Thursday, May 2, 2019

Jeff Sessions at Amherst College: A Cautionary Tale


Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

One of the oldest buildings on the campus of Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts is Johnson Chapel, which has served as a gathering place on campus since the 1820s, when, as was true for so many New England schools, daily chapel was a part of the mandated curriculum. These days, it is used for fall commencement ceremonies, when first year students are welcomed by the faculty and president, and for senior class day ceremonies, when awards to outstanding graduating students are distributed. It is also a place where prominent speakers appear.

It is a venerated space. Portraits of all of the prior presidents of the College hang on the walls. And several luminaries among alumni, including the first Japanese graduate of a liberal arts college in the United States, Joseph Hardy Neeshima, who returned to Japan to found Doshisha University, Calvin Coolidge, a graduate of the College and a president of the United States, and the first female faculty member of the College, Rose Olver, have their portraits there.

Among the most prominent portraits is one that came about as the result of a campaign by African American alumni who graduated in the 1990s -- I recall, Willie Epps, Jr. and Chaka Patterson, of the class of 1991, being involved: Epps is now a Federal judge, Patterson a prominent attorney in Chicago. It is a portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston, who graduated from Amherst as class valedictorian in 1915, the only black member of his class. Houston went on to become a professor of law at Howard University, where he mentored such students as Thurgood Marshall and then resigned from Howard in the 1940s to help prepare the legal strategy for the NAACP challenge to Jim Crow, an effort that culminated in the 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. (Another prominent African American jurist, William H. Hastie, Jr. is also a graduate of Amherst College, in 1925. Hastie became Dean of Howard Law School. I hold an endowed chair at Amherst College that was established in his honor.)

On Wednesday, April 24, 2019, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, who until his recent forced resignation, was Attorney General of the United States of America, gave a speech in Johnson Chapel. How this racist, white nationalist, misogynist promoter of criminal immigration policies—the first prominent political supporter of our neo-fascist president—came to be standing in Johnson Chapel under the gaze of Houston is a telling story of the politics of our time, a sordid tale of power and corruption, the timidity of academic leaders, and the cynicism of the American right.

The story begins earlier this spring, when the College Office of Diversity and Inclusion—an office established to help integrate our increasingly diverse student body—ill-advisedly released a language guide, the intent of which was to educate students on how to speak inoffensively to each other about sexual, gender, class, racial and other kinds of differences. It contained overtones of Orwellian group-speak and overreach. Among other things, it chose to define “capitalism” as a system of exploitation and class oppression. This particular definition attracted the negative attention of the Amherst College Republicans (ACR), who immediately contacted right-wing websites such as the Daily Caller so as to subject the College to derision. The president of the College, Biddy Martin, withdrew the language guide, and the matter seemed settled.

But then the ARC overreached. Claiming that they wanted to meet with some transgender students to discuss elements of the guide having to do with descriptions of various elements of trans identity and sexual practices, they were caught on an internet application privately mocking the students they were about to meet. When the student newspaper, the Amherst Student, released screen shots of some their exchanges, the ACR as an organization was brought up on charges by the student government association, which defunded their activities, and in their own overreach, demanded that the officers of the ACR submit to sensitivity training. The president of the College again intervened, explaining that disciplinary proceedings of the College were the responsibility of the College, not the student government. She also issued a generic statement urging civility of discourse on campus.

These events occurred in the same weeks when the Amherst Student also reported that the men’s lacrosse team had held a private party in December in which members of the team (passed out drunk?) had had swastikas (and penises) drawn on their foreheads and then other members of the team had posed for photos with them, all of which, of course, found their way onto the internet. While this incident had been referred to the College’s athletic department and the dean of discipline, it was unclear whether the punishment that a few team members suffered, being benched for a couple of early season games, was enough, given the offenses. In short, Amherst College was enduring another spring in which youthful stupidity, ignorance, and moral righteousness were blending into an ugly farrago.

Sometime during this period, the ACR was put in touch with the Young America Foundation (YAF), a right-wing educational foundation that, among other things, sponsors outside speakers to speak at colleges and universities throughout the United States. If one goes to their website, one can see people such as Ben Shapiro, David Horowitz, Dinesh D’Sousa, and others of their ilk suggested as possible speakers on the issue of campus activism. (YAF has a deep history in the post-WW II American right, having some time ago absorbed another, similarly named group, Young Americans for Freedom, which had organized libertarian and more traditional conservative students since its founding in 1960 by William F. Buckley. The Young Americans for Freedom are now described as a “project of the Young America’s Foundation.) YAF offered to pay for Sessions to speak at Amherst College. This offer was made, it seems, within two weeks of the visit, and was seen by many, including the College’s president, as a cynical response to the attack on the ACR.

The idea seemed simple enough. From the perspective of ACR, however the College responded to their request for a space, it would be a victory. Should the College allow Sessions to speak, it would be legitimating hate speech on campus, in open conflict with its own policies concerning respect for persons, and would incense students who think that such vile racist haters shouldn’t be given the imprimatur of the College. If, for any reason, the College was to decline to sponsor Sessions’s visit—for instance, the administration could have claimed that it was not given sufficient time (which, while true in one sense, would have been a value-neutral bureaucratic reason, easily seen through)—the rejection would have resulted in the sort of national publicity that attended UC Berkeley’s cancellation of Anne Coulter’s speech last year. (Coulter herself actually spoke at Amherst College a few years ago.) The one reason to reject Sessions that would have been fully consistent with the values of the College would have been the most straightforward one. The College policy is explicit in that its statement concerning respect for persons condemns hate speech. Sessions’s record is filled with examples of hatred, dating back from expressions of racial animus while he was a US Attorney, revealed in hearing when he was nominated to be a Federal judge in 1986 by Ronald Reagan. The nomination failed, and launched him on his political career in the US Senate.

Interestingly enough, rumors quickly circulated that should Sessions be denied his chance to speak on campus, the agreement that the ACR had made with the YAF would have required the ACR to pay Sessions fee, which was purported to be about $15,000. So, the stakes were high for the ACR, which would probably have had to dissolve as an organization were it stuck with a bill for that amount. 

President Martin agreed to sponsor the speech. Upon hearing this news, I sent the president an email. (It was written in haste and anger and was peppered with typos, much to my chagrin. And on my moral high-horse, I perhaps was not persuasive. You may judge for yourself.)

Among other things I said, “I hope you realize you are now sponsoring hate speech and action . . .
The luxury of being a private institution is that we can say no. Jeff Sessions is a documented racist, and he has directed national policies that have been extraordinarily cruel and inhumane, separating children from their parents, causing the worst sorts of pain, denying refugees their right, under international law previously agreed upon by the United States, to seek asylum.
This despicable man isn't coming here to speak, to try to persuade, but to collect a paycheck and to foment hate, and to troll our college . . .
I am aware of your calculations regarding the endowment of the college. . .  But those calculations, concerning who will continue to give to the college, and the people who are adding and subtracting, including you, are cowardly. . . The true endowment of this college is not the billions of dollars, but the adherence we may hold to our principles.
I, of course, never heard back from Martin. Few of my colleagues publicly condemned her decision over the next days, or called into question having Sessions on campus, or organized protests. 

Instead, a few colleagues suggested providing some counter-programming at the campus center to coincide with the time of Sessions’s speech. A few of us professors gathered outside of Johnson Chapel, one colleague with a sign that simply quoted from the College’s policy concerning respect for persons. We waited outside, knowing that some of the student inside would stage a walk-out (the College closed the event to allow only students, faculty and staff of the College to attend, preventing other members of the Amherst community from attending; campus police were supplemented by town police, who took photos of some of us. I took photos of them in return.) Eventually, about 100 students walked out (apparently, about half of the audience), and gathered on the main quad nearby, chanting anti-hate slogans and listening to each other speak. Inside, Sessions asserted it was time for the country to move past the Mueller report, implying that it was the report itself that had divided the country, and expressing his worry for conservative students on campus, who he claimed felt threatened by political correctness.

And so it went. 

The reluctance on the part of my colleagues to directly confront and condemn the purveyor of hate on our campus seemed to stem from a worry that we were being “trolled” by the Right, and that to condemn Sessions would be to “Play into their hands.” Such reasoning seemed to be based on the idea that there is a point at which placating, rather than condemning, will allow us to proceed in peace with our work, so that the hate machines and institutions of the far right will move on. But as has been becoming increasingly clear, we are being confronted in the United States with a major political party that embraces tactics of earlier fascist parties—of intimidation, voter suppression, personal threat, using the internet not only to troll but to dox those who speak against them, issuing death threats against public opponents of their hate, using instruments of state power to threaten defunding of programs. They will continue these tactics regardless of any placating tactics we may adopt.

These neo-fascists members of the Republican Party know that one of the strongest sources of opposition to their rule is, in fact, the professoriate of our universities and colleges. Political theorists such as William Connolly, in these pages and in recent books, and Jeff Isaac with his ongoing stream of analysis of the right on his website, are but two examples of the many in our community who have been raising the alarm against this rising authoritarianism. (Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, provides a useful frame for understanding the core anti-democratic thrust of this far right.) But even so, too many others are trying to pretend that Trumpism represents the last gasp of a fading movement, on its way out of power, employing, for instance, the theory of presidential cycles advanced by Stephen Skowronek to suggest that Trump represents the end of a political cycle that is quite normal, that the machinations his administration has undertaken is a sign of weakness. Trump, in this reading, is merely the latest disjunctive president, a new version of Jimmy Carter. But this reading ignores the fact that it is not only Trump, but the entire Republican Party at the national level that has at this point embraced lawlessness as the core of its governing strategy, breaking the cycles of ordinary politics by breaking with the laws and norms that have in past succeeded in somewhat constraining those who desire to retain power exceeds their adherence to any democratic ethos. 

These neo-fascists must be countered, confronted, loudly opposed, not appeased. For the tactics used by the far right are in service of a deep anti-democratic agenda, one that calls into question the very values of equal justice that is at the core of democratic values. We do not simply negotiate justice. We fight for it. Against the trolls, against the racists, against the haters. We call them what they are, and we fight against the ignorance they foment. Especially as professers of truth—let’s say professors of truth—that’s our job.


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Monday, April 29, 2019

Neoliberalism Down on the Farm

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

Farming has always been a risky business. Even when the land is lovingly tended flood, drought, or disease can wipe out a whole year’s crop. Corporate media usually term such events “natural disasters.” Climate scientists are more likely to cite the role of human- induced climate change in increasing the severity of such events. But just which humans and what agendas are most guilty of squandering our natural capital? It turns out that one of the key culprits is our modern financialized agriculture. The damage that unregulated finance has done to our banking system is being steadily replicated in agriculture. Finance itself is a force increasing climate challenges and reducing the ability of the land and its human tenders to absorb and bounce back from trauma.
Jennifer Clapp’s and S. Ryan Isakson’s Speculative Harvest: Financialization, Food, and Agriculture tells a complex story in a concise, readable fashion. In many introductory econ texts, agriculture is portrayed as part of a true competitive market where supply and demand determine price. No one buyer or seller has enough of the market to influence price. Yet that is not the case now and has not been so for decades. In the years following WWII, governments in both north and South employed buffer stocks as a way of mitigating wild price swings in domestic markets. But with the crisis of New Deal liberalism in the late sixties and seventies, governments were under increasing pressure to deregulate both agricultural commodity markets and financial markets. Deregulated markets, however, were not perfectly competitive. As manufacturing profits were on the decline, finance increasingly became US capitalism’s fastest growing source of profit. And one of its most vital sectors was agriculture.
Trades in commodity futures contracts, promises to deliver certain quantity of a product on a certain date, had always been part of agricultural economics. But with this important limitation: Those who were not involved in or directly dependent on these commodities were limited in the number of positions they could take in the market so that outside investors could not corner the market.
Banking deregulation led agricultural policy down a dangerous path. Investment banks crafted and then sold large numbers of commodity index funds, funds pegged to the value of a basket of diverse commodities. However, concerned they might have to make large payouts if commodity prices rose sharply, investment banks requested and gained the right to invest directly, no position limits, in agricultural commodity markets.

The combination of index funds indirect and direct investment by lightly regulated banks made commodity markets more volatile, with especially harmful effects on the poor. Poor farmers cannot simply accumulate and store food stocks when prices are low.
Neoliberalism, however, if nothing else is resilient. If commodity markets are volatile by reason of weather and if poor farmers are too technologically backward, offer environmental insurance packages and/or loans for upgrading and/or consolidation of farms. These, however, have unfortunate side effects. Qualifying for these services required cultivation of a limited number of crops, ones for which the derivatives and international markets exist as well as adherence to standard industrial farming techniques. In the process the role of these crops on the farm and in the halls of Congress is only strengthened.
Biodiversity is a major casualty Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder and director of Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture), points out: “Most farm subsidies in the US go to five crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice — that are the centerpieces of global food trade.” The IMF estimates these subsidies and ignored environmental costs at $5.3 trillion per year
Clapp and Isakson show that at all points of the food chain investments are made to enhance shareholder value rather than the quantity or quality of the product. Neoliberal agriculture is a self-reinforcing system. Reducing farmland to a simple numerical quantity abstracted from its history and social context facilitates opportunities to play financial games with land and encourages shareholders to treat corporate decisions solely in terms of profit and loss. The belief—accurate or not-- that land can be quantified and sound models of risk assessment fashioned helps these markets escape regulation and grow. Their growth in turn adds to their political power and ability to continue to extort government subsidies. In a similar fashion sophisticated value at risk models and their underlying faith in predictability helped banks expand the market for the arcane securities they pedaled in the years preceding the Global Financial Crisis. 

To advance short term profits, mergers and acquisitions, which increase profit margins---often at the expense of workers and consumers—are widely practiced throughout the food chain. Nonetheless, displaced workers and consumers are offered the chance to invest in food through 401(k)s. In the process finance becomes a staple of everyday life. The whole dynamic depends on and reinforces the concentration of both economic and political power. In this context, the authors might have discussed the role that the virtual elimination of anti-trust law played in this process. 

If neoliberal agriculture is a self -reinforcing ecology at the political and economic level, it has analogous tendencies from topsoil to table to gut. Even at the level of the consumer, who may think he or she is getting high quality cheap food, the neoliberal food chain is not so beneficent. The authors point out: “Financial demands have influenced the… food that manufacturers make available to consumers. Food manufacturers have focused on growing markets for snack foods laden with salt, sugar, and fat, which encourage overeating, thereby maximizing profits” (120).
The assault on the diet is further aided by a nutritional “science” bought and paid for by the food giants. Jane Brody cites a recent example: “Coca-Cola has led an effort to undermine the contribution of sugar-laden carbonated water to the nation’s obesity epidemic….The company funded a study of childhood obesity that, without looking for a possible link between overweight and sugary soft drinks, concluded that low physical activity, inadequate sleep and lots of television watching were most important. To make such conclusions appear valid, Coca-Cola enlisted the participation of university-based scientists all of whom stood, directly or indirectly, to profit financially from their association with the research.”
The relative popularity of fast food also reflects one of the singular constraints of contemporary US capitalism, the war on free time. Fast food appeals because it is fast, and substantial umbers of US workers have multiple jobs or long hour jobs they dare not give up. It is also clear that many of the most successful corporate giants in high tech have succeeded by virtue of one of the oldest corporate techniques, the speedup and intensification of the work process. As in many other areas Amazon has used its immense market power to enhance its power over the human body. One journalist points out: “Twenty-five of its warehouses in North America use…robots. Of course, humans work at the… warehouse, too, 2,500 of them. Technology dictates their work in a different way. Computer screens are ubiquitous, giving workers information about their tasks and running updates on their rate per hour.” Bathroom breaks are timed. Workers who fail to achieve the desired rates are disciplined or fired. 
Workers in such a situation are inviting targets for the neoliberal food chain. The right combination of fat and sugar eases some of the strains of daily life—at least temporarily. There are reasons why agribusiness promotes Twinkies and not fresh broccoli. 

Financialized agriculture is headed for crises both at the level of individual and national budgets. Deteriorating health and explosive increase in obesity-related disease impose budgetary obligations even current neoliberal governments cannot completely evade. Ultimately exploitation of the soil and the surrounding biomes is socially destructive’ Since neoliberal agriculture is a complex, surprising assemblage of political and economic power, policy agendas, personal tastes and insecurities, and philosophical understandings of nature and human agency, we need interconnected action and conversation on several fronts.
Here are some preliminary thoughts: 

1. Articulate in clear language the ways financial capitalism works along all points of the food. Special attention should be paid to the fallacies and failures of the predictive models in finance as applied to agriculture. It is vitally important to start this discussion now. Clapp and Isakson have made an excellent contribution to this project.
2. Presenting alternatives is equally crucial. Alison Rose Levy suggests: “As part of a New Food Deal, we could erase these inequities by shifting land use, investment, and subsidy patterns away from corporate giants and towards regenerative agriculture’s local networks of farmers and food growers. Building food security across the country region-by-region will better address future climate disruption than expecting unresponsive monopolies with cheap food and expensive advertising to do it. Rural economic development has the added benefit of putting a safety net under rural populations maligned and rendered invisible by neoliberal policies and politicians.”
3. If finance plays such a role, reforms beyond mere re-regulation of futures markets will be necessary. Why not seek financial sovereignty as well as challenging corporate finance’s excesses? One fundamental aspect of sovereignty is the right to print one’s own currency. Nations lacking that right are forever at the mercy of bond and currency markets. The US prints its own currency, but under the sway of conservative finance theory acts as though it were constrained by the 19th century gold standard. Future work by scholars and activists might address the role that public banking or a Fed and Treasury liberated from a more repressive role could play in a reconstituted agriculture. These could address the rural anxieties that are central to some of the worst world politics.
4. On a more philosophical level activists might challenge the hubris inside modern neoliberal agriculture. Not only is its understanding of the magic of markets tragically flawed, its very conception of the exclusivity of human agency is dangerously limited. Several alternative philosophical traditions raise this pint. I am inspired by the vital materialism espoused by Johns Hopkins political theorist Jane Bennett’. More than fuel for us, gut and soil bacteria help enable our action in the world through their complex interactions. She puts the case as follows: “My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners… the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome… we are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes. If more people marked this fact more of the time, if we were more attentive to the indispensable foreignness that we are, would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways?” (112–13) 
5. Since neoliberal agriculture is sustained by the gut as well as a calculating brain the response to neoliberalism might endorse and draw sustenance—and food choices-- from the Slow Food movement, a theme Bennett and Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig have analyzed in depth. The movement began as a protest against the first McDonalds in Italy. It called on citizens to resist the bland homogeneity of fast food on behalf of diversity of taste.
Hardly a nostalgic movement, Slow Food relied heavily on the speed of global communication even as it used that knowledge base to foster the local and the homegrown. The movement’s proclamation of a “right to taste” highlighted even as it acknowledged the distinctiveness, even absurdity of this claim from the perspective of the usual schedule of rights. Intending to defend the masses from the hegemony of fast food by making diversity available to them, the movement soon found that this seemingly elitist goal could only be sustained in conjunction with other not so elite goods including animals raised slowly without antibiotics, meals prepared and eaten slowly. 
Realizing, however, that they would need to appeal to a constituency hardened by a fast food taste and life style world they offered events and classes to nurture sensitivity to diverse complex and subtle flavors to which they had been desensitized. They also publicized and advanced their cause by awarding Ark Prizes to those who helped preserve vanishing fruit, animal, and vegetable species too delicate to survive commercial agriculture (See Bonnie Honig,, Emergency Politics and “Three Models of Emergency Politics,” Boundary 2). 

Our diet is hardly a manifestation of consumer sovereignty. Diets often reflect monopoly power, cultural expectations, a history of taste, and the millions of bio agents within and around us. There are grounds for hope and despair in this recognition. It is up to us to decide. 
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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Smirk of American Empire

Derek S. Denman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Ethics, Law and Politics at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany.

During his questioning in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, newly minted special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, bristled at the mention of his record of lying to Congress regarding the Iran-Contra affair and his cover-up of massacres by the Salvadoran military. Abrams’s reaction to his questioning was a familiar one of a powerful man being called to account for his actions: feigned consternation, outrage at a recounting of well-established historical record, and the treatment of substantive critique as personal attack. He first brushed off questions from Rep. Ilhan Omar about repressive policies he might support in Venezuela before settling on vague platitudes about support for democracy. As he cycled through the repertoire of obfuscation, something broke through his wall of misdirection. While a still doesn't fully do it justice, the video is clear as ever: His lips curl up, just barely, at each corner, revealing a smirk, before returning to his earlier scowl. This smirk tells an important story about the politics of empire.

In Aspirational Fascism, William Connolly includes facial expressions alongside gestures, postures, rhythms, and habits as vital elements of affective communication, working beneath the symbolic register of language. Specifically, Connolly draws attention to the affective infusions that subtend Trump’s fascist demagoguery. Trump’s facial expressions—variously smug, mocking, and grimacing—work at a visceral register, in concert with “grandiose bodily gestures … Big Lies, hysterical charges, dramatic repetitions, and totalistic assertions that only he can clean up the ‘mess,’” to activate support for individual and nationalist aggression (11).

Abrams’s smirk differs from Trump’s. Trump’s facial expressions are delivered to activate jeering crowds. He experiments with his face in front of his audience, seeking to amplify their glee for his violent fantasies directed at immigrants and protestors or his mockery of a reporter with a disability. Abrams’s smirk slipped through his rehearsed comportment of self-styled seriousness that allows him to shift between visionary promoter of democracy (when asked of his achievements) and hard-nosed realist (when faced with his crimes). It is the face of the imperial agent rather than the fascist demagogue.

What is behind this smirk? What does it signal to the neocons and Trumpists who witness it? And how do we understand the connection between this facial expression and the violent, repressive politics it embodies? We might begin to unpack the meaning of the smirk by focusing on it in relation to what Jon Schwarz of The Intercept identifies as Abrams’s “core competency,” his ability to combine “brutality and unctuousness.”

The brutality that Abrams facilitated—then later denied and concealed—is nearly unfathomable. He is perhaps best known for his denial of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, suggesting that reports of over 800 people murdered and dismembered by government forces were mere communist propaganda. From the support for the genocidal policies of Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala to the defense of the torture and execution of dissidents in Panama, it seems Abrams never found a right-wing death squad he couldn’t get behind, especially when it involved dissembling in front of Congress and the American public.

Abrams’s return to public life might be interpreted through the lens of the recent obsession with true crime and the particular fascination with serial killers. Will Menaker, a host of the “Dirtbag Left” podcast Chapo Trap House, suggests as much, when, in introducing a discussion of Abrams, he notes, "We have left out some of the more prolific mass murderers who have done all of their work ... from behind a desk." It is only appropriate for the Dirtbag Left to diagnose the political pathology that has led to the resurgence of Abrams. It takes a vocabulary of vulgarity to scratch the surface of the horror inflicted by Abrams’s policies, positions, and lies. Mere mention of the atrocities Abrams supported—the decapitations and corpses posed in dioramas of death—exceeds the language and offends the ears of those who are only able to speak within the confines of “civility.”

At one level, Abrams’s smirk is one of condescension. It suggests his defiant sense that he will never have to make amends for his crimes, the scale of which are so enormous as to be almost absolute, remaking the very fabric of life (and death) across Latin America and beyond. We’ve seen this expression before in his appearance on Charlie Rose in 1995. When the investigative journalist Allan Nairn recounted Abrams’s record of support for Guatemalan military atrocities, Abrams first engaged in his characteristic deflection, then laughed at the accusation, and, finally, as the camera lingered on him, settled into a smirk. Abrams smirks, then and today, knowing that he can hide behind the numerous government titles bestowed upon him by the Reagan, Bush, and now Trump administrations, each naming him a champion of democracy, human rights, humanitarianism, and diplomacy. The smirk tells us that he revels in the subterfuge provided by these accolades of empire.

At a deeper level, I suspect that the smirk is also one of sadistic joy. The smirk suggests that perhaps Abrams holds deep-seated delight in the suffering he has wrought. Today, refugees flee countries where he has propped up autocrats, only to be met by guns, walls, and razor wire at the US border, and still Abrams smirks. Empire takes many affective forms, and one of those is an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction that wells up in its most ruthless agents.

The little-noted, half concealed smirk of Abrams follows a higher profile instance of a smirk dripping with colonial power relations. That moment came when a Covington Catholic student sporting a MAGA hat and attending an anti-choice rally smirked in the face of a member of the Indigenous Peoples March. Upon seeing video of the incident, many of us were rightly horrified by the students, weaponized for their school’s campaign against abortion rights and donning the marker of Trumpist white nationalism. And everyone’s eyes were drawn to the smirk. The event has oddly been treated as a sort of political Rorschach test, emphasizing the diversionary claims of “contextualizing video” instead of the tomahawk chops of the student’s classmates. However, even the most agnostic interpreters note the young man’s unsettling expression: “it’s true that a smirk is a smirk.”

I wonder if, in the moment of noticing the smirk, those of us who were unequivocally troubled by it saw not only our present—a facial expression of white supremacy—but also a future where that smirk had been hardened to conceal the crimes of imperial brutality. We were witnessing not only the undeniable coloniality of the present, but also catching a glimpse into a possible future where the next Abramses-in-waiting look down in condescension at the public for which they hold only contempt and gaze in self-satisfaction at their victims. It was evident to us that the control of public space through a sense of entitlement authorized by whiteness was on the path to becoming a sense of entitlement to remake global space through the power of para-military murder. We thought maybe, just maybe, if we insisted on an acknowledgement of the power relations embodied in this scene, we might avert the hardening of this expression into the smirk of empire.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Democratic Future of the Green New Deal

Lida Maxwell
Associate Professor
Boston University

What does it mean to have a future? The monarch’s eternal body used to represent the continuity and futurity of the kingdom (over and against the mortality of both him and his subjects). In modern social contract stories, by contrast, ordinary men gain a future by moving out of a state of nature beset by uncertainty, violence, and hierarchy; mastering a state of nature that otherwise would master them. Yet nature in these stories is not a factual reality, but a metaphor for forces that feel uncontrollable or unpredictable. As Carole Pateman has argued, patriarchal mastery is necessary in social contract stories for liberal democratic futurity. So too the mastery of other races and peoples (as thinkers such as Uday Mehta, James Tully, and Adam Dahl have argued). These social contract stories, which continue to haunt our political imagination, position the future of white European bourgeois men as dependent on the subjugation of others.
This mastery-centered idea of what it means to have a future may help to explain why it has been so hard for many commentators, presidential candidates, and ordinary citizens to see the Green New Deal as a real possible future. Even people who say they support the Green New Deal feel like they can only talk about it in old terms, in terms of legislators balancing a series of trade-offs between individuals and the collective – as Cory Booker is doing right now (“I’ve endorsed the framework and the resolution, but I don’t endorse doing things that are going to hurt…a strong economy”). But this whole way of thinking is rooted in the idea that mastery by someis a condition of futurity for everyone – that the future of the collective depends on elites mastering “nature” (women, poor people, marginalized individuals, etc.) through (for Booker) technocratic policy making.
The Green New Deal is moving us toward a different conception of what it means to have a future – a democratic conception of futurity that has been prefigured in environmental politics and thinking. Here, futurity depends neither on mastery over some people, forces, and nonhuman nature; nor on separating politics from nature, the public realm from the private realm. Rather, futurity opens up through an ecological (holistic, interconnected) attention to how the attempt at mastery has left almost everyone in a situation of precarity, and the attempt not to master unpredictable forces, but instead to democratically understand, adapt, and respond to those forces so that everyone, and not just a few, might flourish.
This is the central idea in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. After detailing the ecological devastation (actual and potential) caused by insecticides and pesticides, Carson argues in her last chapter, entitled, “The Other Road”: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one "less traveled by" — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth” (277-278). On the one hand, Carson seems to be suggesting here that the choice is between two futures: 1) the “deceptively easy” “superhighway” that seems to be leading quickly toward greater prosperity and comfort, but actually ends in the “disaster” of destroying the earth that actually allows our lives and pleasures to exist; and 2) a future where we push back against that tendency and preserve the earth. Yet implicit in Carson’s formulation, and in the remainder of the chapter, is a deeper distinction: not just a choice between two futures, but between what a future is. The “deceptively easy” superhighway constitutes what we usually think of as a “future”: a space of inevitable progress brought about by capitalist industry and technology, and by what Carson calls the “control of nature,” or what Val Plumwood calls the “mastery of nature.” 
The other “fork of the road” is, in contrast, an open-ended path, made possible by our rejection of the attempt at mastery. In the closing pages of Silent Spring, Carson does not describe in detail what that path looks like. She notes that there is “a truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects” (278), and lauds ecologically grounded approaches to insect control, “biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong” (278). Yet she does not proscribe a particular course, a particular way of proceeding. Rather, what distinguishes this fork in the road is its democratic character. Directly after describing the fork in the road, Carson says: “The choice, after all, is ours to make,” she says. “If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” (my emphasis, 278). Looking about enables a possible future because we are no longer deferring to technocratic, corporate elites. Instead, we become agents in creating a world where everyone can flourish. Just because the “smooth superhighway” is easy does not mean we should stay on it. We may “see what other course is open to us.”
The Green New Deal resolution offers us this democratic “other course,” this “other fork in the road.” If Carson called for the public to use the knowledge she gives it to demand the regulation of insecticides and pesticides, the Green New Deal calls for the public to engage in political and governmental action that will address climate change: a “new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal” (4). Also like Carson, the GND’s vision of the future on behalf of which they call us to mobilize is ecologically grounded: the aim is not only to ensure jobs, “prosperity, “economic security,” but also “clean air and water,” “climate and community resiliency,” “healthy food,” “access to nature,” “a sustainable environment,” and “justice and equity.” Like Carson – and perhaps more than Carson – the GND recognizes that justice and equity are connected with a sustainable climate, that prosperity and economic security are unimaginable without healthy food and clean air and water.
Yet also like Silent Spring, the GND resolution does not use expert knowledge to offer a precise map for how to “solve” the problem of climate change, and foreclose democratic decision-making (nor does it make false claims of ease, as in Cory Booker’s statement: “we did it when I was mayor of Newark; we just retro-fitted our buildings. We drove down our carbon footprint; we drove down our city’s energy costs. We created jobs for our residents, and we dealt with the issues of climate change. We created a win, win, win, win…”). 
Rather, the GND uses knowledge to empower communities. The resolution begins with a clear depiction of the hard truth of the devastation that climate change has brought and will bring (the consequence of staying on the “smooth superhighway,” despite the many warnings of Carson and others). This knowledge, rather than inducing powerlessness, instead serves as a framework that enables communities to become agents of their own future. 
The resolution continually portrays “community-defined projects and strategies” (6, cf. 9) as an integral part of addressing climate change, and places democracy at its center: the resolution calls for ensuring “the use of democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization at the local level” (12). Refusing the assumption of many that democracy is incapable of addressing an urgent problem like climate change, the GND shows that democracy is the only way that Americans can claim and create the future they desire.
While this future is mostly illegible in terms of contemporary political “common sense,” we should take the Green New Deal as an opportunity to show why this “common sense” actually makes no sense. Thea Riofrancos, Alyssa Battistoni, and others are already doing that in Jacobin, to great effect. The Green New Deal invites a new way of thinking and feeling the future: not as requiring the “smooth superhighway” that exists only through eradicating that which appears unsettling, uncertain, or unpredictable (including democratic claims for equality and freedom), but instead as the possibility of things being otherwise that emerges from the democratic practice of refusing deference and opening ourselves to the pleasures, difficulty, and meaning of democratically governing ourselves.
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