Friday, June 27, 2014

Making War on Citizens at the National September 11 Museum


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

The National September 11 Museum, which opened to controversy in May, functions as an affective and political continuation, even intensification of the National September 11 Memorial. It is not a freestanding institution. Philip Kennicott, architecture critic of The Washington Post, considers the Museum a “supplement” to Michael Arad’s Memorial pools, but destructively so: it “overwhelms—or more literally undermines—the dignified power of [the] memorial by inviting visitors to re-experience the events in a strangely, obsessively, narcissistically repetitious way.” This is what makes the Museum, in my judgment, a continuation of the Memorial. That is, the Museum, which is located directly beneath Ground Zero, does belowground what the Memorial does aboveground: it makes war on citizens. The Memorial creates this effect more subtly as the reflecting pools’ waterfalls mimic the collapsing towers. Here there is no debris left over; the water crashes down and disappears into a void where it is recirculated to provide the material for subsequent collapses. The Museum, on the other hand, recreates the horrors of September 11 in intimate, assaultive detail and does so primarily by targeting individuals—their memories, their experiences, their traumas. This approach to commemoration crystallizes America’s understanding of itself as an unrivaled source of right and good in the world and nothing more than an innocent victim on September 11, 2001. It thus obscures, among other things, the violence and tragedy constitutive of its imperial democracy. Nevertheless, it was precisely the institutional structures of this violence and tragedy that were attacked on September 11. To explicitly acknowledge this, of course, would be to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s success on September 11, thereby showing respect for an enemy, an act of which America, not alone among democracies, is incapable.

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What, more specifically, does it mean for the National September 11 Museum to make war on citizens? The idea here is not to kill them, of course. Wars are much broader in scope and their violence assumes myriad forms. The idea is to overpower them with an awesome display of architectural and archaeological engineering, a display that perversely matches, even surpasses, al-Qaeda’s 2001 assault. It’s as if the world’s leading democracy, feeling insecure not just about its porous borders but also its very identity, needed to prove itself equal, even superior to its deadliest enemy regardless of the cost. What Terry Smith has written of the World Trade Center’s and al Qaeda’s masterminds could be said of the Museum’s: ”To attempt creation or destruction on such an immense scale requires both bombers and master-builders to view living processes in general, and social life in particular, with a high degree of abstraction. Both must undertake a radical distancing of themselves from the flesh and blood of mundane experience ‘on the ground.’” This claim might seem counter-intuitive with the Museum, given its emphasis on the individual, but it simultaneously addresses everyone and no one, hence its air of abstraction. Emanating from its own cavernous vacuum, the Museum seems determined to induce a certain emotional-political sensibility, to break the morale of visitors and any possible resistance they might offer to its impressive and appalling death-laden design itself in service of a nationalist politics. I’m tempted to say it may not even matter if anyone visits the Museum.  For the United States, it’s enough that it was built.

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Visitors enter the Museum on the same level as the Memorial. To access the Museum proper, one first takes a long descending escalator ride past one of the massive steel tridents that formed part of the World Trade Center fa├žade. It is the first official ruin one sees, a sign both of mass murder and indestructibility. It also serves, along with the other ruins, to make a point of political pride. The towers collapsed, but total destruction was not and could not be achieved. These are exceptional artifacts. The enemy did not succeed as it might first appear. The Museum begins officially, if you will, at the bottom of the escalator. The contentious gift shop is located on this level; it contains souvenir items—coffee mugs, T-shirts, key chains, hors d’oeuvres plates—which can serve as daily reminders of horror and death.

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The Museum’s inexorable descent to bedrock seven storeys below ground level, which somehow renders a sense of return to the surface and life problematic, if not quite doubtful, is reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall, except this descent takes place on a much grander scale and entirely indoors. Instead of virtually walking into a tomb from outside, as in Washington, D.C., one is always already in a tomb at the National September 11 Museum. This tomb is filled with thousands and thousands of the still-unidentified remains of the day’s victims. After all, the site is both a cemetery and the official repository of the dead. The tomb is also littered with ruins and debris from the day’s attacks: an antenna from the roof of one of the towers; the motor from one of the elevators; the last steel beam to be removed from the clean-up site; a fire truck badly damaged during rescue efforts; twisted steel remnants from the floors that were struck. These substantial items look tiny in the immense surroundings of the underground tomb, which include the original slurry wall that held back the Hudson River to the west. The visitor is made to feel puny.

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Puniness apparently reaches its climax next to the north Memorial pool, the bottom of which can be circumnavigated underground. Here one encounters a small information sign. It reveals that some 1,200 feet above this very spot, “hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center” and “tore a gash in the building more than 150 feet wide.” What is the visitor to do now? How is the visitor to react after reading this matter-of-fact fact? Look up and imagine the day’s terrible events, the towers suddenly collapsing above and down upon him, and winding up beneath 110 floors of compressed rubble? The inclusion on site of a composite of several floors of one of the towers flattened and fused gives one answer. It’s not enough to imagine the death of others; one must also imagine one’s own. Vulnerability, susceptibility, contingency define life here.

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In the Museum’s Memorial Exhibition, which highlights the identities of those killed in the day’s attacks, the memorialization circle is closed. On a “Wall of Faces,” there is a portrait photograph of each and every victim. This complements the names inscribed in the Memorial directly above. On so-called touch screen tables, visitors can call up the name of any victim and learn more about her. Inside this memorial hall there is an inner chamber with benches lining the walls. The name of everyone killed is sequentially projected onto opposing walls, followed by biographical information, and, where possible, audio-visual reminiscences from family or friends. Visitors sit respectfully in the chamber and watch the alphabetical parade of names relentlessly pass by, as if afraid to leave, which would seem rude given the solemnity of the space. The attacks that are recreated by the Memorial waterfalls produce their offspring here.

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The Memorial Exhibition aspires to pay tribute to the day’s victims. To challenge this aspiration seems almost offensive by the time you reach the Museum’s nadir, especially if you have seen the room in the Historical Exhibition which catalogues and documents those who jumped from the Towers on September 11. Still photographs capture these horrific scenes, estimated at some 50 to 200, accompanied by recollections of people who witnessed the suicides but could not look away, for that would be to abandon people (though strangers) at the worst moment of their lives. It’s a gut-wrenching alcove, one of several with a box of tissues at the ready, and with a bench just outside it so people can sit and compose themselves afterwards.

What is the point of this death-driven redundancy? Edward Rothstein speculates that the Museum “is the site of their murder. And the attention to individuality presumably highlights the scale of the terrorist crime.” It also serves, as Rothstein notes, to distract. The Museum signifies avoidance, even denial of America’s contradictory role in the world and its contributions to the circumstances that make 9/11 all too conceivable rather than unthinkable. The Museum thus contributes to the impoverishment, through privatization, of public space. Leaving the National September 11 Museum, the single, solitary brick from Osama bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad, Afghanistan, liberated by the American assassination team that eradicated him from the face of the earth, and proudly on display at bedrock, may be the Museum’s representative artifact. There are two possibilities, the brick suggests: challenge the American-led global order of things and you will be reduced to this; or, align yourself with the American-led global order of things, which also reduces you to a brick, a mere pillar of America’s global war on terror.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Full Employment, Working Hours, and the Democratic Prospect

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Despite all the talk about economic recovery, the US remains mired in slow growth and persistent unemployment. That we are far from full employment becomes clear if we recall recent history. During the final months of the Clinton Administration, unemployment dipped below 4% Those on the bottom of the income distribution began to make modest gains. Unfortunately, recollection of that history is likely to lead the Federal Reserve to tighten interest rates well before those on the bottom have any real market power.  Late nineties gains, however welcome as they were to those on the bottom were also the product of a speculative bubble fed by irresponsible and often criminal banking practices. A full employment agenda with more enduring base would involve a green New Deal with substantial funding for alternative energy, conservation, and public transit. Unfortunately, such an approach is currently off the political radar.



How might we move closer to full employment without relying on speculative bubbles, easy money, or more robust federal spending? And what do we mean by full employment? Should this concept be defined as providing every healthy worker the promise of forty hour per week throughout his or her working life?


Europe can be one source of inspiration on both of these questions. Though Eurozone leaders –especially Chancellor Merkel—remain committed to a destructive fiscal austerity, Germany has provided some positive examples. Dean Baker has pointed out that despite a growth rate generally no higher than the US, Germany has managed to keep unemployment rates lower than ours throughout the Great Recession. Under the German work sharing system, if a firm’s decline in orders requires a 20% cut in workers, rather than lay off a fifth of its workforce it cuts each worker’s hours twenty percent.  “Under work sharing, if firms cut back a worker’s hours by 20 percent, the government makes up roughly half of the lost wages (10 percent of the total wage in this case). That leaves the worker putting in 20 percent fewer hours and getting 10 percent less pay. This is likely a much better alternative to being unemployed.”



US law includes provisions that make such work sharing practices more attractive, but Baker points out that these options have not been well publicized. This is unfortunate, and progressives should do well to spread the word. In the medium and longer terms a politics of hours reduction could be one key to addressing the environmental and ethical inadequacies of contemporary capitalism.

Baker goes on to add “There is no escaping the logic that more workers and more hours per worker are alternative ways to meet a growing demand for labor. There are good reasons for preferring the more worker route to the longer hour route.”


This logic goes the other way as well. With productivity steadily increasing in all modern industrial economies, unemployment rises unless consumer demand continues to grow commensurately. Orthodox economists assert that consumer demands are insatiable and that we work hard to meet those demands. Yet it is just as plausible to argue that long work hours coupled with the US practice that productivity gains can be taken only in the form of higher wages rather than shorter hours encourages an emphasis on more consumption. And as working hours in workplaces where the gap between CEO compensation and frontline employees has reached obscene levels, the pressures for conspicuous consumption have grown. (Witness the recent Kia ad that tells us luxury is a function of how we feel about a product and “how it makes others feel about us.”)  At the very least long hour jobs give workers few opportunities to experience satisfactions other than more commodities.


University of Leeds economist David Spencer also wonders about the broader spiritual ethos encouraged by a society where some are workaholics and others are permanently unemployed or must scramble for some combination of welfare and part time work.  Should we “be asking society to tolerate long work hours for some and zero hours for others. Surely we can achieve a more equitable allocation that offers everyone enough time to work and enough time to do what they want? A reduction in work time would offer a route to such an allocation.”

The quest for shorter hours and the political and social gains it might bring are hardly new themes in American history. Nonetheless, as historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt points out, this history has nearly been forgotten. Kline reminds us of the visions of poets, religious leaders, social critics, and architects, all of whom saw the possibility of “higher purposes” beyond mere accumulation and work for its own sake.  Walt Whitman imagined a future in which with the necessities of life having been met all citizens would be free to celebrate and sing. Workers embraced such visions and made them their own through advocacy of shorter working hours, a theme that united both organized and rank and file workers for over a century.


Today the downsides from the institutional rejection of this vision and the consequent turn toward perpetual work and accumulation have severe social and ecological implications. A world of extreme work for some and no work for others can also be associated with the demonization and racialization that is such an ugly feature of our politics. Inner doubts lodged in the minds of workaholics about what all this work is for and about the work and spend treadmill can be stilled by demonizing those who do not or cannot find work.

There is however a positive spin on these connections. More equal distribution of work can alter perceptions of those formerly excluded from work and the experience of more leisure can curb the sense that work is the exclusive meaning of life.



In addition, as Julie Schor has suggested in Plenitude, curbing an obsession with consumption while also enhancing the ability to collaborate on non-market solutions to common problems is already a an increasingly common response to the market’s failure to deliver adequate jobs. Forging social bonds across ethnic/religious/political divides around nonmarket solutions to pressing problems is likely to become all the more necessary as the global climate crisis intensifies. We may already be witnessing a rebirth of that nineteenth century reform spirit. As Hunnicutt characterizes that spirit: “Instead of changing political and economic orders, most hoped simply to move beyond them, using them, as Walt Whitman suggested, as stepping stones to a “larger liberty.”” Work sharing is a short term imperative with the potential both to grow and to encourage other positive changes in our political economy.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Bruno Latour, the Anthropocene, and The General Strike

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

The humans, the bifurcation of nature and culture, the modernists, the abstract scientists, the theo-escapists. To Latour, in his recent Gifford Lectures on the Anthropocene, this cadre of escapists faces an emerging cadre of the earthbound, the Anthropocenists, carriers of a Gaia geostory, labcentric scientists and new secularists. The latter are spiritually attuned to the dangers of the Anthropocene, to the roughly two hundred year period when human carbon production has triggered significant shifts in climate that will last for centuries.
The latter cadre, barely underway, acknowledges the Anthropocene as the defining condition of today; it acknowledges the absence of either a providential cosmic order or one predisposed to our mastery; it shucks off fantasies of escape to an afterlife or another planet. It adopts a new secular image as it sees how the sciences are key in the struggle against those who deny evidence of climate change. And it challenges modernists who emphasize the past we have escaped to avoid thinking about the future looming before us.
I learn from Latour. I think that there is something to the Gaia story as modified by Lynn Margulis, when she retreats from calling the biosphere an organism to focus on its character as intersecting, self-organizing processes with limited powers of self-sustainability. I agree that climate denial finds varied degrees of expression, from outright denial to official acceptance joined to refusal to do anything about it. And yet...
I suppose that the onto-creed I myself embrace is closer to that of Latour than to most others floating around. But this preliminary agreement does not exhaust the issues. My sense, rather, is that struggles are being waged within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, nontheism, and Hinduism as much as between any of them and something called the new secularism. How so? Well, each creed (including secularism) expresses a set of formal understandings, say, of an omnipotent God, or of a limited God, or of the ability to define the contours of public reason without drawing upon “private” resources of faith. Each set of believers is also invested with spiritual dispositions not entirely exhausted by its formal creed. An Augustinian may confess omnipotence and salvation and fill that doctrine either with love of this world and a diversity of life or, say, deep resentment of alternative doctrines and the intrusion of the Anthropocene. An immanent naturalist might resent the world for lacking a salvational god or love it for the sweetness of life it secretes.
The fact that creed and existential spirituality are interinvolved but not equivalent opens up the possibility of a new pluralist assemblage. The new assemblage will not be organized around one class, one party, or one secular creed. Rather, in an age of multiple minorities of multiple sorts diverse constituencies may draw upon spiritual affinities across differences to form the assemblage.
Not every creed is apt to sponsor many participants in that assemblage. Neoliberals and the right edge of evangelism are improbable candidates. But many pledging support to diverse creeds might hear a call to respond resolutely to the Anthropocene. We thus don’t need a new secularism as much as we need spiritual alliances forged across multiple lines.
I also doubt that scientists divide on this issue in conformity to Latour’s distinction between lab and theoretical scientists. Some lab scientists may be too narrow to care much about climate change. And some abstract scientists may care a lot even though their accounts of it will vary from Latour’s. Diversities of spiritual focus and intensity make a difference here. For that matter, other lines of social division such as class, education level, gender, race, sexuality, age cohort, religion, and ethnicity may not correlate that closely in the future with a favorable stance on climate change. You also need to fold the tricky dimension of spiritual disposition into the calculus. Something contemporary social scientists often resist.
But isn’t spirituality itself infused with belief and creed? You adopt one version of Augustinianism by playing up the importance of love while others focus on excommunicating heretics? Or some “new” atheists dismiss theists while others pursue relations of presumptive generosity across such differences. Yes. But spirituality also infuses belief with variable degrees of intensity; its variable intensities bathe the quality of participation in creedal communities. That is why arts of the self and micropolitics are so important to the quality of political life.
Today spiritual struggles over the appropriate response to the Anthropocene are increasingly waged within church communities, scientific practices, families, university courses, labor unions, age cohorts, and some businesses. The need today is to mobilize a militant pluralist assemblage composed of diverse constituencies with affinities (not identities) of spirituality.

II
Today, as discussed in an earlier post we face a dilemma of electoral politics: 1) The logic of the media/electoral/corporate/neoliberal/evangelical/filibuster/gerrymandering complex makes it extremely difficult to pursue a broad time horizon, to express attachment to the earth, or to address the Anthropocene within the grid of political intelligibility supported by the electoral system. The scandal focus of the media, the power of corporations to take market initiatives and protect them by exercising veto power in the state, the gerrymandering of seats and the filibuster, the strategic role of uniformed undecideds in elections--all of these work to make electoral politics dysfunctional.2) But to forgo electoral politics merely cedes more power to the radical right. It gives it another institution to enact an extreme agenda. So the new assemblage to be constructed must both participate in electoral politics and resist the grid of political intelligibility it secretes.

How to pursue such a tricky combination? To me the most promising path, out of perhaps a bad lot, is to multiply the sites and scales of action, moving back and forth between role experimentations in churches, work, consumption, locality and the like, participation in new social movements, involvement in elections, and forging a cross-state citizen movement. Take role experimentation. You may bring new visitors, issues and themes to your church, mosque or temple, support the farm to table movement, buy a hybrid or join a zip car collective and tell others why, put up solar panels if you can afford them or sign up for wind power where available, shift a larger portion of your retirement fund to sustainable investments, write for a blog like the Contemporary Condition, and so on. I have enumerated additional examples elsewhere.
Such experiments are radically insufficient to the scope of the problems, as many social scientists and erstwhile revolutionaries combine to tell us everyday. “They make you feel good but do not resolve the issue,” couch objectivists say. ”You can shift a few role performances, but your authenticity is suspect unless you transform the system,” revolutionaries say. Or, “now that you have dropped out you have lost purchase anywhere to make a difference.” Ignore such attempts to place you in a double bind.
They do not understand how social movements emerge. As you proceed (the “you” is both individual and collective) a series of things happen. First, you now become a bit less implicated in role performances that contribute most to the problem; second, you may find that the shaky belief/spiritual perspectives from which these experiments were launched have become more entrenched; third, you may now be primed to participate in larger, militant movements. For example, the new student movements in universities to divest them of stocks in fossil fuels could spread fast.
At some point as such actions proliferate a new event will surely erupt, such as a devastating hurricane, a severe drought, an even greater surge of migration attempts, a new series of wild fires, radical protests in poor countries against rich countries for imposing the burdens of climate change on them while escaping the worst effects themselves, a more radical acceleration of glacier flows, or a dangerous deceleration of the ocean conveyor system. Now, if the seeds of a critical movement have been sown, the stage may be set for more militant action. 
Spiritual affinities, role radicalizations, enhanced knowledge about the Anthropocene, a precipitating event. Will it now become possible to mobilize a cross-country General Strike, pressing from both inside and outside international organizations, states, corporations, churches, political parties, unions, consumers, investors, and universities? The goal would be to defeat neoliberalilsm, to curtail climate change through radical changes in the energy grid and ethos of consumption, to reduce inequality, and to install a more vibrant pluralist spirituality into democratic machines that have lost touch with the vitality of being.
It seems urgent today to project a time when it becomes possible to enact a nonviolent General Strike across several countries. Of course, such an action is improbable. It is an improbable necessity. It is essential to envision and support that possibility to speak to the urgent needs of the day.
Don’t refuse such an agenda in the name of realism and probability unless a) you think that climate change is unimportant, or b) you believe there are already adequate policies in place, or c) you don’t really care much about its severe, differential effects on people now and in the future, as long as you can escape the worst effects. If you are gripped by the last spiritual consideration don’t forget to factor in the forced population migrations, wars, crises in food supply, and civil unrest that will accompany consolidation of the Anthropocene.
I am glad Bruno Latour gave these lectures. They focus attention on the severity of the planetary issue and the denials and evasions attached to it. I am also moved by the spirituality that infuses them.

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