Tag Archives: politics

Maï ’68?

I’ve been away altogether too long, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but between clearing up funeral arrangements at home over Thanksgiving break and then scrambling to finish everything I had missed at school, time hasn’t been my most plentiful commodity.  My inability to find time for jogging is about to make me wax corpulent.

The question on my mind today was sparked by the student riots currently afoot in Greece.  I’m interested both because Greece is the most amazing place I have ever been, and because I have an intense fascination with the “Maï 1968” uprisings in Europe.  According to an article from the Chicago Tribune, 

There is a consensus among Greeks that they witnessed a true social uprising this month […] but there is another realization bubbling up in conversations: the young, those who went first into the streets, appear to have no idea how to make the most of their demands.  Hundreds turned out for peaceful and articulate demonstrations Saturday and Monday, but so far no leader has emerged.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young. Of course, not all of the demonstrations have been peaceful, and except in cases of blatant and continuing violence on the part of the state, we must condemn riots and property destruction.  But what are we to make of these “peaceful and articulate demonstrations?”  The spirit of revolution is extremely far from us, living as we do in a basically seamless system of votes and unobtrusive policies (although, of course, there are chinks in the armor, viz. 2000 election).  So to ask the question of its appropriateness is academic for us.  But it is hardly so for the Greeks, so we may as well ask it now.

Bernard-Henri Levy, the staunchest possible opponent of the “utopian” style of revolution (say, like that of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to turn the clock back to “year zero” and restructure society entirely), is still an admirer of 1968.  Not every aspect, of course — but he sees the uprisings as an anti-totalitarian move, the time when the Left finally gave up the insanity of Stalinism (1968 was, after all, also the year of the Prague Spring).  

Obviously, the uprisings were a complete failure, completely unable to upset the bourgeois status quo in the West, or to stem the tide of Soviet tanks in the East.  The Vietnam War plugged on, the Soviet Union would peter out slowly over the next twenty years, and certainly The Young did not reform society as they hoped.  

So, is the whole thing dead?  Did 1968 silence the revolutionary dream forever?  Is that dream always the same?

I would tentatively answer “no” to all those questions.  The issue in Greece may be different, but the circumstances are similar: a center-right government, unremarkable for repression, nevertheless makes explicit its foundation upon a barely-restrained ocean of violence; students, being young and being students, take umbrage and begin to take action.  This is qualitatively different from the riots in the banlieus of Paris a few years ago, where a cauldron of unrest simply overflowed into mass property destruction.  Again, there has been destruction in Greece, but also the protests mentioned above.  

So the defeat of 1968 was not necessarily forever.  I would also argue that the revolutionary dream is not always the same.  The much-reviled Hugo Chavez, for instance, makes use of revolutionary rhetoric but has honored democracy even when his personal governmental plans were rejected (and many of them were rejected rightly — if Chavez truly believes in Socialism for the 21st Century, he should be content to leave his movement with a successor).  This is absolutely different from another revolutionary state, Cuba, where the media is utterly repressed and governmental change is impossible.

Ultimately, this does boil down to governmental change.  Democracy ought to work by means of voting, absolutely.  But nowhere is it written that democracy is identical to voting.  There does come a time when governments must be overthrown.  Certainly we are nowhere near that point, and I doubt whether Greece is, either.  But I do believe that most of us, not finding ourselves too burdened or oppressed by the government, accept it even when it acts against our own, and against the nation’s, interests.  It is not aberrant or criminal for democracy to burst out of its usual self-imposed limits and force its elected leaders (who can and must be recalled as soon as they betray the public trust) to wake up and listen to the people.  All of our center-right, status-quo, middle class Western democracies tend to keep the peace and honor the vote, but they are also fond of showing the basis of their power: police sovereignty, the state of exception, state-sanctioned torture, secret prisons, harsh treatment of youth (as in Greece), and so on.  

“Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” wrote the Nazi Carl Schmitt.  This power — the declaration of emergency states, the placing of bodies into a perpetual status of arrest, the reduction of a human life (with all its attendant rights) to bare life, is a terrifying power.  Who holds it?  In our own country, the executive branch holds it, together with its department of justice, and congress has shown next to no interest in checking it (except for a few warriors like Chris Dodd, who’s increasing difficulties with the financial crisis prove that, as usual, it is money that will bring down those who could have been our best and brightest).  In other words, you and I do not hold this power.  In fact, were we unlucky enough to share a name or a skin color with a suspected terrorist, we could feel it ourselves.  

I am not suggesting revolution here.  Our president-elect has, thank God, promised to order a close to Guantanamo, one of our great national embarrassments.  But when our government — especially the executive, or the unelected Supreme Court — makes reckless decisions in the name of “security” or what-have-you, decisions in which we should by right have a say, I believe it is our duty to use the voice — one of the few weapons held in common by all, and fortunately mostly unchecked in the US — to let it be known that we do not want to cede the “state of exception” to a unitary executive.  This opposition to the hoarding of powers, I think, and the realization that liberty can be stolen piece by piece without anyone noticing, is the true spirit of the popular demonstration, the thing that we cannot afford to allow to lie dead with the other dreams of 1968.

Your thoughts?

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Political Correctness?

I’m teaching Argumentation to my students this unit, and one of the things I’m emphasizing is definitions of terms.  In interest of that, I want to talk about this issue of “political correctness.”  I discussed this on another blog, but the issues surrounding this election (specifically the recent racial tensions on Baylor’s campus, on which more later) force me to break my silence again.

Let me make one thing clear.  One of the definitions of political correctness – which I suppose we could circumscribe as “mandated castration of vivid language to remove possibility of offense / dissent” – describes something truly vile, truly Stalinist.  When language as such is “policed” for conformity to a state-defined ideal, then language has died.  I could not agree more, and I oppose such silly coinages and “sanitation engineer” or “vertically challenged” as much as the next person.  They’re patronizing and not seriously used by the interest groups they are supposed to flatter.

However, I feel that something else is at play.  In the wake of Conservative punditry’s revolt against some of the sillier neologisms of the Left (and/or the academy – let’s talk about rhetoremes in homosocial discourse communities!  Anyone?) and of the election of Barack Obama, heralded as a neo-Marxist jacquerie even by members of our own Senate, some individuals are using this heroic stance against “political correctness” as a justification for all sorts of xenophobic slurs.  Uttering a non-politically-correct phrase becomes such a holy grail that pundits are now willing, from time to time, to simply throw (say) the entire population of the Middle East and North Africa under the culture-wars bus.  “Barack Obama is a terrorist,” they say, crying “foul!” when somebody tries to tell them that dark skin and passing acquaintances with U of Chicago education professors does not a Fedayeen make.  “Just look at the mandarins of PC trying to shut me up.  Well, I’ll tell it like it is, blah blah blah …”  No, you won’t.  You’ll inflame the passions of the electorate on both sides, making it more and more difficult to reconcile after the dust has settled.

“Barack Obama is an Arab,” they ignorantly declare, only to be told “no.  No ma’am.  He’s a good family man.”  The irony of that statement is intense, considering that values-focused white middle class “real Americans” have a divorce rate that dwarfs that of Arab nations.  That’s not supposed to be a value judgment on the two cultures.  It’s just ridiculous that “family man” is now the opposite of “Arab” in our culture.  It really, truly alarms me how much the American mind has united “Arab” and “Muslim” with “terrorist.”  It’s a hideous piece of xenophobia absolutely unworthy of polite discourse, the discourse of the “polis,” which is the ultimate root of that Political in Political Correctness.  Speech that is gelded by thought police is one thing; speech that is decorous and apt for the agora is another thing entirely.

Americans, our “polis” is made up of a lot more than white-bread, bourgeois, mainline Protestant four-person families.  Almost everyone I know drops out of these categories at some point.  Some of you don’t like this; some of you (and I am addressing pundits here, because I’ve only heard this from them, not actual friends of mine) wish that this were otherwise, that immigration had been restricted to white Europeans because they accommodate to our “values” better.  Check out the writings or statements of Tom Tancredo, Pat Buchanan, Rep. Virgil Goode, and others for this idea.  It’s quite real.  But listen: first of all, this is unjust because the Native Americans never got polled as to whether our Mayflower forbears adhered to their “values.”  Second, this is manifestly ridiculous from a historical perspective: I think it’s safe to say that more than half of my readership is Catholic, and have you heard of the Know-Nothing party?  They hated Catholic immigrants because guess what?  They didn’t conform to American values (and were probably spies for Catholic monarchies to boot).  But I’m willing to bet that you are glad to be living in the US now, and glad moreover that the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants have brought so much richness (and so many Cathedrals) to the cities of America.  I certainly am.  So: to push the boundaries of the debate to reflect skin color or some even more nebulous set of social memes, instead of religion, is madness.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction of fear on the part of whites: fear that someday, somehow, they will no longer be the dominant voice of the American Polity.  Well, I have news for you: cultures change.  People move.  Birth-rates adjust themselves.  But if you really think you’re going to be ruled by some Black Panther Politburo or a revanchist Aztlan-themed Mexicocracy, you might just want to consider being a little nicer to your future masters.  They may eat you second-to-last as a thank-you.

I think I just got onto a rant.  Oops.  Anyway, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re at least interested and will leave a comment.  I honestly don’t think anybody I know thinks this way.  If you happen to have written odious editorials, though, please take this to heart and think about the historical lunacy of your exclusivism.  And please, everyone, don’t use the anti-PC mantle of Orwell to justify odious things.  Right now Baylor students are using that very argument to justify the instigation of a shouting-match with African American students after the election.  That’s not anti-PC; that’s horrible.  Overtures toward our own mini-Kristallnacht.  Please join me in speaking up against these backward ideas, and oppose the real Political Correctness, not the kind that just means being civilized.

History and its discontents …

I was truly happy at the election results last night.  I think that our nation truly has made history, reached a landmark of tolerance, and rejected much of its racist past.  This may be the most important part of the 2008 election.

Furthermore, I am confident about foreign policy.  No, Barack Obama’s presence will not prevent other countries from acting like jackasses, but whichever way you slice it, America has a new face.  Even the tolerant young people of my generation tend, consciously or subconsciously, to “otherize” non whites in a host of (often offensive) ways, and by declaring with our votes that what we had considered “other” we now consider “us,” we also tell the rest of the world that there is hope for their marginalized status.  And by electing a man who values common ground so deeply, we have a chance to kick out the neoconservative hawks that have driven us into costly, irrelevant wars once and for all.  Hopefully neoconservatism will just go away before 2012; if so, I might remember why I was a conservative for so much of my life (even if I don’t exactly renege my apostasy).

A quick perusal of Facebook will show that I’m a minority voice among my friends.  That is, of course, what a democracy is all about — sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  But honestly, these status updates are killing me; we’re hearing things like:

X is lamenting the death of a Free America

Y is kissing all of his money goodbye

Z is lamenting the 30 billion babies Obama is going to murder

Q’s cells have been liberated from the Strong Force and have flown apart into the galaxy

W is pissed off and moving to Ireland/Italy/Canada (?) / Europe in general (?????)

Honestly.  What?  A couple of things I’d like to say: (1) your opponents have had to live through eight years of a decisively neoconservative president, and four of them were dubiously granted him by the Supreme Court.  Calm down.  It’s someone else’s turn. (2) The loss of your candidate is not the end of democracy.  It is, in fact, an inevitable part OF democracy.  (3) If you object to Obama because he is a liberal, good luck with the rest of the western world.  The United States is dramatically further right than any European country (with the possible exception of Poland).  If it’s social conservatism you’re looking for, may I humbly suggest Qatar?  Forget gay marriage; you won’t even see ladies shamefully exposing their ankles there. (4) You are not going to lose any money!  American leftist fiscal policies do NOT involve “taking everyone’s money” and “giving it to bums.”  It involves a graduated income tax, which we already have; increasing the grade will mean — considering that you are all young and probably middle class — that you pay LESS.  Okay?  Your savings is not going to be raided for the Soviet Common Larder.  Honestly, get over these puerile equivalencies between Stalinism and Nancy Pelosi.

Apart from these rather silly accusations, I’m completely aware of good reasons to oppose Barack Obama.  Nothing is certain in a democracy; I cast a vote for Bush in 2004 and wish now that I hadn’t.  I hope that won’t be true this year.  But I hope that the country will set aside its election-season divisions, just a little, and work toward a better reputation and a more just society that leaves nobody out in the cold, either suffering without insurance or dead in a ditch in the Middle East.  And I hope that everyone realizes how much more powerful grassroots activity is than the executive branch; so get out there and work for what you believe!

Stop it.

Pundits.  Stop using this verb.  “To vet.”  As in, “he must be vetted thoroughly”; “the press has yet to vet him on this matter”; and so on.  I don’t think I’d heard this verb more than once a decade prior to 2008, when I’ve heard it maybe a hundred times.  This qualifies it as a Hyper-Trendy Verb, which is also classified as Something You Shouldn’t Use.

What about examine, investigate, check, or scrutinize?  Are those somehow obsolete?

However, if using “to vet” keeps you from saying horrid things like “we interfaced with the Tokyo people” or “the train will platform at 9 pm” or “the groom was gifted with a bottle of scotch,” well, then go ahead.  Verbs are so wonderful, though; please don’t mutilate them!

I know, I’m terrible/wonderful.

Terrible, because I don’t update.  Wonderful, for you, because you get a relief from being harassed about reading my writing.  Nobody likes to be made subject to self-congratulation!  But alas, your brief respite is quite over.

I’m at the PDX airport, staring out the window at the last distant ridge I’ll see until Christmas.  Speaking of Portland, would you like to know how God punishes His children when they complain to much about the weather He divinely permits?  By specially arranging for your supposed “relief vacation” site to experience a freak heat-wave and actually climb to about 10 degrees higher than the city you just left.  So watch it.  The thing is to shut up and learn something from your discomfort.  Since I haven’t learned that trick yet, the discomfort is rising.

And sue me (Suomi?) for incorrigibility if you will, but I’m thinking Finland for my next break.  Anyone?  While we still have polar ice caps?  :p  (Yes, I forced a bilingual pun into this paragraph.  Yes, I am a massive dork).

If anyone out there is not so riddled with ennui as to be still following the election, what do you think?  I’m starting to have trouble distinguishing between the two candidates, which honestly makes choosing less consequential AND less exciting at the same time.  It made sense for Barack and Hillary to have the same substance with different accidents … but Barack and John?  Weird.  Guys, the American public might actaully respond to a little distinctiveness, a little opinion.  To me, these candidates are like a guy trying to make his date pick her own surprise Valentine’s day venue.  Somehow he thinks the deferentiality will make her happy, but in fact it’s stupid, tactless, and spineless.  Cowboy up and pick the damn restaurant!

Overall, it just reinforces something that I’ve been realizing lately, to my surprise and horror: Bush’s ratings may be free-falling into the Abyss, but his doctrine is going to be the rule for a long time to come.  I want to cite the popularity of John McCain, whose chanting “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” should be proof enough that his foreign policy is at least as bad as that of the Bush Administration.  And then the absolute spinelessness of the Democrats in Congress, whose proceedings begin to resemble a BDSM encounter without a safe-word.

Activist courts a menace?  They may be our only hope on the human rights plane.  Boumidene is pretty much the only good human rights news I’ve heard in the last seven years.

Now, in better news, I’m about to begin teaching orientation tomorrow.  Not that orientation is, per se, very exciting.  But teaching rather is, I think.  So yes.  Any of you who are teachers and have tips, send them my way!

Okay, it’s just about time to board the plane … time to be squished into 11-inch seats for the next five hours!

Dear U.S. of A …

Well, it’s your birthday again, the big 232.  Sorry I didn’t write earlier; I was at work.  Yeah, on the Fourth.  Nope, no extra holiday pay.  It kinda sucks.  

Anyway, I know how you worry all the time, so I’ll just say it right off: YES, I still love you.  Yes, I’ve not been the best guy — we’ve already been over the times I’ve said some mean things about you in front of my friends, the fling with Italy, a couple of one-night stands with Canada.  I’m not really sorry; after all, you’re getting awfully fat, and there’s a lot you could learn from Italy and Canada (and a lot they could learn from you – let’s be fair here).  But we’ve been over all of this. 

On the bright side, America, you do look amazing for your age, and listen, you’ve had the same government for all these centuries.  That’s more than we can say for just about anybody out there, friend or foe.  Your people are still freer than just about anybody, especially in the speech department, as the recent hate-speech trial of Mark Steyn has shown us (come on, Canada).  We’ll have to just overlook those couple of citizens (and a friendly software guy visiting from Canada) who happened to have the same names as terrorists and got stashed in secret prisons for a couple years.  Let’s face it, they aren’t typical.  But how many times do I have to tell you, just because someone’s named “Mohammad” or “Hussein” doesn’t mean he’s an Islamofascist Axis of Evil Mujahedeen?  Just like you keep saying everyone named “Britney” is a ditz.  You can’t say stuff like that, and I don’t care how many airheaded Britneys you know.  Got it?

You mentioned me giving you the “silent treatment” in your last letter, but I’m not going to apologize for that either.  I think I should’ve done it more, especially four years ago when you served up one of the worst electoral Catch-22s ever.  I still can’t believe I took the path of least resistance and voted for Bush.  Look where that’s gotten us.  Listen, I don’t want to have to give you the silent treatment again.  I liked Barack Hussein Obama quite a bit.  Is it you who’s forcing him to waffle on all his distinctives, or is that his own damn idea?  

Listen, 232 is old enough to hear a little tough love.  I don’t mean to be cruel.  I really only have two things to advise you on.  Number one: don’t be afraid to think outside the box a little.  Yeah, we might need to drill a little for some offshore oil, but seriously, we can get free of our addiction to Hummers and smoldering heaps of coal.  We can give tax breaks to green jobs, and to working people who need them most because their wages never keep up with these prices.  We don’t have to react the *exact* same way to every rogue state.  Sanctions, saber-rattling.  Saber-rattling, sanctions.  Maybe we could give a little more money to artists and universities and things that can help make everybody’s lives better, and a little less to corporate tax-breaks and all that supply-side hogwash.  Maybe we could think about offering paid maternity leave to all women, and health insurance to all children, kind of like every other G8 country, and, oh, you know, Pakistan.  Maybe not tomorrow.  But think about it.  If Norway beat us to the idea by a couple decades, it can’t be that horrendously difficult.

Here’s the second thing: please try to think way back to when you were little, and these States were just a huge crazy experiment, a kind of strange new blend of an Enlightenment utopia and the New Jerusalem, mixed in with a huge dose of common sense.  That’s what we’re supposed to be celebrating tonight, right?  Even if all the rednecks with the fireworks never read the Declaration of Independence, it’s still the point.  So think way back and tell me: what did patriotism mean back then?  Did it mean fighting in a war or having the biggest army?  Saying certain words and waving certain symbols?  (See this very thought-provoking article in Slate).  Or was it the idea of freedom from tyranny?  From things like taxes we have no say over, like getting soldiers billeted in our houses without compensation, like getting tangled up in French-and-Indian Wars that have nothing to do with us?  Wasn’t it something to do with a just government with checks and balances?  Weren’t you guys really terrified of the president, even forbidding us to call him (or her) “Your Excellency” because of that whole imperial tendency?  The whole idea of having a place where you can speak out and not have to worry about getting put on a “list” or having your mail opened or getting “disappeared” in the middle of the night by goons?  

The people you’ve put in charge of you for the past half-century, for the most part, think that patriotism is about having the biggest army, kicking some ass overseas, and storming hills.  Now, we’ve stormed some impressive hills in our history when we had to to do things like, oh, save the world from fascism.  But that’s what we have to do, not what we’re all about.  What we’re about is freedom: freedom to speak, assemble, bear arms, read, make love, live, pursue happiness.  Guantanamo and the Patriot Act notwithstanding, you’re doing a great job of that.  Just don’t let the other guys – the Machiavellians who want us to be all about threats and guns and torture and whatever else is “necessary” – win out, okay?  At least promise me that, and I don’t care if it’s the Republicans or the Democrats who win (see me sometime after work – I’ve got some great ideas for third or fourth parties).

And just in case you think I’m being a little harsh, listen: I’ll always love you to death.  I’m telling you this because of that, not for any other reason.  Hey, finish your cake.  You can work it off tomorrow riding your bike somewhere.  Hey, did I mention these gas prices are killing us?

Happy birthday!

Love,

Robert

Two ways of looking at National security.

When asked if the President can break the law, presumably in the interests of National security, incumbent Attorney General Michael Mukasey answered: The president has “the authority to defend the country.”  

Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, declared that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Both of these quotations, though I’d heard them before, were called to my mind by Senator Chris Dodd’s recent speech on the retroactive immunity bill, which even most of the Democrats are about to let slide.  I myself was a bit unsure about the bill before reading his speech — I’d been told before that the wiretapping had only gone on overseas (not true) and wondered if the telecom companies could really be held liable when the Justice Department assured them that the presidential injunctions were legal.  Well, turns out that if this bill is defeated, that is exactly what would be decided in our courts of law — the way legality is usually determined in this country, last time I checked.  The bill, however, would exonerate the telecoms behind closed doors, barring access to the case for ever and aye.  And, as far as I can tell, would essentially consist of the (Democratic) congress voting “yea” to legality being determined by executive fiat.

A good classicist or historian would know that the Roman Republic, aware of the need to balance security and liberty, had an “emergency dictator” position that could last for a set number of years in a crisis to ensure authority and military coordination, and then expire.  But Julius Caesar, citing the dangerous times, decided that the position would have to be lifelong, thereby ending some 500 years of liberty from tyrants.  No, I’m not saying that George W. Bush is Caesar or plans to extend his term for life.  But the constant harping of the executive branch and its neo-con allies that the war on terror is “unprecedented” and therefore necessitates extraordinary measures, is not unprecedented at all — it is terribly, regrettably, and frighteningly banal.

Now, on a lighter note: the top movie of this week, Get Smart, is absolutely hilarious and takes a fantastically lighthearted view of the workings of federal security agencies.  I went to see it because I’ll watch anything with Steve Carell in it, and because the trailer was really funny.  I wasn’t disappointed, and was placed in the awkward, but even more funny, position of cracking up by myself in a movie theater.  

Highlights included the Vice President boasting about his “new pacemaker,” the president falling asleep during the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and The Rock stapling a piece of paper to a coworker’s head.  It’s great — one of the few recent comedies I’ve seen with a screenplay that is more witty than sophomoric.  So, especially if you’re sick and tired of hearing pompous talk about National security, go and see this movie.  It’s an apt and not at all bitter satire …