11/30/2006

Iraq

As the civil war rages on, my mind turns more and more to thoughts of Iraq. Of late, I've taken more of an interest in educating myself about the conflict.

I pride myself on having opposed the invasion and occupation from the beginning, not from some sense of political expediency, but for moral reasons. As is well known by any student of history or veteran of combat--and of course the Bush administration has a dearth of both--war is hell and should be avoided when at all possible. Death, destruction, and suffering on a massive scale are all but guaranteed in war; if we resort to it, we'd better do so for a damn good reason and in a way that minimizes its negative results.

Two recent articles, one from the NY Review of Books and the other from the Boston Review, are excellent resources for understanding the current situation and its development. They complement each other quite nicely, since the former shows the massive ineptitude in managing the occupation from the US side, while the latter is an excellent account of what Iraqis have experienced in the transition from standing united against the American occupation to pandemic sectarian strife.

Both are quite long, but well worth the time spent. It's sad that there's so little that we as individuals can do to end this thing; it seems like the only person who has the power to do so (at least in terms of US involvement) wouldn't change his mind even if Jesus Christ himself descended from the heavens and slapped him upside the head.

Nevertheless, one thing we can do as citizens is inform ourselves and try to learn how we got into this mess. This is especially important since a number of those still in power want to go for the threepeat of failed US interventions in the middle east by targeting Iran. We must do everything in our power to prevent such recklessness--what better way to start than through knowledge?

11/19/2006

A Simple Argument

After watching Chomsky's film last night, I started to wonder why he is viewed as such a radical figure. What he's arguing is rather simple actually. (Because of this, I will employ the charged language of "good" and "evil" in a somewhat simplistic manner, as a kind of shorthand.) I see it as something like the following.

1. We should hold ourselves to the same standards we hold others.

This is a straightforward premise that almost everyone would grant on an individual level, but which some Americans might take issue with, making the claim that, since America is a force of good in the world, it's perfectly alright if we engage in some acts of evil for the sake of a greater good. Before moving on, I will try to refute this point.

First, two facts about our psychology: a) humans have an overwhelming tendency to view themselves, the groups that they belong to, and the people that they like as good; b) humans have a strong tendency to view individuals and groups that they dislike as bad or evil. I think the tendency in (a) is stronger than that of (b).

Concerning (a): Everyone, with very few exceptions, views themselves as good and no one thinks of themselves as evil. This includes Nazis, Soviets, Islamic terrorists, you name it. (The handful of exceptions would be silly people like Satan worshippers and perhaps psychopaths and serial killers who are honest with themselves.)

Vast amounts of evidence support this claim; take any purportedly "evil" group in history and look at their literature. Whether they're killing in God's name, for the sake of their glorious nation, or to spread freedom and democracy, they tell themselves some kind of story to justify what they're doing.

In short, to label a group as simply and purely evil is to totally misunderstand human psychology and, in fact, to repeat the error of many of these groups--this is why the rhetoric on both sides of the "War on Terror" is eerily similar. If a group is actually evil, it's not because they embrace the dark side but because what they think of as a good comes with evil, but often forseeable, consequences.

Now these two tendencies are not impossible to break free from, but it requires a great degree of self-honesty and the use of reason. You simply cannot take for granted that the side you're on consists of "the good guys". Everyone thinks they're on that side.

The world is a complicated place. Evil comes in degrees, and often as the consequence of noble intentions. Whether we are, in the end, a force of good in the world is determined by our actions. So, in order to make such a judgment well, it is essential that we hold ourselves to the same standards as everyone else.

2. Citizens of a democratic society are at least partially responsible for the actions of their government.

We live in a relatively free country and even though it is hard for an individual to make an impact by herself, people can come together in groups and bring about changes and reforms. The very least they can do is try. Cynicism and detachment do not absolve anyone of blame. I could say more on this point, but this is not the time or place for it.

I think these are really the only 2 premises that you need to grant. There may be some others, such as that responsibility requires becoming informed about the consequences of your actions, but I don't think I need to argue for these. Here are some of the conclusions that follow from these two:

3. It is our responsibility to figure out what wrongs our government is committing, to make them public, and to take steps to stop them.

This is clearly a driving force for Chomsky; he has said that what motivates his efforts is a matter of conscience, doing what he can to live with himself. This is why he looks at our foreign affairs and brings to light the crimes that our country has perpetrated on other parts of the world.

4. America is a good nation only if it avoids employing evil means to achieve its ends.

Realizing that every group of people sees itself as acting for noble ends, what really differentiates groups (if we apply a consistent standard) are the means they employ to achieve their ends. Really, the distinction between means and ends is fuzzy, so it is vital not to gloss over the tactics that we use to achieve our goals (Dewey is excellent on this point).

5. War, a human activity which invariably leads to widespread suffering and death, should only come in self-defense and as a last resort.

Okay, this may be a bit of a stretch, but here's how I think it follows. War is never an end in itself (or at least, most would grant that it never should be), but a means to some other end. However, given that judging the means we employ is essential to evaluating the character of our country, we should be extremely cautious about engaging in activities which are known evils, such as war.

6. The rule of law and consistent principles must always guide our conduct, even in extreme circumstances, and with people we detest.

Chomsky took a lot of flak for supporting the freedom of speech of a Holocaust-denier, but I think he made the right choice. Similarly, I concur with Glenn Greenwald on his recent post condemning Germany for trying to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld and others for war crimes that in no way involve Germany. I truly believe that Rumsfeld (along with Bush, Cheney, et alia) are guilty of war crimes, but this is not the way to prosecute them (read the whole thing for more on this).

This is also why our government should not suspend habeas corpus for so-called enemy combatants, or engage in torture, or spy illegally on its own citizens. Again, it is easy to view our ends as necessary (what is more vital than a nation's preserving itself?), so we must always proceed cautiously and, for all intents and purposes, act as though suspending the rule of law or violating international law are never justified.

I say "never" because in this way, on those occasions when there really are emergencies and extreme measures must be taken, we will always condemn them and strive to return to the conditions of normalcy, not letting ourselves slide along a slippery slope to totalitarianism or military dictatorship.

Really, this is all I think that Chomsky and many other leftist intellectuals are trying to do. Of course we have other goals (like ensuring more equitable distribution in the world, preserving our environment, and so forth) which might come into conflict, but this is one that I think almost everyone agrees on.

This is very much not a case of anti-Americanism (which Chomsky rightfully denounces as the kind of rhetoric one would expect from a fascist state), but precisely the opposite. Chomsky and others like him are true patriots who want us to be consistent and to live up to the values and standards that we profess (and judge others by). Is that so unreasonable or radical?

Elitism & Democracy

While reading Glenn Greenwald's always excellent blog, I was led to this little gem of a piece regarding the power of the press corps. Here's an excerpt (emphases in original):

But the point is the powerhouse media and their politician lovemates truly do feel there are things normal, grubby Americans simply can't handle. Moreover, it has nothing to do with political parties. Everything I've seen in my life confirms that, with few exceptions, they feel this way across the (extremely narrow) political spectrum.

If you're not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you're stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can't be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you'd go nuts and break America. They are Thomas Jefferson's aristocrats:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still, and pursue the same object. The last appellation of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.

Interestingly, in my endless years of school, this Jefferson quote was never once part of the assigned reading.

In response to this piece, a commenter using the moniker "mk" submitted this:

This is exactly what Herman and Chomsky analyze in their propaganda model in "Manufacturing Consent". The latter phrase comes from the Wilson-era liberal intellectual (and Creel Commission member), Walter Lippmann. He promoted this manufacture of public consent - it was then openly acknowledged as propaganda - by
recommending what the "responsible men" (always including the author himself) should do to ensure that the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" (the public) don't interfere with the decisions of the responsible men for the public good (by definition).
A full exegesis can be found in this piece from Deterring Democracy, from which the following is excerpted:
"The public must be put in its place," Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may "live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd," whose "function" is to be "interested spectators of action," not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As it so happens, I just watched a documentary (made in 1992) on Chomsky called "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," which I had received from Netflix at about the time I stumbled across this interesting piece. It's a fascinating film which I highly recommend if you want to learn more about this reality of American life.

I particularly enjoyed seeing (in the special features on the DVD) a debate between Chomsky and Michel Foucault (the subject of one of my seminars this semester) which was, interestingly enough, filmed in Holland, the very homeland of my good friend Benedict Spinoza who, although writing in a very different political context, says some remarkable things about the relationship between the reasonable few and the ignorant multitudes.

Spinoza, I think, evinces an ambivalence about the masses (one which I share), but despite some reservations about the danger that "the mob" poses, ultimately sides with democracy. Some choice quotations illustrate this.

In his earliest work, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza describes a personal journey that led him to strive for a particular goal, that he sees as the end of a good life (my emphases in bold):

[M]an conceives a human nature much stronger and more enduring than his own, and at the same time sees that nothing prevents his acquiring such a nature, he is spurred to seek means that will lead him to such a perfection. Whatever can be a means to his attaining it is called a true good; but the highest good is to arrive--together with other individuals if possible--at the enjoyment of such a nature. What that nature is we shall show in its proper place: that it is the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature.

This, then, is the end I aim at: to acquire such a nature, and to strive that many acquire it with me. That is, it is part of my happiness to take pains that many others may understand as I understand, so that their intellect and desire agree entirely with my intellect and desire. To do this it is necessary, first to understand as much of Nature as suffices for acquiring such a nature; next, to form a society of the kind that is desirable, so that as many as possible may attain it as easily and surely as possible.

Third, attention must be paid to Moral Philosophy and to Instruction concerning the Education of children. Because Health is no small means to achieving this end, fourthly, the whole of Medicine must be worked out. And because many difficult things are rendered easy by ingenuity, and we can gain much time and convenience in this life, fifthly, Mechanics is in no way to be despised. [TdIE paragraphs 13-16]


Here, in this noteworthy passage, we see encapsulated the driving motivation in Spinoza's life, which led him to speak and write what he felt was the truth, despite the very real danger of doing so (there was at least one attempt made on his life). Ultimately, it is a kind of democratic motive, as can further be seen in his Political Treatise or in the Ethics, insofar as the kind of life that it prescribes is presumably open to all people, not just the wise or educated ones.

On the other hand, Spinoza does have a tendency to talk about the shortcomings of "the vulgar" and the prejudices they are subject to. In a somewhat Hobbesian vein he says something like the following:

Everyone exists by the highest right of nature, and consequently everyone, by the highest right of nature, does those things that follow from the necessity of his own nature....

If men lived according to the guidance of reason, everyone would possess this right of his (by P35C1) without any injury to anyone else. But because they are subject to the affects (by P4C), which far surpass man's power, or virtue (by P6), they are often drawn in different directions (by P33) and are contrary to one another (by P34), while they require one another's aid (by P35S).

In order, therefore, that men may be able to live harmoniously and be of assistance to one another, it is necessary for them to give up their natural right and to make one another confident that they will do nothing which could harm others.... No affect can be restrained except by an affect stronger than and contrary to the affect to be restrained, and everyone refrains from doing harm out of timidity regarding a greater harm.

By this law, therefore, Society can be maintained, provided it appropriates to itself the right everyone has of avenging himself, and of judging concerning good and evil. In this way Society has the power to prescribe a common rule of life, to make laws, and to maintain them--not by reason, which cannot restrain the affects (by P17S), but by threats. [E IVP37S2]
Perhaps we could say that he is just being realistic here, and certainly his conclusions about the form that the State should take is quite a departure from Hobbes.

In any case, I think the lesson to be taken from this is as follows. It's easy to think that the masses are dumb and need to be kept in line when you're in the power elite that manufactures public opinion and influences political decisions that have potentially global repercussions. You don't need to be a neoconservative Straussian to be a part of the DC establishment (politicians, journalists, lobbyists, etc.) that actively views itself as elite.

Similarly, it's easy to be an intellectual at a prestigious university and go on about the stupidity of the masses and how easily duped they are, and so on. I have been known to, on occasion, espouse such views, and in my day-to-day life, I am something of an elitist: I associate almost entirely with a select group of people who are educated, intelligent, articulate, and so forth. Indeed, I often feel disconnected from more common people--I have enough trouble as it is dealing with my students, most of whom are a long way from having a working class background.

Now clearly, while we possess some degree of power, it pales in comparison to that of the various politicos who dominate what is taken to be "public discourse" in America. We are viewed, perhaps, as nuisances and rabble-rousers, conspiracy theorists and totalitarian leftist professors; we are marginalized and disrespected by an "anti-intellectual" culture.

But elitism is no fun if you're not part of the elite. Maybe we think we should be, but who doesn't think such a thing? This is one reason why I'm glad to come from a more or less middle class background; if you grow up with affluence you start to think that you deserve it (look at our current president: he hasn't earned any of the numerous privileges he's been afforded in life; he wouldn't have a single one of them if his name weren't George Bush). And so, I recognize my elitist tendencies as a kind of prejudice.

Now I understand a need for stability, but nobody wants to be treated like they're unfit to make decisions for themselves. This is one reason why control in ostensibly democratic countries is so insidious: it's masked by the incessant refrain of "personal freedom" and "individual choice". As Foucault might say, we are constituted as subjects in such a way that we internalize these relations of power, so that we don't have to have them imposed on us by violent force, except in rare circumstances. In postindustrial society, we're far past the use of mere threats to keep people in line.

But there is hope. The fact of the matter is, that we can have discussions of this sort, that someone like Noam Chomsky can star in films and give lectures all over the country and write books that people can read and so forth, is an indication that the system can't fully suppress resistances to it. Many American institutions function to isolate individuals from one another (look at the prolonged attack on organized labor), but dissenters can come together: at universities, on the internets, through books, TV shows, and films.

Really, this is what I see as one of my major roles as an educator (and why I find Spinoza's TdIE formulation so compelling). I foster dissent and encourage ways of looking at the world that fall outside of the narrow ideological spectrum that Americans are supposed to occupy. And this is why I work hard to stay informed about the world, reading alternative media and leftist blogs and writing my own observations (even if only three people read them).

As Chomsky rightly points out, it's too much to ask of an individual to sort through all the information available to get at buried truths. This can happen only in communities in which many individuals take up a small section as their own, learn what they can, and then share the results with others in the community and outside of it. This is perhaps what Foucault meant by the notion of "specific" or "local intellectual".

11/14/2006

Kids and whatnot

On another topic I have no business thinking about, this is a fascinating article on the virtues of adult couples who never have children (h/t Digby). While such a decision is not remotely possible in my near future, I had long assumed that if I never became a father I would regret it (thus putting more pressure on me to find a nice girl and get married). But, as it turns out (emphasis mine):

Hanson agrees that even if mothers say they don't regret having children, as a group they're not more satisfied with their lives than nonmothers. For all the truth about the innate physiological rewards of mothering, he says, "The happy people are the ones who wanted kids and had them or didn't want kids and didn't have them."

This is true even in old age, a time when many assume the childless will suffer alone while their peers are comforted by grandchildren. Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a sociology professor at the University of Florida who researches aging, recently completed a study based on surveys of 3,800 men and women between the ages of 50 and 84. "For years we have heard warnings that if you don't have children, you will regret it later," she said in a press release. "But beliefs about childlessness leading to a lonely old age are simply not supported by our study." In a previous report published in 1998, Koropeckyj-Cox concluded that there is "no significant differences in loneliness and depression between parents and childless adults."

Besides, what some parents gain in intimacy with their children, they lose in intimacy with their partners....

Cain reprints one of those 1975 letters sent to Ann Landers in her book: "I am 40, and my husband is 45. We have twin children under 8 years of age. I was an attractive, fulfilled career woman before I had these kids. Now I'm an overly exhausted nervous wreck who misses her job and sees very little of her husband. He's got a 'friend,' I'm sure, and I don't blame him. Our children took all the romance out of our marriage. I'm too tired for sex, conversation or anything."

Such alienation is less likely when people don't have children. "Statistics show childless couples are happier," Cain says. "Their lives are self-directed, they have a better chance of intimacy, and they do not have the stresses, financial and emotional, of parenthood."


As a male devoid of nurturing instincts and annoyed by young children, this makes me quite pleased, especially since apparently about a quarter of American women don't have children. Chances are, too, that the more educated she is, the less likely she'll want to be a mother. And I couldn't imagine marrying someone who didn't want to pursue a career of her own; in the very least she'd have to be a college graduate, if not a fellow academic.

Since I've recently been thinking about marriage as a relationship that would be best if it were in the model of Aristotelian (or Nietzschean) friendship, I see having children as only an impediment to establishing a close bond of emotional intimacy with another person--that article certainly suggests as much. Now that we live in an age in which choosing not to have children is a very real option, I'd be happy to take it.

Of course, the real question for me is not one concerning parenting, but rather one of its conditions of possibility, viz., finding a partner. Many of my idols in the history of philosophy were lifelong bachelors, most notably Spinoza and Nietzsche. I honestly believe that I, better than anyone else I know, could get by and perhaps even flourish in such an existence, as long as I had a few close friendships.

As it stands, however, it seems that married people are on average happier than the unwed, so it remains something I strive for (especially since I'm no stranger to occasional pangs of loneliness). Of course, I should be clear here that what concerns me is not the institution of marriage itself, in its legal form (essentially a contract with certain economic advantages for the parties involved) or its religious aspects (I find the notion of "soulmates" to be especially irritating) or whatever other guise it may take, but rather a kind of lifelong companionship--again, friendship in the Aristotelian sense.

Nonetheless, for the time being, I resolve to make the most of my single life, and am now firmly resolved not to have children. That could change, of course, given the very different circumstances that the future will bring, but for the time being it seems to me to be an irrational course of action, given the other projects I hope to pursue in life (establishing close bonds with others, serving as an educator to other people's children, living comfortably and with minimal stress, etc.).

11/12/2006

Hope

I won't bother rehashing all the clich├ęs and conventional wisdom about the results of our recent election, but I did want to take a moment to reflect on its importance.

A number of the progressive bloggers who I read regularly see this as the beginning of the end for the conservative movement, which has been in ascendancy for just about as long as I've been alive. This is not to say that we'll see a return of the Democratic domination of the New Deal, but that Americans have perhaps had enough of the extremism of movement conservatism.

I don't know if this is true, but I hope it is. If nothing else, that is what this election has given me (and hence the title of this post). If it is, then perhaps the progressive values that many Americans hold (as Noam Chomsky has often pointed out, surveys conducted by PIPA and other organizations indicate popular endorsement of positions favoring universal healthcare, environmental conservation, progressive taxation, etc. [I should fill in some links here, but right now I'm trying to keep this short]) may be able to come to fruition.

Indeed, it is good to feel hopeful. If there's one thing I wish I could change about the students I've had the wonderful pleasure of teaching, it's the almost pervasive cynicism that dominates their worldviews. I've written about this before, how nihilism, apathy, and anomie seem to be in fashion these days. Glenn Greenwald recently showed how this kind of cynicism is pervasive among political pundits, as well (first link on my sidebar).

Of course, I myself have never been able to shake off cynicism completely. As someone who does not believe in necessary progress in history, I harbor no illusions about what the future may hold (well, leaving aside my perhaps unwarranted optimism for technological advancement). I doubt that I'll ever fully eliminate my cynical side--especially since it's a cornerstone of my sense of humor--but at least it has always had to contend against a vibrant idealism which is certainly not willing to cede ground after this week.

Yet, there is still much that needs to be done if reason and progressive values are to win the day. In the next 2 years, I suspect the best that can be done is to hold Bush in check, investigate the hell out of his crooked administration and their allies in corporate America, and maybe increase the minimum wage for the first time in a decade. Election reform would be nice, but we'd never implement truly democratic measures like instant runoff voting and totally public campaign financing.

Taking a larger picture view of things, I really wonder about the future of this country. Some of the non-liberal leftists who I read are keen to point out that the Democrats are really only the slight more benevolent faction of the ruling class, that they are nearly as business-friendly, war-friendly, and people-unfriendly as the GOP. Of course, as is evidenced by the stolen election of 2000, small differences can have huge consequences.

I agree that the current duopoly in American politics leaves much to be desired, but why should the solution require new political parties? In Italy, there are hundreds of parties, and yet they end up having to form 2 major coalitions anyway. The Democrats, like the GOP, offer a big tent: leaving aside demographic differences, Democrats vary widely from state to state (contrast Tester of Montana, Webb of Virginia, Biden of Delaware, and Feingold of Wisconsin, for instance).

Sometimes I feel like the far left is too wedded to cynicism and pessimism to ever view anything as progress; every intellectual knows that criticism is far more profound-seeming than praise. Nevertheless, the Democratic party represents our best hope for positive change in the US. In fact, a number of more populist, netroots-supported candidates were elected on Tuesday, and this trend is likely to continue as the blogosphere becomes a more formidable media force.

For the first time in a while, I feel like I want to live in this country in the longterm. I've often dreamt of finishing my Ph.D. and then jetting off to Toronto or Amsterdam or Tokyo, but now I'm not so sure. Of course I'd like to travel more, but emigration doesn't seem as necessary and inevitable to me as it once did.

I suspect it won't be too long before American unilateral dominance in the world is eliminated by the rising powers of a united Europe, China, and India, among others, but I think this could be a good thing for our country (and the world!). If nothing else, we can thank Bush for accelerating that process.

Let me close with a sentiment from Spinoza: "So let the satirists laugh as much as they like at human affairs, let the theologians curse them, let melancholics praise as much as they can a life that is uncultivated and wild.... Men still find from experience that by helping one another they can provide themselves much more easily with the things they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers which threaten on all sides..."