Superfluous Men and Women

In patriarchal cultures, women and men are required by the political economy to form family units for institutional purposes. This is very difficult on individuals when the sex ratio deviates from parity. Sometimes small communities experience this sex ratio deviance due to economic migrations, where men or women move abroad to find work, but are not able to bring their partners. And as readers of this blog will know, the US African-American community suffers disproportionately from violent policing and incarceration, which produces a kind of sex ratio deviance both from early mortality and by removing men from their communities.

Other times whole countries can experience this: for instance, as Amartya Sen has noted, China’s one child policy produced 50 million surplus men because of sex selective abortion and female infanticide. Foreign wars–which kill many young men and force many more to be absent for years at a time–can have a similar effect in creating circumstances where there are many excess women, as happened in Britain after World War I. (700,000 British men died in WWI, but that left 2 million women unpartnered.)

Marriage is not a market. Yet some basic economics can help us think through two paradigmatic ways that members of surplus sexes have experienced their excessiveness: as a desperation to find and marry one of the dwindling supply of eligible partners, and as a freedom from the demands of traditional gender roles. It’s worth noting that marriage and procreation are generally recognized as key human rights, but they are not necessarily required capabilities for human flourishing.

The disproportionately male casualties of the World Wars have produced–by necessity rather than justice–a recognition of women’s capacities. That is worth celebrating. But the century-long accommodation to those new sex ratios has been devastating to many individuals. Our societies are heteronormative and those norms do not bend to accommodate one’s available partners easily.

Today, Americans and Europeans are getting married later and later. In 1960 in the US, women got married for the first time at 20; men at 23. In 2010, the ages were 27 and 29. In 1960, 72% of adults were married; in 2010 only 51% are. (From Pew’s coverage of the 2010 census.) This is due to many trends: increasing educational attainment for both sexes, women’s labor force participation, youth unemployment, but especially increasing unemployment among prime age working men (that is, men aged 25-54.)

As the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors explained, there is a very simple explanation: reduced demand for unskilled male labor, which leads to a different kind of sex ratio deviation. There are more educated and employed women whose likely matches are unemployed or underemployed men. Our current political economy is increasingly producing a new class of surplus men and women.

I would argue that the current rise of resentful politics–especially in the embrace of Trump–is largely attributable to this feeling of pending superfluousness. It’s worth remembering that one can be surplus without feeling superfluous: all that is required is to find a new purpose. But these causes are not  always liberal or liberating.

We Must Demand Professional Policing For All

I am a professional philosopher. That doesn’t just mean I do it for a living. Though I’m glad to be paid for my work, getting paid to do a thing does not make you a professional. Being a professional means that philosophy is my vocation and is closely tied to my self-identity. The norms of my profession have become personal norms; when my profession suffers a crisis, I feel it personally. Even if I lost my job I’d think of myself as a philosopher!

Yet most police officers are not professionals in this sense. Consider the collective horror, shame, and disgust we philosophers have at the abusive behavior of our fellow philosophers: think of what it means to be compared to Colin McGinn or Thomas Pogge. Why isn’t there that kind of horror, shame, and disgust among police officers at the drumbeat of police shootings?

Some police departments do have professional police departments. I’ve written before (for instance here and here) about my work doing civilian oversight of the NYPD, where–for the most part–I observed professionals at work. Yet even there the culture tends to be defensive rather than proactive. They saw civilian investigators as a no-longer-necessary evil, based on long-past departmental misdeeds. Yet we did that work precisely because the department had failed to engage in its own oversight. And corruption and abuse kept appearing, like whack-a-mole, whenever a part of the department found itself unsupervised.

Still, the culture at the NYPD seemed to be slowly changing, and I met many young officers who took their work seriously and evinced a desire for more than an exoneration; they aimed not just to mount a vigorous defense of the legality of their actions, but also to show that they had acted wisely and well, and that failures to do so were blameworthy even if they were not punishable.

I do not see that professionalism in the Baltimore Police Department. It’s quite obvious that the police department in Baton Rouge is not professional in this way. And we now know far too much about the unprofessionalism–indeed the thuggery and extortion–of the Ferguson police department. The list of such unprofessional departments is almost as long as the list of African-Americans killed during routine interactions that would never have led to violence with whites. And that’s just it: the one common feature seems to be that the unprofessional departments are primarily policing African-Americans.

I won’t pretend to give #BlackLivesMatter activists advice; their movement has its own leadership and needs nothing from me. But white citizens are and ought to be outraged by these killings as well, so it’s time for us to think about what kinds of changes to demand. We have a responsibility here and we cannot shirk it merely because we are not citizens of the specific cities or residents of specific neighborhoods that suffer under the boot of unprofessional departments. We must do what we can to professionalize the departments that police our fellow-citizens.

This will be a multi-pronged effort. Some parts will be legal, for instance, adopting a necessity rule:

Even when the police have a reasonable belief that a person is dangerous, the necessity standard does not permit deadly force if non-deadly or less deadly alternatives are available and adequate to meet the threat.

(And yes, the reason many officers are exonerated for their killings is because their states do not require that their use of force be necessary. That’s disgusting.)

We must also change training to emphasize defusing violence before it starts:

The key for the police in such circumstances is to slow things down: to ask questions rather than bark orders, to speak in a normal tone, to summon additional resources if necessary. Pulling out a gun on an anxious person may unintentionally raise his level of stress. In “suicide by cop” confrontations, this can make a bad situation worse.

Finally, we have to change the norms and cultures of law enforcement in the United States, specifically the sense that police departments give their officers that they are besieged by the public and must form a “blue wall of silence.” Law enforcement officers have strong professional norms against whistle-blowing and go further, even covering up each others’ misdeeds. This has become a professional norm of non-judgment of the behavior of officers when they are criticized by outsiders.

This is organized corruption at the national level. The more professional police departments are complicit just because they fail to deplore the activity of their less professional fellow officers. Police departments must respond to criticism by changing their collective attitude to each other and their jobs; they must change their culture. Right now, officers respond to criticism by saying or thinking that “Civilians can’t understand split second decisions.” This is that defensive move. They must become pro-active and use their own professionalism publicly. They must look at videos like the ones that show Alton Sterling being shot, and join in the criticism of those acts. They must say: “Officer, your job is to make split second decisions well and you have failed.”

Remember this article? “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.

This is what complicity looks like. Officer Sunil Dutta literally claims that calling him a “racist pig” is an excuse for him to use force; Sunil Dutta isn’t white, and that’s the only reason he will say this publicly. Yet he shares this position with many racist white officers, and thus provides them cover.

Police shootings must become not just a national embarrassment among liberals like me; they must be a professional embarrassment for everyone in law enforcement. Police officers should feel personally responsible to make #notallcops true; they should feel on the hook for proving the claim that “these abuses are outliers.” They must come to think that their honor is at stake, and that each and every shooting causes them dishonor.

So the norms of the law enforcement profession must change, and police themselves are unwilling to change them. Thus it falls to us, as citizens, to demand professionalism on our terms. We do pay their salary, and we are accountable for what our employees have done.

That means treating de-escalation and stricter rules of engagement as professional norms, and refusing to defer to law enforcement’s own norms of professionalism. We must conclude that unprofessional departments require civilian oversight, if even the professional departments need it. We must demand that our police departments begin building these new norms into officer training. We must demand that police departments replace the culture of the blue wall of silence with collective professional honor and shame.

The old saying, “Who watches the watchmen?” has an answer: democratic citizens watch. But we must stop merely watching, and act. We must work together to police the police.

Yours, Mine, and Ours: Confessing a Philosophical Theft

In a post today, my longtime friend Leigh Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution and appropriating her idea of “friendly fire” in my response to Noma Arplay and Joseph Trullinger. In this post, I want to acknowledge my error and say a few things about the difference between our two conceptions of “friendly fire.”

To be clear: the phrase is hers, and I credit her for it. But I failed to link to her blog in my post: I linked to my old post, which itself links to her post. Most readers will not follow those links, and so most readers would not see the larger context. In cases like those, it’s important to link explicitly (like this and this) if only to produce trackbacks. Johnson is actually a champion at this particular practice (as you can see in the post in question but really all the time), and I needed to emulate her.

Additionally, I’ve appropriated the term for a different idea, and erased her usage in the process. The ideal that I articulated under that name is distinct from Johnson’s. In brief, I believe she has a basically “Aristotelian” conception and I have an “Arendtian” one. So I was using “friendly fire” to name a concept that I believe is Hannah Arendt’s by way of Lessing. That’s important to me, because I articulated that ideal in my dissertation long before I had a disagreement with Johnson about moral realism. I stole material in my dissertation to write that post and I want to be clear which parts are Johnson’s and which parts mine.

Here is what I take to be Johnson’s idea of “friendly fire:”

On the contrary, almost all of the fights that I have with my “true” friends work to reinforce the idea that they are exactly the kinds of people I think they are: people who are committed to their ideas, convicted by their values, fearlessly engaged in the world and with the people that constitute our shared lives. It is because of that character that I find we are able, as Aristotle says, to “live together.”

For Johnson, “friendly fire” is when disagreements happen between people of conviction, commitment, and engagement. Since (on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendships should not be dissolved by disagreement, but (also on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendship should involve shared judgments of pleasure and pain, Johnson argues that among her “true” friends, arguing with conviction is not a sign of a lack of shared judgments, taking pleasure and pain in different things. Rather, having and valuing commitments is what gives all such friends pleasure (and lacking them gives pain.)Among her perfect friends, disagreement is evidence that we are like-minded by virtue of having convictions worth disagreeing over.

I say that this is all “on Aristotle’s terms” but Johnson’s reading of those passages against each other goes beyond the text and deserves to be called “Johnsonian.” What she ultimately shares with true friends is commitment-as-such rather than specific commitments: this makes volleys of friendly fire the source of friendship rather than an impediment to it. (And I’ll note that she’s displaying that sort of friendship here, for which I am grateful.)

The conception of “friendly fire” I used back in 2009 was always intended to be a distinct one from Johnson’s, while intending to preserve credit for the phrase Johnson used and to be inspired by her Aristotle-inflected account. It is derived from a reading of the truth/fact distinction described by Arendt, both in the way it plays out in her Lessing prize address, and in the way she develops it in her essays on truth and lying in politics. It played a crucial role in the first chapter of my dissertation, which was finished years before my exchange with Johnson. In the subsequent years, I’ve used that phrase “friendly fire” and the ideal it describes on many occasions, always linking back to the 2009 post. So in that sense, Johnson’s distinct conception of the term really has been elided: I stole it to refer to something about Arendt for which I didn’t have a good name.

I’ve also conflated this conception of disagreeable friendship with Maurice Blanchot’s Infinite Conversationeven though Blanchot’s actual conception of the phrase “infinite conversation” is radically different than Arendt’s, than Lessing’s, and than Johnson’s. It’s really just the title phrase “infinite conversation” I like: the idea of taking a position just for the sake of disagreement among friends who savor argument; to Johnson’s “principled” and “engaged” disagreement, I contrasted Arendt’s pluralism: disagreement for its own sake, to extend the conversation.

Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution: I didn’t link to her at all, throughout the most recent post. I mentioned her name at the start, but by the end she had dropped out. Now, Johnson calls this erasure, and I think she’s right. I erased her name, and added a different one, and I erased her concept, and added a different one. I kept the term as my own, and I really have spent the last seven years thinking in terms of “friendly fire” quite often without also thinking of my friend Leigh Johnson. So Johnson is right here:

I suppose someone might argue (maybe even Miller himself) that the insertion of “Arendtian” distinguishes what he calls “my ideal” and my (Johnson’s) idea of “friendly fire.” No reader could make that argument, though, because the actual content of my idea of “friendly fire” was erased from the get-go.

I agree: I actually did erase the content of her idea. I did it from the “get-go” in my most recent post. And that will tend to lead to confusion about what belongs to whom, and since the term is hers I really should get my own or use one of Arendt’s. Johnson has always had a gift for pithiness, and I appropriated it. Mea culpa: it is my fault, and I apologize.

So that is the “yours” and the “mine.” Let me say a bit about the “ours.” Leigh Johnson has been my fiery friend for more than twelve years; we’ve basically always found each other disagreeable in the friendliest ways. So the content of my conception of “friendly fire” was always about our friendship–especially our frequent disagreements on the blogs–no matter which philosophers were referenced. For her role in helping me develop my thoughts on Arendt in practice, I owed her much more than she received in the last post.

And it gets worse: I must confess to a further crime. Good citation practices should really have required me to refer to Johnson’s essay (with Ed Kazarian) on tone policing. For a lot of us in this little group of fiery-friendly professional philosophers, that post was a major influence on how we’ve thought and talked about tone and tenor in philosophy for the last couple of years. Now, the position I take at the end of my last piece, spelling out desiderata for a (third? fourth?) conception of friendship, is a bit more conciliatory and so is not really fully compatible with Johnson’s and Kazarian’s critique of civility and collegiality. I do try to spell out a disposition for all practitioners that is not combative. But it’s important to cite and work through relevant prior work on a topic: it’s a good scholarly practice, and this is ultimately a scholarly blog.

I’ve also now learned that the conception of “taking pleasure in being proven wrong” may be itself owed to another friend. Kate Norlock’s published article on the ideal of receptivity captures much of what excited me in Sam’s comment. An excerpt should tempt you to read the rest:

Generally, philosophers provide arenas for argumentation to advance understanding or ascertain the truth; if one is engaged in a community whose members hold that truth is best tested by some rigorous argumentation designed to experiment with whether a counterargument succeeds or fails, then adversariality of a sort is a receptive practice.

This means that how or whether one goes about the adversarial project depends upon which philosophical community provides the opportunities for argumentation. One with the explicit goal of ascertaining through analytical methods whether an argument is nearer or further from the truth will require a different sort of rigorous inspection from an organization dedicated to investigating the historical accuracy of a translation, or a workshop exploring the interconnections between new scholars’ related research for an anthology. I frequent feminist conferences in communities that have quite publicly committed to a reduction of adversariality and offered alternative models of engagement. There, what receptivity demands of me is different. This picture of the philosophical aims of communities is complicated when one enters general gatherings populated by people with different commitments, some of whom value adversarial methods highly and some of whom deplore the same methods. Although one’s task in such plural communities is more difficult, it is not a reason to discount receptivity. Sometimes the golden mean is hard to hit. We should still try.

That’s good, right? Norlock has really worked out–using Nel Nodding’s conception of care–an account of receptivity that Sam’s comment and perhaps also the fiery friendship that Joseph Trullinger is developing.

One last thing: Johnson charges me with a kind of unintentional misogyny. This is a difficult charge to evaluate internally, and is best judged by others, especially Johnson. I think everything she says on this point is true in general, but I am tempted to argue that substituting one woman’s ideas (Arendt’s) for another’s (Johnson’s) in response to a third female scholar (Arpaly) and using others (Kristie Dotson and Maria Lugones) to make the point doesn’t feel quite like a good exemplar of the true, pervasive, and general problem Johnson points out.

Yet at the same time, there is ample evidence that women must be much more qualified than men to receive the same esteem and citation, so that substituting more famous woman for a less famous one will tend to contribute to that trend. So there, too, more care was and is warranted, and I owed it to my friend–more than I owed it to the subject of my dissertation–to make sure she got credit

Friendly Fire and Fiery Friendship: Noma Arpaly, Joseph Trullinger, and the Tenor of Philosophy Conversation

I often refer back to this post about a disagreement with Leigh Johnson over the role of critical engagement in philosophy. Using Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in her Lessing Prize address, I described what I took to be the pleasure of disagreement in our profession:

Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!

Johnson’s phrase has stuck with me over the years. I’ve often used it when welcoming correction, or when explaining why my own critical engagement with a friend is meant to be a sign of respect.

Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?

I was reminded again of that exchange by Noma Arpaly’s excellent discussion of politeness (and rudeness) in philosophical debate. As Arpaly tells it, philosophers tend to violate two interrelated conversational norms, without distinguishing them: we are frequently rude, and we frequently engage in disagreement and correction. Among civilians, there is a strong non-correction norm that tends to go along with other norms like not hypothetically threatening or actually sneering at our colleagues.

Yet Arpaly wants to endorse violations of the non-correction norm, while preserving other norms of civil behavior. She creates an analogy to soldiers: the military requires soldiers to violate a widely held norm of pacifism–not-killing. But they must discipline soldiers not to thereby justify other norm violations–killing civilians and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against killing people, some soldiers find themselves shedding other moral inhibitions—and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against correcting people, some philosophers find themselves shedding other social inhibitions—and being terribly, terribly rude.

That’s just the nature of inhibition loss.

It’s a real problem. Arpaly counsels us to make the relevant distinctions and discipline ourselves all the harder on civility given that we’re already engaged in an unavoidable violation of the norm of non-correction. This seems exactly right.

Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong

On the Daily Nous thread on Arpaly’s piece, “Sam” writes:

Excellent post. I think there’s another, corresponding virtue worth cultivating here which could (cumbersomely) be called: “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong,” the disposition to feel exhilaration when corrected by a polite (even if “frightening”) objector. The reason we should try to feel pleasure in being (politely and civilly) corrected, rather than embarrassment or humiliation, is simply that, as the author points out, this kind of correction improves our positions in ways that are nearly impossible to achieve by other means. In a sense then, objectors (provided they are not hostile or rude) are really just assisting the presenter towards a goal they both share (doing good philosophy). Of course, it’s essential that the objectors appreciate this shared goal as well, and present their objections accordingly. If all parties view successful objections as pleasurable, mutually beneficial exchanges rather than humiliating losses or merciless victories, there will be fewer frightened presenters and fewer rude objectors.

What I liked about Sam’s comment was that it seemed to endorse and extend the Arpaly analysis by saying, “Here is a way that we can endorse a norm of correction without endorsing rudeness.” That this is actually my view (I like to be corrected so I can be correct) made me doubly happy to see it percolate up in a comment from another person.

This is not to put the victims of philosophers’ rudeness on the hook for responding gladly to their behavior. The “glad to be (shown) wrong” norm applies equally to objectors and presenters; more to the point, it applies even more to rude objectors than to anyone else, who must prove they really do mean to correct and not just to humble the presenter. Arpaly endorses violations of the norm of non-correction: she is no pacifist, as she says.

But describing an attack (of the “What if I slap you?” variety) is rude in part because it puts vulnerable others in an uncertain position: they’re required to pretend that disembodied philosophers never would do what they say. But this goes well beyond violating basic civility: discomfiting one’s interlocutor does nothing productive at the level of correction and even interferes with shared inquiry. It’s not that we must sometimes violate basic civility in order to violate the norm of non-correction: it fails on both counts.

Many philosophical practices must be rethought in this light: interruption, for instance, is pretty obviously a violation on her view and on the “glad to be wrong” view. You don’t interrupt someone if you’re engaged in mutual beneficial exchange, because that assumes that you already know the outcome of that exchange. Nor do you ask questions that are really just coded assertions of error: you actually engage with the interlocutor about whether there are corrections to the (shared) position within the evolving inquiry.

We must, we must be friends!

For Arendt, the philosopher needs disagreeable friends in order not to be lost to the crowd’s violent enforcement of the non-correction norm. Philosophers need to disagree with each other so that we are not isolated by our disagreement. Thus, the norms of disagreement arise from the intrinsic good of intellectual friendships. As Arendt put it:

“[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.”

We wrestle with hard questions–take detours into difficulty–because it is our excuse to spend time together. For Arendt, the philosophical project may have some or another goal–to think what we are doing, for instance, or prevent nuclear war–but its true function is to give we disagreeable ones an excuse to reach out to friends like ourselves (alike in the virtues of agreeable disagreement.) It’s thus primarily a practice of friendship in homonoia, like-mindededness. This is what makes “friendly fire” palatable: that we have deeper bonds that salve the blows when we do not pull our punches.

My friend and former colleague Joseph Trullinger comments further:

Arpaly undermines the point with the war analogy, because it doesn’t go deep enough into the psychology informing the mood of the rude dude. Really, I think Arpaly is proposing something more like a “gentlemanly” duel in contrast to “unsportsmanlike” war, when it’s the martial virtues themselves that are the problem here. I think patriarchy instills in us (where by “us” I mean especially men, such as myself) this idea that the defense of one’s honor legitimates the use of aggression, but it is really putting lipstick on a pig. The fighting done to regain or steal away social standing is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, and it may in the first place be wrong to do. Philosophy has for too long patterned itself after polemos, war, and been polemics; I think there’s a reason Nietzsche’s depiction of the philosopher as warrior of ideas appealed to me more when I was a reedy hormonal teenager, as these sorts of self-descriptions appeal to men undergoing a crisis of masculinity. The issue is not that we have been “too soft” with ourselves and need someone from the outside to be “hard” on us. The issue is that we worship hardness itself at the expense of what we tell ourselves we’re defending with it. Here I draw a lot of insight from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (h/t Joan Braune). Yeah, Achilles looks cool, and he takes offense over something trivial, but don’t get carried away with that pretext for allowing or gloating over more violence. Briseis is not the issue here, dude. Nor is it actually Achilles’ honor, or Agamemnon’s honor. It’s the idea that life is all about enforcing one’s life in the push and pull of force and counterforce. The intellectual “battlefield” is not the Iliad, nor should it be. Instead, we should foster the hospitality we see so many good examples of in the Odyssey.

TL;DR: less andreia, more xenia

Trullinger goes on to recommend that we replace my ideal of Arendtian “friendly fire” with a related one: “fiery friendship.”

It seems like an important point: too often in praise for “agonism” we tend to treat the conflicts as if they are self-justifying. We somehow need the agon to achieve the intrinsic goods of flourishing; we wrestle to develop strength and skill, which is the real function. We argue not because we are engaged in a collective project but because honing the arguments themselves is supposedly tied to the good life.

Trullinger reminds me that the “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong” attitude requires more than just contention for the fun of it. Correction requires correctness; we cannot bracket truth for the sake of the infinite conversation and hope that that conversation will have the same character. Indeed, bracketing a shared commitment to truth-seeking leads to just the kinds of hurtful “games” that Arpaly rightly refuses to play.

Fiery Friendship and Philosophical Hospitality

In the backdrop here is the status of women in the profession. Arpaly suggests that the rudeness may be particularly off-putting to vulnerable participants, and that a move civil tenor will make the profession more welcoming. At least some of the masculinist norms of epistemic arrogance (interruption and “Well actually” and so on) have non-pathological roles to play in parts of our social lives. The really unprofessional thing is when we treat conference presenters the same way we treat our buddies or teammates.

Women, Arpaly suggests, are just as “glad to be wrong” as men. They too can violate the norm of non-correction in service of a shared inquiry. But the profession still doesn’t welcome them, and it demonstrates this inhospitable demeanor by treating philosophy as a game whose rules are constantly changed, or perhaps like hazing: where jocular rudeness and dishing out and receiving contempt are a part of how the game is played. This has the effect of protecting the space as a region of rough play–and certainly many women and other diverse practitioners can survive in such spaces, and many men cannot–but what would it mean to make it welcoming and inclusive?

Trullinger’s view seems to be that we ought to endorse the spirit of “glad to be wrong” by being particularly welcoming to those who are unlike us: those who are most likely to find the space of rough play unwelcoming, with whom we lack homonoia. True strangers are those who can offer us grounds for disagreement much stranger than mere contradiction.

I sometimes joke that we only ever hear calls for ideological diversity in political matters, and never Thomistic approaches to quantum mechanics or a nurse’s eye-view on bioethics. But Trullinger means what he says: he actually does want to see an expansive ideological diversity in non-political matters, to study Mexica metaphysics, queer philosophy of time, Byzantine logic, and Confucian epistemology.

Some desiderata: fiery friendship should allow joyful disagreement and also charitable agreement; it should offer opportunities for world-traveling and loving perception. It should be an avid fan of the unfamiliar. It should be glad to be proven wrong and it should be receptive–not just to correction but–to a complete redirection of our projects. It should welcome the vulnerable and make them strong. It shouldn’t punch down, or slap down, or suggest hypothetical down-slapping. It might even entertain actual pacifism, which need not be weak.

Nationalistic Dissent: Trump, the Tea Party, and the “Bowling for Fascism” Study

Civic engagement folks need to talk about nationalist populism.

In the past I have praised movements with which I have no ties for at least giving voice to groups of my fellow citizens who are frequently excluded from policy and electoral politics because they hold noxious views. Both the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seem to have tapped a part of the US that usually have no representatives who will speak louder than a dog whistle on their behalf. As a proponent of participatory politics, I’ve often thought that the exclusion of nationalistic white people is undemocratic, just as I have thought that the exclusion of leftist non-whites would be undemocratic.

My guide in these things has usually been Hannah Arendt, who praised political participation and criticized the exclusivity of bureaucratic proceduralism. All democratic theorists confront this question in some way: why is it better for a people to govern themselves rather than submit to the dictates of some (richer, wiser, more virtuous) subset of their number? We sometimes speak of politics as a decision-theory, so that a form of government that depends on bureaucracy is no more or less just than any other: everything depends on the characters, or perhaps simply the decisions, of those who rule, no matter whether we call them administrators or aristocrats.

In contrast, Arendt often pointed to the spontaneous development of councils in revolutionary settings when explicating the ideal institutions of political life. On Arendt’s account, the councils of the Hungarian revolution closely resembled the Constitutional Congress and ward system proposed by Thomas Jefferson as an alternative to political parties, the ad hoc groupings of citizens during the French Revolution, and the soviets that succumbed to party unification after the Russian Revolution. Everywhere, the building blocks of politics seem to form the same basic shapes, only to be assembled into different forms due to ideologies, foreign pressures, or historical ideals. According to Arendt, the councils predate the formation of interest groups, they federate easily and advance their most excellent members as representatives to more central councils. The councilors are principally concerned with the establishment of the polis, and so strategy often succumbs to republican altruism. In the US and Europe, lacking as we do anything approaching a revolutionary context, the institutions that most closely resemble councils are deliberative polls.

What the councils, wards, and townships all have in common is that they enact a vision of democratic politics in which democracy is understood as isonomy, meaning equality both before the law and in the legislation. And isonomy is only possible if all citizens participate as equals and develop equal civic capacities, no matter what their ideology. In fact, this participation itself produces certain kinds of inclusive and non-dominating norms, such that to exclude our fellow citizens is to destroy the very power and capacity by which we act.

She sums up the problem in her brief essay On Violence: “Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” Where power designates the human ability to act in concert, violence emanates from a singular act whose explosive consequences are utterly out of the actor’s control. For Arendt, power is a characteristic of human collectivities: where a plurality forms, the potential for action becomes realizable. Violence, for Arendt, is a perversion of that appearance, insofar as what appears to the members of the group is the possibility of impossibility: terror in the face of the potential for one’s own death. On Arendt’s view of violence, the violent one exposes her fellows to their own mortality by reminding the assembly of the risks of gathering together with others who, like themselves, are fundamentally unpredictable. She may seek to control their activities through this violence, to force them to obey her commands, or she may seek to disperse them and their collected potential for even more unpredictable actions, including mob rule and widespread violence.

Though they usually appear together, violence and power are nonetheless opposites: “…where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” (Arendt 1970, 155) The inseparable contraries of power and violence are best seen at work in the efforts of a democratically-controlled police force, where they work in tandem. When they come into conflict, however, the conclusion is foregone: violence wins. The “textbook case” of such a confrontation is the Prague Spring, when “the head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the people in Czechoslovakia” demonstrated the vulnerability of power in the face of violence. (Arendt 1970, 151-2) Of course, the encounter is usually not so unalloyed, and the violence necessary to subdue power is not always palatable to the state. Thus nonviolent resistance like that adopted by the Indian decolonization movement under Gandhi is quite capable of giving pause to an overwhelming force if that force is itself aware of the capacities and risks associated with violence: “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but its price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is paid by the victor in his own power.” (Arendt 1970, 152) Violence can settle the present debate, but it renders every subsequent discussion uncertain because of the fear that it will be settled as the murderer settles the argument over the life of his victim: with a bullet.

This has long been my way of thinking about politics and hate: that hatred breeds violence, and violence is of limited effectiveness for building lasting political institutions. And simultaneously: inclusive institutions will tend to tamp down both hatred and violence, make us realize the inefficacy of hate and self-destructive character of violence.

Thus civic engagement would be civilizing.

And yet: this was always a kind of cherry-picked idealized political theory for Arendt and for me. It may well fail the test of empirical verification. A few years ago, Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, and Hans-Joachim Voth published a study on the relationship between social capital and Nazi party affiliation in Germany called “Bowling for Fascism,” where they showed that “social capital aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.”

This was a disheartening result. We often talk about Germany between the World Wars as if it was an unrelenting economic and social depression. But in fact, many Germans still had strong social ties and institutional memberships: not just militaristic, but chess clubs, choirs, and animal breeding clubs that seemed to contribute to the rise of the Nazi Party: “a dense fabric of civic associations went hand-in-hand with a more rapid rise of Nazi party membership.”

Social associations are thus no more good or bad than any other capacity: they are as prone to justice as injustice, as prone to democratic norms as undemocratic ones! As Satyanath and his co-authors describe the state of this research, this connection between authority and social capital goes well beyond Nazi Germany: we see similar mechanisms impeding development in Sierra Leone in the research of Daron Acemoglu, Tristan Reed, and James A. Robinson:

[C]hiefs that face fewer constraints build social capital as a way to control and monitor society. This mechanism may also induce people to invest in patron-client relations with powerful chiefs, thus giving them a vested interest in the institution. Hence, if in surveys people say that they respect the authority of elders and those in power, this is not a reflection of the fact that chiefs are effective at delivering public goods and services or represent the interests of their villagers. Rather, rural people appear to be locked into relationships of dependence with traditional elites.

Social capital and civic power, thus, can be tools of both isonomy and oppression. Like many other forms of human organization, the strategies and institutions that we develop to collaborate with each other are not universally good or bad. We can democratically deliberate about violence, racism, and misogyny and come to any conclusion at all.

The burgeoning self-awareness of white national populists within the Tea Party and now in support of Donald Trump for president are unlikely to win an election any time soon. But insofar as they are now busy building lasting relationships, institutions, and sources of support and political power, this need not have a moderating or cosmopolitan effect. In fact, empowering our fellow citizens could easily lead to much worse outcomes. We might well hope that they would continue to lack a voice in our political system.

Consider Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns: we normally see more participation as a non-partisan activity. Indeed the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service both define it as such, so that wealthy donors may fund GOTV as a charitable contribution without campaign spending limits. Yet it’s now become de rigueur to use targeted GOTV camaigns as a part of partisan electoral strategies. Democrats focus their GOTV spending on likely Democratic voters, Republicans focus their GOTV spending on their own likely voters. A non-partisan tool for participation has become partisan.

Civics engagement, too, could become a partisan resource. It’s increasingly clear that differential social capital accounts for some of the major privileges in our society: well-organized groups get better government, and thus over time the patterns of organization and disorganization have come to resemble the patterns of wealth and income distribution, the maps of public health disasters, unemployment, crime, and incarceration. As a good liberal, I tend to focus on the way that these differentials affect Blacks and Latinos, and to compare the plight of disaffected whites to the statistics that still report that they are, as a group, better off than non-whites.

But: my framing of the problem comes from a position of comfort. I am not a low skill white male in a de-industrialized city. And so my judgments and values support my class and social position: they are ideological.

Poorly educated white workers are the only group that is demonstrably hurt by free trade and immigration. Yet cosmopolitan liberals have pretended that they ought to stomach their losses to make up for our privilege. Who can blame Tea Partiers and Trump supporters for noting that no one among contemporary elites is willing to stand up for their interests? Who can blame them for attaching themselves to the first charismatic figure who promises to do so?

They will very likely fail this election cycle in the US. Possibly the right historical analogy (which I owe to Steven Maloney) is the French Presidential Election of 2002, where Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac in the second round. Le Pen surprised everyone by getting 16.7% in the first, crowded, round, to Chirac’s 19.9%. Sound familer? It looked close! Then he got 17.8% in the second round and Chirac got the rest: 81.3%.

The white nationalist populists interests will not dissipate with the Toupée Voldemort who currently leads them. Other politicians–entrepreneurs looking for a market–will step up to take his place, especially now that they are organized and self-aware. So what should we do, together, about our fellow citizens?