Friday, September 24, 2010

Democracy and Violence

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

The United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe seem hell-bent on implementing cruel, destructive economic policies—cruel and destructive to all but the well positioned, well connected, and well to do—in the face of economic catastrophe. This is a reflection not only of interests controlling politics but of true belief, a bizarre faith in self regulating free markets resistant to any evidence of their abject failure.
 These responses repeat mistakes made in the 1930s and, more recently, the failed examples of Ireland and Greece. In the case of the United States, rather than design large-scale public works projects and meaningful aid to state and local governments, each of which would help stimulate growth and address America’s crumbling, often pathetic, infrastructure, a fear bordering on hysteria about deficits has generated a call for massive spending cuts despite the predictable, self-defeating character of such cuts. Make no mistake, given the current context, with effective un- and underemployment perhaps as high as twenty percent, the response to the 21st century’s first depression constitutes nothing less than a violent, long-term assault on the integrity of people’s lives. The assault may have originated in the private sector, but it now amounts to official state-sponsored violence.
Barack Obama once again signaled his support for such violence in his September 10 news conference. Responding to a question about the legacies of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King regarding anti-poverty efforts, Obama could do nothing but spout neo-liberal platitudes about the “virtuous” effects of “growing the economy.” As if channeling the ghost of Ronald Reagan, scourge of imagined welfare queens, and Bill Clinton, successful champion of “the end of welfare as we know it” and Reagan’s rightful heir, Obama effectively scorned efforts by the state to assist people in time of desperate need. Growing the economy, the mantra of neo-liberal indifference, is in Obama's words "more important than any program we could set up”.
Rather than articulating a political vision of state action as an expression of democratic agency, Obama professes faith in a market economy that necessarily produces the many and varied casualties he refuses to help. Thus, rather than understand the history of late twentieth century “welfare reform” as part of a wildly successful Republican-driven campaign to redistribute wealth and income upwards, Obama proceeds on the assumption that individuals are to be held responsible for their economic circumstances. It seems that even Richard Nixon (whose Family Assistance Plan proposed a guaranteed national income, however inadequate) better understood the structural deficiencies and failures of a market economy, which cannot by definition produce the achievements miraculously attributed to it. Hence the permanent need for direct state action. There is one exception to this neo-liberal logic, of course: the defense sector. Here demand artificially created by the state keeps hundreds of thousands employed in make-work jobs beyond challenge. This fact gives the structural violence of the economy a particularly nasty twist.
Despite widespread violence and suffering, including record jumps in poverty levels, those responsible for the economic crises, on the other hand, continue to conduct business as they see fit. Annual Wall Street bonuses remain as obscene and unjustifiable as ever for “work” that contributes nothing to the actual betterment of society. Regulatory countermeasures constitute little more than nuisances to be circumvented by creative financiers and money-managers skilled at finessing the law in whatever new form it might take. The American people seem not to understand what is happening. Poised to punish Democrats in midterm elections (rightly so, given their paltry response to crisis) but too ignorant or angry to recognize the GOP as the party of brutal, unrelenting, and successful class warfare and a discredited faith, nothing on the horizon promises economic relief, let alone restoration or rebirth. Tens of millions of Americans will suffer for years, even decades to come. And this is just one country.
When the G-20 met in Toronto earlier this year, the collective response to economic disaster was pitiful. Calls for austerity predominated. If anything, security arrangements for the conference symbolized the values and priorities in play. Up to 20,000 police and military personnel were deployed to guarantee…well, to guarantee what exactly? There were some demonstrations and protests, but the armed state vastly outnumbered unarmed citizens. The ratio signaled not so much fear of as contempt for citizens. Should the demand for justice, to say nothing of a display of anger, find public expression, the great democracies of the world were prepared and determined, as usual, to regulate, contain, marginalize, and, if necessary, crush it. Violence can be done to you, but don’t think of retaliating. You can have your job, career, health, family, college education, home, and retirement account taken, but don’t you dare take to the streets to do anything more than signal your concern. Wall Street financiers at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere have perpetrated far more violence against American citizens (to focus narrowly here) than criminals with guns on America’s streets, but only one class is deemed and treated as a violent offender.
Democracies reject violence as a matter of principle and design institutions to channel conflict and prevent society from feeding on itself. Machiavelli, in The Discourses, provides a vivid account of institutions working to keep the people from having to take to the streets and resort to deadly violence against those responsible for gross public misconduct in order to secure a modicum of justice. Yet what are the people to do when the institutions that supposedly represent them not only fail to do so, repeatedly, but have also been captured by the corrupt, venal amalgam of forces responsible for injuring them in the first place? And what are they to do when official state policy is to protect and enforce the rights of powerful economic interests and to intimidate, threaten, coerce, and imprison any who might meaningfully challenge the regime of property?
In the United States, the situation is exacerbated by an activist Supreme Court pursuing a blatant conservative political agenda that grants corporate entities unlimited first amendment rights to consolidate and further their interests and render democracy a sham. Again, what are citizens to do when a democracy folds selected practices of violence into its way of life while simultaneously decrying its exercise in unofficial forms? What will make hegemonic political and economic players and institutions take them seriously? Nothing that happens at the much-vaunted ballot box, for which corporate and financial interests and their army of lobbyists have nothing but scorn; electoral results can always be co-opted, subverted, and effectively overturned. Those citizens (always reduced to mere thugs) who destroy (the always already sacred) property and are subsequently demonized as if they pose an existential threat to society may be the only citizens who understand the nature of the enemy and the war being waged against the people. The violence being committed daily against tens of millions is structural; the response must be, too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Summer of Sarkozy

Alex Barder
Johns Hopkins University

On July 16 a young member of a 'gens du voyage'  (community of travelers) by the name of Luigi Duquenet was shot dead by police at a checkpoint in the small town of Saint-Aignan in Central France. Police allege that Duquenet, wanted for robbery, attempted to run through the checkpoint and in the process injured a gendarme. This incident provoked two nights of rioting by 50 or so of Duquenet's brethren in which shops, cars and  the local police station were attacked. In the aftermath, President Sarkozy decided to turn his attention to the 'problem' of itinerant populations in France, especially the Roma, long viewed as being responsible for increased criminality, vagrancy and delinquency. Ordering his notorious interior minister Brice Hortefeux (who was recently fined by a court for making racist remarks at a party gathering) to step up the targeting of Roma populations throughout France. 
French security forces have begun an attempt at permanently shutting down 'illegal' camps on the outskirts of major cities.  By late summer, while 51 of more than 300 camps have been raided, the French government deported  approximately one thousand Roma (of a current population of no more than 15,000) in this recent initiative (and many thousands more over the preceding years) back to Romania and Bulgaria even in the face of widespread criticism by the EU parliament, UNHRC and many public intellectuals in France. Some in France have even gone so far to refer to the deportations as mirroring the rafles (mass deportations) of Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies during the Second World War. 
Of course, given that the Roma are in fact EU citizens, French policy is completely self-defeating since the Roma may legally return to France at any time. But what the Sarkozy government has done (and which ultimately makes the legal case for deportation from the point of view of the state credible) is to make it nearly impossible for the majority of the Roma, Gypsies and other itinerant populations from Romania or Bulgaria to apply for permanent residency permits which would preclude their deportation after their allowed three month stay.   
To be sure, Sarkozy's recent policy of targeting itinerant populations is part of a larger 'l'ordre publique' (law and order) discourse that underpins the general political platform of his governing party, the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire). He makes it no secret his genuine admiration for the former mayor Rudy Guiliani and what he sees as Guiliani's success at 'cleaning up' New York City. While interior minister under Jacques Chirac during the 2005 civil unrest in the suburbs of Paris, he gained notoriety by referring to the rioters as 'racailles' (scum) and 'voyous' (thugs), vowing to clean up the streets with a pressure washer, only amplifying the rioters rage against the state. 
He ran his 2007 electoral campaign for the presidency aiming to woo far right voters from Jean-Marie Le Pen's  National Front party by stressing his anti-illegal immigrant credentials and his desire to force the assimilation of immigrant populations into the French 'way of life'. Sarkozy's government has gone further than the banning of overt religious symbols in public schools. A major initiative in the last year was the banning of the burqa and niqbah in all public areas. More recently, legislation is being introduced in parliament that would strip French citizenship  from any naturalized citizen that commits a crime resulting in a prison sentence of five or more years, or engage in female circumcision and polygamy.  Such legislation would necessitate the introduction of an ethnic classification system that is wholly alien to the French model of republican citizenship and is clearly designed to target immigrant communities.
The temptation, however, is often to see Sarkozy's policies through the lens of forthcoming electoral calculations as some American commentators tend to do (here ).  On the one hand, I think Alain Badiou, in his book The Meaning of Sarkozy, is correct to see Sarkozy as the latest manifestation of a specifically French phenomena, what he calls the "Pétainist transcendental."  By that he means especially how Sarkozy resurrects a reactionary political discourse that emphasizes a prevalent moral crisis and political decline (for Sarkozy the event marking France's decline was May-68) and which translates into a growing process of racialization targeting anyone deemed a threat to la patrie. An obvious example was seen in the aftermath of the humiliating performance of the French national football team at the World Cup. Some right-wing commentators blamed the fiasco on the ethnic and religious plurality of the team itself. 
On the other hand, I think that what is happening in France is part of a much larger phenomena of European xenophobia over the last decade. In fact, it is France's neighbor Italy that paved the way for the mass deportation of its own Roma population under Silvio Berlusconi. But we can also witness the Swiss referendum banning Islamic minarets; the rising popularity of Geert Wilder' s Party of Freedom in the Netherlands and the far-right British National Party; increasing rates of racism in Scandinavian, long a haven for refugees from all over the world. Or the prevalent racist chants against black football players in many European leagues, many making monkey sounds whenever a black player touches the ball. 
One just has to have observed the discourse in Germany towards Greece at the height of the financial crisis a few months ago. With tabloids like "Der Bild" and "Focus" leading the way and many German politicians following suit a general perception emerged in Germany that Greeks did not have the same "European" work ethic as the Germans did, a traditional European perception of the 'lazy' non-European Other. 
It is true that the great financial panic of 2008-2009 hit European economies hard in the last year and contributed to this rise in xenophobia across the continent. But it is the European Union's neoliberal path over the last two decades that has given sustenance to the perception that public disorder has become rampant and hence the need for more authoritarian responses in the face of migrations, changing cultural practices and persistent wage labor insecurity.  Loïc Wacquant's Punishing the Poor (a book meant as a warning to France) captures this trend quite lucidly in his analysis of the neoliberal state in the United States. The contemporary American neoliberal state necessarily operates with an expansive penal system used to criminalize and manage the urban poor in the United States. To a certain extent, something similar is occurring in Europe as a whole with the proliferation of fear of public disorder and the resultant increasing penal apparatus of the state. Moreover, at a time when the welfare state is persistently under siege because of EU budget requirements, essentially deemed unsustainable over the long-term, a growing perception among people in Europe is that migrants are unworthy beneficiaries of a diminishing public good. 
But the French case is interesting in another way. There is a growing militarization of how police interact with immigrant populations, how it begins to see the relationship as defined by ubiquitous urban warfare rather than traditional criminal management. The French political scientist Mathieu Rigouste in his book L'ennemi intérieur: La généalogie coloniale et militaire de l’ordre sécuritaire dans la France contemporaine (The Internal Enemy: A Colonial and Military Genealogy of Contemporary France's Security Order) convincingly shows how French security forces are readapting policing/military doctrines first devised in past French colonies against rebellious populations. This has naturally lead to more cases of police shootings of youths, as what happened in Grenoble over the summer, and itself leading to more rioting. 
Almost thirty years ago Salman Rushdie published an essay "The New Empire within Britain" in which he wrote: 
"Four hundred years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies and the wogs, leave their stain. This stain has seeped into every part of the culture, the language and daily life; and nothing much has been done to wash it out." 
What was the case for Britain then, in contemporary France, as the expulsion of the Roma demonstrates, this continues to ring true.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Smell of Democracy?

Kam Shapiro
Illinois State University

We have a sense of what democracy looks like. We might also have a sense of what it sounds like. Now, what does it smell like? Such a question has become less facetious than it once might have been. As readers of this blog know, a proliferation of scientific studies on “embodied cognition” have highlighted the sometimes subtle, sometimes crude ways that various sensations prime us to think and feel in particular ways, evoking memories and generating expectations about persons, objects and situations. Holding a cold beverage makes us less trusting of a stranger, looking at a waterfall or smelling a citrus aroma makes us more generous, what have you. As philosophers attuned to affective dimensions of thought have long argued, political judgments rest not only on ideological commitments, but also on multiple, interactive sensory framings. By implication, any struggle for collective self-determination must be waged not only over what we believe or desire, but how we are made to think and feel, that is, over the techniques of our ideas and sensibilities. What pass for political “ideologies,” of course, have always involved the full range of human senses (think drumming and incense, or mom, apple pie and Chevrolet). Today, likewise, multiple senses are the target of orchestrated campaigns on the part of political and commercial elites. Currently, some of their would-be advisors are cheerfully instrumentalizing the findings of the aforementioned sciences under the banner of “multisensory marketing.” 
On its own terms, multisensory, or ‘MM’ marketing aspires to a multivalent context management of commercial (or political) messages by utilizing not only text and sound, but also texture and scent. The engagement of multiple senses has become imperative, marketers argue, to compete for our attention, thoughts and desires in an increasingly saturated multimedia environment. This does not necessarily entail smell-o-vision or Odorama, though such techniques have their new, digital counterparts. As they understand, the synaesthetic character of thought ensures that words and images evoke imagined tastes, textures and odors. Generally, advertisers use these insights to prompt consumption and overwhelm second thoughts, or as they put it, “competing messages.” Admittedly, their programs can be laughable. One press release marketing the approach (summarized by a “futurist consultant” with a college background in English and Philosophy) enthuses: “Aging baby boomers could be a particularly ripe demographic for multisensory marketing. Not only do many boomers regard small indulgences as part of their routine self-care, but as boomers age they will require stronger sensory inputs.” Everyone, don your noise-cancelling headphones. Really, it may help preserve what’s left of your hearing. 
Multisensory techniques have already found their way into political campaigns. Most recently, the Times reported the use of a scented mailing by a New York Republican gubernatorial candidate that reinforced its negative message (“something really stinks in Albany”) with an odor of rotting garbage. For a case of political aromatics less gross – in both senses of the word - consider the 2007 South Korean presidential election, where the smell of victory took on a literal sense. As Reuters reported, “A team of supporters of presidential frontrunner Lee Myung-bak has been secretly spraying a perfume called "Great Korea" at his rallies. He will send volunteers to voting booths on December 19 to ensure the same scent is drifting through the air… ‘It will remind people of the identity of Lee Myung-bak. The concept of the perfume is hope, victory and passion,’ said Oh Chi-woo of the conservative Grand National Party's culture and arts team.” Far ahead in the polls approaching the election, Lee Myung-Bak won handily. Nobody attributed his victory to the campaign’s devious aromas, the effect of which was not tested in any case. In the New York case, it remains to be seen who will come out smelling clean. Nonetheless, these cases remind us once again that political and commercial elites are working hard to manage the multisensory cues that shape our perceptions and judgments. If citizens are to take responsibility for the latter, they will need to fight for power over the former. 
What does such a fight look, sound or smell like? For some hints, we might turn first to Walter Benjamin. In the early twentieth century, Benjamin witnessed the commercial and political education of the human sensorium by institutions and technologies such as shopping malls, radio and film. The results were not happy (he was a Jewish Marxist writing in Germany between the World Wars, the second of which he did not survive). 
Still, he argued that new technologies of cultural production not only shatter traditional cultural meanings but also have the potential to democratize them. For him, this meant that people might take an active role in deciding what meaning to give to words and images torn from traditional contexts and distributed across the globe. That is, they should become “producers” not only of material goods and services but also of meanings and perspectives. Benjamin therefore paid specific attention to techniques that reduce collective agency of this kind. In particular, he criticized the use of captions in photography and sound in film to control the cognitive and emotional context of reproducible images. In a letter to his friend Adorno, he declared the introduction of sound in film “reactionary.”
That was then. Imagine what he would have made of, say, a screening of Transformers in THX stereo. Remember those noise-cancelling headphones? Not that we should merely adopt a defensive posture. To contend with these olfactory and auditory incursions we cannot simply put our hands over our ears, or hold our noses. Certainly, there should be some regulations. U.S. election laws may even need to be updated to restrict olfactory electioneering. But the aim cannot be to prevent sensory priming altogether, as if one might stop the offending bias by sterilizing the political realm of tone, smell and color. In the absence of sensory cues, we do not become rational but disoriented and bored. 
That said, what is the smell of participatory democracy? Might we prime ourselves to adopt critical and creative perspectives, paradoxical as that may sound? Benjamin thought so. To this end, he promoted experiments with new media (film and radio in particular) to facilitate a reflexive and collaborative response to commercial and political messages. Some recent studies suggest certain kinds of stimuli might be of assistance in this regard. For example, certain colors (blue) may enhance creative insights. Studies with scent seem to have yielded less certain conclusions thus far. In any case, the point is not to replace public debate with aromatherapy but rather to bring insights concerning embodied cognition to bear as we criticize and experiment with the sensory methods already being employed by our would-be handlers. Before you vote, ask yourself where that smell is coming from.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remember, Remember the Eleventh of September.

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

The scenario is familiar: the United States faces a threat, the assault on the Constitution begins/resumes. Following the May near miss in Times Square, the Obama regime opened its newest front on basic rights and intensified an established one: Miranda warnings and habeas corpus. This brings me to Edward Zwick’s underappreciated 1998 film, The Siege. The action commences in a Middle Eastern desert. The United States abducts a sheikh (murdering several bodyguards in the process) it believes responsible for killing scores of its military personnel abroad. America, of course, does not do evil in the pursuit of justice, so the clandestine operation is unofficial. The Sheikh’s followers demand his release and will bomb New York into submission to secure it.
Denzel Washington plays Anthony Hubbard, a strait-laced FBI agent determined to hunt down terrorists secreted in New York without “shredding” the Constitution. (Yes, like Alan Parker’s ludicrous Mississippi Burning, the FBI poses as the champion of civil rights.) Bruce Willis plays General Jack Devereaux, the president’s patriotism-driven national security adviser who sets events in motion by covertly ordering the sheik’s capture. The casualties mount—from a few dozen (bus) to 150 (theater) to 600 (federal building). Scenes of carnage mount, too, including a well-dressed, newly one-armed victim in evening gown. Life in the city effectively shuts down: parents remove children from school; businesses close their doors; people refuse to leave home. The FBI can only react. Martial law, demanded by a frightened citizenry, ensues: the Army occupies part of the city, conducts house-to-house searches, builds makeshift concentrations camps, and tortures prisoners—all for naught. 
The film’s moral and political climax transpires in the men’s room of an abandoned sport’s stadium housing the usual racial suspects. As Devereaux prepares to torture a detainee in a desperate effort to learn the identity of one last terrorist cell, Hubbard screams that if this line is crossed, the terrorists have won. We will have destroyed what prior generations fought and died for. Ultimately, the audience learns the film’s central drama amounts to a case of blowback. Forces the United States created to serve its global interests and subsequently abandoned when those interests were redefined turn against their creators—with a vengeance. By the time this ugly imperial truth (presented as the unfortunate byproduct of good intentions) is delivered, no one is likely to care—not just because too many American citizens have been detonated, but because the film has become a patriot’s dream, an all-American struggle on the streets of Brooklyn between our better and worse selves. 
This is Hollywood, remember, so even if Devereaux crosses the line (which he does), the terrorists can’t be allowed to win (which they’re not). The FBI discovers the last cell and Devereaux is arrested on murder charges. The restoration of constitutional balance accompanies American tanks rumbling out of Brooklyn. Roll credits. 
Despite Zwick’s apparent intention, namely, to warn a democracy against self-destructive action, the Army’s incompetence suggests two alternatives the film does not anticipate: 1) the military needs to be retrained if it’s going to protect American life and limb at home, which the FBI cannot do, at least not quickly enough, to avert mass casualties; 2) Devereaux’s ineptitude aside, to ensure the war on terror does not erupt on American soil, the United States needs to contain and eradicate its enemies abroad. Ruthless deployment of American military might overseas offers the best chance for enhanced domestic security. Think Obama and Afghanistan. Think Obama and indefinite detention and torture. Think Obama and the assassination of American citizens abroad. 
What’s worse, Zwick’s caricature of the military backfires: the film loses an opportunity to challenge the carefully cultivated image of the United States military, somehow the country’s most respected and beloved institution. As National Security Adviser, Devereaux argues vehemently against martial law. Nevertheless, he will execute the order if it is given. That he opposes the idea, we are told, makes him the ideal choice to carry it out. Yet why does Devereaux not resign rather than follow an order he knows to be morally and politically repugnant? The film answers the question by reducing Devereaux to a cartoonish blowhard who grossly overestimates his abilities; moreover, the fiascos that ensue from American military intervention attach themselves to him. Apparently the idea of a military official refusing to follow orders he knows to be wrong is unthinkable. Are there no high-ranking officers willing to risk career rather than sacrifice the Constitution? From Vietnam to Iraq, where were the generals who would resign rather than wage illegal, even genocidal wars? The American military loves to pay lip service to the Constitution, but its true love lies in its own power, especially to wage war. 
The Siege nevertheless poses a fundamental challenge to democracy. Hubbard’s commitment to the rule of law verges on the tragic. Despite repeated bombings, he insists not only on following but affirming a democracy’s best traditions. Expediency equals cowardice. This is what it means to be strong and to die for one’s beliefs. Democratic life entails cost; it can be absorbed. Toward the film’s close, a demonstration finds citizens chanting “no fear.” Given the presence of American troops ordering them to disperse, the target of their chant might seem homegrown. It’s more likely, however, that they chant no fear precisely because they are afraid. Danger or not, they take to the public square. Hubbard embodies the position that the state routinely and cynically exploits threats to enhance its power and curtail liberties. With some threats, however, there are no fully adequate resources. If an enemy is determined to harm us, it will find a way to do so, sooner or later. No amount of prevention or preemption can alter this fact of democratic life. Here’s the question: do we possess the civic integrity to adhere to our values in a world indifferent to macho displays of prowess? This seems unlikely, since the exercise of power often generates the self-perpetuating illusion of success, as it corresponds, by chance, to a period free of incidents. Think how often you hear the claim by Bush operatives that the country has not been attacked since September 2001, as if that could only be the result of newly usurped powers. If we start with the assumption that attack is inevitable rather than with the childish insistence that we can prevent it if we grant the state more and more power, the logic for sacrificing liberty in the name of security begins to dissolve.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Timothy Morton
   U.C. Davis

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art.
Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” 
  Art (verbal, visual, musical …), I think you will agree, comes from the future. That is, art contains hitherto unspeakable and unthought reserves of utopian energy. That's precisely why we keep studying it. No one reading exhausts the meanings of a story. Sure you read Jane Austen to find out about how men and women related in the past. But you also read her (go on, admit it) because she might be predictive of the future. I'm really rather disappointed with myself for having to repeat this hackneyed common knowledge, but there you go, it's my topic here. 
   Think about all those movies that were strangely predictive of 9/11. It was as if we were dreaming about it before it happened. Now back in the early 1970s the rock band Yes commissioned the painter Roger Dean to paint several of their album covers. One album, Fragile, depicts something like Earthrise: an Earth-like planet seen from space, a blue ball. Whole slices and chunks of this planet are separating from the main body.
   The Fragile cover was the first in a series that depicted a story not told in the lyrics, not until his solo album Olias of Sunhillow narrated it: a whole planet threatened with collapse, the flight to new worlds, galleons of refugees floating through space.
Then a chunk of Greenland broke off. The chunk, part of the Petermann glacier, is four times the size of Manhattan. Weirdly, it even looks like Manhattan.
NASA MODIS-Aqua satellite image 

Nature copies art, unfortunately 
   Another hyperobject to add to our collection. The momentum of the glacier is such that it can't be stopped (see my previous post on the difference between momentum and velocity). That means that if any oilrigs are in the way … you do the math.
     How strange that utopian prog rock and utopian eco-cinema visualized this moment before it happened. Like I say, poetry comes from the future. In a horrifying twist of Oscar Wilde's coy logic about nature imitating art, human “art” in its broadest sense (the sense that includes fossil fuels), may well have wrought this change in “nature.”
     My point stands even if global warming isn't directly responsible. We have built the frame in which such things loom into view. Our arts beam painful, unspeakable realities down from the future. Hopefully we can inspect and analyze them before they truly materialize. I wonder whether this argument will fly next time a humanist applies for funding …
     Here at the Contemporary Condition, William Connolly has a wonderful new post on fragility. The more we know, the more we realize how fragile we are and how fragile our world is. I've argued elsewhere that
fragility is what it means to be an entity in this Universe.
Earth and Moon from MESSENGER
     What a good place to start rethinking ethics and politics. I don't for a second buy into the story, promoted both by deep greens and by the right, that Mother Earth will just brush us off and recover. Faith in an all-powerful deity is precisely a way to ignore hyperobjects. Some people commented on my previous post on hyperobjects, wondering whether God could be considered as one. No. It is precisely when we start to notice hyperobjects that the idea of some transcendental beyond, inhabited by an all-powerful being, starts to melt, and we humans break loose from our island of certainty to float on the ocean of science.
How arrogant of us to think that we had reached the end of history in 1989. And how brittle of us. Little did we want to know how this posturing was actually a symptom of our own fragility. The good news is that we are at the beginning of history, like an exhausted newborn, stunned and breathing heavily outside the womb of concepts such as Nature and Progress. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Let The Dead Bury The Dead

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

The controversy concerning what is now called “The Ground Zero Mosque,” even though the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero, is in many ways the product of the evangelical capitalist resonance machine. Following a path that is spookily like the Astro-turfed Tea Party movement, what was once an experiment in false outrage has metastasized into something much greater. And already, as if on cue, the faux-wise Washington commentator David Wills, on the August 22nd edition of This Week on ABC has suggested that the whole affair is overblown, a product of the August slow news cycle, and that soon voters would turn their attention to more serious stuff like the economy.
But as with the strange radicalism of the Tea Party movement, which was fueled by racial hatred, there is clear evidence that racism and religious bigotry is fueling much of outpouring of indignant rage among those who are protesting the building of Park 51. And in this case, one of the strongest claims that many protesters are making -- that the site of the Twin Towers is a sacred place that must not be defiled, a place where several thousand people died – is perhaps the most dangerous claim that can be made, because it entangles the very meaning of what it is to be a human being with a politics of exclusion.
What is a sacred place? We usually associate such a place with houses of worship, but we also include graveyards, mausoleums, and, more personally, places where we scatter the ashes of the dear departed. The site of the World Trade Center qualifies as such a place, but in a very particular and quite unusual sense. Many of the bodies of the dead denizens of Ground Zero were not recovered, but were figuratively vaporized, turned into ash or so badly crushed as to be beyond recognition, torn into scattered bits.
(Just about everyone remembers that day, 9/11, where they were, what they were doing when they heard the news. I happened to be at Brigham and Women’s Hospital with my wife, who was undergoing her monthly monitoring for the return of her cancer. We arrived there shortly after the towers were hit, and watched them collapse while waiting for her to have an MRI. Our appointment with her surgeon was cancelled shortly after that, and the hospital was put on lockdown. We later learned that Brenda’s physician was the head of the emergency response team for the hospital and had been called upon to coordinate their trip to New York to care for the wounded. But later that day, their trip was cancelled. It seemed that there were few wounded survivors, that the vast majority of people there that day either escaped physically unscathed or died on site.)
That we remember this place as sacred, then, is a consequence of our knowing that the remains of many dead people are still there. It is the oldest of religious beliefs that humans have held, that we worship our dead at the place where they are buried. Burial itself is a uniquely human activity, the very word human being etymologically connected to humus, earth, decay and dust. Indeed, as the great philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico noted long ago, burial is among very first of human institutions. Robert Pogue Harrison, in The Dominion of the Dead, notes that the very first houses that we built were not for the living, but for the dead.
So the real anger incited by those who claim the defiling of a sacred place is understandable, even though the claim itself is false. This site is sacred, but in the most ecumenical sense possible. All of the major world religions were represented among those who died, and undoubtedly some atheists, mystics, and animists as well. Their molecules mingle there. If those who wanted to preserve the site as a more exclusive place, it is already too late to do so.
But the resistance to the community center in New York has had the classic racist effect of insinuating that Muslims are less than human. Islam, the most modern of the major religions, is thus seen as the religion of a particular race. As Franklin Graham recently explained on CNN, Muslimism is transmitted by the father to the child. Once again, the question of blood transmission of religion rises as an issue in determining one’s identity. A rich irony here is that a recent Time magazine poll on tolerance of religious beliefs indicated that Americans are most tolerant of Jews and Protestants, only 13% having unfavorable views of them, followed by Catholics, at 17%, then Mormons at 29%. Muslims? 43% of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims. That Americans hold such a tolerant view of Jews and such an intolerant view of Muslims might suggest that a new form of anti-semitism is emerging here in the United States, with Americans disavowing the old form of anti-semitism by showing their love for Jews, thus freeing them to vent their hatred on Muslims.
In other words, while the specific issues concerning the current Ground Zero controversy may indeed fade to the background as the fall elections approach, the undercurrent of hatred that has fueled is not about to fade away, just as the Tea Party, a not unassociated movement – the August 22nd demonstration against 51 Park contained self-identified Tea Party members – is not about to fade away. It has become a matter of blood now, in more than one sense.