Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Zombie Syndrome

William E. Connolly 
Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, Democratic Activism. 
So, you go to college. Or send your kid to college. You get married and pledge to support each other in sickness and in health. You have a baby. You buy a house by the shore with a thirty year mortgage. You plan for retirement, sacrificing a portion of current income to do so. You invest in a well-rounded portfolio. You take a job, to climb the career ladder it makes available. You replace the roof on your house. You play basketball in college, hoping to become an NBA player or a coach. You write a new book with an eye-catching cover. 

  As you proceed lobbyists pursue legislation to make inattentive taxpayers support and subsidize financial speculation. A new consulting firm is launched. A neighborhood association allows only roof replacements designed to last a hundred years or more. A church or temple is built out of marble by parishioners. A military base is established in a foreign country. A highway system is upgraded. Fracking becomes widespread to increase the world’s oil supply. A pipeline is built to carry shale oil across a continent over an aquifer that provides water for a dry expanse of territory.

  These intertwined decisions, activities and projects are future oriented. Some are oriented to a future twenty years away; others are set on longer time lines. Planning for a future taken to be similar in structure to today. The dilemma of today, however, is that we build for a future widely sensed to be a chimera. How does such a dilemma hold? Oil and coal companies, the right edge of evangelicalism, high end investors, and Fox News help to secure it, all pushing projects that many know are unsustainable. Those are powerful sources. But the dilemma runs deeper.
  In the contemporary condition things combine to make many people into zombies taking revenge on a future they can neither avoid nor accept. Yes, zombies. The zombie, originating as a phenomenon during the horrors of Haitian slavery, is a dead being revived sufficiently to be relentless but not enough to be alive. Today, in popular guise, it is a being who was oppressed, who died and is now partially revived, who adheres to a single course of revenge, who acts as if it is drugged, and who can easily infect others with its malaise. Zombies move relentlessly in a haze.
  The zombies of today sense that we must change the pivots of a massive civilization of productivity but cannot find modes of action to do so. Sure, many geologists, climatologists, oceanographers and a few politicians issue warnings. A growing number of academics, churchgoers and everyday citizens also sound alarms and call for radical change, as demonstrated by the recent, huge climate marches in several cities around the world. But these voices are beaten down. Too many workers, parents, entrepreneurs, university presidents, churchgoers, voters, and economists stay on the same course. They are drugged, though not with the neurotoxin from pufferfish rumored to have been the drug distributed to Haitian zombies.
  The neurotoxin of today is a double bind. To step away from the crowd to act resolutely on several fronts about climate change is to risk careers, reputations and friendships; to refuse to do so is to make things worse for those who follow. That is the first bind. But we speak here of a Double Bind. The second bind is tough too: if you talk about the first bind much, or act to break it, you risk friendships, reputation, an upsurging career and comfort in the world. You become troublesome. This, then, is the Double Bind that forges a zombie syndrome during the age of the Anthropocene.
  At an adult dinner out a week ago, we talked briefly about the Obama agreement with China on climate change. I then dared to ask the relatives assembled whether the idea of the Anthropocene made sense to them. "Did you say Anthropussy"?, a husband and father of two school children asked. He elicited laughter. The conversation moved on. To have entertained the question would have been to receive a call to act resolutely as a parent entangled with the future of his children. Caught in a double bind the pressure is on to brush away the issue.
   Zombies of today are oppressed by the future they are constrained to build. 

   The zombie syndrome renders it difficult to pursue a new course, to say the least. It is simultaneously a serious syndrome, one that must be grasped sympathetically, and one we must struggle to break. To be sympathetic to it is to acknowledge how difficult and paradoxical it is to both push for a massive change of course and to participate in manifold aspects of daily life that advance the old course. To break the hypnosis of the zombie you must, for instance, face the charge of hypocrisy. So enervation and deferral set in. The old ideals of capitalism and communism--those contending promises for a future of abundance and mastery designed to secure the loyalties of stratified populations--have lost their credibility. But there is little else on the horizon to move, inspire, or inform us.

  We know, if we allow ourselves to think about it, that many low-lying areas will be flooded within a couple of decades and that the interior of most continents will become unbearably hot during the summer. We sense--if we can force ourselves to think--that these cataclysmic changes are apt to be accompanied by massive attempts at population migration trumped by the virulent drives of highly militarized states to secure their borders by any means possible. We imagine--if we extrapolate one step further--that the combination of rapid climate change, forced population migrations, and widely distributed nuclear arsenals could issue in a cataclysm.

  But the double bind squeezes such proto-thoughts as they struggle to gain a foothold. How could you pursue the future course we are on if you entertain such thoughts? So we plod along. Zombies walk into wildfires, driven by a trajectory in which they cannot invest. But is the very fact that many have become zombies also, perhaps, a sign of hope? It at least signifies a lived precarity now attached to old images of the future. Indeed, Pascal’s wager over whether God exists has now morphed into one over how long humanity will survive. So precarity and possibility jostle around together.

  Sure, there are also vampires, those among the corporate and financial aristocrats who suck blood from others while there is still time to do so. Vampires arise from dying aristocracies; zombies from those oppressed by the future the vampires help to promote. Zombies struggle so hard to make ends meet in the current regime that they lack the energy to interrogate its priorities, even if they have lost faith in them. An inertia of thought joined to a meltdown of action. It is never that timely to challenge a twisted imaginary of the future if you are caught in a double bind. Indeed, while Anthropocenic activists grow by the day, many of us also detect a zombie strain in ourselves. It is infectious. 
  How do you cure a civilizational double bind? I have not encountered anything in my brief review of zombie literature to answer that question. I continue to think that perhaps the key is to search for residual sources of liveliness and earthly attachments circulating below the threshold of zombiness. Since the double bind is replete with fissures and obscure openings, perhaps a series of electric shocks will bring zombies to life.
  If a revival occurs, another task will arise: to maintain the swarming strategies that both make a difference in themselves and insulate us from lapsing into the default state of the zombie. To fend off zombiness it is necessary to take a few hesitant steps at first, to adjust a few role practices, to make some pronouncements in public, to take a stand here and there. Pushing upon fissures and cracks in the double bind that manufactures the syndrome. Once a new liveliness is fomented, we can think what to do from there.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Terrorists and War Criminals among Us

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

In July 2010 the Department of Homeland Security launched its “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, a public awareness initiative designed to make American communities—from small towns to remote counties to big cities—alert to the problems of terrorism and terrorism-related crime. Citizens were to be educated regarding the importance of reporting suspicious conduct (rather than ideas or beliefs) to local law enforcement authorities, the new front line of American national security. The program started in New York City and its public transit network, but soon spread across America to include sporting leagues, venues, and events, colleges and universities, virtually any public site or happening. “If You See Something, Say Something” seems to be a cause for civic pride, a national surveillance and reporting system that brings Rousseau’s republican dream to life: we become natural born spies of one another in the name of the common good, especially freedom.

Source: http://www.dhs.gov/if-you-see-something-say-something™

Insofar as the Department of Homeland Security insists that civil rights and liberties are respected and protected and that the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign empowers people to participate meaningfully in their own defense, rather than subject these claims to much-deserved skepticism, let’s take the Department at its word and put it to the test. After all, there are terrorists, including war criminals, walking freely among us. We know who they are and where they live. They make intermittent public appearances. At least one of them has confessed his crimes proudly and openly, as if taunting the government for not taking action against him. They are responsible for the deaths of many tens of thousands of people, including thousands of American citizens.  They employed the traditional weapons of terrorists the world over: bombs and bullets. They ordered their enemies tortured. What’s more, they feel no shame or remorse and would, if given the opportunity, do it all over again.

Not surprisingly, the list of America’s Most Wanted Terrorists and War Criminals reads like a who’s who of the George W. Bush regime. Beginning with former president Bush himself, it should include Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Michael Hayden, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Paul Wolfowitz, and Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. The list is bipartisan. Barack Obama, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Eric Holder, among others, should be named for their unique drone-related contributions since 2009. And since this is not a recent phenomenon in American politics, the list should cite Henry Kissinger for his exemplary conduct of the American War in Vietnam.

Since Dick Cheney made and continues to make himself the public face of imperialism and torture in America, perhaps the first trial rightly belongs to him. This is not to deny that George W. Bush, then president, bears ultimate responsibility for the crusades that produced a gratuitous war of conquest in Iraq and a gulag archipelago of torture across the globe. It is to give Cheney credit for converting the Vice Presidency of the United States, historically an institution of irrelevancy, into an effective political office—for evil.

Following the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of the executive summary of its torture report, Cheney has consistently defended the indefensible: “Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogations.”

Cheney’s combination of American exceptionalism and impotent rage mean that he can’t help saying more than he intends. It’s not just that American citizens weren’t the only ones killed on September 11, 2001 (people from more than 90 other countries were murdered as well). It’s not just that because America was a victim on September 11 it cannot be a victimizer but only a hero, as Libby Anker argues in her brilliant new book, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom. It’s that in denying the commission of a crime, he actually confesses to it. He’s right that there’s no comparison between the September 11 attacks and America’s so-called enhanced interrogations: one constitutes mass murder; the other constitutes mass torture. No doubt Cheney, at least in part, offers his “denials” in public because of his legal vulnerability. The Bush Administration (the CIA in particular) was desperate to find some legal rationale for the torture it wanted to inflict on al Qaeda prisoners and it finally found willing participants in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. People like Cheney were worried that one day they might be held to account for their crimes and need some kind of legal cover, however thin, to protect them.

That day remains a distant prospect, but it should be kept in sight. As John McCain has argued, the Bush Administration’s torture crimes pertain to American identity. They must be brought to light in order to make sure they never happen again. Torture is not something that we do. McCain, however, failed to demand the prosecution of the perps from the Bush regime. Simply put, transparency is not enough. In this regard, it’s worth remembering the recent announcement that Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s lieutenant, likely died in Syria several years ago. Though convicted in absentia in France, he was never brought fully to justice for his crimes against humanity, spending a lifetime evading his death sentence. America routinely insists that other countries and peoples confront their problematic, even criminal histories, and willingly lends its considerable resources in this global endeavor. It’s time for the United States to follow its own advice and turn inward. It’s also clear that democratic citizens, here and abroad, will have to force it to do so.

Now that Cheney has not only confessed his crimes, but vowed that he would commit them again without hesitation (this is called recidivism), it’s time to implement Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program. We know where Dick Cheney and his fellow criminals live (Cheney lives in Jackson, Wyoming, whose citizens should consider themselves on notice). Their schedule of public appearances is published well in advance. After all, much money can be made playing the patriot game in the United States articulating and defending an unrepentant will to power in domestic and international politics. If you live near one of these terrorists or war criminals and see them at the local Starbucks; if they are slated to appear at a local bookstore to promote their sorry apologias; if they are traveling abroad and you see them in an airport or at a popular tourist spot; identify them and make a citizen’s arrest. Ask, even demand, that your friends, that is, your fellow citizens, join and assist you. Hold them until local law enforcement officials arrive. You don’t need to lay hands on them. Prevent them from leaving by forming a chain around them. Or, in the United States anyway, put the Second Amendment to good use; render the right to bear arms something other than a consumer fetish. These criminals have violated national and international statutes; the idea of a citizen’s arrest is for people to play their part in making sure that no one is above the law and that it is respected and enforced, perhaps especially when those charged with this sacred duty fail—and fail repeatedly—to meet their obligations, including the President and his Attorney General. American citizens long ago took back their streets (and skies) from al Qaeda. It’s time to take back not only our streets but also our Constitution from the terrorists and war criminals among us.

This project can be considered a corollary not only to the Patriot Act-free zone movement embraced by hundreds of towns, cities, and states across the country but also to the new civil rights movement of democratic citizens to take control of their streets and cities, and thus their way of life, from the police following the slayings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among countless others, and subordinate it to the people themselves. This nationwide campaign has been met with massive state opposition, especially in the aftermath of the murder of two New York City police officers on December 20. Bill de Blasio’s craven, manipulative effort to exploit a heinous crime and disrupt, perhaps cripple a legitimate politics of resistance serves as an untimely reminder that rights and liberties, including the right not to be tortured, subjected to assassination by the president, or targeted by police because of the color of your skin, are not given but taken.

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