Archive | May, 2014

On What the Pope Taught

30 May

 

 

            I am not surprised that there are such contradictory reactions to Pope Francis’ recent visit to Palestine and Israel. To begin with, there are sharply divergent views about the Catholic Church, and the papacy itself. Understandably for some, the complicity of the Catholic hierarchy with the shocking prevalence of sexual abuse by priests of young boys seems institutionally discrediting in the extreme. The anti-modern cult of celibacy and a failure to allow women to participate equally in the life of the Catholic Church furthers undermine its moral authority given the changing realities of the 21st century.

 

            Beyond this there are questions raised about Pope Francis’s own past, whether he was far too passive during the time of the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina, and too slow to favor the humane treatment of homosexuality. He has always chosen a simple life for himself, dedicating his pastoral efforts to benefit the poor, and being active as a leader in inter-faith activities. Since becoming Pope these virtues have been the signatures of his leadership, earning him praise and love from around the world, and helping us understand why his acts of devotion have been so widely seen, and an inspirational alternative to what is passed off as ‘global leadership’ in Washington.

 

            Unavoidably, his visit itself has been parsed in many ways and spun in all directions. Some insist that he should never have crossed the line separating religion and politics as he did when he made it clear he was visiting ‘the state of Palestine’ and not the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories.’ Others complained that in such a situation of oppression and inequality, his carefully orchestrated efforts to acknowledge both sides equally actually gave rise to a false impression. In this respect, it was not acceptable and politically misleading to pay homage at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, or to treat Shimon Peres as a man of peace. Still others fault the Pope for not calling attention to the plight of Gaza or the threats confronting Bedouin communities.

 

            In my view, perhaps overstated, such carping misses the point, and manifests a disabling form of blindness. What was worth seeing, and only this, was the Pope bowed in prayer at the Bethlehem apartheid wall. It was this electrifying image, and the related story about how young Palestinian boys dared defy Israeli soldiers by writing welcoming graffiti behind where the Pope stood that makes the visit an unforgettable, even if unintended, affirmation of the Palestinian struggle against multiple forms of injustice. What will allow us to see better in the senses meant here is to appreciate why this image was and is so electrifying, will endure, and why the various commentaries, criticisms, and calumnies will soon to be forgotten.

 

            What we need to realize, whether we like it or not, is that the Catholic Church by its sheer presence, persistence, and resilience occupies a distinctively deep place in the thinking and feeling of people throughout the world, including tens of millions of non-Catholics. And the pope as the leader of Catholicism, in ritual and doctrine, enjoys a spiritual power of pronouncement without needing to utter a single word. And when that power is used charismatically, as at the wall, no cascade of words can suffice to offset the impact of such a potent image and metaphor. The Israeli Prime Minister vainly informed the world that the wall was there to prevent suicide bombing and had contributed to Israeli security since its partial construction more than a decade ago. It is equally irrelevant to refute this claim or to argue in opposition that the World Court had declared a wall built deep in Palestine amounted to an unlawful confiscation of land, imposing hardships, and should be dismantled and compensation paid for harm done.

 

            The Pope is not a lawyer nor is it a time to engage the controversy about the security functions of the wall. What counts, and all that counts, is that the wall has become a devastating image and metaphor of injustice and oppression, with Israelis as the perpetrators and Palestinians as the victims. Hany Abu-Assad’s fine film, Omar, a finalist for best foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, also used the wall as the dominant wordless metaphor of what it meant for Palestinian lives to endure oppression day by day, showing its reality for all those with eyes that see.

 

            Reacting to injustice is above all a visual and visceral experience. This is what Pope Francis has taught us. But first we must open our eyes, and keep them open. The greatest writers also perform their magic with language mostly by redirecting our line of vision.

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Pope Francis Visit to Palestine

26 May

 

 

            Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land raises one overwhelming question: ‘what is the nature of religious power in our world of the 21st century?’ ‘can it have transformative effects’?

 

            Media pundits and most liberal voices from the secular realm approve of this effort by Francis to seek peace through the encouragement of reconciliation, while dutifully reminding us that his impact is only ‘ceremonial’ and ‘symbolic’ and will not, and presumably should not, have any political consequences beyond a temporary cleansing of the political atmosphere.

 

            The June 6th prospect of Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres praying together in the Vatican as a step toward a peaceful end of the long struggle is, I fear, an ambiguous sideshow. For one thing, Peres as President of Israel is about to leave the office, and in any event, his position exerts no discernible influence on the head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu, or the approach taken by Israel in addressing Palestinian concerns. It has long been appreciated that Peres is less than he seems, and beneath his velvet globe is a steel fist. Also, Abbas, although the formal leader of the Palestinian Authority and Chair of the PLO, is a weak and controversial leader who has yet to establish a unity government that includes Hamas, and finally provides political representation for the long suffering population of the Gaza Strip within global venues.

 

            Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the significance, symbolically and materially, of what Pope Francis’ visit to Palestine heralds. To begin with, just below the surface of what is avowed by words and style, is the contrast between the humility and sincerity of this religiously oriented initiative and the recently acknowledged breakdown of direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel that was the ill-advised and contrived initiative of the U.S. Government, and became the personal project of the American Secretary of State John Kerry. In effect, the Pope epitomizes the moral and spiritual dimensions of the unresolved situation in Palestine while Kerry’s muscular diplomacy called partisan Alpha attention to the political dimensions.

 

            Undoubtedly more relevant is the degree to which Francis lent his weight to fundamental Palestinian grievances. By referring to the territory under occupation since 1967 as ‘Palestine,’ Francis affirmed the status conferred by the UN General Assembly in 2012, and since then angrily rejected by Tel Aviv and Washington. In doing so, Palestinian statehood was affirmed as a moral reality that should be endorsed by people and governments of good will everywhere, thereby strengthening the call of global solidarity.

 

            Most dramatically of all, by praying at the apartheid wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and bowing his head prayer while touching with his hand that hated metaphor of Israeli cruelty, illegality, and oppressiveness, Pope Francis has made an indelible contribution to the Legitimacy War of nonviolent resistance and emancipation that the Palestinian National Movement has waged with increasing militancy, and is being embraced throughout the world.

 

            Such moments of moral epiphany are rare in our experience of the torments afflicting the world. We need to remind ourselves that this pope has imparted a spirit of justice and spirituality. We are responding to his call because of who he is as well as what he is: his warmth, sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and identification with those brutally victimized by war. We are responding to the concreteness of his commitments and the actualities of his performances whether he points to the atrocities of war in Syria or the ordeal that has so long confronted the Palestinian people.

 

            The Pope challenges all of us to act as citizen pilgrims, having a personal responsibility to act as best we can against bastions of flagrant injustice. The Pope, the most universally acclaimed moral and spiritual authority figure on the planet has spoken by word and deed, and now it becomes our privilege to act responsively. By this means alone can we discover the ecumenical nature of religious authority in our times.

On Citizenship in the 21st Century

20 May

[This post was previously published online at the website of the Global Transition Initiative, which is dedicated to promoting “Transformative Vision and Praxis.” It responds to an essay on global citizenship written by Professor Robert Paehlke (“Global Citizenship: Plausible Fears and Necessary Dreams”), who cogently advocates the formation of a Global Citizens Movement, including indicating how it might become effective. What seems important about such dialogue is the recognition that given the realities of this historical period, it is increasingly necessary for political thought and action to proceed by reference to human interests as well as being responsive to national, local, ethnic, and religious interests and values. A feature of modernity that is being rightly questioned from many angles is the presumed radical autonomy of human interests, especially the modernist illusion that the co-evolutionary dependence on nature and the environment was being superseded by the marvels of technological innovation. One way back to the future is to rethink political community—its boundaries and essential features—from the perspectives of participants, with citizenship being the secular signature of belonging and engagement, and ultimately, the sustainability not just of the community, but of the species.]

 

 

            Reading Robert Paehlke’s carefully crafted essay on global citizenship provides the occasion both for an appreciation of his approach and some doubts about its degree of responsiveness to the urgencies of the present or more specifically its adequacy in relation to the call for ‘transformative vision and praxis’ that lies at the heart of the ‘Great Transition Initiative.’ Paehlke is on strong ground when he ventures the opinion that the planetization of citizenship is an indispensable precondition for the establishment of global governance in forms that are both effective and fair. His insistence that global governance to be legitimate must address ethical issues as well as functional ones associated with sustainability is certainly welcome. He is also persuasive in advocating the formation of a global citizens movement (GCM) that takes advantage of the networking and mobilizing potential of the Internet, combining an initial focus on local challenges while nurturing a global perspective. His deepest sympathies clearly lie with a pluralistic and decentralized GCM that operates, at least for the foreseeable future, without leaders or a common program of action, and as such is likely in his words to be “less threatening” to the established order (p.3). But here is where my analysis and prescriptive horizons departs from his—if a transformative global movement is to emerge from current ferment, then it seems strategic to become more threatening, not less. Flying below the radar is not the kind of praxis that will awaken the human species from its long and increasingly dangerous world order slumber.

 

            I would say that the defining feature of Paehlke’s approach is an implicit belief that with enough patience and persistence we can get to the ‘there’ of effective and equitable global governance from the ‘here’ of neoliberal globalization and state-centricism that is accentuating inequality and human insecurity within and between states. He envisions a transformative movement as possible if prudent efforts are made to induce enough global reform to facilitate the kinds of economic development that manages to deliver equity and environmental protection across borders. There is present in Paehlke’s worldview a sophisticated linear interpretation of world history that is particularly exhibited through changes in the organizational scale of political communities and in the application of technology to the fundamentals of economic, social, and political life. In his well chosen words, the spread of GCM will likely occur “as crises mature and more people appreciate that global governance is where the long arc of human history is taking us—and has been for centuries.” In effect, just as the small kingdoms of feudal Europe became too small to handle the expansion of productive capacities and the enlargement of the market, so in the 21st Century the state is no longer able to be responsive to the magnitudes of the challenges facing humanity, a reality that he hopes the formation and activity of GCM will highlight and circumvent. Paehlke makes clear that his advocacy of global citizenship does not imply either a prediction or prescription that the only appropriate form of global governance is world government. He leaves open to the dynamics of interaction, how transformative governmental adjustments will be made, implying that there are alternative paths to optimal forms of future global governance and that history encourages the confidence that needed adjustments will be forthcoming.

 

            Understandably preoccupied with the inequalities stemming from current patterns of economic globalization, Paelhke believes that a robust GCM will tend to shift political consciousness from the competitive logic of a world of states to the communal logic of a world of people. Such a shift, should it occur in relation to the agenda of global policy bearing on human security would indeed go a long distance toward satisfying the ideational prerequisites of the Great Transition Initiative. But I find it hard to believe that this shift in outlook could come about unless it is actualized by a prior radical and worldwide social movement that shakes the foundations of the established political and economic order. These differing logics also reflect the multiple unevenness of various national circumstances that bear on the wages and safety of workers, and others, as well as fixing the appropriate level of environmental protection. At stake, also, is whether there exists enough common global ground to overcome geographic locus of global policy that has up to this point in modern times given us a world of competing national and transnational interests. How these kinds of tensions can be overcome by approaching policy making from the perspective of shared challenges and opportunities seems daunting, and suggests that the GCM, despite being oriented by Paehlke toward the local, will fail exert much transformative leverage. To exert transformative influence it would have to reorient political consciousness toward the North Star of human interests, which presupposes a qualitative departure from the bounded space of territorial sovereign states whose leadership regards itself pledged to maximize national interests while at the same time, without acknowledgement, promoting transnational financial flows and capital efficiency. The ‘without acknowledgement’ is important as national political leaders must hide the extent to which they are captives of entrenched economic elites and thus need to deceive the citizenry as to why certain policy adjustments cannot even be proposed.

 

            As Andreas Brummel aptly observes, a robust GCM would benefit greatly from the establishment of some form of global parliament, which has been long advocated by those who do not accept the conventional strictures of citizenship as linked to nationalism. Such a parliamentary institution, depending on how it emerged, could begin to articulate global policy from contrarian perspectives to those associated with the outlook of leading states. Especially important would be articulations of the human and global interest, as well as bringing to bear a variety of views not represented by governments acting on behalf of national interests and dedicated to the promotion of transnational capital in all its forms. To develop a transformative consciousness we must first understand the wide gaps between a nationally oriented political consciousness and one that is humanly oriented.

 

            Such a positive outcome cannot be assumed to follow from the mere establishment of a global parliament. As soon as such an institution achieves gains in stature it would almost inevitably become a site of struggle for competing worldviews, including class conflict and a variety of culture wars. I mention such concerns in light of the recent experience of the European Parliament, which has had the roller coaster ride of being long discounted as an irrelevant talk shop before being taken gradually more seriously, and now becoming significant enough to alert reactionary forces in Europe to its political potentialities. These regressive forces are now poised to take over the institution with the evident intention of pushing the European Union further in Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and socially harsh directions. These risks of cooption and neutralization cast a thickening cloud over the near future of the European Parliament, and in various ways clarify why over the decades the United Nations has so disappointed expectations of those seeking a peaceful and just world order, and seems often to have been the scene of an institutional race to the bottom.

 

            In effect, I am arguing that a reformist outlook, while useful, is not mobilizing in relation to the deeper concerns about the human future. Such a more relaxed outlook as to the global setting implicitly believes that there is ample time and political space for the transformative forces of humanism to work their magic. I find the evidence and tendencies to be quite the opposite. We are living in a time of emergency as far as the human species is concerned. I know this political consciousness has existed previously. Some respected observers, insist that apocalyptic fears are nothing other than a symptom of all civilizational transitions, and that ours reflects the ending of modernity. In opposition, I would argue that the apocalyptic realities of the current challenges make the claim of emergency the only responsible reaction due to the evidence surrounding growing risks of species collapses. I realize that Paehlke is arguing against such world order ‘alarmism,’ which he and many other believe to be politically debilitating. I contend, in opposition, that we must orient praxis toward the real if we wish to act with sanity and in a aroused spirit of dedication.

 

            The world has had several decades to react and adapt, but has not done so. I would point to the normalization of nuclear weaponry in the security mentality of powerful states and the inability of these same states to act responsibly in relation to the strong scientific consensus as to the menace of climate change, particularly global warming. What these failures of response to such fundamentally threatening developments disclose, above all, is a biopolitical uncertainty as to whether the human species as a species has a sufficient will to survive. We know that individuals have such a will, which is generally extended to embrace family, loved ones, and even friends and neighbors. Also, nationalism has demonstrated the intensity of a national will to survive even at great potential cost to the partial self of nationhood and the larger self of humanity as a whole. The shared security commitment of lead governments to nuclear deterrence during the Cold War expressed an omnicidal readiness to risk the fate of the species, and thereby give an absolute value to the survival of the state and nation. Our hopes for the future depend on determining whether this apparent weak will to survive at the level of the human species is hard-wired into our collective mental processes or is a contingent byproduct of modernity encased in a state-centric and neoliberal world order that can be reconfigured for survival and justice, but not without a difficult struggle.

 

            Despite my appreciation of Paehlke’s hopes for the GCM and the fact that many of his formulations are congenial, I find the overall framework of thought and action too constrained by the assumptions that global citizenship can be understood and enacted as a spatial phenomenon. This includes the bias toward promoting local solutions to the extent possible to avoid dangerous and unpopular concentrations of political power. I would argue that time is as important as space in the reconfiguration of citizenship, especially as the challenges become more severe with the passage of time. For instance, compare the relative simplicity of achieving total nuclear disarmament in 1945 when only one country possessed a few atomic bombs with the complexities associated with trying to negotiate a disarmament treaty with nine nuclear weapons states that have vastly different security priorities and perceptions. Or consider the difficulties of addressing climate change after the planet heats up by 4 degrees Celsius or more by mid-century as compared to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions effectively in the 1990s when the nature of the threat was first convincingly established by the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion. Even those with some sensitivity to gravity of the challenge, such as Barack Obama, are so constrained by the practicalities of politics, that they continue to limit recommended solutions to those that are market-based, and have already been demonstrated to be ineffective. The larger point here is that citizenship must become as oriented toward time and the future at least as much as toward the geographies and peoples now living within territorial boundaries. To capture this sense of space/time I have previously championed the ideal of ‘citizen pilgrims,’ those engaged in a journey toward a sustainable and emancipated future that acknowledges and acts upon mounting threats to human survival as well as tries hard to make the planet more morally, aesthetically, and spiritually responsible.

 

            Paehlke ends his essay by distancing himself from ideological markers of left/right, and by saying that GCM “need not primie facie oppose ‘globalization’ or ‘capitalism’” in its commitment to finding “quick, small, visible victories that enhance the efficacy felt by citizens” in relation to problems requiring global solutions. In his essay there is missing any critique of the links between militarism and neoliberal globalization or between global inequalities and the post-colonial interventionism and force projection of the West, especially the United States. There is a certain originality in Paehlke’s stress on the lack of confidence by citizens in relation to activity in the public sphere given the way state and market function in our world. Yet in the end I find restoring confidence in citizen efficacy and the encouragement of working within the system to be the wrong way to go given what we know, fear, and hope. So conceived GCM is likely to divert our attention while we as a species move ever closer to the Great Transition of our nightmares. In essence, to approach the Great Transition of happier dreams we must begin by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This may seem divisive, but in a world so hierarchical and divided by class, race, gender, to do otherwise is to retreat disastrously from the realities of political life. It is fine to crave unity, but in the meantime we are entrapped in a series of structures that reward conflict, exploitation, and take disunity and enduring division as endemic to the human condition. At best, we can affirm dialogic modes of being in the world, an engagement with ‘otherness’ in all its forms, but also with the humbling recognition that there are radically different appreciations of what needs to be done.

 

The Paradox of Conservative Campaign Solicitations: A Sequel to Critique of Democratic Party Fundraising

15 May

 

The Paradox of Conservative Campaign Solicitations: A Sequel to Critique of Democratic Party Fundraising 

 

I put a post on this website a few days ago complaining about the approach taken by liberals in recent years to soliciting financial support via the Internet. By perverse coincidence, I received a comparable appeal from one of the leading Tea Party ‘conservatives,’ Ted Cruz, Republican senator from Florida, who made national headlines by delivering a 21 hour speech on the floor of the Senate denouncing Obamacare, insisting that this health plan was a menace to the nation and the constitutional integrity of relations between government, society, and citizen.

 

As in my criticisms of the liberal style of solicitation, my interest is not here in the substantive implications of the appeal, but in the way of relating to the citizenry, being disturbed by Democratic Party notables who approach supposed supporters among the citizenry as of little relevance other than as cash cows available for frequent milking! Such a monetizing of the state/society relationship was further corrupted by the false note of addressing me by my first name and signing it with a similar flourish of familiarity. Whoever drafted such a personal appeal, which would certainly not be the signatory, must believe that such shallow intimacy will persuade most recipients to more readily part with a few dollars.

 

Reacting to the appeal from Senator Cruz that is pasted below for your ‘reading pleasure’(!), a few observations occur to me. First of all, there is a greater dignity in being addressed, however wrongly, as ‘Dear Fellow Conservative’ rather than as ‘Richard,’ ending with the formal signoff of ‘Senator Ted Cruz,’ which I found less off putting than ‘Barack’ or ‘Michelle,’ or in my example, ‘Debbie.’ Also, compare the subject lines used by Debbie Wasserman Schultz in messages received the last two days: “This is personal, Richard” My response: “It is anything but personal.” The subject line of her second message was along the same lines: “Can We Count on You, Richard?” My response: “Get real, first.”

 

Further, and more tellingly, the Cruz message is about the political importance of selecting the Republican candidate who will have the best chance of becoming the next senator from Nebraska because of his ideological alignment and stands on issues of principle. There is no mention of money, only a call for support, and the sly promise of promoting a political upset. In the accompanying message signed by the candidate in this primary election, Ben Sasse, substantive issues are stressed, and the appeal for funds is not personalized beyond the usual stress on the relevance of sufficient money to buy the TV time that will offset the funding power of the competing candidate whose campaign has far greater resources. An aggregate sum needed to achieve this result is mentioned, but no suggestion is made as to how much is expected to be contributed by each recipient of the message. It is left to me to decide how much I will give if I am persuaded, which for substantive reasons, I am not. Incidentally, Sasse scored an upset in this primary earlier in the week, and will be the Republican candidate in the Nebraska Senate race come November.

 

I will leave for another time, whether such Republicans relying on the label of ‘conservative,’ however sincere, obscures more than it discloses. To be clear, I support Obamacare 100%. My only wish is that the legislation had been more generous and inclusive. Without governmental empathy, tangibly expressed in action, for the many poor and marginal living within our affluent borders, there is little worth conserving except perhaps the wealth of the conservatives.

 

********************

THE TEXT OF SENATOR TED CRUZ AND BEN SASSE MESSAGES:

 

Fellow Conservative,

 

I am writing today to ask you to support Ben Sasse for U.S. Senate from Nebraska. He is a strong defender of the Constitution. Ben has the courage and character to stand on principle and to tell the bosses in Washington, “I don’t work for you. I work for the people of Nebraska.”

 

 

Ben is a leader in the fight against ObamaCare. He has read the entire ObamaCare bill, and he has a plan to stop it.

 

We need more conservatives who will stand up to defend the Constitution the way that Ben Sasse will. Both Sen. Mike Lee and I urgently need reinforcements like Ben in the U.S. Senate.

 

Please read the below email from Ben and share it with friends? With two days to go until Election Day, I strongly encourage you to support Ben.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Ted Cruz

 

 

https://owa.princeton.edu/owa/redir.aspx?C=OK3y_PwUKkKnYQkPrK3iEkSFSrKcQdEIXTdzIkoqcAO8iS5oYDIM84rC7mYXSGEwJ50MLIPYR1U.&URL=https%3a%2f%2fnews.psysmtp.com%2fwta%2flink.php%3fM%3d31172393%26N%3d96763%26L%3d34758%26F%3dH

 

Dear Conservative,

 

I am proud to have the support of Ted Cruz. And I urgently need his help and yours right now to pull off the conservative “upset of the year.”

 

The DC Lobbyist Establishment is 100% determined to stop me. And I can’t survive their onslaught without you by my side.

 

My name is Ben Sasse and my U.S. Senate primary in Nebraska two days from now is the most important race in the nation bar none.

 

The truth is simple. Right now there’s a war raging for the heart and soul of the GOP.

 

On one side stand conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee who refuse to sit back to let Obama “fundamentally transform” America. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee know the country is at stake — and they want to go on offense and fight for it.

 

On the other side stands the “Old Guard” Washington Establishment. They are raising big bucks for my opponent and will do anything necessary to stop our campaign before May 13.

 

This primary contest may well determine who runs the Republican Party: Conservatives or the Washington Establishment.

 

It’s why the Washington Post is running a story with the headline “Why Nebraska is a make-or-break Senate race for the tea party”.

 

I am not preferred choice of the Permanent Political Class in DC. I’m going to Washington to fight for conservative principles. And that’s why Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Sarah Palin, and Tom Coburn support me.

 

 

 

 

 

But even more threatening, my opponent is raising a flood of cash from Washington, D.C. lobbyists who mostly care about making money off taxpayers for their clients.

 

This is a direct threat to the conservative values you and I hold.

 

Let’s understand something important: the problem in D.C. is not just that the Democrats are in charge. The problem is that we have too many Republicans who think Big Government is perfectly fine and just wish they were in charge.

 

I do not believe in that. I believe that we must be the Party that stands up for liberty, against Big Government and the Special Interests that leech off of it.

 

The DC Lobbyist Establishment is funneling money to my opponent as fast as they can. And I can’t turn on television or radio without hearing some dishonest attack ad that smears my name.

 

I need the help of conservative leaders like you to fight these attacks.

 

With two days left, I need to make an emergency media buy of $67,382 and I need your help to raise it.

 

Too many Republicans go to DC because they want to be in the “Senate Club” and have fancy dinners with lobbyists.

 

That’s not me. I’m going to Washington to fight for conservatives.

 

And today I need you to stand with me to win this primary.

 

Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Sarah Palin, and Tom Coburn are in.

 

Are you?

 

Two days left please consider helping me raise $67,382 for my emergency media buy. Please help me right now.

 

For America,

 

Ben Sasse

 

 

 

 

Monetizing Political Discourse in America

14 May

For some time I have been disturbed by the constant flow of emails from notables in the Democratic Party that tie substance and politics to money, specifically in the form of soliciting donations. The style of such messages is offensive to me. Complete strangers address me in the first person, and assume I share their political outlook, which paints a dark picture of liberal values at risk while never mentioning the illiberal policies of the Democratic presidency. Such messages are signed in a disingenuous manner of faux familiarity, and this includes messages from either President or Ms. Obama, writing to me as if there existed a personal connection between us. The bottom line is a plea ‘to chip in’ by donating $3, $10, or more. See below for a typical such personal message sent to me by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair of the Democratic National Committee. I wonder if I am alone in being put off by this way of passing the hat in the digital age.

 

It is not just a matter of personal annoyance about being badgered several times a week. It is much more about making politics and policies seem to depend exclusively on who contributes the most money. The Democrats purport in most of these appeals to be fending off reactionary billionaires, such as the infamous Koch Brothers, who are portrayed satanically as using their fortunes to buy elections and tilt the country even further to the right. Underneath this crude reduction of the political process to which party can purchase more TV prime time is the apparent realization that American democracy is no longer a marketplace of ideas, perhaps, never was. The impression I receive from these email messages is that American democracy has become an auction in which elective office and public policy automatically goes to the candidate able to pony up the most lucre, however filthy. Underneath such attitudes is the dangerous belief that the ordinary citizen has no mind of his/her own, and will most likely vote for whomever Is most often seen on TV. This kind of thinking is especially demeaning to the so-called independent voter trying to make up his/her mind in the final days of a campaign.

 

Of course, there is some truth, and even a principled rationale, for this incessant barrage of funding appeals. If the Republican side is spending in great amounts as a result of support from the ultra-rich, then symbolically it is important to suggest that a government responsive to the people means that the Democratic opposition needs to mobilize ordinary citizens who are struggling daily to make ends meet, and yet still greatly prefer political leadership in the White House and Congress that is broadly in accord with their liberal ideas about fairness and decency. Up to a point this way of interpreting political conflict in the United States is convincing.

 

My concerns are mainly of a different order. There is an implicit disempowerment of the citizen whose identity is associated with her or his bank account rather than with the substantive agenda of politics and a more public engagement with political reform. There is embedded in these messages a loopy good/evil imagery of American political realities, whereas the appeal in recent decades of the Democratic Party has been for me and many others reduced to being the lesser of evils on most, yet not all, issues. Consider the treatment by the Democratic leadership of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, drone warfare, silence about the Egyptian coup and Palestinian ordeal, a slide toward Cold War II in response to the complexities of the Ukraine, and on and on. In other words, it may be pragmatically important to avoid Republican political leadership, but there are many reasons to be disappointed by and even oppose the policies and practices embraced by the current Democratic leadership.

 

Of course, underlying this objection to the sort of either/or choices is a feeling that what is being suppressed is the word and consciousness associated with ‘neither,’ that is neither Republican nor Democrat. But then what? There was that brief rush of fresh air that was brought into the political arena by the Occupy Movement, but without staying power. Subsequently, there has been regression on the public stage. America is not yet a choiceless democracy, but the choices offered do not give much ground for hope in relation to the main challenges facing

either this country or the world, for example, in relation to challenging the excesses of world capitalism, and its byproduct of unsustainable and growing inequality.

 

Getting back to the particulars of this screed, I paste below the latest specimen of this type of political solicitation. Is my reaction naïve, unfair, out of touch? Comments are particularly welcome. And more to the point what might be done to improve the quality of political democracy in this country? How can we as citizens become more effective, not just locally, but nationally and internationally, in this era of the dumbing down and crude monetizing of representative government?

 

 

**************************

 

 

 

The Text of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’ letter:

 

 

Richard —

 

The most thrilling, rewarding, and (sometimes) challenging job I’ve ever had is being a mom — between the twins and my youngest there is never a dull moment.

 

But lately, when I think of my kids, I consider all of the things Democrats are working for that would support my fellow moms and their families the most. We’re the party fighting for equal pay legislation, for raising the minimum wage, protecting Obamacare, and fixing our broken immigration system to keep more moms with their kids. These policies aren’t just good for moms, they’re good for the economy, too.

 

Chip in $10 or more to support Democrats fighting for policies that support moms and families.

 

 

 

We’re celebrating Mother’s Day soon, and I hope we’re all thinking of the millions of moms out there who are doing all they can to raise their kids, support their families, and contribute to their communities. What Democrats are fighting for is personal to me, and probably for you, too.

 

Donate to elect more Democrats who are fighting for policies to support moms:

 

https://my.democrats.org/Stand-with-Moms

 

Thanks,

 

Debbie

 

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Chair

Democratic National Committee

 

P.S. — To all my fellow moms, Happy Mother’s Day this weekend!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citizens versus Subjects in a Democratic Society: The American Case

10 May

 

“Have we agreed to so many wars that we can’t

Escape from silence?…”

                        Robert Bly, “Call and Answer”

 

            In my understanding silence is passivity as a way of being. Silence can be much more than the avoidance of speech and utterance, and is most poignantly expressed through evasions of body, heart, and soul. Despite the frustrations and defeats of the period, America was different during the years of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. It was then that alienated gun-wielders assassinated those among us who were sounding the clearest calls for justice and sending messages of hope. In a perverse reaction, Washington’s custodians of our insecurity went to work, and the sad result is this deafening silence!

 

            I have long felt that most American ‘citizens’ increasingly behave as ‘subjects,’ blithely acting as if a love of country is exhibited more by obedience than conscience. In my view the opportunity to be a citizen is a precious reality, a byproduct of past struggles. Genuine citizenship remains possible in the United States, but has become marginal, and is not much in evidence these days. I am identifying the citizen as an ethically sensitive and responsible member of a political community, most significantly of a sovereign state. In contrast, the subject conceives of upright standing in a political community by the willingness to go along with the group and to obey the directives of government and those exercising formal authority.

 

            The moral substance at the core of genuine citizenship only exists if the political structure allows opposition without imposing a severe punishment. If citizenship is possible, then it automatically gives rise to responsibility to act accordingly, that is, by honoring the imperatives of conscience. Unfortunately, considerations of prudence, career, and social propriety make it more attractive these days for most Americans to behave as subjects living within a rigid set of constraints. Citizens are those who not only proclaim the virtues of freedom, but act responsively to the vectors of conscience even if these go against the established public order and prevailing cultural norms.

 

            Thomas Jefferson at the birth of the republic understood that liberty is a process, not an event, which can only flourish if the citizenry as a whole is actively engaged, and above all is vigilant in relation to abuses attributable to the state. Citizenship was better understood in the late 18th century when the struggle against the pretensions of monarchy was vibrant. Today it is irresistibly tempting for ambitious political leaders to encroach upon the liberties of the people by insisting that national ‘unity’ and ‘patriotism’ are practical necessities at times when the country is at war or confronting enemies. And by a convenient Orwellian trope, wartime has become the norm rather than the exception, and peacetime is mainly a memory of ancient times that even the oldest citizen now alive never really experienced. Arguably, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 ended once and for all the illusions of peace as the normal condition of a democratic society. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union did not restore ‘peace’ except in the misleading senses of the absence of war. This enthronement of war in the permanent collective imagination of the country was vividly re-inscribed by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush response of declaring a global war on terror and terrorists. Bush’s instinctive stroke of political ingenuity was to devise a new kind of war that never needs to end. Obama despite some ritual reassurances to the contrary has not broken faith with the militarist mentality and seems comfortable with treating war as the new normal.

 

           This vulnerability of democracy to the siren song of security has been effectively exploited by power-wielders for decades in the United States. Not only do politicians and militarists sing this song, but also private sector moguls whose primary amoral motivation seems to be the maximization of profits. This weakening of the substance, structures, and spirit of American democracy partly reflected the militarizing impacts of World War II and its Cold War sequel, but also the related extension of the American sphere of direct concern and involvement to all corners of the earth. This unprecedented global force projection coincided with the collapse of European colonialism, the ideological consensus affirming neoliberalism, and the backdrop of a globalizing world in which critical resources, sea lanes, and markets needed to be protected if the world economy was to flourish. This American transformation from being ‘a hemispheric state’ to becoming ‘a global state’ has had an extraordinary impact on national identity, especially giving rise to a self-anointing mission of global leadership that depends on military dominance. Such a mission has also witnessed a promiscuous reliance on ‘American exceptionalism,’ often at the expense of respect for the authority of the United Nations and international law. The claim is that America can set aside rules of behavior at will to meet the challenges confronting the country and the world, but that antagonistic others cannot.

 

            It is true that early in the American experience the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) signaled a national ambition to reign supreme in the Western Hemisphere (except for Canada), which expressed an early refusal by the U.S. Government to confine its definition of national interests to the territorial boundaries associated with being a normal sovereign state. But the strains of extra-territoriality were minimal compared what they became in the 20th century, especially with the onset of World War II. For one thing, the challenge of imposing control was far simpler and cheaper in the era of ‘gunboat diplomacy,’ which enabled a small input of military power to achieve the political objectives of intervention under most circumstances. Since 1945 the mobilization of national resistance around the world has been very effective in raising the costs and risks of intervention, and neutralizing many of the advantages that had made it so easy to translate military superiority into desired political results during the colonial era.

 

            Also relevant for a discussion of the deteriorating quality of democratic life in the United States are expansions of scale and surveillance as byproducts of becoming a global state. To project power globally requires a global network of military bases numbering in the hundreds, a navy that patrols every ocean, missiles that can strike the most distant targets, attack drones that can be programmed to kill anyone anywhere on the planet, and the most extensive information-gathering capability that technology can provide and money can buy. This raises to astronomic levels the investment of energy and resources in sustaining such a global role. Unsurprisingly there are byproducts, including a militarized state at home and the assumption of associated custodial duties related to the protection of the American people against real and imagined enemies and the pursuit of national interests relating to wealth, influence, and prestige. To enhance security in this global setting pushes surveillance toward totalization as the Snowden disclosures began to reveal. It also creates a logic that views domestic opposition with grave suspicion, and leads to finding and destroying ‘the enemy within’ before it gains the leverage to unleash its assault of the established order.

 

            The American global state is different than past empires, which were explicit in projecting their hard power, and insisting upon overt allegiance of those whom they rule. As Rumsfeld succinctly remarked some years ago, “we do not do empire.” What do we do? It is to manage a global state that seeks to meet hostile challenges wherever they emerge, and give a high priority to the maintenance of a trade, investment, and navigational framework that reflects the guiding assumptions of neoliberalism in the networked digital age. And because the most threatening hostile challenges seem currently mounted by non-state actors that have no particular territorial base of operations, the battlefield has been quietly globalized to encompass the economy, the surveillance panopticon, and the counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation sites of intervention and resistance.

 

            What then does American citizenship mean under these altered domestic and global conditions? It should be acknowledged that not all recent developments are negative with respect to the quality of democratic life in America: slavery was overcome, racism diminished, women’s rights strengthened, sexual preferences increasingly respected. Taking these concerns into account has meant that there many avenues that remain open for the expression of conscience in the United States, which entails the non-acceptance of various facets of the status quo: struggles against militarism, surveillance, plutocracy, global warming, poverty, inequality, human insecurity, class warfare, as well as the residues of racism and patriarchy.   Citizens should be selectively active in response to these challenges, while the subject is passive or a regressive champion of the status quo, and at best an advocate of incremental change (as Yeats reminded the world almost a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The most effective forms of citizen action depend on popular mobilization and the adoption of nonviolent forms of collective action. The subject stands by sullenly, applauding the suppression of dissent and resistance by security forces.

 

            The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, referred to ‘the democracy to come’ as achieving a far higher degree of social justice than has ever existed in any country. In my view, fulfilling this potentiality would mean the enlargement of the role of the citizen, the decline of the subject, and a much more critical interplay between society and the state, making democracy a participatory process that did not consider itself fulfilled by periodic free elections and functioning representative institutions. Such practices associated with procedural democracy have recently lost most of their charm due to deforming impacts of money, lobbying by special interests, and the virtual disappearance from the political landscape of a progressive option. In effect, the future of American democracy will necessarily now depend on the activity of people of conscience, and the rebirth of a progressive vision that is made attractive across class, race, and geographic lines.

 

            Such a prescription for hope has its own shortcomings and difficulties. Are not the members of the Tea Party composed of those whose conscience leads them to defy the state? Are they not fulfilling the role of citizen, shunning the passivity of the subject? There exists an inevitable clash of values between those who seek a compassionate government that is inclusive as to its nonviolent ethos of hospitality and those who seek an ethnically delimited social order that is xenophobic, exclusivist, and militia-minded in its orientation. In the end such a clash involves sorting out the balance of passions that shape the political culture at a given point in an unfolding national narrative. And this balance may not turn out very well for progressive citizens of conscience, depending on the mix of attitudes and fears that animate the masses at a given historical time.

 

            There is one further consideration bearing on the democracy to come. It must not only be spatially minded about the world, it must also be temporally oriented about past and future. It must learn from the glorious and inglorious episodes of the past, but even more importantly, be alert to the need to live beyond the present, to take responsibility for ensuring that the future is not being diminished in serious and irreversible ways by current policies and practices. Such temporal urgency is currently especially compelling in relation to the environment, the treatment of animals, and above all, the multiple challenges of climate change. Humanity is faced at this juncture with a choice of heeding the scientific consensus on the need to reduce sharply the emission of greenhouse gasses or to live in the false consciousness of pretending that the future can be safely secured by either a technological fix (often described as geo-engineering) or by a guardian god or gods that will not permit an apocalyptic catastrophe to doom the human species. In other words, the conscience of the progressive citizen in our time must not only be globalized in the form of being a ‘world citizen;’ it must also be projected through time, adopting futurist modes of feeling, thinking, and acting,

 

            It is against this background that I have previously suggested an identity shaped through an appreciative reference to ‘the citizen pilgrim,’ that is, to the citizen whose conscience is directed at others without heeding boundaries of space or time, or such contingent features of identity as nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, class. The citizen pilgrim is embarked upon what is essentially a spiritual journey or pilgrimage, seeking an inspirational future that seems neither feasible nor impossible. Such an inspirational dedication also minimizes the imaginative foreclosures of mortality, making the certainty of death a part of life, and accepting this destiny without seeking the comfort of metaphysical fictions, and thus not deeply disconcerted by ‘the dying of the light.’

Website Civility Guidelines: Comments

7 May

With the May 1st end of the moratorium on Israel/Palestine posts, I find that the old issues return. Restating and refining guidelines, let me repeat the basic imperative that I hope will be respected: either be civil or go elsewhere. In this spirit here are the guidelines, which are sometimes loosely implemented due to other pressures or being temporarily out of contact with the Internet:

–no comments that contain personal insults directed at me or other comment authors;

–no comments that exhibit ethnic or religious hatred, although serious questioning of historical and religious claims is acceptable, even welcome and constructive;

–no serial comments or republishing of what others have written elsewhere; links are okay;

–no commercially orientated material.

Living in the blogosphere is a learning experience, and so it involves necessarily learning on the job. I appreciate all those who have been loyal and supportive, and welcome additional suggestions about how to make the website more useful, interesting, challenging.