Just asking

I’m very interesting in the way questions are framed. Here’s an interesting set of questions from the Guardian’s Gary Younge, who seems similarly interested:

Do you think of yourself as white or British or both? Does it worry you that you got your job just because of your race? Where are you from? No, but really? Since this is where you live, don’t you think you should try and integrate with other races more? Is your first loyalty to your God, or to your country? Is it true what they say about white guys? Given the genocide, slavery and colonialism unleashed in the name of Christianity over the last two centuries, do you feel your religion is compatible with democracy? Mr Grant, do you think of yourself as a white actor or an actor who happens to be white? I don’t mind white people, but if they want to live here then why shouldn’t they have to fit in with our traditions? Shouldn’t the police be doing more to tackle white-on-white crime? Given the objectification of women in your culture and the rise in teenage pregnancies, don’t you think it’s time to ban young girls wearing make up? What do you make of the tribal conflict in Ukraine? I thought you asked for flesh-coloured tights? Don’t you feel that this politically correct belief that we have to respect white people’s feelings has stifled honest discussion and debate? Isn’t it a shame that white people cannot pick more responsible leaders? What do you mean, you can’t Morris dance? Don’t you ever worry about being pigeonholed as a white person? Why aren’t you doing more to check the rise in Christian fundamentalism? Who are your community leaders? Why should we balance our belief in human rights with our tolerance for Christians? What do white people think about Jews? How would you define “white” style? Mr Amis, why do you write about white people all the time? Don’t you find that limiting? What are you doing for your people? Have you seen what the Bible says about women? Are you the token white guy? Don’t take this personally, but why are white men so aggressive? Now the Olympics are over, can we finally admit that white people are genetically equipped to excel in archery and rowing? What is it with white people and homophobia? You know what white women are like, don’t you? I understand that as a white person you come at this from a particular place, but can’t you try to look at it objectively for a moment? Why do you people have such a chip on your shoulder? Don’t get offended, I was only asking.

Perpetual Peace

The Enlightenment project was, if not exactly founded upon, at least encouraged and made international, by the challenge of Saint-Pierre’s A Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe. All of the eighteenth century’s philosophers took it up, and while they disagreed on the exact means, all felt that reason could lead the way. Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were persuaded that only an international federation, which brought together various European nations and restricted their sovereigns in military matters, could overcome the amour-propre (overweening self-regard) of monarchs. Voltaire challenged the notion that the rule of law would be sufficient to eliminate colonial violence, since he argued that the worst barbarities were performed by Christians against those whose religions they could not tolerate. In this, Voltaire demonstrates a keen grasp of the growing exportation of violence to the empires of the various European states, and argues that toleration for difference, inculcated through the unprejudiced use of reason, is the only solution. (“Peace, without toleration, is a chimera.”) Yet Kant did him one better, arguing that understanding and logic alone could not enforce toleration, but that specifically moral reason must be cultivated: he eventually recognized that this would require a cabal of reason, a sort of secret Masonry that would attempt to change religious and political institutions from within by exerting slow, but constant, rational pressure. Neither rules nor education alone could accomplish world peace: it would be necessary to change both the institutions and the culture simultaneously, which could only happen over time.

In the twentieth century, we’ve largely given up on the association of reason with pacifism. It has become popular to show that Enlightenment sensibilities bring their own, much more deeply embedded reasons for intolerace and barbarity, such that Voltaire’s hoped-for transition from religion to reason is the primary obstacle to peace. Perhaps the most famous argument for this view is Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization, where he argues that our pathologization of difference has gained the respect of medical experts, who allow their prejudices to become diagnoses, and then torture their subjects in an attempt to make them ‘well.’ Foucault’s work sparked a major shift in psychiatric practice, and his general concerns were popularized by novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22: today, we seem unwilling to electrocute those who make us uncomfortable.

Yet after two world wars, and in the midst of the Cold War, there did not seem to be any hope for a cessation of violence as such: just a softening of the domestic injustices that were close enough and small enough for a citizen to intervene. We have washed our hands of reason, since it seems only to supply firmer resolve in war and more dangerous weapons with which to fight it. What happened to any hope that an international federation like the UN might suppress hostilities? Obviously, the UN can’t accomplish anything without abridging the sovereignty of its member-states, just as Saint-Pierre initially proposed. What about education? Well, with such ambivalence amongst the world’s educators regarding the desirability of violence, it’s no surprise that our children come out as divided as their parents and teachers. What about the cabal of reasonable men and women, committed to ending violence a little bit at a time? In this case, I think the pacifists are losing ground to the neo-conservative, fundamentalist, and totalitarian cabals, since the major problem with secrecy is that it always confounds the means of reasonable discourse.

The fact that reasonable people (libertarians, egalitarians, and thoughtful conservatives) are more concerned with marginal tax rates, identity politics, and electoral mishaps than with sharing their freedom from domination with the rest of the world, means that they’ve abandoned the most important part of their participation in reason. They’ve lost track of which goals are worth striving for and devoting your life to, and which ones are simply amusing or interesting diversions. The fact that many Americans think that freedom can be shared at the business end of a rifle means that they’ve misunderstood the entailment relationship between means and ends. We need, I think, a new course of study in teleological reasoning.

International Women’s Day

So today is International Women’s Day, smack dab in the middle of Women’s History Month. Yet most people probably kicked off their month thinking about Ash Wednesday (or recovering from their first Mardi Gras without New Orleans,) celebrating Spring Break, or focusing on their studies, and I guess a lot of my friends are looking forward to St. Patrick’s Day. So who’s really taking the time to think about women or their history? GWB (the Great White Beast) took a moment to point out that he’d heard of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, and to make cracks about gendered language (haha, “ambassadresses”). Makes you wonder how ‘international’ women are faring with the gag rule on abortion, doesn’t it?

As much as I like the notion of the holiday, the festive or serious commemoration of a struggle or a cause, I can’t help wondering what we’ve got to celebrate. If you can’t take a vacation day to go march in protest, why bring it up at all? And has anyone noticed that Women’s History is playing second fiddle to the Red Cross, Irish Americans, Peanuts, Frozen Foods, Crafts, and Music in Our Schools, all of which also celebrate the month of March?

Duh… Terrorism is an ‘ism’

The entry for “terrorisme” in the 1989 Encyclopaedia Universalis begins: “To terrorize does not mean to ‘terrify,’ to ‘strike with fear,’ but following [the nineteenth centurty lexicographer] Littré ‘to establish terrorism, the rule of terror.” (my translation) This usage of the word originated in the revolutionary government of France, specifically a period between September 1793 and July 1794 when the entire government was subsumed under the Committee for Public Safety, lead by Maximilien Robespierre, and thousands of people were put to death by Guillotin’s beheading machine. This explains why the French still think of terrorism primary as government through arbitrary violence and state-sanctioned murder perpetrated on its own citizens. What we have come to call in English ‘terrorism,’ with its international and domestic (but unsanctioned) sub-divisions, is apparently unrelated, a false cognate.

When we reserve the term ‘terrorism’ for institutional violence directed at domestic enemies, the actions of contemporary bombers and guerrillas appear to fit within the category of crimes. Indeed, even in the contemporary context there are good arguments for describing militant zealots and suicide bombers as criminals, guilty of crimes against humanity, or acts of genocide. It is not clear what the notion of ‘terror’ adds to our understanding of their aims and purposes, save that, like all crime, we fear becoming its victim.

This redescription does not even preclude waging the ‘war’ on terrorism that the US administration coined following the 9/11 attacks: the so-called terrorists of Al-Quaeda are simply war criminals, part of ad hoc and non-territorial militaries who have attacked without a formal declaration of war. In either case (war or crime), we need not have invented new categories like ‘enemy combatant’ or ‘terrorism.’

I usually point to G.W.F. Hegel to justify this alternative typology, since his reading of the French Revoluton is so crucial for me. Using the events of that revolution to critique the work of Jean-Jacques Rouuseau, he perfectly sums up the theoretical conflict that we would come to apply to the Nazis and the Soviets. Terror, for Hegel, was explicitly the weapon of the victorious faction. That is, it was intended to designate an instrument of the state in its claim to represent the general will, based on its failure to do so perfectly. Fear of death, which has been the absolute master from the first encounter between individuals resulted in physical conflict to determine superiority, is not the same as terror in Hegel’s use.

Terror is the specific fear of death by state sanction for opposing the will of the people in thought or action. It is a kind of subservience to the claim of universality that threatens to cause the individual to allow herself to be enslaved in body and mind. In practice, Terror is the result of fatal forms of punishment used injudiciously but in a juridical mode, rather than the gratuitous and random acts of deadly violence unleashed by factions with no state support at all.

On Hegel’s account, it is difficult to see why a suicide bomber would be called a terrorist, except perhaps that they espouse a cause. A politically motivated hijacker is no more than a criminal who, by his methods, denies the very notion of law or universal rule. Without state legitimacy, it cannot live up to the real fearfulness of a power that kills out of suspicion of intention rather than as punishment for an action. The very indiscriminateness of modern-day terrorist fatalities denies this possibility. Much closer to Hegel’s definition of terror would be the fear of being singled out as a potential politically motivated criminal; this fear of suspicion and accusation carries all the significant signs of terror.

Another sort of connection can be made between state-sanction and terrorism, both as a definitional matter and in practice. The myth of an outlaw billionaire mastermind, our current model for Osama bin Laden, corresponds best with the absurd arch-enemies that confront James Bond. Frankly, it is quite impossible to be a billionaire, or even a millionaire, without governmental support. Not only must those millions be issued as currency by nation-states and stored in banks, but they must be amassed with the assistance of political power and against the possibility of taxation or regulation. The weapons and training needed to commit acts of terrorism are only available at the behest, or through the willful ignorance, of nation-states and international regulatory bodies. In the case of al-Quaeda, both bin Ladin’s initial fortune and his subsequent support can be traced to two nations, militaries, and covert espionage agencies: the USA and Saudi Arabia.

In a very real sense, then, the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 were state-supported, and the ‘rule of terror’ instituted came with the implicit sanction of at least one nation-state: Saudi Arabia. Just as Robespierre, who was convicted and put to death on the guillotine using the same spurious rules he had instituted, did not know exactly what targets would be chosen by the terroristes, but merely gave them the justification that led to his own execution, my claim is not that either the US or Saudi governments expected the most recent attacks. However, part of my argument is that the reasonable expectations of bureaucracies fall far short of those occurrences for which they ought to be seen as the cause. Providing the tools, motivation, and financing for the murder of innocents is a necessary (and perhaps even sufficient) condition for those murders: it is a cause, and not an insignificant or approximate one.

Now, if Hegel’s typology separates criminals from state-actors, and domestic state-actors from international ones, such that all acts of violence must be understood as either crime, state-terror, or warfare, what is the value in this new amalgamation that drives the so-called ‘war’ on ‘terror’? Why move from clear distinctions to murky ambiguities? The answer, I believe, is that we have systematically participated in an error in judgment. By telling ourselves we are fighting terrorism, when in fact we’re waging war, we’ve created a confused set of expectations and restrictions. Basically, we don’t know what we are doing.

It’s that simple: we wage war as if we are enforcing the law; we fight for freedom from mortality and danger, against organizations that do nothing to restrict our liberty, and we savor the irrational fear that notorious masterminds and fanatical bogeymen may be out to get us. In so doing, we separate ourselves from the thoughtful work that past generations have left us to deal with these problems: piracy and the hostis humanitis, suspicion of increasing our own state’s powers for interminable emergencies, and the racial/religious intolerances that only bolster our own sense of righteousness. If the context were Protestants v. Catholics, or whites v. blacks, we’d know that these techniques don’t work. For some reason, we think that this time, for this conflict, we’ve managed to discover an exception.

For the antidisestablishmentarian in each of us

So, if the last post was all vitriol and false hope, today I want to focus on options. Specifically, what’s possible today that was unimaginable a century ago?

1. Communes without communal bathrooms.

Look, the real problem with communism is that half of the population are slobs. Yet the appeal of the commune is the community, the group of folks living and work together, making their own culture primary, raising their children in that culture, and generally having a ball with their isolationism. Basically, you figure out who you like and exclude everybody else. This’d be perfect if it weren’t for the fact that somebody’s got to do the dishes, clean the toilets, and take out the trash. In cyberspace, the strictly delineated individual predominates, and it becomes possible to manage your own space while simultaneously belonging to a community. Of course, these are tenuous, fractious, anemic communities: there’s no flesh-and-blood connection, so everything’s a bit removed. But these are communities predicated on solidarities much more basic than the network of relationships based in proximity. Common interests, common beliefs, and common lifestyles can form coalitions and blocs. We’ll never be a social movement, but at least we know where to go to find a sympathetic ear, a provocative conversation, or a good game of chess.

2. We can eavesdrop on our enemies.

Look, we’re not going to get anything done out here in cyberland. But making friends that are worth meeting in real life, making plans that are worth executing in real life, and finding solidarities that would never have grown up in real life are not bad approximations of getting things done. Moreover, the honesty of millions of lonely bloggers means that, more than ever, we can finally get a look into the psyches of our enemies. What’s it like to be a fundamentalist? Check out his livejournal. How about a racist? They’ve got a web ring. Wanna know what makes child molesters tick? They’re anonymous, but they’re out there. What’s the Republican party planning for 2006? Well, if you’ll check out their listserv, you’ll see….

Most progressives don’t like to do this sort of research, because these are not necessarily the most pleasant heads to get inside of. But believe me, conservatives are doing it: they get a vicarious thrill and a sense of superiority out of reading about our tawdry lifestyles and loose mores. What they learn affirms their positions and gives them plenty of ammo, so it’s probably about time for us start playing the same game.

3. Text is good.

If video killed radio, and the internet manages to trump both without losing out to Second Life, The Sims, and World of Warcraft, we could be in for a resurgent literate age. Literacy is the best possible skill: reading and writing are symmetric, anonymous, and linear. Rhetoric loses more often to logic in the written word than anywhere else. Intelligence and wit are victorious, sensibility and tolerance win the day.

Compared to a world ruled by sound-bites, beauty, false controversy, and the advertiser’s “What I tell you thirty times is true,” the world ruled by the printed word is a reasonable, free, and relatively just. Display the words on computer monitors, hyperlink them and gussy them up with some cool fonts, and you just increasr their power.

4. Islam is going to shake things up.

I’m of two minds on Islam, most of the time. The only culture to resist usury remains embroiled in gender roles and dress codes. They don’t drink, but they relate to the written word as if it were carved out by Allah himself. The tradition of divine untranslatability is a bit scary: it means God speaks Arabic. The Christians (with the help of their own Lutheran rebels) talked the Jews into giving up on the whole divine language thing, which is good. If God only talks the way my forefathers did, there’s a tendency towards a false sense of theological entitlement. If God can speak any language, however, what she’s saying can’t be exclusive.

Anyway, the West needs to figure out how to incorporate Islam, and Muslims are increasingly learning how to live with us. We’ve reached a detente with the Chinese, conquered the Japanese, and driven the Southeast Asians into financial ruin. But the Arab diaspora is situated in the middle of everything that’s interesting about the world: the oil, the money, and most of the world’s remaining undeveloped resort spots. Come what may, I want to spend my fiftieth wedding anniversary in Egypt, so it had better be safe and cosmopolitan, and they’d better be taking Visa. What that means is that we’re going to have to be speaking the same language politically and financially. (I’m happy to learn Arabic in my dotage; just don’t make fun of my accent!) And that can’t just be a one-way transfer; we’re going to have to spend some time working on the lingua franca, the esperanto, that will make the interface between Occident and Orient viable.

5. Engineers are this century’s vanguard of the revolution.

I dunno what the killer-app will be, but I read so many cyberpunk novels as a teenager that my faith in technology’s disruptive powers is unshakeable. Somewhere along the line, somebody’s going to develop a killer political app: some combination of social-networking, cheap gizmos, and hipster cachet that busts the political sphere open. All I can say for sure is that it’s not flash-mobs, and it’s not $100 laptops. But maybe it’ll be a pill that turns your epidermis a lovely mocha color and destroys the last vestiges of racism. Maybe it’ll be a matter-printer that allows anybody to turn junk atoms into Versace watches indistinguishable from the originals, which will destroy the still invasive sense of class. High-yield soy bean seeds, nootropics that poor kids can take to learn Latin and calculus, lie detector TiVos that catch candidates in the act, mass-produced bullet-proof underwear to de-weaponize law enforcement (imagine if Diallo had survived: “I told them to stop firing. Thanks to Fruit of the Loom, they’ll be hearing from my lawyer!”), RFID employment credentials so that the US will recognize its immigrant population instead of criminalizing them.

Of course, the list of troubling state-tech that will make us less free is lot less fantastic: GPS cell phones, face recognition, less-than-lethal chemical weaponry (Gay Gas, anyone?), Amber alerts, terrorist gene testing, content-with-the-status-quo drugs, rigged electronic polling booths, subliminal advertising, and superior air power are all already leading us down to primrose path to self-confinement and democratic authoritarianism. All I can say, is: “Where the danger grows, there also lies the saving power.”