Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Dilemma of Electoral Politics

William E. Connolly
Connolly's forthcoming book is entitled The Fragility of Things: self-organizing processes, neoliberal fantasies, democratic activism.

The dangers posed by climate change and potential shifts in the ocean conveyor system; the extensive suffering generated by the heightening of economic inequality; the need to restructure the state supported infrastructure of consumption so that all residents can participate in the housing, travel, health care, retirement and educational institutions it makes available; the need to support the pluralization of gender practices, religious membership, and ethnic identifications; the desperate needs of our cities and the ugly politics of apartheid designed to isolate them---these interlocking issues constitute commanding problems of our time. The fact is, however, that they are not addressed within the established terms of the electoral system.  Does that mean that we should withdraw from electoral politics? Or wait for a revolution that eschews “reformist” politics until capitalism is liquidated, as some critics of the Occupy movement have asserted? I know too many people suffering in the working class to sanction either response. I read about too many others under duress as well.
There is, nonetheless, a dilemma of electoral politics confronting the Left: 1) It is tempting to forgo electoral politics because it is so dysfunctional. But to do so cedes even more power both to independent corporate action and to the radical right within the state. The right loves to make electoral politics dysfunctional so that people lose confidence in it and transfer confidence to the private sector. (2) Nonetheless, the logic of the media-electoral-corporate system does spawn a restrictive grid of power and electoral intelligibility that makes it difficult to think, experiment, and organize outside its parameters. Think of how corporations and financial institutions initiate actions in the private sector and then use intensive lobbying to veto efforts to reverse those initiatives in Congress or the courts, just as financial elites invented derivatives and then lobbied intensively to stop their regulation; think of how media talking heads concentrate on candidates rather than fundamental issues; recall the central role of scandal in the media and electoral politics; consider the decisive electoral position of inattentive “undecided voters”; note how states under Republican rule work relentlessly to reduce the minority and poor vote; recall those billionaire super pacs; and so on. The electoral grid cannot be ignored or ceded to the right, but it also sucks experimental pursuits and bold ventures out of politics. Can we renegotiate the dilemma of electoral politics? That is the problematic within which I am working. I do not have a perfect response to it. Perfect answers are suspect.
Perhaps it is wise to forge multimodal strategies that start outside the electoral grid and then return to it as one venue among others. Strategic role experimentations at multiple sites joined to the activation of new social movements provide possibilities. Indeed, these two modes are related. Consider merely a few examples of role experimentation tied to climate change and consumption available to many people in the shrinking middle class. We may support the farm-to-table movement in the restaurants we visit; we may participate in the slow food movement; we may frequent stores that offer food based on sustainable processes; we may buy hybrid cars, or, if feasible, join an urban zip-car collective, explaining to friends, family, and neighbors the effects such choices could have on late modern ecology if a majority of the populace did so; we may press our workplace to install solar panels and consider them ourselves if we can afford to do so; we may use writing and media skills to write graffiti, or produce provocative artistic installations, or write for a blog; we may shift a large portion of our retirement accounts into investments that support sustainable energy, withdrawing from aggressive investments that presuppose unsustainable growth or threaten economic collapse; we may bring new issues and visitors to our churches, temples, or mosques to support rethinking interdenominational issues and the contemporary fragility of things; we may found, join, or frequent repair clubs, at which volunteers collect and repair old appliances, furniture, and bikes to cut back on urban waste, to make them available to low income people and to increase the longevity of the items; we may probe and publicize the multimodal tactics by which twenty-four-hour news stations work on the visceral register of viewers, as we explain on blogs how to counter those techniques; we may travel to places where unconscious American assumptions about world entitlement are challenged on a regular basis; we may augment the pattern of films and artistic exhibits we visit to stretch our habitual powers of perception and to challenge some affect-imbued prejudgments embedded in them. A series of intercalated role experiments, often pursued by clusters of participants together.
But don’t such activities merely make the participants “feel better”?  Well, many who pursue such experiments do feel good about them, particularly those who accept a tragic image of possibility in which there is no inevitability that either large scale politics, God, or nature will come to our rescue. Also, could such role experiments ever make a sufficient difference on their own? No. These, however, may be the wrong questions to pose. What such experiments can do as they expand is to crack the ice in and around us. First, we may now find ourselves a bit less implicated in the practices and policies that are sources of the problems. Second, the shaky perceptions, feelings, and beliefs that authorized them may thus now become more entrenched as we act upon them. Third, we now find ourselves in more favorable positions to forge connections with larger constituencies pursuing similar experiments. Fourth, we may thus become more inspired to seed and join macropolitical movements that speak to these issues. Fifth, as we now participate in protests, slowdowns, work “according to rule” and more confrontational meetings with corporate managers, church leaders, union officials, university officers, and neighborhood leaders, we may become even more alert to the creeds, institutional pressures and options that propel these constituencies too. They, too, are both enmeshed in a web of roles and more than mere role bearers. Many will maintain an intransigence of viewpoint and insistence of interpretation that we may now be in a better position to counter by words and deeds with those outside or at the edge of the intransigent community.
One advantage of forging links between role experimentations and social movements is that both speak to a time in which the drive to significant change must be pursued by a large, pluralist assemblage rather than by any single class or other core constituency. Such an assemblage must today be primed and loaded by several constituencies in diverse ways at numerous sites. 
It is necessary here to condense linkages that may unfold. But perhaps movement back and forth between role experiments, social movements, occasional shifts in the priorities of some strategic institutions, and a discernible shift in the contours of electoral politics will promote the emergence of a new, more activist pluralist assemblage. Now, say, a new, surprising event occurs. Some such event or crisis is surely bound to erupt: an urban uprising, a destructive storm, a wild executive overreach, a wide spread interruption in electrical service, a bank melt down, a crisis in oil supply, etc. Perhaps the conjunction of this new event with the preparatory actions that preceded it will prime a large constellation to resist the protofascist responses the intransigent Right will pursue at that very moment.  Perhaps the event will now become an occasion to mobilize large scale, intensive support for progressive change on some of the fronts noted at the start of this piece. It is important to remember that the advent of a crisis does not alone determine the response to it. So waiting for the next one to occur is not enough. The Great Depression was followed by the intensification of fascist movements in several countries. Those with strong labor movements and progressive elected leaders proved best at resisting them. The most recent economic melt-down was met in many places by the self-defeating response of austerity, and worse. That is why the quality and depth of the political ethos preceding such events is important.
The use of the “perhaps” in the above formulations suggests that there are no guarantees at any of these junctures. Uncertainties abound. These points, however, also apply to any radical perspective that counsels waiting for the revolution, as it surrounds its critiques of militant reform with an aura of certainty. Today the need is to curtail the aura of certainty of all perspectives on the Left. The examples posed here, of course, are focused on primarily one constituency. But others could be invoked. The larger idea is to draw energy from multiple sources and constituencies.  The formula is to move back and forth between the proliferation of role experiments, forging social movements on several fronts, helping to shift the constituency weight of the heavy electoral machinery now in place, and participating in cross-country citizen movements that put pressure on states, corporations, churches, universities and unions from inside and outside simultaneously. Indeed, perhaps the severity of the issues facing us means that we should prepare for the day when we are strong enough in several countries to launch a cross-country general strike.   
The proliferating approach adopted here, again, is replete with uncertain connections. That’s politics. The point is to resist falling into the familiar game of optimism vs. pessimism and to minimize that tempting blame-game within the Left, folding more attraction and inspiration into our activities. The point is to appraise the severity of the needs of the day and to attract people to join in different ways and degrees a multifaceted movement to respond to them. 
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Thursday, March 14, 2013

On the Use and Misuse of Zero Dark Thirty

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Zero Dark Thirty. Not, perhaps, since Oliver Stone’s JFK has an American film generated such widespread censure. Hollywood insiders, seeking adherents, waged a public relations campaign to deny the film a possible Oscar for best picture. From The New York Review of Books to Rolling Stone, the Atlantic to The New Yorker, the Huffington Post and beyond, Zero Dark Thirty has been maligned, denounced, and dismissed. Jane Mayer concludes a moralizing assessment by declaring: “Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ should care a little bit more.” Matt Taibbi finds the storytelling problematic and asks “all the people defending the movie, what do you think Dick Cheney’s review is going to be?” As if that rhetorical question weren’t enough, Taibbi adds, redundantly: “Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?” Alex Gibney, literally unable to control his indignation, adopts a similar moralizing posture: “I feel I must say something. Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have been irresponsible…” As for their film, “it is fundamentally reckless.” Politicians have also gotten into the act. Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain have ripped the film for its factual inaccuracies and demanded the studio make changes to it. Why these extreme reactions? Zero Dark Thirty, in short, supports or endorses torture. It’s as simple as that. Or is it?
Many of Zero Dark Thirty’s critics condemn the film for blurring the putative line between fact and fiction, history and creative storytelling, for invoking the verisimilitude and authenticity the one provides and the artistic license the other affords. Gibney, representing many, is succinct: “You can’t have it both ways.” This is a peculiar position to take not just because some combination of fact and fiction composes all of our lives, but because in this film the indecipherable combination mimics beautifully the post-September 11 understanding of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and those doing their dirty work. Nevertheless, with this unexamined interpretive first principle securely in place, Mayer proceeds to criticize the film for being consistently wrong, comparing its account of events to “reality,” with reality always winning. Not only is the depiction of torture and the results it produces false, Mayer also rebukes the film for failing to convey the actual character of the torture debate within the Bush Administration, where the FBI, among other institutional players, rejected the CIA’s brutality and refused to participate in its interrogation program. This is just one example Mayer cites of dissent within the Administration. The lack of dissenting voices to American torture further incenses critics. It, too, is tantamount to endorsement. What’s worse, according to Mayer, the film offers a scene in which President Obama, in the background, denounces torture on “60 Minutes.” Given the success that torture has (allegedly) already enjoyed in the film, Mayer insists this opposition comes across as “wrongheaded and prissy.”
These criticisms suffer from a number of shortcomings, as do their critics, who, apparently, don’t want the assassination of Osama bin Laden needlessly spoiled by torture’s taint (might that make it more difficult to dance and cheer in front of the White House?). Principal among them, I would like to suggest, is genre confusion. Mayer calls Zero Dark Thirty a “police procedural.”  Taibbi thinks it’s a “detective story” with an “action-movie plot.” Gibney and Steve Coll think of it, with prodding from the filmmakers, in journalistic and historical terms. It’s not that these categories might not offer productive interpretive lenses, but they not only seem designed to set up the angry criticisms that follow, they also miss important opportunities for a more dialectical engagement with the film.
What if we read Zero Dark Thirty as a revenge tragedy? What if we read the film as revealing a country informed by a sense of rightness and victimization hell-bent on retaliating for wrongs done to it and thus blind to any possible consequences for itself, let alone the world? These imperial presumptions animate Zero Dark Thirty’s two main characters, Dan and Maya. They practice torture as a matter of course, living in a culture of torture: publicly speaking, results alone matter. Following the September 11 attacks, they presume its necessity as well as its efficacy. The film also displays torture as a reassertion of American power and mastery. We are entitled to the world; we will take it (back) on our terms and enjoy doing so. Dan, for one, revels in the power torture expresses. It feels right, even good following 9/11. Still does the film itself endorse any of this? Characters in a film may believe something to be true and act accordingly with conviction—that, however, doesn’t make it true. Nor does it mean that this is the film’s perspective. Gibney insists that “Maya is a glamorous heroine [and] we identify with her.” Do we? This is not clear to me, but it isn’t necessarily problematic, especially given the film’s conclusion, as long as the identification is weak and temporary, since she is a criminal awaiting her day in court, whether it ever comes or not.
Torture, then, plays a prominent (visual) role in the film, but what does it mean to say that Zero Dark Thirty supports or justifies torture? This (alleged) aspect of the film is particularly galling, so the argument goes, because torture played no role in locating or eliminating bin Laden. It is thus historically inaccurate, morally repellent, and politically dangerous. Whether the film effectively advocates the use of torture is not only a question difficult to answer, it may actually miss the point.
The case for torture tends to rely, ultimately, on the coercive power of a ticking time bomb scenario. “Who would not agree to torture as long as it would save (an untold number of) innocent lives,” advocates demand to know? Once such agreement is exacted, it (supposedly) opens the floodgates to an otherwise forbidden practice. Torture, then, justifies itself along narrow instrumental lines. We need to know something now to stop an unspeakable atrocity from happening and torture alone can produce the necessary knowledge. Proponents of torture, that is, do not justify it by claiming that if enough people are captured and subjected to criminal treatment, sooner or later a piece of information might be generated that, in turn, might prove useful at a later date, even ten years later, for another purpose altogether. Yet is that not roughly the brutal, ugly scenario depicted in Zero Dark Thirty? Doesn’t the torture depicted feature a man, Ammar, who may or may not be a Saudi, being questioned on a matter having nothing whatsoever to do with Osama bin Laden or his location? What’s more, torture does not actually get Ammar to talk. Two C.I.A. agents trick Ammar into believing he has talked (but has no memory of it), thus leading him actually to talk. True, they are clever enough to take advantage of torture’s manifest failure, but it did fail. They seem surprised by this realization, but they do—because they must—adjust to it. The film thus depicts the corruption of two C.I.A. case officers, standing in for America, who cannot see how far they have fallen as they can just as easily waterboard or feed another human being (Ammar) under their control. What’s more, throughout the film terrorists implement one successful terrorist attack after another (in London, Saudi Arabia, Islamabad, an American military facility) despite the widespread torture being practiced to prevent it. Still, the torture continues.
At the close of the film, following bin Laden’s execution, Maya is seen sitting alone in a C-130, weeping. This follows a scene in which she confirms it is bin Laden who has been killed, a moment that brings her no apparent satisfaction, let alone joy, which is remarkable since a great enemy has been defeated. What might the tears mean? Does she finally appreciate the cost of the ten-year mission-cum-obsession she pursued? The very moral and political values she swore to uphold were repeatedly violated, even destroyed. She has become, at best, not at all dissimilar from the enemy she hates. Does she sense that this convergence was too high a price to pay, that she cannot justify what she condoned and committed? In the wake of bin Laden’s death, she might be remembering the ugly confrontation she initiated with Joseph Bradley, C.I.A. station chief in Istanbul, who told her that bin Laden was an irrelevancy, old news, no longer a prominent player in the new al-Qaeda. Bradley was focused on defending the country against real, active threats, not old ghosts. Maya was only able to see her grand obsession to its conclusion by effectively threatening Bradley with public career suicide. Bradley, recognizing a deranged fanatic when confronted and assaulted by one, relents. This did not make what he said wrong—anything but, since Maya barely makes a case for her obsession. Bradley recognizes that she cannot hear what he is saying and merely chooses a pragmatic course of action when giving her the resources she demands to (possibly) consummate her hunt. Maya does succeed; bin Laden is assassinated. 
Yet as an act of revenge it is unsatisfying, impotent even: it can’t undo bin Laden’s 9/11 triumph. Nor can it be said convincingly to enhance America’s security. He can and will be replaced. Moreover, as Taibbi notes, bin Laden succeeded along another, more insidious dimension than the attacks themselves. He wanted to provoke the United States into a barbaric response, committing deeds that revealed its true character. Taibbi concludes (and this accounts for his outrage) that Zero Dark Thirty celebrates this response; I would argue it exposes it.
As the film concludes, the futility, perhaps absurdity of Maya’s actions may suddenly be dawning on her, at least at a visceral level. The somber mood of the film peaks and exudes a feeling of cold emptiness. Taibbi rejects this reading (of regret) of the film and does so, oddly enough, because it is a “reading in,” as if he is not also interpreting the film as he condemns it. Critics like Mayer and Taibbi want to be able to moralize; they want a film like Zero Dark Thirty to rebuke and castigate torture in no uncertain terms; they don’t want (or trust) the audience to do any difficult, critical interpretive work, to discern the tragedy (the self-destruction) unfolding before them and their own implication in it. But isn’t that the only way to prevent future self-inflicted disasters, to come to a realization on our own rather than through another’s hectoring?

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Saturday, March 9, 2013

The N.R.A. and the New State of Nature

Alex Livingston
Cornell University

When President Obama justified his executive order to regulate firearms in terms of weighing the right to keep and bear arms with the state’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable, he may not have known that he was repeating an argument made by the seventeenth-century royalist philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is perhaps the most profound thinker of human frailty in the modern canon of political philosophy (in the ancient world, the title goes to Hobbes’s personal hero, Thucydides). Life at the hands of one another, he famously wrote, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It is for this reason that we need mutual protection as the first virtue of civil society. It is tempting to conclude from such claims, like the National Rifle Association has in recent weeks, that individuals have a responsibility to arm themselves for this protection. But in drawing this conclusion, Hobbes would warn, the NRA fundamentally misunderstands both human nature and the nature of government. 
In Leviathan, written while he was in hiding from the horrors of the British civil war, Hobbes asks us to imagine ourselves in a “state of nature” before the establishment of civil government. Without the constraint of public laws individuals live lives of perfect and total freedom. No government exists to tax them or to regulate the use of their property.  In this state of nature each person has one natural right, the right “for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life, and consequently of doing anything which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” The right to self-protection may seem like an uncontroversial starting point for thinking about politics but, Hobbes shows, taken by itself it leads to disaster. Notice that Hobbes says that a right to self-protection includes the right to individually interpret, “in his own judgment and reason,” what self-protection demands. This is where the trouble starts and precisely where, a Hobbesian would wager, the NRA’s proposals for an armed society threaten to take us. 
The problem is that people are, on average, bad judges in their own case. It might be rational to say that the best way to protect myself is to stick to my little corner of the wilderness and let you have yours, but you might think otherwise. A policy of preemptive intervention is also rational in the state of nature and there is nothing to stop you from beating me over the head with a rock before I get the idea about doing the same to you. Maybe you think I’m a threat to your collection of apples, or maybe you don’t trust me, or maybe you even just don’t like the way I looked at you. In any case, these are all good reasons for you might find to exercise your right of self-protection by snuffing me out. 
Once we head down this road freedom turns into suspicion and the state of nature turns into a state of “war of all against all.” Hobbes’s vision of a world of mistrust and murder was informed by his experience of the civil warfare that culminated in the beheading of Charles I. Once this cycle of suspicion, violence, and retribution gets moving it is has no natural end because of a certain fact about human nature. This is the fact that we are all equal in two important senses. First, we are equally vulnerable to die at each other’s hands. “For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.” Even a thirty-bullet clip won’t save you while you’re sleeping. And second, we are equal in our short-sightedness. It is in our best interests to preserve ourselves by agreeing to abide by shared laws but mistrust and pride too often get the best of us.  
We saw a contemporary example of Hobbes’s worries in the debates concerning Stand Your Ground laws. When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin he claimed that he was exercising his own judgment about his right to self-protection. Was Martin, an unarmed teenager walking home from the convenience store, really an immediate threat to Zimmerman? Or did Zimmerman misjudge the scenario and use lethal force out of the sense of personal mistrust that Hobbes calls “diffidence”? Either way, Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws puts the onus on Zimmerman’s own interpretation of the threat and in doing so blurs the lines between protection, assault, and revenge. 
The NRA’s claim that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with more good guys with guns, including good guys with guns in schools, is an extension of the same logic. Threats are everywhere and it is your right to protect yourself. But where the onus of interpreting what constitutes a reasonable threat is placed on individuals, even good guys, the result is too likely going to be an excess of force that responds more to perceived slights rather than real threats. It is the emptiness of the NRA’s distinction between good guys and bad guys that Hobbes underlines. He would not object to the claim that people suffering from clinically defined mental health problems should not be allowed equal access to firearms. But Hobbes would want to remind us that the difference between Adam Lanza and George Zimmerman is not one of good vs. bad or healthy vs. ill, but rather degrees in the distinctively human willingness to act impulsively or passionately when they are made the final arbiters of law enforcement. 
So what’s the solution? For Hobbes, the only way out of the nightmare of the state of nature is to enter a social contract with each other whereby we agree that decisions about enforcing protection are best left to the state. The first step to this covenant comes when we acknowledge that our neighbors are bad interpreters of their right to self-defense, and that the best way to stop them from exercising their right to protection is by agreeing not to exercise ours in turn. This doesn’t demand any act of great moral altruim but rather an act of enlightened self-interest where we realize that we are individually better off with an accountable police force preserving social order than we would be at the whims of an armed militia of George Zimmermans. 
But of course the real claim of the NRA and gun extremists is not that we need protection from each other, but rather we need to protect ourselves from the state itself. To Hobbes any state is preferable to the horrors of the indiscriminate violence of the state of nature. We ought to be more critical than Hobbes was of the legitimate boundaries of state power, but there is one last insight Hobbes has to offer to the discussion about guns in America. Human beings are frail, passionate, and irrational creatures, but more than anything else we are fearful. Hobbes’s advice to any student of politics is that “the passion to be reckoned upon is fear.” It is this fear that explains the violence and suspicion of the state of war. And it is the permanence of fear that makes people subject to manipulation by elites with vested interests. Hobbes took aim at British ecclesiastical institutions as merchants of fear but his conclusion can speak to us today: a politically mature populace does not demand changing human nature but neither is it to feed our appetite for fear with fantasies of millennial apocalypse. Rather, it requires learning to see that the greatest thing we have to fear is what we ourselves are capable of when left to our own devices. 

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