Cause for Hope

Glenn Greenwald reports on a news item that has given me more hope than anything I've read about current events in quite some time:
As Taylor Marsh notes, a new poll by Rasmussen Reports (the polling outfit most trusted by Bush followers) was released today, and it contains not bad news, but panic-inducing news, for Bush and his followers:

For the first time ever, Americans have a slight preference for Democrats in Congress over the President on national security issues. Forty-three percent (43%) say they trust the Democrats more on this issue today while 41% prefer the President.

The preference for the opposition party is small, but the fact that Democrats are even competitive on the national security front is startling. In Election 2002, the President guided his party to regain control of the Senate based almost exclusively on the national security issue.

If Republicans don't have an electoral advantage on national security, what do they have? (To witness a little spastic panic from Bush followers, see here). And after two months of endless attacks on the President's lawless eavesdropping -- after which his approval ratings are pitifully low and Americans now distrust him even with regard to national security -- can we at least have those genius Democratic consultants stop announcing to the world that pursuing the NSA scandal will destroy the Democrats' electoral chances by making them look weak on national security?
Can you believe it? Anyone with half a brain has long since realized that the GOP is not good on national security despite typicallly being favored on that point. It looks like Portgate finally brought this to the attention of most Americans.

It's just delightful! I know that a lot of what's fueling the port scandal is racist and xenophobic, but whose fault is it for stirring up such sentiment? It's poetic justice.

The Bush administration is a band of criminals who have been trying to steal as much money from the American people as possible to give to their corporate friends. (I am not exaggerating here; I literally believe this.) But it looks like one case of cronyism too many for Dubya & Co.

Despite the efforts of the corporate media, it seems that people are finally, finally starting to wake up, to the point where a critical mass is being established. But Glenn is absolutely right that the Democrats should not just sit by idly:
But now is not the time for passivity. Democrats need to step up the aggression now more than ever and take advantage of this wobbly, weakened President. Now is exactly when the Democrats need not fear anything. Americans have abandoned Bush. They no longer trust anything about him - not his integrity, his veracity or his competence. Not even his ability to protect them. And he will not even have Congressional Republicans to protect him, as they will be looking for ways to distance themselves as much as possible.

The absolute worst thing the Democrats could do now is follow the advice of the chronic loser Beltway consultants who excessively calculate every step and drain the life, principle and passion out of everything they touch. More than anything else, what accounted for Bush's popularity in the past (which is where his popularity lies) was the fact that he projected firm, resolute conviction about things that he espoused. It's time for Democrats to demonstrate that attribute as well. Taking an emphatic stand for the principle that the President does not have the right to break the law would be a good place to start.
If Democrats can win on national security, Bush and the GOP have nothing. Nothing. If they can't scare voters, they have no power over them. It will be difficult, to say the least, to sever the fortunes of Republican congresspersons from Bush.

My hope is tempered by only one worry: election fraud. The GOP has probably stolen a number of congressional victories in at least the last 3 elections. However, if the backlash is strong enough, they won't be able to get away with it--at least, that's the hope.

If we had an independent media that would be much more plausible. At least there are enough people angry about this (38% strongly disapprove of Bush) that maybe they'd be willing to do something about it. I'm not talking violence, because I don't really approve of measures like that except in the most extreme circumstances. Widespread civil disobedience could have a marked effect.

But the truth is that our electoral system is broken. We need paper trails with all electronic voting, elections that are not run by partisan secretaries of state, an end to the unjust disenfranchisement of poor minority voters, and--perhaps most important of all--completely publicly-financed campaigns. More radical changes, like an end to the Electoral College, proportional representation rather than a winner-takes-all system, more opportunities for minor (third) parties, and so on, wouldn't hurt either

In any case, my point is that there is a lot we could do to make our system more democratic and less susceptible to fraud. These should be our first priorities, because it is only after such reforms that it would be plausible to implement the kinds of widely-supported changes (e.g., universal healthcare) that corporate interests keep off the political agenda.

Nevertheless, this recent news is cause for celebration. Here's to the UAE!


The Illusion of Stability, the Ease of Complacency, the Improbability of Hope

I spent a couple hours this afternoon catching up on political news and blogposts. Great googly-moogly, is it depressing.

It almost seems like a race to the finish to see how we'll wipe out our species. Global warming and climate change? An attack on Iran that leads to all-out nuclear war? Or maybe we'll get lucky, and only the US Empire will collapse. Significant economic troubles are looming on the horizon that will only be worsened by political instability--while both are in turn made worse still by extreme weather conditions and burgeoning natural disasters.

It's a vicious cycle of global instability that could lead to our extinction. Not something you really want to contemplate, and certainly not something you want to experience in your lifetime. Perhaps we'll face a second Great Depression, a third (or fourth, depending on who you ask) World War, or even a new Dark Ages. It's really impossible to predict, but unfortunately there are far more plausible scenarios in which things turn out horribly wrong.

I've not lived many years in this world, so I only have a couple decades of life to reflect on. Perhaps I underestimate human resourcefulness, our ability to come together in times of crisis, our indefatigable will to survive. But just because we've enjoyed decades of relative stability does not mean that this trend will continue indefinitely. I'm skeptical of the historiography of cycles that people use to comfort themselves when times are tough.

Hope is so difficult today. Sometimes I really understand the appeal of religious faith. There, you have something to hold onto, something immutable and eternal, a force of good guaranteed to win out in the end. Those of us who advocate a this-worldly attitude have no equivalent comforts to offer. As one of my professors likes to put it, our secular creed is a call for sustained effort, for hard work, but with no guarantees except for death.

It's tough to care about the world, about humanity, through this lens. It's easy to say fuck it, I'll just try to make life as pleasant as possible for myself and those I'm close to, the rest of the world be damned. Why bother?

I don't know the answer to this question. I haven't given up quite yet, but I already feel cynical beyond my years. On many days, I still have a short-sighted hope, for my own life-prospects at least. But then there are days like today, when I survey the world around me and it's all turned to shit.

So, I ask you, my few but dearly-appreciated readers:

How do you keep hope alive?


The Value of Impartiality

Last night I read a response to Gutmann & Thompson's deliberative theory by Stanley Fish. Fish's critique is truly devestating, and it raises some serious issues relevant for any partisan of democracy.

Perhaps most central to his critique is the way in which he points to impartiality--the pet principle of Habermas, Rawls, Nagel, and the bulk of deliberative democrats--as itself a controversial value without universal support.

This recognition has significant implications. Recently, I've been having some discussions with Ben about the possibility of a relatively neutral perspective in characterizations of American politics. Ben made the excellent point that to call any account biased is to equate the most careful and considered reflection with the most flagrant of partisan hackery. Impartiality, like any quality, admits of degrees.

Granted, but I didn't feel completely satisfied on this point. Yes, a kind of political neutrality seems desirable within the natural sciences and in many social sciences, but is it always a virtue? There are at least two ways in which I think not.

On the one hand, we can draw upon the example that Fish uses, the Mozert case. The plaintiff, a fundamentalist Christian, had a daughter in a public elementary school. Students were required to engage in a program of "critical reading" that was designed to foster openmindedness, the ability to examine different aspects of an issue and make a reasoned decision. In other words, the students were encouraged to adopt an impartial perspective on issues to make judgments without prejudice.

Now, virtually everyone I know would see this program as unproblematic. In fact, I require my students to adopt such a stance in class, to use arguments and evidence to make a case rather than bald assertions, and to treat those who disagree respectfully (which of course does not mean treating their statements uncritically). I think our nation would be much better off if schools could effectively promote values like these--and I think Fish agrees.

Nevertheless, promoting such a value is not itself a neutral act. While the court sided with the school, drawing upon the defense's distinction between exposure and indoctrination--the school was exposing children to different ideas, but not advocating any particular one of them--Fish points out that this really begs the question. This distinction, he writes,

rests on a psychology that is part and parcel of the liberalism [plaintiff] Vicki Frost and her friends don't want imposed on their children. In that psychology, the mind remains unaffected by the ideas and doctrines that pass before it, and its job is to weigh and assess those doctrines from a position distanced from and independent of any of them....

However, in another psychology, one undergirded by a conviction of original sin, the mind is not...so strongly independent. Rather than standing apart from the range of views that contend for its approval, it is, in its congenital weakness and disposition to be overwhelmed, at the mercy of those views; and accordingly, it behooves the parent or educator to take care lest their charges be influenced in the wrong directions, as they well might be if they were introduced to notions they were ill-equipped to resist. [from Macedo, Deliberative Politics, 91-2]

Now, my initial response to reading this passage was--and I wrote this in the margin--"But their psychology is the wrong one!" Surely, I thought, questions of human psychology are matters to be discovered empirically. There are at least two problems with this view. On the one hand, the Enlightenment psychology that liberalism presupposes probably isn't that true. With the exception of those academically-trained, few people are good at reasoning.

But, perhaps more centrally, wouldn't relying on the methods of empirical psychology yet again beg the question? Is the Christian more likely to trust what scientists have to say about the human mind over what they take to be the word of God? If we're going to be honest here, this disagreement goes all the way down.

So here we see one way in which impartiality is not uncontroversially virtuous. But, this brings me to the other case of when neutrality is undesirable--should we really be honest?

Let me be clear about what I mean. I'm not saying we shouldn't be honest with ourselves. If, as liberals and children of the Enlightenment, we value impartiality, we should recognize that here is a case where we're not taking seriously the views of fundamentalists and others who disagree with us. In a sense, it's impossible to be truly impartial here.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that we should abandon talk of that value. Consider the alternative--it's been tried and I don't think that we want to go down that bloody road again. Rather, by invoking these kinds of values, we add rhetorical or strategic force to our agenda. Fish masterfully picks up on this, when he points out that, even though the only real reason they exclude views like Ms. Frost's is that they disagree with them,

As card-carrying liberals, Gutmann and Thompson cannot acknowledge dislike of a point of view as a reason for keeping it out of a conversation; after all, the very first premise of their liberalism is that private moral judgments should not be imposed on others in the form of public policy. Therefore, they must find a way of dressing up their personal moral judgments so they will appear to have been generated by a wholly impersonal mechanism. [ibid., 95; my emphasis]

G&T's insistence that all arguments must be in good faith, leaves them no room for strategizing and ultimately renders their position fundamentally inconsistent. This is why I largely prefer Mouffe's account; she acknowledges that there are limits to pluralism, that there's sometimes a fine line between good and bad faith arguments, and explicitly advocates a democratic agenda within these constraints.

Thus, if we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have certain values that we would like to see dominant, then let us be less than fully honest with those who oppose us, using a strategy that draws on classical liberal values even while it circumvents them. This brings us to a strange place, almost a kind of left Straussianism, where we advocate one dialogue among the elites and another for the voting public.

Is this stance in any way justifiable? I mean, right Straussianism is the philosophy undergirding the current Republican leadership, which leads them to lie with impugnity and has gotten us into a whole mess of shit. Is it enough to say that this kind of Machiavellianism (in the vulgar sense) is alright for us since our position is the right one? Is there any other basis for such a position?

Well, in the first place, should we win out, then we wouldn't have to adapt such strategies and could then be honestly impartial--since everyone would agree on the primacy of this value. This is not a satisfactory answer, of course, because the fundamentalist could make the exact same argument, and it just ends up being a battle of wills to see who triumphs politically.

This is where I think theoretical justifications reach a limit. I cannot envision one that does not, in some way, implicitly beg the question. As many have pointed out, pluralism has only so much room for anti-pluralism; tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance. Nevertheless, I will not fall prey to Rorty's strategy of just giving up on our adversaries and speaking only to "we liberals". There are practical reasons in favor of liberal democratic values like impartiality, tolerance, reciprocity, and so forth (and here I grant that I have not been careful in distinguishing between these).

First, the commitments of political liberalism are minimal. You can maintain a wide array of beliefs on anything you want. You can be a Christian, a Muslim, a classical conservative, a libertarian, a neo-Darwinian, or a paranormalist--pretty much whatever your heart desires.

You just have to admit that you might be wrong, that people who disagree with you are not as a result utterly wicked or irrational but worthy of respect, and that living together in a diverse society sometimes requires us to sacrifice things that we hold dear. In short, the tent of liberalism may not fit everyone, but it's a hell of a lot bigger than the tent of fundamentalism or any other anti-liberal view.

But, and I see this as its greatest value, it gives a means of resolving our conflicts without the use of physical violence. If you disagree with me, I don't get a bunch of my friends together and then go burn down your house (while you're in it of course). No, we just argue, until one side wins out (by taking a vote or whatever).

This doesn't mean that there won't be coercion and other types of force--like the rhetorical or ideological force that is the seamy underside of rational conversation. This doesn't mean that there aren't costs, for instance, the less cohesive bonds of an individualistic, tolerant culture.

But what else can we do? We saw many political ideologies emerge and come into power in the last century (in the West) only to lead to genocide and other atrocities. Democracy has won the day. While modern democracies engage in far too much warfare against weaker, non-democratic states, at least they don't fight amongst themselves (or haven't yet).

In closing, I encourage those of you with an interest in political theory to read Fish's article--and Mouffe's The Democratic Paradox while you're at it--to see a number of these points made more articulately. And if you come up with any better political solution than liberal democracy, please let me know!


Political Discourse

If you look to your right, you'll notice that the first blog I include among my links is "driftglass".

The author of this eponymous blog is an extremely talented writer, who does a great job of mixing eloquence and forthrightness. His brilliant use of crass language (e.g., fundamentalists as "Christalopithecans" and "Christopaths", the GOP's "Fuck Everyone But Me" ethos, Rove depicted as "Don Karleone", and so on) often seems an appropriate response to the vulgar sentiment that emanates from the right these days.

Nevertheless, driftglass is representative of a breakdown in American political discourse. He does not take positions counter to his own seriously. He answers claims with epithets rather than arguments. He is a master of the ad hominem.

Now, to be fair, he sees himself as responding to a rightwing that has abandoned argument and adopted similar tactics. If they refuse to reason with their opponents, why should he bother reasoning with them?

I have recently been having email conversations with my dear friend Ben on divisiveness in American political life. Ben is that rarest of breeds, a reasonable conservative. (But I kid! He's really more of a moderate.)

In any case, if not for Ben, I might not recognize that there are reasonable cases to be made, for instance, against the welfare state and affirmative action, and for the death penalty and abstinence education.

In studying deliberative democratic theory this term, I find myself often thinking of Ben. The reason that we are able to remain friends despite considerable disagreements is largely due to the mutual respect we have for one another.

Theorists like Gutmann and Thompson see this attitude as the central virtue of a democratic society. So long as we feel a need to treat our opponents as reasonable people who happen to have different values, that is, so long as we feel a need to justify ourselves to them when it comes to implementing policies that affect us all, healthy political discourse can flourish.

Chantal Mouffe, perhaps my favorite contemporary political theorist, calls this relationship an "agonistic" one between "adversaries", as opposed to the "antagonistic" relation between "enemies".

Enemies are those whose motives we impugn. We see them as incorrigibly evil, hopelessly ignorant, or batshit insane. In Rawls' language, they are unreasonable and should thus be excluded from political discourse. As a result of this, those of us who remain politically active increasingly find ourselves talking only to those who disagree with us.

driftglass is a paradigmatic case; he never tries to reach out to the other side. Blogs that have made such an effort--Left2Right comes to mind--have been dismissed by many as being in bad faith and elitist. I used to read and respond to comments on that blog before the feature was disabled, but by then I had long since given up on it. All too often, the commenters were anti-intellectual, seeing fit to respond to a professor's elaborate arguments with a wave of the hand (or just the finger). However, to be fair, the professors themselves did not always argue in good faith.

I like deliberative politics insofar as it is an ideal that would probably make for a better, more democratic nation. Today, the powerful and wealthy see little need to justify themselves to anyone. Candidates are marketed like laundry detergents while political dialogue has degenerated to the dozens. Civic-mindedness and public-spiritedness are at a nadir. Secrecy and fearmongering are used to silence dissent. The state of our union is not merely not "strong"; it's hardly worthy of the term "union" at all.

It's easy to blame this on the GOP. After all, prominent elements within it are eliminationist, endeavoring to create a one-party state. Sometimes, the only effective response to force is more force. And yet, I am not willing to give up the fight for a more reasonable public sphere.

The American left--if it can even be called that--is itself divided. Internal dissent abounds, and is probably partly to blame for our relative impotence. Nevertheless, I see it as our greatest strength.

Many on the right are intolerant of internal dissent and only recently have significant cracks opened on their united facade. These days, I often ask myself, where are the Republicans with principles? Why have moderates allowed themselves to be bullied into silence? Thankfully, people like Rep. Heather Wilson and Sen. Arlen Specter are starting to come forward to question the GOP leadership.

Perhaps we will see an end to the unholy alliance of neocons, theocons, bigots, and libertarians that comprise the modern-day GOP. Our democracy could sure use more than 2 political parties. (A split in the right would also allow for a split in the left, so that those of us who are not members of the Republican wing of the Democratic party might actually have a voice.)

Part of the solution is recognizing that us-them is never a satisfactory categorization of groups. Sure, not everyone will respond to reason, but many still feel the need to justify coercion. Let us make efforts to talk in good faith to those who are willing to listen. If we are to be partisans, let us be partisans of respect, reciprocity, and reasonableness.

We are all human beings here. Perhaps not all of us are inheritors of the Enlightenment, but many of us are. We mustn't lose sight of that. The Enlightenment gives us the hope of creating a society based on principles of liberty, equality, and justice rather than on the maxim that might makes right.

Those who still favor patriarchal authority, revelation, and intuition over democracy, science, and reason remain our enemies. But, in truth, this group is not as large as we sometimes fear. Many religious individuals are our allies here; they see the human mind as a divine gift that should not go to waste.

Ultimately, education is our greatest tool. When I teach class, I tell my students--and quite honestly I mean it--that I care little about the content of their opinions but ask only that they try to justify what they say with reasons that most people would accept. Yes, that means I am excluding those individuals who see human reason as an affront to God's greatness, but is this really so much to ask?

Can a nation thrive with absolutely no values in common? So why not encourage this one minimal commitment that opens the doors to a healthy pluralism that does not require violence to resolve disputes? Have we not had enough bloodshed, enough conversions at the tip of a sword or the barrel of a gun?

Can't we just agree to disagree?