Dems want freedom to speak

Ed Kilgore writes:

I think both sides in the usual intraparty debates are guilty of excessive “the enemy is listening” fears, and that we need to create a free-speech zone with some simple rules of civility (e.g., I won’t call you crazy, and you won’t call me spineless, just because we disagree).

The question of civility can only be addressed by a particular, relatively delimited community. This was the lesson of the 90’s iteration of this conversation, though then it was called ‘flame wars.’ It’s quite easy to gather a thoughtful group of civil adults that can discuss and debate strategy; simply set up an identity verification program (a small credit card transaction, for instance) and moderate discussions. (The WELL does this quite… erm, well.) If you guarantee that -some- real democratic strategists, with the ears of real politicians, are reading the posts, they will probably be very thoughtful indeed. They will also be very careful, very reverent, and not only civil, but obsequious.

If someone out there starts such a forum, I’d love to be invited. I can’t imagine why they’d want me, though. I’m nobody special. Thankfully, blogs don’t work on ‘specialness’; here, anonymous strangers by the millions throw their ideas at the wall, and sometimes something sticks. They talk about cross-stitching, cross-dressing, and cross-burning with equal fervor and unequal intelligence. Early adopters gained readers and popularity, quit their day jobs, and started looking like the establishment. But there’s always some new writer adopting Hunter S. Thompson’s style or keeping a daily diary devoted to demography and statistical modeling. And the novelty, the energy, the otherness, and the insight will drive us to seek them out, probably with the help of some hyper-literate friend who scans blogs in her spare time.

This is all to the good; but for every undiscovered prodigy there are going to be thirty (or maybe three hundred) name-calling, misspelling, grammar- trashing, outraged fifteen year-old trolls posing as adults. Many of them will learn something from the experience of being schooled or ignored by serious-minded bloggers. All the same, so long as we are anonymous, there will be middle-schoolers acting like stock market analysts, men pretending to be women, conservatives posing as liberals, dogs and cats living together…. You get the picture. We can’t keep them out, and frankly, we shouldn’t want to. Cybernetic free-speech zones are just as preposterous as their real-world counterparts.

Spectacular Politics and Rancière’s Radical Egalitarianism

The other night, my friend Steve Maloney was asking me whether politics, and specifically political theory, has been reduced to public relations. I like to think that, while it may be that our task is PR, (a) it may always have been, and (b) that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Peter Hallward has an article in the January/February New Left Review that where he basically takes up the same problem. It’s entitled “Rancière’s Theatrocracy,” (sorry, paying subscribers only) and mostly deals with the work Rancière has done on the the relation between liberation politics and the staging of equality. In this “staging,” we’re meant to pick up a double entendre: both the theater and civil society involve a crucial staging. Public relations shades into pretending, costuming, and play-acting.

The Platonic critique of the poets and actors has always been closely associated with his distaste for Athenian democracy, since the same audience that could so easily be moved by the narrative manipulations of the tragedians could also be persuaded by passionate rhetoric and illogical sophistry. Many contemporary progressives find, in the light of democracy’s recent failures to supply satisfying electoral outcomes, that democracy may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The democratic penchant for short, assymetrical conflicts, combined the resurgence of the spoils system, suggest to these fair-weather progressives that a poorly-educated populace may not always be the best group to consult. In a number of different contexts, I’ve seen a creeping elitism amongst people who would once have cringed at the thought of hierarchies. As I understand it, the original neo-conservatives followed this same trajectory, moving from vanguardist communism to meritocratic rule-of-law.

This is where Rancière comes in. Like many of the other students of Althusser (Badiou, Balibar, Foucault, etc.) he has been trying to account for emancipatory politics without utopian teleology or deterministic materialism, the collapsed havens of orthodox marxists. The question that drives these thinkers, and my own thought, is how to side with the dispossessed, the dominated, the invisible, without falling into despair? Rancière began answering it by turning towards the pre-Marxists workers communes and proletarian self-emancipation projects theorized by Marx the scholar, and celebrated by Marx the pamphleteer. Rancière’s first presumption is that Marx’s efforts have come to stand in for the various and sundry projects that inspired them; by returning to the original source material, he hoped to wipe the slate of the tyrannical nation-state capitalisms of the Stalin and Mao, the absurd in-fighting and orthodoxies of the French Communist Party (PCF), and the association of communism with fascism and totalitarianism. His goal, in other words, has been to find what was lost in the institutionalization of these private and local liberations.

The best text for deriving his theory of emancipation remains his book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which takes up the theories of Joseph Jacotot, exiled from France when the monarchists came back into power during the Second Restoration. Stuck in Belgium, Jacotot still managed to teach poor children, with whom he did not share a language, to read Flemish. He developed an egalitarian pedagogical theory that levels the last bastion of elitism: intellectual superiority. He located supposed differences in capacity in the poor distribution of attention and knowledge, such that even motivational deficiencies can be charged to the inadequate expectations of the teacher. The trick Jacotot is famous for is showing illiterate parents how to teach their children to read! This removes even the supposed expertise of the teacher, and is definitely a spiritual ancestor (though apparently not an acknowledged contributor) to John Dewey’s methods. This is radical egalitarianism indeed: you can see now the opposition I was pushing earlier between the vanguardist Trotskyists, who in their despair at the unteachable proletariat became corporate neo-conservatives, and a thoroughgoing equality that trusts the demos.

Hallward notes that this trust of the audience is partially dependent on removing even the distinction between actor and viewer: thus, the political demonstrations of recent globalization and antiwar protestors look more like Rancière’s definition of politics than anything that happens between Russ Feingold and the GOP. Participation and festivity are key elements of the democratic theater Rancière wishes us to embrace. Being part of a crowd, demonstrating to yourself and each other the potency possible even to the disenfranchised, is the space where egalitarian staging takes place. This equality can be dissipated in an instant, of course, just as a crowd can be quickly whipped into a directed frenzy by a skilled orator, losing its self-direction along with its anarchism by submitting to the manipulations of a leader.

So long as it persists, however, this spectacular politics entails a Rousseauist carnival of freedom. No masters, no slaves, just a public, relating to itself without mediation. Rancière says, “All my work on workers’ emancipation showed that the most prominent of claims put forward by the workers and the poor was precisely the claim to visibility, a will to enter the political ream of appearance, the affirmation of a capacity for appearance.” As Hallward himself notes, this model of political action is incapable of sustaining or institutionalizing itself; it is spontaneous and ephemeral, improvised and aleatory. It happens and then subsides, leaving no great documents or lasting legislation. The real question is why we ever thought that emancipation could come by cementing our powers for collective action in established bureaucracies whose task is to suppress the very spontaneity that founded them?

Quashing nasty rumours

There’s a rumour going around, perpetuated by bumper stickers and politicians, that “God is pro-life.” It’s an interesting claim, and since everyone seems to want God (i.e. the heavy guns) on their side, I thought I’d examine it.

Michael Sandel, (yes, that Sandel) while working on the presidential Council on Bioethics, wrung this statement from expert witness John M. Opitz, MD:

Sandel: “…[W]hat percent of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise lost?”
Opitz: “Estimates range all the way from 60 percent to 80 percent of the very earliest stages, cleavage stages, for example, that are lost.

Hmmm…. so, in 2003, there were about 4 million babies born in the United States. Given the most conservative estimate of 60% lost before parturition, that means that 6 million embryos were destroyed by natural causes. This is convenient, as it is the most popular estimate for Jewish deaths during the Shoah (Holocaust). Since I’ve previously railed against the equation of abortion with genocide, this seems apropos.

If I can find some global population statistics that chart total human population throughout history, I’m thinking of putting up a running total: Abortions: God v. Man. This would be especially interesting given plague and disaster death rates, plus historical v. current infant mortality rates. Sadly, I’m not a statistician, I’m a philosopher, so I’ll continue to depend on the experts. The CDC recorded 857,000 abortions in 2000, so, to keep the numbers round, let’s say 1 million.

For 2003:
Humans: 1 million
God: 6 million

I would argue that any God worthy of invocation (i.e., an intelligent designer, deist or participatory) would not design a system with such a lousy success rate if this deity were concerned primarily with the survival of all embryos. Thus, God is objectively not pro-life. If you believe in predestination or election, then all conceivable omnipotent and omniscient creator-Gods must be understood as pro-choice (not ours, though) and pro-death.

South Dakota

A fellow PSU alumnus, Dom Eggert over at Sentiments of Rationality, has been worrying about those crazy South Dakotans’ test-ban on abortions. He cites the reluctance of conservatives to actually criminalize abortion in the way that seems consistent with their views, i.e. by charging mothers who seek abortions with murder. The upshot of the famous “Fire in the Fertility Clinic” test (which would you save, a freezer full of embyos or an unconscious nurse?) is, for my colleague, that pro-lifers must fully prosecute abortions if they want to ban it at all. It is not sufficient to prosecute the doctor who performs the procedure if we allow the mother seeking it to go free.

I like this argument, (since it’s sound) but I have some concerns. I suspect I missed a talking points memo, because I’ve seen similar arguments popping up throughout the liberal blogging community. Obviously, there’s been some strategizing over on the fundie side of things, and they’re starting small. The liberal response has been mostly from the gut, however. I can’t help wondering if the apparent contradiction between what pro-lifers think they can pull off politically and what their position entails is a gap we should be exposing.

The thing is, “embryos are human-beings,” is a first-order proposition for these people. It’s the primary principle of their moral and political identities. That’s why they can call abortion genocide without investing equal energy and political capital into curtailing the Sudanese genocides, for instance. Militant pro-lifers, militant marxists, militant feminists, and militant cross-stitchers all derive a crucial sense of self from their position: they can’t sacrifice those positions just because they are absurd. Instead, they’ll twist the rest of their reality to fit the endangered proposition.

Won’t pin-pointing contradictions in their position only help them to clarify it? When my students are trying to figure out how to be existentialists, I’ll often work with them through this kind of maieutics. That’s because I’m basically on their side… and that’s what they pay me for. Right now, fundamentalists everywhere are trying to figure out how to deal with their new political hegemony. Why should we help them formulate their policies? I know it seems like we’re making them look like fools, but that’s not the effect I anticipate. When they realize they can’t outlaw abortion without prosecuting mothers, they’ll simply convince themselves to prosecute the mothers. And the result will be some self-satisfied, internally consistent fundamentalists, and a bunch of unwanted children with felons for parents.