stories witnesses tell about this imaginable past.  

A photograph is “in no way a presence,” Roland Barthes tells us; rather, “its reality is that of the having-been-there.” But with Too Hard to Keep, we bear explicit witness to our own having not been there. Peering into these images, it feels as though we have been transformed into a tragic chorus -- the witnessing body par excellence -- but one that has arrived too late to the scene of loss. This is an analogue to Franz Kafka’s parable about the tardy messiah who arrives too late to tender redemption, except that in this case our belatedness turns out to be helpful, actually. Indeed, it provides the precondition for inverse empathy. Only late witnesses need imagine.

But what kind of demos does inverse empathy convene? Not exactly one embedded in a sustained fidelity to the event. Nor is this a demos adhered to melancholia, since the event and its attendant loss are both clandestine for witnesses. Rather, this demos is attuned to the world of possibilities opened up by imagining what others’ pain might entail. As with other forms of democratic relation, this one convokes a public object -- in this case a photograph -- but that object is not like a social contract or a birth right, concepts both that name what is, or ought to be, guaranteed for members of the group. Instead, this becoming-in-relation takes shape around what is ultimately uncertain, and it is exercised through an invitation to envision who the other is, and what has happened to them. Like a will to chance in reverse, Too Hard to Keep signals a supple and precarious world held in common by citizens who enter together into a life without guarantees, except that the focus is trained on the enigmatic past, rather than the unpredictable future.

What can this do for photograph owners? Perhaps not much. Redemption may be limited for those who possess photographs that symbolize a loss that is too hard to keep and too meaningful to destroy. Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that we ought to forget our painful past, accept life on life’s terms, embrace amor fati and move on (“I wish to be only a Yes-sayer”), such that we can be free to occupy an unfettered present. By contrast, the philosopher and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry called for a “revolt against reality,” arguing that victims ought to embrace their resentments, such that the “criminal is nailed to his deed.”

But Lazarus offers a third way: not sublime forgetfulness, but not infinite despair either. Too Hard to Keep invites photograph owners to forsake, but not erase, what cannot be kept and cannot be destroyed. And it opens an avenue for victims to invoke unwitting witnesses who can only imagine what they are seeing. Crucially, the photo has been capitulated to a demos – a tardy tragic chorus – that may not be able to fix what has been broken, but can bear witness to the trace of what remains.