Saturday, February 19, 2011

Democracy’s Prisoners of Conscience

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

The moral and political impoverishment of the Republican and Tea Parties manifest themselves almost daily. How do they respond to political assassination and multiple murders, facilitated by handguns, in Arizona? Celebrate the Second Amendment as a guarantor of American freedom and advocate arming the citizenry with concealed weapons. How do they respond to activist conservative courts that deem unconstitutional even modest health care reform designed to remedy evident injustices? Denounce the evils of government action and hail the decisions as a restoration of American freedom.
If conservatives were as steeped in American constitutional traditions as they believe, they would recognize the absurdity of the first position and the irrelevancy of the second. Freedom and democracy are at risk in the United States and elsewhere, but not because of the specter of gun control or mandatory health insurance (or tax increases, government spending to create jobs, reproductive rights, government regulation, or budget deficits).
The United States, in the first decade of the 21st century, already enjoys two wars to its credit, one patently illegal, the other a miserable failure whose needless, unjustifiable continuation renders it criminal. The country has inflicted great constitutional damage at home and killed tens of thousands of innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq to prosecute these wars. On these questions, however, we hear no protests from the newly installed Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Nor do we hear anything other than bromides about national security from new Tea Party-backed members who prefer to treat the Pentagon budget, which sustains an unprecedented global empire, as more or less untouchable, despite vague pronouncements that everything is subject to fiscal review. Nor do we hear anything from the gun-toting public whose weapons supposedly protect our freedom from government malfeasance.
Once upon a time, a well-armed American citizenry might have opposed national military aggression and aggrandizement. In theory citizen militias resist tyranny at home and refuse imperial aggression abroad. No such convictions inform a professional mercenary army, which the United States deploys (patriotic protestations to the contrary notwithstanding), let alone individual gun owners. The Second Amendment, despite the ideologically-driven decision of an activist Supreme Court, is a collective rather than an individual right. Historically it did bear a certain relation to freedom—but no longer. America is a country awash in guns, but in the last fifty years this didn’t prevent, for example, either Vietnam or Iraq. The Second Amendment signifies nothing more than a consumer’s “right” to satisfy a socially dangerous fetish. The same can be said with opposition to health care, which supposedly relates to the much vaunted freedom of choice in the marketplace.
A democratic notion of freedom lies elsewhere. This is why the dominant responses—ranging from silence to cheerleading to assistance—to Julian Assange’s political persecution are so disturbing. The hysterical diatribes of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are to be expected; Rachel Maddow’s disgraceful, ignorant December 15 performance on David Letterman and Bill Keller’s nasty, self-serving calumny in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (a friend of the prosecutor brief for the likes of Eric Holder) less so. Of course, The New York Times loves to trumpet its own civic “virtue” and “responsibility,” which Keller does in the Assange piece, perhaps forgetting how the paper marched in lockstep with the Bush Administration’s campaign for war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Ironically, The Times and other media outlets are now in the process of establishing their own electronic “drop boxes” for the deposit of classified and confidential material.
As Assange pointed out in a 60 Minutes interview aired on January 30, WikiLeaks’s political and publishing activism fall well within the American political tradition of opposition to established authority. This seemed to escape the sensibility of 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, who chided Assange for his surprise that the United States would target him for retaliation for WikiLeaks’s exposés, deeming it natural and therefore somehow unproblematic rather than a further abuse of power. Despite America’s (unwarranted) indignation, WikiLeaks opposes illegitimate and abusive exercises of power—corporate or governmental—regardless of country. The idea is to create a more just society, to which freedom contributes, to which WikiLeaks contributes. And democratic freedom is a political phenomenon that finds its finest expression through action-in-concert. One might think here of recent events in Tunisia, abetted by WikiLeaks, or current events in Egypt
As for Assange, when the freedom of one is at stake, so is the freedom of everyone. It is the responsibility of democratic citizens to condemn and resist the state when it threatens not just a single citizen’s political rights, but the liberty of us all by focusing its efforts against a single citizen. This is what we owe Julian Assange and the citizen-and-prisoner of conscience that allegedly provided WikiLeaks with information, Bradley Manning. Eric Holder is doing his secretive best to dust off the Espionage Act of 1917, which Woodrow Wilson used to brutally suppress dissent during World War I, and make it work against Assange.
One democratic organization doing its best on behalf of Assange is Anonymous, a protean cross-state, transnational political force armed with a new set of civic skills to intervene effectively (in part, covertly) against corporate and state assaults on freedom. Like Assange and WikiLeaks, members of Anonymous risk arrest, prosecution, and prison as they resist and seek to reverse undemocratic practices and regimes
The United States does not enjoy a robust history of living up to First Amendment ideals. WikiLeaks has provided the country with another opportunity to match democratic promise with performance. No doubt Obama will lead the way in blowing it. With luck, he will be a one-term president. The time for the democratic left to oppose his renomination is here. He ought to pay the ultimate political price for his repeated democratic betrayals, both at home and internationally.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Perturbed as heck, and we'll take it for a little more: The Banality of Lying in Politics

Emily Beausoleil 
University of British Columbia

The recent piranhic media frenzy surrounding Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange almost immediately calls to mind the Pentagon Papers leaked exactly 40 years ago; where, though a mere 7,000 Xeroxed documents compared to Wikileaks’ hundreds of thousands, the government claimed the damage to national security was so great that it required stopping the presses – an order thankfully overruled by the Supreme Court and dismissed by seventeen newspapers; where the Espionage Act was first used as an Official Secrets Act, for which it was never intended; where the government similarly demanded the ‘return of information’; and where Ellsberg was likewise accused of treason rather than patriotism. 

And just as in Ellsberg’s case, too, the contents of this year’s July leak was found, as described in a recently released Pentagon letter, not to compromise security in any way, despite claims by US Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, among others, that Assange and his team had ”blood on their hands.” 
Certain differences present themselves, of course: where Nixon worked covertly via the order for a dozen Bay of Pigs veterans to “incapacitate Ellsberg totally,” now Democratic Party consultant Bob Beckel can call for the illegal assassination of Assange on public television, as President Obama’s administration makes moves to create an explicit Official Secrets Act. But like the Pentagon Papers so long ago, Wikileaks has, in the words of an international group of former intelligence officers and ex-government officials who wrote in support of Assange, “teased the genie of transparency out of a very opaque bottle, and powerful forces in America, who thrive on secrecy, are trying desperately to stuff the genie back in.” 
Secrecy and deception are a part of politics, though they inevitably inhibit accountability and public capacity for informed decision-making. As in the case of Vietnam where spin doctors and strategists alike overlooked intelligence documents that noted early on the improbability of winning the war, or the more recent manufacture of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a democratically unelected president George W. Bush, or the official claims of combat with armed ‘insurgents’ revealed as false by Wikileak video footage, during the now-famous 2007 killing of 18 Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, deception is bred into the bone of politics – perhaps it always was. As Ellsberg states in a December interview with Amy Goodman, 
“We’re in an absurd position here with a close down of public discussion of official matters, very similar to that of China. In fact, I even wonder whether there’s a rule that absurd in China. And that’s the kind of information system, I think, that 
our leaders aspire to, and have for a long time.”

But what is striking about this recent case of disclosure is the difference in public response: compared to the public outcry of the 1970s, which ignited protest, fuelled a social movement, and catalyzed the end of the Vietnam War, the public is strangely silent in 2010. Well, not silent, surely – but rather than an eye for the content of these released documents and their implications for democratic transparency and government accountability, all eyes are on Assange, this striking figure stepping on the world stage and the concomitant personal scandal that erupted with impeccable timing; all eyes are on the guerrilla warfare waged in cyberspace between Anonymous and various corporations. Even the accused original source, Bradley Manning, who has been in prison since May, receives his share of media coverage, though the messenger has far more been the target. But with the exception of the New York Times, the actual deceptions revealed by these documents have been all but abandoned by the US media, and likewise public response has been a resounding shrug. 
We’ve gotten pretty good at shrugging, in liberal democracies. A negative definition of freedom helps, of course, construed as the right to be left-the-heck-alone. And since western world leaders saw the atrocities the everyman was capable of during World War One, such passivity has been at times actively cultivated, beginning most famously with the work of Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and originator of the field of public relations, who was employed by corporations and the US government alike to use marketing strategies to siphon this dangerous energy into safer channels. Indeed, Carol Pateman made clear some years ago how such democracies function through, rather than in spite of, the passivity of the majority of the population. What kind of stability, what kind of continuity, could be assured after all, if politics had to make room for the torrent of people who presently feel there is no point? Martin Luther King Jr. makes a similar observation regarding the political power of inaction when he writes from Birmingham Jail that “the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;...who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.” 
But what strikes me about this recent shrug to political deception is how it reveals a general acceptance of lying in politics. We know, don’t we? Are we surprised? The lying in politics that Arendt identified as a core threat to democracy, whether through conscious concealment or unconscious ‘defactualization’ via fidelity to theory, seems now to be only one aspect of, as Raymond Williams first coined it, a “dramatized society.” We live in a culture where the line between performance and reality, between artifice and authenticity, between politics and popular culture has become increasingly blurred. Where identities are cultivated like manicured gardens on facebook, where news stations parade their bias and peddle infotainment, where ‘reality shows’ are clearly staged, where a comedian testifies in character to the Supreme Court and an actor lives and breathes the role of a untalented rapper for two years, where bands are formed around boardroom tables and elaborate hair products can give you that unkempt look, where hipster ‘irony’ comes full circle to earnestness the longer one’s nonchalance is honed and insouciant moustache remains intact. We live in a culture of explicit artifice, and, like the Cubists who were arguably the first to draw explicit attention to the surface within their work, we are aware, very aware, of how much the medium is the message. And yet, as opposed to the Cubists, perhaps, this general awareness of and conscious play with surface is itself somehow less earnest – as if, rather than unveiling a latent truth or essential core, it’s turtles all the way down. In the face of acknowledged artifice, it seems a natural response to cultivate studied indifference and a world-weary arch of the eyebrow. As any middle-schooler will tell you, it’s better to opt out than be the fool. 
This movement to a culture of explicit artifice is paralleled, interestingly, in the world of US cinema, which moved from Method acting’s earnest soul-searching and commitment to the ‘gritty truth’ by actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean post-WW2 – where actors were in therapy as a matter of course and playing Blanche Du Bois almost drove Vivien Leigh insane – to what film historian David Thomson calls “cool pretending” that defines current cinema acting, epitomized by Meryl Streep and George Clooney, where one has a sense the character leaves no traces once the role is cast aside; indeed, that actors are not quite fooled by their own performance, and you have been let in on the joke. 
The pledge to sincerity and emotional truth that defined Method acting have been replaced by a predominance of deft skill and “naked pretense” (which, Thomson says, “you could call...lying, as much as acting”), founded on “a way of looking at the world that says you can't trust anyone, can you? It suggests that—for the moment at least—we have given up on self-knowledge and feel ourselves being massaged or directed by most of our presidents, and nearly all of our eternal performers from Johnny Carson to David Letterman... Presidents move us from time to time, just as hosts make us smile, but most of them warn us that we're in a play or a game.” Such is the contemporary condition in liberal democracies, where sincerity is suspicious and earnestness appears ironic, if not tragic-comedic. 
In a culture where the line between reality and performance is unclear and constantly on the move, it is no wonder, perhaps, that the vocabulary of recent presidential debates has been lowered to a sixth-grade level in response to common conflations of eloquence with insincerity. It is no wonder, perhaps, that comedian John Gnarr is Reykjavik’s latest mayor, and platform promises of a polar bear display at the zoo, free towels at public swimming pools, and coalitions only with parties who have watched all seasons of “The Wire” are more earnest than they first appear. And it seems perfectly appropriate that comedians hold a political rally to restore sanity, while the rise of flash mobs across the western world invokes and enacts a public sphere formerly reserved for public protest – fleeting publics and collective acts now simply for their own sake, as if the performance itself provided a sense of concrete experience and sincere collective that are otherwise absent. Perhaps these performances are an unlikely source of a surrogate ‘authenticity’ – at the very least, they provide respite by explicitly naming the predominance of veneer that is often as obvious as it is undeclared. 
Part of this movement towards explicit artifice is part and parcel of an increasing reflexivity regarding the situated nature of all knowledge-claims, the partiality of perspective – from anthropologists and theorists to jazz musicians, scientists and performance artists, responses to the dangers inherent to claims of ‘authenticity’ and ‘neutrality’ and the ethical obligation to acknowledge the performance within every account have been broad and diverse. And part of this is also, at times explicitly, a response to the lack of such humility within current polemics and fundamentalisms – refusals to, in William Connolly’s terms, “insert a stutter in one’s faith,” that have recently fuelled such vitriol and fear, inhibited reflection, and cultivated new enemies where once were none – perhaps this movement to explicit artifice is a response, if not a conscious call, to calm down, take a deep breath, and count to ten. At the very least, to take a closer look at the medium of the message. 
But one effect of this culture of explicit artifice seems to be a contribution to the politics of inaction. As opposed to the public outcry of the 1970s after the release of the Pentagon Papers that belied a faith in political sincerity and media objectivity now betrayed, we have no such faith. Hence the absence of collective moral outrage, for the fact is that we know we are being deceived; and, in the passing of time and as the facticity of deception becomes one reliable truism, we’re no longer ‘mad as hell’, and yes, I suppose, we’ll take it for a little more. 
Shielded by ironic distance and a rueful grin, armed with sarcasm and a noncommittal shrug, we acknowledge the pervasiveness of veneer, and clear-sighted rather than wide-eyed, we are in on the ruse; we may not know what lies behind it, but at least we recognize the pageantry. We may not know where to direct our dissatisfactions or how to give effective shape to a creeping sense that things are not as they should be, but at least we can’t be called naive. We’re in on the joke, no? Isn’t that something? 
This general acknowledgement of artifice that courses through all levels and arenas of contemporary western culture need not only lead to inaction – as comedians-cum-unlikely-heroes and flash mobs make clear, the performative nature of everyday life might itself offer latent possibilities for collective action. While the potential directions for such collective awareness are rhizomatic and undetermined, I wonder what forms of action might emerge in the absence of recourse to ‘sincerity’ as such – or if, indeed, sincerity might be recuperated, in some form, in the process. This challenge brings to mind another: making “one’s life a work of art,” as Nietzsche and Foucault describe it, requires both brutal honesty regarding the artifice of one’s life and commitment to it nonetheless – both clear-sighted and wide-eyed, somehow. A moving target of a goal, far removed from either entrenched fundamentalisms or evasive apathy. But perhaps it signals a possible, if tenuous, if elusive, model we have yet to recognize in response to a culture of artifice; that, rather than a politics of inaction, such artifice carries with it an ethical demand that is not grounded on essential identity or universal truth, but something else...something else...Damn, it moved.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tea Party Redux: Thoughts and Responses

George Shulman
   New York University

Thought #1: In response to Bill Connolly’s idea of distinguishing the “extreme” from the “radical” right, I wonder whether we should think about the “tea party” as a real social movement (TPM), perhaps on the model Lawrence Goodwyn described years ago in his history of the “genuine” populist movement, or perhaps in comparison to the CIO or Civil Rights Movement. (How is it different to talk about a resonance machine or a social movement?) The TPM has been engendered both by post-fordist capitalism, which has created for some few a material basis for a revivified entrepeneurialism or family capitalism, but also put this new sector at risk, and the TPM has been engendered by a cultural sense of displacement among whites, anchored in post-65 immigration and multi-culturalism. In the phrasing of C.Wright Mills, the TPM links “private grievance” to “public causes” in a way that mobilizes people to form what he called publics. In its anti-immigrant and anti-statist politics, it demonstrates a sense of crisis and urgency about national decline, fury at unwelcome change, and ferocity towards those it deems adversaries. It has an infrastructure (for the populists, traveling lecturers, for the tea party, talk radio and fox) that enables communication among de-centralized grassroots associations. Among its participants affect and creed are intertwined in both inconsistent and protean ways that include sharp disagreements. And lastly, there is a tense relationship of hostility and dependence between grassroots and the republican party and elected officials, even at the state level. What the idea of social movement may NOT reach, that resonance machine does, is the conjoining of very different ideological elements: as Connolly says, the right’s resonance machine is an assemblage relating secular free-market libertarians, corporate elites, and evangelicals. But his description of the “radical” right (the republican party elite, its funders, and corporate base) and the “extreme” right seems closer to the tension typical of social movement politics. (Patchen Markell’s association with Crespino on the white citizen’s councils is very suggestive in this regard while emphasizing the issue of race.) Republican elites gain legitimacy for their project from the ‘extreme’ voices, which do powerful ideological work against any form of state welfare and regulation, but elected elites are now also really afraid of the TPM, because it is willing to defeat incumbent republicans in primaries, and because it seems willing to create financial crisis, to refuse elite notions of responsibility.
Thought #2: To see the TPM as simply individualistic may be mistaken, not only because members articulate ideas of responsibility to family and community, but also because they are enacting the action-in-concert of the political. Maybe the TPM needs to be seen on the model of the “producer” ethos and politics in which a self-declared “productive” class identifies itself against “unproductive” classes above and below it. They speak an intensely exclusionary language as taxpayers (and so as the employed) against surplus or parasitic people unjustifiably supported by liberal elites. 
Their language thus combines race and class to create equivalence among illegal immigrants, poor people and prisoners. They do not challenge but endorse the logic of the market and neo-liberal rationality, and they replenish rather than question the worst of nationalism. Unlike the CIO or the CRM, they focus on the wrong target -the state- not the multi-national economic order and its bio-political disciplines and quarantines. Moreover, they have no vision of the future except as a return to an idealized past, whereas the CIO and the CRM wanted to create an alternative to both past and present. But are we mis-reading the TPM in any way? They do not avow properly “democratic” commitments in the progressive form the left reifies, they interpret equality in libertarian rather than social democratic ways, and so they oppose the extensive state regulation the left endorses, but is the “socialism” they attack in any way related to the corporate state, that we attack, the protection racket that binds political and economic elites? Are there voices among them who reject “corporate welfare” as well as the military-industrial complex or imperial state power? Can their commitment to de-centralization be affirmed in any sense? Can we challenge them to make good on that language more consistently? Is there a sense in which they are democratic not merely liberal individualistic? Is it a delusion to put them in Wolinian terms, to see them as enacting “demotic” power, even if we disagree with them over substantive positions? Is it crazy to ask if there are any strands of affiliation between them and a democratic anti-statist left? 
Thought #3: Paul Krugman says the real issue in American politics is not a lack of civility or the violence of rhetoric by the TPM, but profound substantive disagreements about the state and the market, foreign policy etc. But maybe Krugman is wrong, at least in one regard. For recent polling data suggests that a majority of Americans want the specific policies supported by the left - item by item, in the concrete- but remain opposed to “big government.” They are living that contradiction Marx called a double life. Perhaps, then, what Krugman depicts as a substantive or ideological division applies only to minorities on left and right, while the remaining 60% of the electorate is composed of people who are divided internally as it were, between something like a common sense understanding of their interests, which require state action, and the ‘common sense’ or ideology/fantasy of individualism and its anti-statist phobia.. The democrats have refused to make a strong narrative case to support state actions, therefore, to avoid offending that deep fantasy, and instead they focus on prosaic policy, case by case. But they lose when republican poetry (by the extreme or the radical right) stokes fear of state power. How is the investment in individualism, and the corresponding hysteria about the state, best addressed? It seems to me this is the central rhetorical and political question, and one democrats must address rather than avoid, though addressing it is also risky because it may alienate the “independents” they require.
Thought #4: Does the violent speech of the TPM require us to rethink ideas of an“agonal” politics? I am inclined to defend violent speech, maybe because of a misplaced attachment to memories of my own 60's radicalism -we were uncivil, and self-righteously used violent and demonizing speech. (And yes, we alienated a majority of the population.) In a culture that longs for the non-partisanship of more perfect union, or that seeks to avoid politics through juridical forms, shouldn’t theorists defend agonism, not only as the grounds for advancing a substantive democratic/left agenda, but also as a democratic/political idea(l) in itself? Is the political task now to contain “extreme” voices on the right by invoking norms of civility, or is the task to make a more vigorous left to contest the right? I want to say: make a left rather than look to umpires (the media, or Obama) to promote an ethos of critical generosity. But given the absence of a left, and given the ferocity of the right, maybe the emphasis on ethos is the only/best way to protect the interests and constituencies we care about? Maybe also a language of constitutionalism, and so a deliberative ethos, is needed to draw independents away from the right’s gravitational field? 
Thought #5: If only we could see our moment now, looking back from the future. Are we living in some version of 1850's America, when southern ‘fire-eaters,’ defining themselves as victims, are impossible to placate by any compromise, and use their sense of victimization to justify incredible personal and political aggression? As these folks depicted themselves as desperately trying to preserve an endangered way of life, are we like abolitionists (and Obama like Lincoln) in contrasting efforts to forge a response? What was needful or possible then, and what is needful and possible now? Are we living in some version of Weimar in 1930, the rhetorical violence heating up while a right-wing movement forms under the umbrella of liberal protections it uses and abuses (and abandons the second it gains formal power)? Does the left therefore need to recognize its dependence on a constitutional order whose limitations we have devotedly exposed the last thirty years? I don’t mean these are literally analogous moments, but can we get a broader view of our moment, our present, to help us decide what is needful? 
In sum, I find myself confounded by the TPM. I am happy to attack their idealization of “the individual,” of the market, of the past, and of the nation, but I am averse to attacking the violence in their rhetoric, their critique of the state and defense of decentralization, and their urgent sense of a whole “system” broken. And then I wonder if, in some fealty to agonism, I am defending people who are the American face on brown shirts, enemies (not merely adversaries) who would kill me in a second. Is my attachment to agonism -and critical generosity- blinding me to the real meaning of the TPM? In the face of an “extreme” politics endlessly replenished by victimology, and defended in the name of free speech and agonal contest, what is to be done?