Monday, August 3, 2020

The Viral Truth

Sara Rushing
Associate Professor of Political Science
Montana State University, Bozeman
July 21, 2020

In the 1830s, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled around the United States in search of lessons about democracy that he could take back to rapidly changing France. His extensive reflections were published as Democracy in America, which remains insightful to this day. While there were many uniquely American traits and practices that impressed Tocqueville, there were also aspects of the American ethos that mystified him. For example, he observed that Americans, “owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”

Tocqueville perfectly captures the tendency we have in this country to see autonomy as radical independence from others; and to see freedom as “non-interference” with our pursuits. On such a conception, autonomy becomes the opposite of dependence, vulnerability, and humility, because this version of “freedom” treats the incapacity to will our way in the world all on our own as somehow humiliating. It turns out, though, that our “whole destiny” is almost never in our own hands. Does this mean we are never free? No, because there is a crucial distinction to be made between laudable self-determination, individuality, and a spirit of independence, and the atomistic individualism that many Europeans still, to this day, find mystifying about Americans.

Perhaps no contemporary moment shines light on this crucial distinction more than the debate over wearing a mask in public to minimize the spread of COVID-19 through the propulsion of droplets of saliva by coughing, sneezing, singing, sighing, laughing, or talking loudly (there are a lot of ways to propel saliva, I have learned, and those little droplets can hang around in the air for a long time). Unlike wearing a seatbelt when driving, my wearing a mask primarily functions to protect other people around me. Unlike smoking bans, which do exist to protect the health of others, wearing a mask involves doing something, not refraining from something. Like many issues in America today, mask-wearing was quickly politicized and moralized. The resulting polarization has shaped up not around science or data, for the most part, but around values: solidarity versus freedom; care for others versus care for self; obedience versus resistance.

Once a debate shapes up this way, it’s very hard to dial it back. But these dichotomies are false ones, and we ought to push for a more nuanced – and useful! – way of thinking about mask-wearing. Autonomy (the quest for independence), and humility (the recognition of our human limitations and our deep interdependence with others), need not be opposed to each other, as we are taught in the Western tradition of thought (or traditions, most relevant here being liberalism and Christianity). They are two sides to one coin. As I like to think about it, autonomy needs humility, because the quest for independence is an ongoing and often fragile process, that is likely to foil us. And humility needs autonomy, because without the desire for self-determination, we may be immobilized by our inherent human and historical constraints. And we need dispositions of both humility and autonomy to navigate the complex political, social, and (as COVID-19 reminds us daily) physiological realities of interdependence. We need what I call “humility-informed-relational-autonomy.” It’s harder to say than “Freedom!”, but it says a lot more. And we can call it HIRA for short.

Why has the American conception of freedom been so thoroughly severed from the recognition of our essential vulnerability and interdependence? I would argue that, in addition to distilling freedom down to the negative liberty idea of non-interference, freedom has been reduced to a thin conception of “choice.”

Since the 1970s, the idea of “choice,” once an economic concept of amoral consumer preference (think Pepsi versus Coke), has come to define our understandings of citizenship, individuality, and freedom. Early uses of the term, particularly the abortion rights, or “pro-choice,” movement’s rallying cry, “My body, my choice,” encoded a relatively well-developed theory of bodily autonomy and gender equality as foundational for full participation in public life. Choice here was connected not merely to freedom but to justice. More recent deployments, however, function to thin freedom out. For example, the education privatization movement’s use of “school choice” to lobby for vouchers mobilizes anti-government and negative liberty rhetoric to defund public schools and support private schooling instead. For the privatization movement, participation in public goods should be voluntary. As a matter of individual right, school choice advocates argue, a person must be able to “opt out” of anything they don’t choose. Now fully bound up with the so-called culture wars that were born out of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, “choice” has become an argument for the right of corporations to not fund insurance covering birth control, for bakers to not to bake gay wedding cakes, anti-vaxxers not to immunize their children, and, now, mask-refusers to go maskless (provocatively appropriating the old feminist rallying cry of justice and equality, “My body, my choice,” for their conception of freedom).

But our bodies are profoundly porous entities, from the visceral level of the skin right down to the epigenetic switchboard, where changes are activated over our lives by exposure to environmental, psychic and other forms of trauma. We are literally and figuratively infecting each other all the time, with our infectious moods and contagious laughter, with our germs and bacteria and viruses, with our habits, with our ideas, and with our inspirational hopes and fears. Indeed, the word “inspire” actually means to breathe into.

As we look ahead to autumn 2020, and the increase of COVID cases that is likely to follow the reopening of schools and universities, bars and restaurants (not to mention the arrival of colder temperatures that will relegate many of us to life inside), we are going to need robust intellectual and ethical resources to bolster the refusal of false dichotomies and easy moralizing. Writing from Montana, I can attest to how quickly and powerfully the “self-reliance” vs. “solidarity” dichotomy can shape up, and how ineffectual it is at addressing thorny public problems. Ultimately, our freedom is best served by recognizing – not denying – our vulnerability, as humbling as that may be. My freedom depends deeply on you! And vice versa. As a driver, if I refuse to respect the constraints imposed by the yellow lines on the road, you are not free to drive safely if I’m anywhere nearby. If I claimed to be oppressed by my relegation to the right lane, or argued that I have a right to drive wherever I want, you’d rightly be incensed. Sometimes relinquishing certain choices can create greater security and self-determination for everyone.

This insight could be articulated in the language of solidarity, or in the language of mutual self-interest. I prefer to articulate it in the language of humility-informed-relational-autonomy. Like many people, I often wish that my whole destiny was in my own hands. But as an embodied human who gets colds every year, who has been in bike and car accidents, and who can’t always reach things on the top shelf at a store, I’m not deluding myself. As a woman who has given birth in a mainstream medical institution and been sexually harassed (not at once, though it happens!), I am only too aware of the limits of simply proclaiming “My body, my choice.” As a person who has spent the last few years reading texts by disability studies scholars, I fully grasp that our bodies take on meaning relationally within the world, including built environments, cultural norms, and invisible viral spread. The crucial question is how body meets world.

The rhetoric of “Freedom!” may provide cold comfort at a time when “choice” seems like the only mode of “control” in a risky world. But the viral truth is that we’re exposed and disposed to each other because we share that world. There is nothing, other than a mask, that can change the fact that I expel something like 30,000 droplets of saliva at 200 miles an hour when sneezing, and those droplets hang in the air long enough for you to inhale one of them. How might we rethink what freedom requires (and whose freedom, and to do what?) so that we are able to replace that contagion with another: the spread of the idea that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. For you, in the spirit of HIRA (perhaps the forgotten goddess of mutual vulnerability, or the anti-hero of inevitable exposure?), I’ll wear a mask. What will you choose to do?
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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Build That Wall; The Politics of Motherhood in Portland

Bonnie Honig
Brown University

The Wall of Moms in Portland, Oregon, are mostly dressed in yellow to stand out and make it easier to find one another in case they get separated in a melĂ©e. On their first recorded night out as a unit, July 19, the women linked arms and chanted “Feds steer clear, Moms are here.” One of them was visibly pregnant. All were brave, as they faced anonymized federal police forces wielding tear gas, pepper bombs, and truncheons. Someone on Twitter called the women Momtifa, which is an excellent coinage. Moms against fascism and with antifa helps to undo the associations Trump and Barr have constructed. No longer thugs and anarchists, antifa becomes someone’s beloved sons and daughters. Those watching from afar may feel their sympathies start to shift.
Just a week earlier, a 26 year old protester, Donavan La Bella, was shot in the face with non lethal ammunition by a federal officer. “The video of the shooting shows no sign of aggressive provocation on the part of the protester… La Bella was a regular and nonviolent presence at protests.” That night, he underwent facial reconstruction surgery. After surgery, his mom said doctors were still trying to drain blood from her son’s brain. She is now said to be considering a lawsuit on her son’s behalf. Intentionally or not, she is now part of Momtifa too.
On a Monday night, July 21st, the ranks of the Portland crowd of protesters increased considerably and so did the ranks of the Moms. Some were inspired to come from out of town to join them. The moms went all in on their mom’dom, and sang “hands up, please don’t shoot me,” to a sing-song tune associated with lullabies or children’s teasing, and the moms united the gathered crowd singing “One Love.” They were also, on Monday for the first time, joined by the so-called Dad brigade, men wearing mostly Orange t-shirts, some in hard hats, some carrying leaf-blowers, which turn out to be effective in the removal of pepper spray.
The Wall of Moms grew out of a Facebook post that appealed to the special powers of moms: “We moms are often underestimated. But we’re stronger than we’re given credit for,” Bev Barnum posted, “So what do you say? Will you help me create a wall of moms?” Over 70 women showed up the first night, which was a Saturday. The moms’ group joined with an existing organization called Portland Don’t Shoot for training on protest safety. One of the Wall of Moms’ co-founders, Maureen Kenny Mimiaga, posted after their first appearance on Saturday night: “we got gassed last night and it did suck, but we’ve all been through childbirth, IEP meetings, and long barf -filled nights.” This is nothing, she seemed to suggest.
By Tuesday a protest poster appeared saying, “I’m so disappointed in you – Mom.” Don’t mess with the moms, social media posters noted. One said just wait til they find out the middle names of those federal officers. Then they will really be in for it. It is a healing thrill for a child to see the awesome power of the maternal call-out turned against an opponent. But it was also a joke about the power of the powerless: women; the middle name; the disappointment…it is all so Mrs. America 1950.
    Bev Barnum says: “as soon as you become a mom, something is triggered in you. It’s primal. It doesn’t matter if it’s your kid or not, you’re going to help them.” Now this is obviously not true for all mothers. Or all women. But it does effectively pull many women into the front lines. “Toren Brolutti, 65, had seen images of the Wall of Moms...on the news over the weekend. Seeing other mothers stand protectively in front of young demonstrators stirred something in her, she said. She felt she needed to be there, too. When Kim Brolutti, her husband, saw a similar call for Portland dads to come out on Monday, the couple made up their mind: They were going. Their kids, 31 and 29, met them downtown with helmets and goggles.” Protection goes both ways.
   Another woman came from Salem to join the Wall of Moms on Monday. She had seen the clip of a young protester hurled into a dark and unmarked van by men dressed in camo with large guns, and no pronouncement of arrest, no Miranda rights, nothing. It was disturbing to her and she felt compelled to protest. So 2 days later, there she was in Portland, responding to the Wall of Moms’ invitation to step up, link arms, protect the protesters.
Although there are plenty of disturbing American precedents for this type of domestic police action, including round-ups for anarchists and communists in the 1910’s, 20’s and 50’s, and of undocumented people now, some observers of the ‘arrests’ of protesters by unidentified federal agents thought first of Argentina’s 1970’s junta and its disappearance of a generation of young, leftist protestors, thrown into cars, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. They became known as the “disappeared.” It happened in Chile too, under Pinochet, and elsewhere.
As Stuart Schrader said in The New Republic, noting the salience of the Argentine comparison: “In Argentina, death squads drove Ford Falcons, the country’s most popular car, which meant that one of these sedans rolling down your street could mean you’d never see your family ever again, or it could mean nothing at all. To this day, the sight of a vintage Falcon can cause an older Argentine heart to skip a beat.” In Portland now, it is Dodge minivans that are repurposed for kidnappings by federal police, and they may suffer the same stigma later, after this is all over. Does Dodge know? Ford certainly did. The company provided the cars to Argentina’s junta in return for union-preventing protections for their factories.
   The comparison of our moment with Argentina is especially poignant, though, because of the moms.
In Argentina, the disappearance of young men and women brought the Moms of that country, the Madres, into the city center, the Plaza, where they met weekly in a silent mournful protest that called for the return of the disappeared. The Madres of the Plaza hoped to see their loved ones alive again. They wanted at least to receive the bodies of their dead, if that was their fate – to bury them, to mourn them, together. That the Madres played a role in the regime’s eventual downfall is undisputed. Their pure maternalism forced its way into the conscience of a nation. But they did not subvert the traditional gender politics in defense of which the junta was actually positioning itself as the defender of patriarchy. This is the irony: because the Madres exercised a specifically maternal power, they were all too easily, made (in the words of Diana Taylor) “somehow marginal to the happy ending.” Maternalized power is efficacious, until it isn’t. After the junta was toppled, the surviving sons of the Madres took power. Did they appoint the Madres to the new Cabinet? No, they sent them home, because home is where moms belong…
The attraction of the Wall of Moms is that it seems to have the requisite ironies well in hand. Calling themselves a wall, they appropriate the faux wall of the President that promises invulnerability at the border but cannot secure it. Instead, ironizing their powerlessness, these women link arms and show what real invulnerability looks like. It looks like vulnerability alongside others who empower each other to stand bravely up to militarized forces in their city. But the gender trap is inescapable. This is the double bind of maternal politics. In the end, moms go home. Not that there is anything wrong with that: unless it is a restoration of the patriarchal power whose militarization they were protesting.
    A few days after the shooting of La Bella and a day or two before the Wall of Moms first appeared, another woman confronted the mysterious ‘police’ forces in Portland. The LA Times referred to her as an “apparition” and there was indeed something almost supernatural in her slow, deliberate movements on the street. By contrast with the moms, this woman was not dressed in anything at all and she was alone. 
She had stripped naked and wearing only a facemask and cap, she walked, solo, to the center of the street. She stood at an intersection beneath the changing red and green traffic lights and pointed her long arm to the line of unidentified men in camouflage. She did not speak. She then appeared to position herself in some yoga-like poses before sitting down on the asphalt of the street, her knees up and legs spread wide. Pussy-power, one commentator said.
When a young male protester tried to protect her with his shield, he drew more fire and she stepped away from his protection. Chivalry is dead, she seemed to say, as she killed it. She was as confident and powerful as Melisandre on Game of Thrones, but not evil. Faced with this one naked “No,” the armed forces got in their cars and drove away.
She is now called Naked Athena, after the warrior virgin goddess who had no children. Naked Athena performed vulnerability as protest in the face of violence. She posed and sat, out in the street, with absolutely nothing on, without the cover of maternalism’s innocence but with the protection of youthful beauty. It is fitting that she earned herself a Greek nickname, Athena, because it was she who somehow found the federal agents’ Achilles heel. All that nude pacifism was just too much for the heavily armed soldiers. The moms, though, the federal agents were willing to gas: turns out maternal authority begets not just acquiescence but also violence. Not everyone loves moms.
    Incredibly, the LA Times contextualized Naked Athena’s action as part of a “Portlandia” style of “quirky organic earthiness,” even noting that “courts have held that appearing nude in Portland is a protected form of political expression.” The Times saw an apparition and quickly turned it into a sitcom punchline.
    But what Naked Athena did was to disturb the registers of female agency that privilege purity and treat women’s power as scandalous, funny, or quirky. The relevant context for her action is not “Portlandia” but a feminist activism from Femen in Ukraine to the “naked agency” protests in all their variety in Nigeria, to the anti-rape protesters of Chile, and many many more. All of them feature women in public, unclothed, showing power because they are together, and vulnerability because they are naked, and determination because they are focused on bringing into being a future in which women are equal and not there to be grabbed, manipulated, or dominated.
We are also not here to be worshipped, as in some recent anti-Trump ads where a woman’s relationship to her children is depicted as sacred and incomparable. You didn’t carry them 9 months to sacrifice them to the god of covid, is more or less what a female voice-over says, as we see images of young women dropping their kids at school in happier times. Keep them home, where it is safe. The advice seems sound. But why is it addressed to women? Men can home-school the kids too. But no man appears in the ad’s familial settings, as we hear the film’s instruction: telling women how they feel, what to do, aligning their pussy-power with the mandate of reproduction. There is certainly no mention of the mommy-track effect of school closures already, which have caused many women in hetero-normative households to leave their jobs because with the kids home … well someone has to stop working.
These ads may be effective against Trump just as the Wall of Moms may be effective in Portland. But they will have more than one kind of impact, surely. The gender politics of the moment are almost as retrograde as the Trumpy men we are fighting against. A feminism worth fighting for needs its Naked Athenas too. More of them please. May they march WITH the Moms in Portland. And maybe Mary Trump can join them too. I hear it takes a village. I know it takes a world. The challenge, for the sake of that world, is to find ways to translate the vexed maternal relationships we have into political power and collective action. That is the question for any "mom" –based movements. The answer requires that we “Stay together, stay tight;” as the marchers in Portland say, and that: “We do this every night!”
“In my experience,” says Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, today, (July 22) “radicalizing mothers is a bad political harbinger for anyone responsible. These optics are extremely unlikely to cause voters not already with Trump to shift toward him.” But the question remains, whether radicalizing mothers is a good political harbinger for radical mothers.
Everywhere, the gendered division of public and private space is both challenged but also confirmed by mothers who mourn. The Mothers of the Movement are an American example of the difficulty. Created after George Zimmerman was outrageously acquitted in 2013 for the murder of Trayvon Martin, these Black mothers work to politicize the loss of Black life to policing. Their maternity and their grief empower them on this issue. They have helped energize the movements whose long slow years-long organizing has prepared the way for the months of protests across the U.S. and the world after the police murder of George Floyd.
It is hard not to thrill at the images of women saying No to the escalating power grabs of the last weeks as a President, famous for saying he can “grab” women “by the pussy” and “they let you do it,” searches desperately for a way to stop his fall in the polls and maybe in November at the ballot box.
     More and more women are saying No to a man who says women do not say no to him. Some of them are elected officials, including Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago, and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta mayor, both Black. Lightfoot has now been told she is next, or her city is. That these cities are run by Black women no doubt adds to the relish with which the President contemplates the thought of occupying them as they protest such a move and he blames them for it. They govern badly he says; their cities, led by Democrats, are out of control. Blaming them for the violence he will inflict on them? As my 21-year old child would say, that is rapey. 

*This post draws on reporting by Sergio Olmos and Tuck Woodstock in Portland.
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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

New Viral Crossings and Old Academic Divisions

Bill Connolly
Aspirational Fascism (2017) and Climate machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth (2019)

One thing, among so many others, that the Trump deadly mishandling of Covid-19 may obscure, is what the event can teach academics in the humanities and social sciences about the hollowness of sociocentrism and human exceptionalism. Life is wondrous and multifarious. So are a host of nonliving planetary forces that sometimes shift rapidly. A lethal virus crossing can bring down a whole economy. Accelerated climate change can decimate entire civilizations. A massive volcano, (they are triggered more often during a time of rapid climate change) can reshape the world for a decade. The rapid emergence of the Holocene (without human help) created vast new opportunities for human population growth.
But, until very recently, traditions of humanist exceptionalism and sociocentrism embedded in Eurocentric thought led most humanists and social scientists to treat such events as rare externalities, unentangled with the very infrastructure of the institutions they study. Political scientists, economists, and sociologists have been among the worst offenders here, though a younger cohort now strives valiantly to break that mold.
   I have thought elsewhere about privileges, pressures and assumptions that help to engender this narrowness.[i] One item speaks to how disciplinary boundaries are sliced and diced in the academy . It is a factor inside the academy that helped to harden boundary separations between the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities and soon encouraged neoliberal university regimes to locate the trio on a harsh hierarchy of relative importance.
If you, crudely, trace one vector from Descartes through Newton to Einstein, you arrive at a dogma in Einstein that either counsels physicists--"the queen of the sciences"--to ignore the humanities, social sciences and softer natural sciences or to subjugate them to its categories. The counsel revolves around assumptions about the relations between bodies, agency, and time. Descartes conceived agency within mind/body dualism, with agency bestowed upon humans and God alone; he defined time as a series of instants, instants held together only by the providence of an omnipotent God. Without God's constant attention and benevolence the duration of the world would fall apart.[ii]
In his 1922 debate with Henri Bergson Einstein contended that the Bergsonian story of delicate intersections between past and future in the creative protraction of the present--or "duration"--both gives undo creative agency to human beings and misreads the reality of time grounded in the constant rate of the speed of light. Light is composed of instants, 'particles". Not only does relativity show how the clock time of two travelers moving at extremely different speeds will vary, it also shows, in Einstein's words, how to "the believing physicist this division into past, present, and future has merely the standing of an obstinate illusion." [iii] The result is a species of eternalism, in which a multiverse collects every result somewhere now in space. The human experience of time is thus an illusion. So much the worse, too, for humanist philosophies of agency, in which judgments, choices, and creative adventures unfold through irreversible time.
    The rhetorical brilliance of Einstein found expression in his assertion that Bergson projected only "psychological time", while the scientist himself addressed "real time." I cannot rehearse the details of the debate here, my capacity to do so is indeed limited; but, as the superb book by Jimena Canales traces in The Physicist and the Philosopher, it has continued across several permutations for a century.
The key point for the moment, however, is that Bergson did not in fact confine his philosophy to human experiences of time and agency, let alone to a unique human illusion of time. And he saw how notions of time and agency are bound together. Einstein's metaphors nonetheless stuck: a rigorous theory grounded in the constancy of the speed of light combating an illusion grounded in fuzzy self-reports of human experience and action. Positivists such as Hans Reichenbach, Rudolf Carnap and Bertrand Russell sought to carry variants of the Einstein story into the middle of the human sciences; process theorists such as James, Whitehead, Mead, Latour, and Deleuze championed shifting variants of the Bergsonian image.
Most immediately pertinent is how complexity theorists in biology and ecology soon began to construe the diverse agencies and experiences of duration of, say, bees, crows, elephants, dogs, crocodiles, bacteria, and viruses in ways that buttress the Bergson theory taken broadly, contending that experiences of agency as striving and time as duration include and vastly exceed diverse human cultures. These latter experiences are thus construed to be neither illusions nor unique to humans. Such formulations download challenges to Einstein into the sciences of biology and ethology, that is, into nonhuman sciences.
Let's turn to a recent formulation by Stuart Kauffman, a complexity theorist in biology, about the temporality and agency of bacteria. A bacterium, he says, possesses some characteristics of agency as purposive striving. It pursues sugar as an end as it climbs the sugar gradient; it adjusts its behavior to attain the end during micro-moments of duration; and it feels satisfaction if it achieves its end. Thus, says, Kaufman: "Teleological language becomes important at some point in the tree of life. Let us stretch and say that it is appropriate to apply it to the bacterium. We may do so without attributing consciousness to the batcerium. My to try to trace the origin of action, value, and meaning as close as I can to the meaning of life." (p.80) Drawing upon Kauffman, it becomes possible to appreciate complex human entanglements with multiple nonhuman agencies set on different scales of temporality and also to emphasize, with Whitehead, how complex micro-agencies within human beings also contribute to human modes of thought, mood, judgment and agency set in larger cultural contexts. Every action is marked by duration, however brief. Bonnie Bassler supplements Kauffman's account by exploring "quorum calls" of bacteria in the gut through which collective bacterial actions are undertaken. Others have identified the collective agency of crocodiles, an understanding Eurocentric adventurers missed at their own peril.
So resist the familiar ploy to relegate those who multiply sites of agency within and beyond the human to be merely theorists of individualism who forgo the study of larger structures. There are individual and collective agencies, set in relatively open systems. Indeed, the tired "individualist/collectivist/structuralist debate" in the human sciences is too often set in a larger frame of human exceptionalism and sociocentrism, though there are exceptions. The task now is to explore heterogeneous entanglements between in-dividuals, cultural systems, and various nonhuman processes set in diverse, periodically intersecting temporalities.
What about viruses, though? Virology is a young science by comparison to physics, which itself gained new solidity in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first virus was detected apparently in 1892. The first coronavirus in 1898. The first human virus in 1900. The measles virus in 1911. The electron microscope, which can view viruses directly, was invented in 1933. The first zoonotic virus--viruses like Covid-19 that spillover from one animal to another--was discovered in 1955. Ebola, HIV, SARs and other coronaviruses spilling over from other animals into humans, were identified later yet. Various viral vaccines trailed into the world after that, mostly after the nineteen fifties.[iv] Viral transmissions have also recently been identified as key agents in horizontal gene transfer, a second source of co-evolution that transfigures Darwin's old oak tree into a tangled bush, or even a rhizome.
Covid-19 is a coronavirus that leaped from bats to an intermediary (a snake, pig or pangolin), and then made a second crossing into humans. It is very impressive. It proliferates, after a crossing, most often through droplets inhaled from others or transmitted by touch and carried by hands to the mouth, nose or eyes. Covid-19 is apparently less lethal and more transmissible than several other coronaviruses--viruses with jagged crowns that become attached to human cells and proliferate rapidly.
Detection, attachment, virion movement during and after attachment, rapid evolution, stubborn persistence, resistance to antibodies. Are viruses alive? Do they participate in nano-strivings? The dominant view has been that, since they are immobile before attaching to host cells--they are not cells themselves--they do not meet the definition of life. They hover between life and non-life. But that judgment (and definition) is now contested by some virologists. Here is a sampling of what Patrick Forterre, a virologist, says:

"Viruses use the same ..nucleic acids and cellular organisims for the reproduction and expression of genetic information. This indicates that viruses and cells fit into the same historical process we call life;" (p. 100)

"...the viral genome remains inactive within a viral particle until it encounters a susceptible cell that can be infected;." (100, my emphasis)

"...most biologists profoundly underestimate viral 'creativity' (ie. the opportunity for emergence and selection of novel traits encoded by viral genomes). This is probably because viruses, confounded with their their virions, are assimilated to passive, inert objects." (101, my emphasis );

..."this implies that viruses actually originated before cells." (103)

"...viruses are thus living entities because they are both genetic and metabolic entities. (105)[v] 
The Forterre thesis, though supported by some other virologists, is highly controversial, as such a proposal for a paradigm shift in a science must be. As a rank amateur on this terrain myself, let me take a viral leap nonetheless and speculate that Forterre is on the right track. Why? Well, one reason is that his proposal takes another step toward resolving the persistent impasse between the natural sciences and humanities that continues to confound the academy.
    Neither mode of inquiry can render some aspects of the world intelligible as it stands, yet each needs sustenance from the other to do its work. Einsteinian scientists, for instance, ask whether an "anthropic exception" exempts them from a world otherwise constituted as timeless. The impasse, again, is that each needs the other to render intelligible processes pertinent to it, but each, at least in its majoritarian guise, advances themes that make it difficult to do so in intellectually tenable ways.[vi] Attention to the impasse may call into question the Einsteinian insistence to ground time itself only on the constancy of the speed of light. And it may encourage humanists to come to terms with how human cultures are profoundly and regularly entangled with a heterogeneous host of nonhuman cultures, cultures as diverse as viruses, bacteria, algae, plants, fungii, bats, birds, forests, pangolins, leopards, livestock, and pets. Cultures that also involve essential intersections between heterogeneous agents, such as the orchid and the wasp and bacteria and humans.
If you forge links between the Forterre account of viral life to studies of multi-species perspectivalism in several nonwestern cultures, and both to accounts by Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffman, and Terrence Deacon on how life may have emerged from chancy conjunctions between diverse, nonliving, complex molecules, you plant a seedbed that enables diverse disciplines to speak intelligibly to one another across disciplinary boundaries when an event requires it.
   Now Euro-dualism, reductionism and bracketing lose their standing as the only alternatives to choose between in a world composed of multiple, entangled systems. The story of multiple temporal trajectories, periodically crossing, encourages closer contact between anthropologists, nonwestern cosmologies, bacteriologists, virologists, global theorists, climatologists, and ecologists to study complex intersections of multiple sorts.
Biology, ethology, anthropology, and ecology, on this account, may now become something like lynchpin sciences, shuffling Einsteinian images of time to an outer edge to face questions from quantum theory, biological sciences of nonhuman life, and decolonial theories. These modes of inquiry drive a wedge into the "bifurcation of nature" (as Whitehead called it) within the sciences themselves, opening a door to yet new adventures.
    The new lynchpins do not promise a unified science, placing the old academic divisions under one tent. Rather, they provide clues to follow when those in the social and natural sciences need to draw resources from the other to explore a critical problem. Virologists, for instance, find that to trace a specific viral spillover into human cultures they need to do lab work, conceptual work, and field work simultaneously. They become amateur anthropologists in that task, as social scientists become amateur virologists at other times as we follow the complexities of a problem. We all become more problem oriented--appreciative of how new events of different sorts periodically interrupt field regularities to which we have become habituated--prepared to push against the boundaries of our field on occasion rather than huddling inside old cocoons.
   The discovery, for instance, of how one bat coronavirus, before Covid-19, spilled into humans after evolving sufficiently to make the leap, required investigators to study virus samples in the lab and to map in the field how large tree bats deposit excrement on a delicate fruit, the sap of which is drunk as a delicacy by locals. In different variations this example is repeated over and over in eco-virus studies, as David Quammen reviews so artfully in Spillover.
Another critical possbility may be amplified, too. Those in Euro-American settings who explore entanglements between diverse modes of human and nonhuman life may become better equipped than heretofore to engage rich traditions of cross-species perspectivalism advanced in several nonwestern regions as well as in indigenous traditions of peoples now partitioned by "reservations" in western "settler" societies.[vii] We may rise above a nature/culture bifurcation of our own making, pressing either to impose one side or the other of the European dualist/reductionist debate upon interpretations of nonwestern peoples or to "bracket" both Eurocentric conceptions in an artificial way. More reciprocal modes of dialogue now become more feasible between advocates of decolonialism located in different regions, not because of a change in this dimension alone, of course, but by linking it to studies that oppose imperial captures by capitalism and the nature/culture divisions bound to it. In fact, the latter dimension has played a role in all civilizations of productivity and abundance, not only in capitalism. Though capitalism leads the way today.
   Opportunities may now be augmented to learn from less-productivist oriented cultures how to promote resilence during an age of rapid climate change and periodic pandemics, so as to break the hegemony of private profit, stratification, economic growth and mastery over nature. Augmented but not launched. Numerous such dialogues have been underway for a while.


[i] One account is offered in The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

[ii] Thus Descartes says, "For the whole duration of my life can be divided into an infinite number of parts, no one of which is dependent on the others, and so it does not follow from the fact that I have existed a short while before that I should exist now, unless at this moment some cause produces and creates me..." That is God, the eminent cause, which, of course, rules out emergent causation. Meditations, trans by Lawrence lafleur, New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1952), p. 105.

[iii] Dean Buonomano, Your Brain is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time (New York: Norton, 2018), p. 156. .

[iv] Michael Oldstone, Viruses, Plagues, History New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 19-40.

[v] Patrick Forterre, "To be or not to be alive: How recent discoveries challenge the traditional definitions of viruses and life", Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences ( vol. 59) 2016, 100-108.

[vi] I have focused in this piece on one strain in social/natural science engagements starting from what might be called the majoritarian drive in each. All along there have been challenges by an evolving minor tradition, exemplified here by Bergson and Kauffman. But it reaches back to at least Lucretius, and finds recent expression in Nietzsche, Kafka, Whitehead, Baldwin, Haraway, Bennett, and Deleuze.

[vii] For studies that do exactly that see Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. by Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017); and Anatoli Ignatov, "The Earth as Gift Giving Ancestor", Political Theory, 45 no 1, (2017), 52-57.
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Monday, June 8, 2020

Let American Democracy Be

Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon

The ferocious social and political response to the sadistic murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police thug inspires. Swarms of democratic citizens in the United States (and around the globe) have taken to the streets to denounce structural racism and state violence and demand accountability and fundamental change, even raising the possibility of the abolition of policing as we now know it. They have done so despite the terrible dangers that the pandemic poses. Mainstream media have sounded the alarm about a possible resurgence of Covid-19 as a result of the communal protests, and while the possibility exists, it has conveniently distracted attention from the same threat already posed by a premature reopening of the economy championed by Donald Trump and the Republican Party. That George Floyd protesters were knowingly willing to take this risk indicates the terrible dilemma imposed on them: stay safe and (effectively) silent at home in the face of the routine onslaught on people of color in this country and thus see it continue unabated and unopposed, or take a stand in public knowing that this is just one more risk people are forced to assume in a society that willfully dominates people of color and will continue to do so for as long as white power and privilege perdure. Their courage and heroism cannot be overstated. They make American democracy look good even when it is dysfunctional. In short, they are enacting the moral and political principles American democracy already claims to embody.

Democratic activists confront more than coronavirus-related health risks. They also face serious dangers from the knee-jerk deployment of police and military forces whenever American citizens enact their democratic rights in public. (Trump’s brown-shirt tactics across the street from the White House to arrange a reelection photo-op merely perfected this perverse “security” arrangement.) These forces, armed to the teeth, have no place on America’s streets. The first amendment guarantees the people the right peaceably to assemble and demand meaningful change from their government. It does not guarantee this right under the watchful gaze and menacing presence of uniformed state officers wearing (or not) badges and guns. The streets belong to the people, not the police or the military. It is up to the people themselves to control them—and themselves. The police must remain in their barracks, especially when they are the institution that have created the need for democratic action. Otherwise, the police, as we have seen over the past week, just take another opportunity to employ deadly violence against the very people they ostensibly serve and protect. In this regard, it is the curfew order, an illegitimate suppression of politics and an inadvertent confession by the state that it cannot handle democratic citizens acting democratically, that gives police the license they seek to exercise their will to power, especially against people of color. The occasional expression of solidarity by police (taking a knee for a brief moment with protesters) does nothing to alter this fact of American life.

Does this mean that political protest might spiral out of control and turn to violence? Yes, it does. Does this mean that some who have no interest in politics, in racial justice, might capitalize on the situation and commit acts of vandalism and looting? Yes, it does? Aren’t these serious concerns? Yes, but they are not principal concerns. American democracy must be able to express itself, especially in moments such as this one. If, for whatever reasons, the streets themselves pay a price for the democratic freedom, militancy, and resistance they make possible, then that is a price American democracy must be prepared to pay. The United States unthinking spends trillions of dollars on needless, illegal wars abroad. The United States throws away trillions of dollars in reckless tax cuts for the rich and corporations who don’t need, let alone warrant, them. The United States can afford to pick up the tab for democracy’s expression, for righteous civil insurrection. After all, the United States created the conditions that led to the protests and made looting possible in the first place. The country thus bears ultimate responsibility to redeem and make whole citizens who became unwitting victims of the protests. In short, rather than look to punish those responsible for excesses, follow the advice of Martin Luther King and eliminate the conditions that enable those excesses in the first place. Until that is done, who are we to punish anyone?

Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd appalls for any number of reasons. What might be most noticeable about the video capturing this atrocity, however, is the arrogant nonchalance with which Chauvin snuffs out Mr. Floyd’s life. Notice Chauvin’s body language. He rides George’s neck with his left hand resting on his thigh. Occasionally he has to balance himself. Chauvin’s posture suggests a sadist who enjoys the brutality he inflicts on a helpless black man face-down on the street, handcuffed. It’s as if he’s testing himself to see how long he can stay on top of Mr. Floyd without falling off. Chauvin indulging his lust for killing is sickening. None of his three police partners in crime tried to stop him. Rather, they protected him.

Chauvin and his cohorts should have been arrested the very day they killed Mr. Floyd and charged with murder. They were not. The escalating protests that followed were in sync with the act that triggered them, including the burning of one particular Minneapolis police station. In 2020, if and when a black person is murdered by police, and the state fails to take decisive action against them, the precinct that houses the killers becomes a legitimate object of response. A police precinct is more than a logistical center for the exercise of law and order. It is also a symbol of the community. A public trust, it ought to represent safety, justice, and equality under the law. When it not only fails to live up to these ideals but actively negates them it has lost its reason for being. It becomes nothing more than an outpost of oppression and domination, in which case it can and perhaps should be burned to the ground. When the police nullify the proverbial social contract making life together possible, they need to be taught a lesson they cannot forget. The police, that is, need to be deterred from their own brand of crime. Minneapolis police rightly surrendered the building to outraged democratic citizens, the building’s true sovereigns. Mr. Floyd’s murder would not have been possible in a decent society. That such murder is commonplace means that extraordinary measures might have to be taken to redress it. No justice, no peace must have some teeth behind it. It can’t just be a slogan that can, in turn, be dismissed by the powers that be. Burning Chauvin’s Minneapolis police station as an act of creative and disciplined violence. It restores the proper balance of power between the people and the state. The people, not Bunker Boy and the police, must dominate the streets. The police present themselves as enemies of the democratic people whenever they appear, especially armed and in riot gear, at a political rally or demonstration. As such, they should be considered the enemy until they prove otherwise. They do not belong and have no place in the political sphere. When they do, they tend to look for opportunities to attack their fellow citizens, as New York City police in particular have proven.

The George Floyd protesters can teach the so-called LIBERATE! militants a thing or two about democratic politics. The latter, drawn from Trump’s angry white male working-class base and incited by him, descended on state capitals like Lansing, Michigan, to demand their “rights.” They wanted stay-at-home orders lifted. The wanted the economy to reopen. They kept insisting on their rights. Participants would proclaim, “I have the right to go where I want and do what I want. It’s nobody’s business but my own. I can take the risk if I so choose.” What they were demanding was not liberty but license, a distinction lost on them in their rage. Unfortunately, this rage was apolitical and amounted to declaring that, “I can do whatever I want to do, the potential life or death consequences to others be damned.” They may have targeted state capitals, sites of power, but what they enacted was a rage fest, replete with guns, which gratuitously endangered themselves and others. I say gratuitously because they, unlike George Floyd protesters, had other options available to them. They could have demanded that the state provide disaster relief to them on a scale commensurate with the pandemic. Trump is wholly dependent on his base for an electoral college reelection. He feeds them regular doses of racial ressentiment to keep them devoted. They could have rejected this ugly brand of race politics and forced Trump and the GOP to keep them safe and protect them from economic ruin. If they withdraw their support, they have the power to destroy the GOP. They did not exercise it and as a result inflicted even more needless suffering on themselves and the country they claim to love. The LIBERATE! militants offer an example of what not to do politically in an emergency.

It is to the George Floyd protesters that we can look for inspiration. They represent an example of commitment to a more decent America, one in which Black Lives Matter. And if Black Lives actually do come to Matter, just imagine what else will come along in its wake.

June 6, 2020 

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