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Escaping ‘Fortress Earth’

23 Nov

 

 [Prefatory Note: the essay below is a response to a stimulating visionary exploration of how the future might be reconstructed so avoid the current drift toward what Paul Raskin in Journey to Earthland dubs as ‘fortress earth.’ My response is one of many that can be found at the following link: http://greattransition.org/publication/reflections-on-journey-to-earthland. The link to the landing page of the initiative is http://www.greattransition.org/publication/journey-to-earthland. Raskin’s Journey to Earthland can be ordered from this Website or via Amazon. The essay itself, published here in its original text, can be properly cited as Richard Falk, “Reflections on Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization,” The Great Transition Initiative (November 2016), http://www.greattransition.org/publication/jte-reflections-falk].

 

Escaping Fortress Earth

Reading Journey to Earthland is an extraordinary experience. Paul Raskin is not only a master navigator of the complexities of our world but someone who conveys a vision of the future that manages to surmount the unprecedented challenges facing humanity at several levels of social, cultural, and ecological being. His vision of a humane future for the peoples of the world is fully sensitive, as well, to the need for transforming the modernist relationship with nature based on domination, exploitation, and alienation that has resulted in an ecological backlash that threatens our well-being, and even raises doubts about the survival of the human species. And perhaps most remarkable of all, Raskin not only depicts a future that is convincingly portrayed as necessary and desirable, but also shows us that its attainment is within the domain of the attainable, although not presently politically feasible. Raskin is also realistic enough to acknowledge that his whole project is vulnerable to a counter scenario, Fortress World, which could with tragic results supersede his vision of a humane and sustainable future.

 

To make Raskin’s ideas about a desired and desirable future a viable political project is the underlying mission of JTE. To succeed with such a mission requires mobilizing sufficient support based on a credible conception of why we are not foolish to enlist in the civil society movement dedicated to take us from where we are to where he wants us to be

In an important sense, the book falls outside the typical genre of futurist writing because it is preoccupied with how to close this gap between the necessary and the feasible, and in the process situate a desirable future within the realm of the attainable. It is in this regard, with a certain exuberance of expectations, that Raskin pins his hopes on the emergence of a robust global citizens movement that will challenge the status quo by mobilizing people around the world sufficiently to reach a tipping point that allows a new political consciousness to take over enough venues of governmental, economic, cultural, and spiritual authority to facilitate transition to the humane future being advocated. There is no doubt in my mind that this book is a culminating expression of Raskin’s own journey, as well as an indispensable gift to the rest of us, providing the best available set of conceptual tools to engage interactively with human destiny and, especially, to see bright shafts of light beyond the darkness being produced by present trends. In what is essentially an extended essay, Raskin sets forth concisely, with flourishes of intellectual elegance, all we need to know and do to achieve this benevolent future.

 

JTE describes the contours of a desirable future, including the adjustments that must take place at the level of values and consciousness, essentially a turning away from consumerist and materialist conceptions of the good life without relinquishing the gains of modern science and technology. What Raskin envisions is a more spiritually enlivening sense of the meaning of life to be realized qualitatively through leisure, enjoyment of nature, inner serenity, and a satisfying lifestyle that is liberated from the tensions and anxieties of a typical capitalist life experience. The society thus envisioned would no longer be appraised by the quantitative criteria of growth and wealth, which have led to gross disparities of life circumstances—extremes of poverty for the many and wealth for a few—disparities that can only be sustained over time through reliance on manipulation and coercion.

 

Raskin imaginatively shapes a socially attractive future based on post-materialist core values and the accompanying need to gain political empowerment through reliance on the renewed energy of persons awakened to this challenge and inspired by the potentialities of the journey. He is clear about the need for people in civil society to be the main vehicle for realizing this transformative vision, and is convincingly skeptical about such a desirable future being achieved by existing economic and political elites whose consciousness is largely a captive of the modernist embrace of neoliberal structures, militarism, and a materialist understanding of the human condition. In a fundamental respect, Raskin’s call to action rests on an ethics of responsibility that asks each of us to join in this great work of composing a different future than what is being shaped by the dominant macro-trends of the world as now constituted.

 

We need to keep in mind that a desirable future remains possible despite present trends appearing to prefigure a disastrous future (that is, Raskin’s Fortress World). Under these circumstances, we who believe in the JTE vision need to be responsive to a double challenge—first, the strong responsibility to act, and second, the duty to learn to become trusted navigators throughout the long journey to Earthland. This burden of civic responsibility is the essential feature of what it means to feel, think, and act as a global citizen, inspiring a pilgrimage from the here-and-now to the there-and-then. Because this is a hazardous journey to be undertaken without the benefit of a map that charts the proper route, I have described the ideal global citizen as “a citizen pilgrim,” an image that Raskin also affirms, which disavows dogma and blueprints of the future, and is reliant on innovation, flexibility, and a readiness to make course corrections en route.

 

Let me turn to raise a few questions that might prompt further reflection and commentary. I have read JTE while on a lecture tour in Pakistan, and have been struck by the relevance of social location. I spent several days in Karachi, a security-obsessed, impoverished, yet vibrant city of over 22 million people, most of whom are struggling with the multiple urgencies of daily existence while the privileged elites seal themselves off from the masses in heavily guarded gated luxury housing. True, there are many young idealistic persons in Pakistan devoted to human rights and environmental protection who are active in an array of local communities, but these brave souls are often threatened by religious extremists who reject any solution for the torments of the present that are not centered on a prior embrace of fundamentalist versions of Islam. I found that social priorities in Pakistani society are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the immediate and the local: paying for the necessities of a bare life, opposing forced evictions from their homes in the city to make way for a shopping mall or a gentrified neighborhood, protesting the assassination of a social activist who was perceived as a threat to religious zealots, and lending emergency assistance to the victims of a natural disaster—flood or earthquake—by providing desperately needed medical supplies, food, and shelter. What I am asking myself, while hoping for guidance from Raskin, is whether Pakistanis can read JTE without dismissing it as the musing of a Westerner not faced with the intense existential pressures that dominate the lives of most residents of Karachi, and much of the Global South, as well as many inner cities in the North.

 

In effect, how relevant is social location and cultural ambience? Would Raskin write the same book if his consciousness had been shaped by a lifetime of struggle in Karachi-like circumstances? These questions raise others. Is there more than one journey to Earthland? Are there alternative Earthlands? Do we need a multi-civilizational articulation of desirable and possible, and hopefully convergent, futures written by ethically and spiritually sensitive individuals who see the world around them and a preferred future from within the imaginative spaces of their varied social locations and cultural milieus?

 

Are there practical ways to overcome or diminish this reality characteristically prevailing in the West with that in the Global South? What might deepen understanding, and even help reduce the obstacles, would be to convene a worldwide gathering, perhaps an online forum, of public intellectuals from around the world to engage in a continuing dialogue on the main theses of JTE. The objective would be to produce a collective response to JTE, or if that proved to be impossible, then to solicit alternative visions of desirable planetary futures, including the politics of transformation. Along the way, a global community of citizen pilgrims would form, and set its own agenda. Would it not be illuminating and potentially transformative to have such a gathering, either digitally or preferably in a face to face format, dedicated to planning “a journey [or journeys] to Earthland”?

 

On the basis of recent experience in various parts of the world, I believe that political and economic systems as now operating would do all in their power to break the will and organizational integrity of any global citizens movement that managed to get off the ground. I happened to be in Tahrir Square in Cairo two weeks after the Egyptian people made history in 2011 by suddenly rising to overthrow a corrupt and oppressive tyrant, Hosni Mubarak. There was much popular excitement in the aftermath of this historic occasion, the thrill of an empowering nonviolent populist movement giving rise to confidence that the future would bring to Egypt a democratic political order, a far more equitable economy, and respect for the dignity of individual Egyptians. And yet, two years later, the Egyptian people again exhibited their agency, but this time to support a bloody coup against the elected political leadership that has brought to power a more repressive military governing process in Egypt than had existed during the three decades of Mubarak’s dictatorial rule. This improbable political reversal reflected the strength of counterrevolutionary forces that will do whatever it takes to prolong the ascendancy of the old order that privileges dominant elites at the expense of the citizenry as a whole. Applying this understanding to the vision of Earthland, isn’t it important to envision the future from a less linear, and more dialectical standpoint, as the unfolding of an epic struggle between opposed worldviews and their civilizational embodiments? In historical periods of transition, contradictory responses reflect forces of deep discontent and alienation on one side while exhibiting the aspirations of the hopeful and compassionate on the other.

 

This leads to another concern. In the aftermath of the Cold War, there was a widespread belief that democratization was the inevitable wave of the future. After the collapse of the Soviet Union (and Russia’s subsequent eagerness to be part of the neoliberal world order) and the opportunistic participation of China in the capitalist structures of trade and investment, it seemed that there was an emergent planetary future premised on a victorious combination of market-oriented economics and constitutional democracy. Almost three decades later, it is evident that something has happened to that firm ground of political legitimacy on which we seemed to be standing after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are now increasingly living in an era of the popular, and not just the populist, autocrat who, once elected, administers a strong state with an iron fist. That is, peoples in many countries are electing leaders by democratic means that are blatantly dismissive of human rights and political freedom, and oblivious to the mounting dangers of climate change.

 

In every corner of the world, right-wing ultra-nationalist, militarized governments that promise to bring order and security are being chosen by voters over those that offer the rewards of democratic pluralism and responsible attitudes toward climate change, nuclear weapons, and other challenges of global scope. Whether it is Putin in Russia, Abe in Japan, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, or Sisi in Egypt, the pattern of popular authoritarianism is evident even if explanations in the various national settings are quite diverse. This distressing pattern of regressive politics can also be seen in the resurgence of proto-fascist parties in Europe, arising in the wake of mass discontent with existing economic and social policies. Their anti-immigration and chauvinist priorities prefigure the character of a Fortress World. The Brexit vote in Britain and the Trump phenomenon in the United States are likewise illustrative.

 

In other words, in even the most benevolent transition from the modern to the planetary that Raskin so clearly depicts, it is important to appreciate that bad things are bound to happen along the way. Such awareness guards against disillusionment. This surge of populist passion for ultra-nationalism from below and securitization from above poses a serious challenge to the JTE project. Maybe it is necessary to begin asking ourselves whether under the pressure of the times we, the peoples of the world, can abide the uncertainties of substantive democracy (human rights, diverse political movements)? In effect, how should this global crisis of democracy be properly introduced into a discussion of the role of the global citizens movement that is integral to Raskin’s transformative hopes?

 

It is possible that this disturbing populist trend currently sweeping the globe will be short-lived, dying of its own deadening weight. There are definite steps that can be taken to restore public confidence in democracy and human rights, which seem indispensable features of a humane Earthland. It is important that the dynamics of economic globalization become committed to diminishing inequality within and among states. It is also necessary to balance a preoccupation with the efficiency of capital and the statistics of economic growth against the goals of ending poverty, addressing climate change, and creating conditions of work and human and ecological security that enhance the quality of life for rich and poor alike. Other kinds of constructive policy initiatives include reducing the waste of resources on militarization and ending reliance on forcible intervention in foreign societies without proper UN authorization.

 

A further relevant effort would be the recognition that some of the pressures being mounted against democracy in the West arise from the mass migration of desperate people seeking to escape from war torn conditions and the havoc caused by global warming. Until the root causes of these migrations, and the accompanying terrorism generated by extremist political reactions, are addressed, it will not be possible to reverse this right-wing populist trend. These migrations occur when conditions become intolerable, and the pressure to escape to safer places becomes so intense that desperate persons willingly take huge risks. When large numbers of such people in need arrive at the borders of prosperous countries in the West, especially given manipulated fears that terrorists are lurking in the midst of the migrants, right wing demagogues have a field day. The most constructive response patterns are to do all that can be done to remove the conditions that give rise to the intolerable conditions, that is, deter migration at its source.

 

I suppose, in the end, I am saying that there are some issues that need to be more fully addressed before people outside the still relatively liberal democratic West can be expected to sign up for the journey to Earthland. In effect, in places like Pakistan where the struggle to find out how to be a constructive national citizen seems such a current preoccupation for those who seek to be politically responsible, an essential challenge is how to present Raskin’s message of the responsible global citizen in forms sufficiently relevant that it is sensitive to the fears, hopes, and concerns of this part of the world.

 

In conclusion, it may appear captious to expect more when JTE already gives us so much. At the same time, when Raskin raises hopes this high, it becomes even more important to begin the journey with eyes wide open. Otherwise, the prospects of early disillusionment are high. Remembering that this is a planetary journey already underway in a variety of forms may be of some help, along with the realization that there exist multitude points of entry throughout the planet. The recognition of this multiplicity ensures that a truly global citizen acts inclusively toward the range of civilizational identities.

 

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Testing for the Mental Disabilities of U.S. Presidential Candidates

21 Sep

 

 I would have hoped that any sensible American citizen would by now have been sufficiently scared by Donald Trump’s morbid flights of fancy, high school playground style bullying, outlandish threats and bluffs, unrealistic and unsavory promises to crush enemies and enrich workers, to put aside all their concerns about alternative candidates and refuse any temptation to cast a masochistic vote for Trump.

 

Yet such confidence seems sadly unjustified in this election and points up the vulnerability of the institutional arrangements governing qualifications to be an American president. Far more important than the constitutional requirement of an American birthplace, or even than physical health, is the mental condition of a candidate. Clearly, we cannot trust voters to pass this judgment, even if they were so inclined, as the Trump saga confirms. With Trump’s over the top narcissism and wild bipolar swings of sentiment, it seems painfully obvious that he is mentally unfit for the presidency, and this is frightening considering the embedded capacities of any occupant of the Oval Office to initiate war and use nuclear weapons, as well as inflict less spectacular harms as might result from unraveling the world economy, scrapping the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and irresponsibly ending old alliances and entering into new ones.

 

It must be acknowledged that Hilary Clinton is also multiply deficient as a presidential candidate, but not nearly in ways so scary and in forms far less likely to involve blind dives from the high board of flights of fancy into waterless pools. I dearly wish she was closer to Sanders in outlook, commitment, and character, but she can at least be counted on to do some decent and constructive things to enhance the quality of governance and life at home. She will surely push hard to implement the climate change agreement and probably will abide the Iran agreement despite Israel’s continuing efforts to undermine all that was achieved. Above all, she is not Trump!

 

It is not that Clinton deserves our vote, especially taking into account her hawkish regime-changing approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, but maybe, just maybe, she learned a thing or two from her support of the Iraq and Libyan disasters, and even if she hasn’t, she still earns my vote by the lamentable logic of ‘the lesser of evils.’ At the same time, I would not criticize those who weighed the pros and cons differently than I do, voting for a third party nominee that seemed the best available candidate regardless of their prospects of winning in November. There is much to be said in favor of voting for someone who is a good enough candidate that a vote of support would be something other than one more iteration of the lesser of evils. It is one of the few ways that an ordinary citizen has to register a vote of no confidence in a system that can do no better than provide citizens over and over again with nothing more congenial than a choice among evils. Unlike football, winning isn’t everything in politics, although most of our politicians approach their challenge with a zero-sum mentality. It is damaging to democracies when the cynical among us call the tune with their belief that casting a principled, yet losing, vote is a wasted vote, or worse, almost a crime against reason! Remember the liberal fury directed at Ralph Nader and his 90,000 or so supporters in Florida that allowed George W. Bush, with a major assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, to win the 2000 election.

 

In the end, Americans, whether or not they realize it, have a responsibility to the world that citizens of other countries possess to a far lesser degree. If Trump were to become the next American president it would imperil the world, and likely cause grave dislocations in many international settings that could cause massive suffering along with possibly disastrous unintended consequences. Even our most ‘rational’ recent presidents have caused havoc in foreign societies. Our militarized government rests on three principal pillars of influence: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. These constraining forces can push even the most decent and intelligent of presidents in militarist directions as Barack Obama found out.

 

The United States as a liberal democratic global state, projecting its power throughout the whole of the planet, should ideally extend its electoral franchise globally. As things stand, and will indefinitely remain so, the United States and its people insist on the absolute prerogatives of territorial sovereignty while denying comparable autonomy to many other nominally sovereign states. Given this uncontested reality, there is as much likelihood of Americans agreeing to extend the vote in its national elections to foreign societies throughout the world as there is of the ISIS leadership waking up one morning to announce adherence hereafter to the pacifist precepts of Gandhiism.

 

What is a distant second best option, yet far better than nothing, is for as many Americans as possible to be at least aware of their custodial role for the peoples of the world. With such awareness would come the duty to vote responsibly with respect to the wellbeing of others, including taking into consideration impacts on a sustainable human future. Again, predicting that a substantial number of American voters might be willing to behave like world citizens is a bet no oddsmaker in Vegas would be foolish enough to take.

 

Obviously, mere awareness is not nearly enough to secure the wellbeing of either the country or the world. The realities of technology and complex interdependence are such that the current world order has no capacity to absorb and localize serious mistakes of judgment made by the United States Government. The most minimal elements of political sanity at this stage of history mandates the adoption of a constitutional requirement that candidates for the presidency be certified as to their mental health, and not only by a psychiatrist of their choice. A professional politically neutral mechanism should be established to select a panel of qualified psychiatrists that would then be entrusted with certifying the mental health of aspiring candidates for the presidency and vice presidency.

 

At present, there is some relevance accorded to physical health with much attention accorded to the disclosure of medical records and indications of physical ailments that might interfere with the discharge of the formidable burdens associated with being president. When Hilary Clinton was found to be suffering from a mild case of pneumonia earlier this month a media frenzy ensued that examined the issue of her health from every conceivable angle. Such a preoccupation highlights by comparison the neglect of the far more serious, and possibly more difficult to detect, presence of serious mental disabilities of a kind that could produce the worst sorts of governmental decisions and policies. The mental disorders of an aspiring presidential candidate are far more threatening to the security of the country and the world than are physical ailments, which although also potentially dangerous to the person, are far less likely to cause catastrophic damage or twist decisions in sinister directions.

 

Admittedly, certifying mental health is an awkward process that needs to be handled with great sensitivity, and even then could misfire, or be wrongly interpreted by the public. At the same time, this forthcoming election amply demonstrates that business as usual, with eyes and ears closed to issues of mental disability is no longer an acceptable approach to the selection of American leaders in the 21st century. Too much is at stake.

 

Despite this, there persists a strong taboo surrounding mental health. Raising questions about the mental condition of a candidate for public office is still widely perceived as hitting below the belt. And what is worse, some mental disorders perversely give rise to enthusiastic support among the citizenry. In this regard what makes Trump seem a high risk candidate because of his mental health is what may yet get him elected! This is a thought to ponder. The memory of Hitler and Mussolini reminds us that pathological mental imbalances can be a source of public charisma and political popularity. The Trump candidacy is certainly not the first time that a demagogue’s manifest mental disorders are a principal explanation of his passionate populist support, but it could be the last time!

 

 

Reading Claudia Rankine On Race

1 Jul

 

We white people have lots to learn about racism in America no matter how progressive our attitudes toward race. I realized this some years ago when I found Toni Morrison’s Beloved so grimly illuminating in depicting the cruelty experienced after the abolition of slavery by our African American fellow citizens left in a malicious shadow land of unknowing, a reflection of white indifference. It made me abruptly realize that I had never effectively grasped the intensities of hurt and pain of even close black friends afflicted or threatened with affliction as a result of societal attitudes of hatred and fear that lie just below the surface, behavior socially conditioned to be ‘politically correct.’ White consciousness was preoccupied with the condemnation of hideous events that capture national attention, but remain largely unaware of the everyday racism that is the price African Americans of talent and privilege pay for ‘success’ when penetrating the supremacy structures of society that remain predominantly white.

 

I recall some years ago being picked up at the airport in Atlanta by a couple of white undergraduates assigned to take me to the University of Georgia where I was to give a lecture. On the way we got onto the subject of race, and they complained about tensions on their campus. I naively pointed out that the stars of their football and basketball teams were black, and since white students were fanatic collegiate sports fans at Southern universities, wouldn’t this solve the problem. I assumed that these black athletes who won games for the college would be idolized as local heroes. The students taking me to the lecture agreed with my point, but claimed that the black athletes refused to socialize with whites, displaying an alleged ‘reverse racism’ that the white student body resented. In explaining this pattern of multi-culturalism to me, whether accurate or not I have no idea, these young Southerners did not pause to wonder whether this reluctance by campus blacks, including the sports stars, to mingle socially might have something to do with the history of race relations in the South, and not just the history but an of nasty earlier experiences of racism as well, and not just in the South, but throughout whole of the country, and that this was their reason for choosing to be racially aloof!

 

It is with such thoughts in mind that reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Greywolf Press, 2014) became for me a revelatory experience, especially against a foreground filled with such extreme reminders of virulent racism as lived current experience as Treyvon Martin, Ferguson, Charleston, and countless other recent reminders that the racist virus in its most lethal forms continues to flourish in the American body politic. The persistence of this pattern even in face of the distracting presence of an African-American president who functions both as a healing ointment and as a glorified snake oil salesman who earns his keep by telling Americans that we belong to the greatest country that ever existed even as it reigns down havoc on much of the world. On a more individual level, I can appreciate the extraordinary talent, courage, and achievement of Barack Obama, hurdling over the most formidable psychological obstacles placed in the path of an ambitious black man. Yet looked at more collectively, it now seems all too clear that the structures of racism are far stronger than the exploits of even this exceptional African American man.

 

What makes Rankine’s work so significant, aside from the enchantment of its poetic gifts of expression, is her capacity to connect the seemingly trivial incidents of everyday race consciousness with the living historical memory and existential presence of race crimes of utmost savagery. In lyrically phrased vignettes Rankine draws back the curtain on lived racism, relying on poetic story telling, and by so doing avoids even a hint of moral pedantry. She tells a reader of “a close friend, who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you be the name of her black housekeeper.” [48][*] Or a visit to a new therapist where she approached by the front door rather than the side entrance reserved for clients, and was angrily reproached, perceived as an unwanted intruder: “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” When informed that the stranger was her new patient the therapist realized her mistake, “I am so sorry, so so sorry.” [115].

 

Or when as a candidate for a university job she is being shown around a college campus by a faculty member who lets her know why she has been invited: “..he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” She shares her unspoken reaction that is the main point: “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” [66] The repetition of these daily occurrences in her recounting let’s us better understand why an African American cannot escapes the unconscious barbs of soft racism no matter how intelligent and accomplished a black person becomes in ways that the dominant society supposedly values and rewards. She invokes the inspirational memories of James Baldwin and Robert Lowell, not that of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or even Malcolm X, as brilliant wellsprings of understanding and defiance, acting as her undesignated mentors. This experience of racism in America has been told with prose clarity and philosophic depth by my friend and former colleague, Cornel West, in Race Matters, a similar narrative of citizenship that Rankine conveys through poetic insight and emotion, allowing readers enough space to sense somewhat our own poorly comprehended complicity. Reading West and Rankine together is one way to overcome the body/mind dualism, with West relying on the power of reason and Rankine on the force of emotion.

 

As Rankine explains with subtle eloquence, what may seem like hyper-sensitivity to episodic understandable stumbles by even the most caring whites is actually one of the interfaces between what she calls the ‘self self’ and ‘the historical self,’ a biopolitical site of self-knowledge that embodies “the full force of your American positioning.” Such positioning is a way of drawing into the present memories of slavery, lynching, persecution, and discrimination that every black person carries in their bones, not as something past. And as Faulkner reminds us over and over again, the past is never truly past. On this Rankine’s words express her core insight: “[T]he world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you..” [307] Summing up this inability to move on she observes, “[E]xactly why we survive and can look back with a furrowed brow is beyond me.” [364] The mystery, then, is not the failure to forget, but persevering given the agony of remembering.

 

The longest sequence in the book is somewhat surprisingly devoted to the torments experienced by Serena Williams in the course of her rise to tennis stardom. Rankine, who in other places suggests her own connection with tennis, thinks of Serena as the “black graphite against a sharp white background.” She recounts her early career struggles with eminent umpires in big matches who made bad calls, trapped in what Rankine calls “a racial imaginary.” Serena feels victimized because black, and on several taut occasions loses her composure under the intense pressure of the competitive moment, raging and protesting, and then being called “insane, crass, crazy.” [193] While Rankine appreciates that Williams is likely to be considered the greatest woman tennis player ever, she still views her primarily as bravely triumphing over the many efforts to diminish her.

 

As a tennis enthusiast myself, it is the one portion of Rankine’s lyric that does not ring entirely true, or more precisely, that the race optic misses Serena’s triumphal presence on the public stage that has been accomplished with uncommon grace, joyfulness, and integrity. Unlike that other African American over-achiever, Barack Obama, Williams has attained the heights without abandoning her close now inconvenient associates the way Obama ditched Jeremiah Wright and even Rashid Khalidi and William Ayers so as to provide reassurance to his mainstream white backers. Williams has always continued to affirm warmly her Dad despite his provocative antics and defiance of the white establishment that controls the sport. She held out long enough so that the racist taunts she and Venus received at Indian Wells were transformed into tearful cheers of welcome on her return 13 years later after being beseeched by the sponsors. Williams, always gracious and graceful in victory on the court, with a competitive rage that is paralleled by a fighting spirit that puts her in the winners’ circle even when not playing her ‘A’ game, Serena is for me the consummate athlete of our time, doubly impressive because she does not shy away from memories of the Compton ghetto where she grew into this remarkable athlete and person and while still acquiring the wit, imagination, and poise to speak French when given her latest trophy after winning the Roland Garros final in Paris. Considering where she started from she has traveled even further than Obama, although his terrain entails a far heavier burden of responsibility and historical significance.

 

Somehow I feel Rankine perhaps absorbed by the preoccupations that give coherence to Citizen missed the deeper reality of Serena Williams as a glorious exception to her portrayal of the African American imaginary. I do not at all deny that Williams’ life has been framed from start to finish with the kind of micro-aggressions that Rankine experienced, and indeed a closer proximity to the macro-aggressions that the media turns into national spectacles, but presenting her life from this limited viewpoint misses what I find to be the most captivating part of her life story. And maybe a fuller exposure to Rankine’s reality would lead me to celebrate her life as also one that transcends race as the defining dimension of her experience. What is known is that in 1963 Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, raised in New York, educated at the best schools, and is enjoying a deservedly fine career as award winning poet, honored scholar, and rising playwright.

 

With brief asides, coupled with a range of visual renderings that give parallel readings (Rankine is married to John Lucas, a videographer, with whom she writes notes in this text for possible future collaborative scripts on racially tinged public issues), she brings to our awareness such societal outrages as the beating of Rodney King that was caught on a video camera, and led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or the racist aspects of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or a series of more recent assaults, including the diabolic frolic of fraternity boys at a university who joyously recalled the pleasures of lynching or the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a security guard whose crime was followed by his unacceptable acquittal. It is this tapestry of experience that seems to be for Rankine the American lyric that provides the sub-title of her book, and silently poses the question, without offering us the satisfaction of answers, as how these awful tales alter the experienced reality of being a ‘citizen’ of this country at this time; that is, if the citizen is viewed as one who owes loyalty to the state and is entitled to receive human security, protection, and the rule of law in return, how does this relate to the black experience of human insecurity and inescapable vulnerability. Rankine leaves me with the impression that even if these entitlements of citizenship can be somehow delivered (which they are not to those struggling), the grant of loyalty in the face of persisting racism is suspect. Raising such doubts is against the background of Rankine’s surface life as mentioned is one of privilege and success, holding an endowed chair at Pomona College, someone who plays tennis and can afford to see a therapist. Rankine is telling us both that this matters, saving her from the grossest of indignities because of the color of her skin, but not sparing her from an accumulation of racial slights or relieving her of the heavy awareness that she could be a Rodney King or Trayvon Martin if her social location were different or that whatever she might do or achieve she is still haunted by the memories of a ghastly past for people with black skin. In the deep structures of composition and consciousness that informs Citizen is a brilliant and instructive interweaving of time present and past, embodying both the memories buried within Rankine’s being and the present assaults she endures as a result of headlines bearing news of the latest hideous racist incident. Despite Rankine’s own personal ascent she as citizen confronts these past and presents challenges to her being, as underscored by the everyday racism that cannot be separated from the lynchings, beatings, and jail time that the black community as community has experienced ever since being transported to this land in slave ships.        

 

Such displays of awareness are followed by more conventionally poetic reflections on what this all means for Rankine. In lines that epitomize her lyric voice, and that she might be choose for her gravestone:

                        “you are not sick, you are injured—

                        you ache for the rest of your life.”

And again:

                        “Nobody notices, only you’ve known

                        you’re not sick, not crazy,

                        not angry, not sad—

                        It’s just this, you’re injured”

The worst effect of such an injury is an acute sense of alienation that separates

the public self from the private self:

                        “The worst injury is feeling

                                                            you don’t belong so much

                        to you—“

 

Reverting one last time to my own experience from the other side of the mirror, I recall my first intimate relationship with an African American as a boy growing up in Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. I was raised by a troubled, conservative father acting as a single parent who warily hired an African American man to be our housekeeper on the recommendation of a Hollywood friend. Willis Mosely was no ordinary hire for such a position, being a recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate from UCLA, with a desire to live in New York to live out his dreams to do New York theater, a big drinking problem, and an extroverted gay identity, but beyond all these attributes, he was a charismatic personality with one of the great, resounding laughs and an electrifying presence that embodied charm, wit, and tenderness, demonstrating his intellectual mettle by finishing the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in lightning speed, then a status symbol among West Side New Yorkers. Willis was a challenge for my rather reactionary father who could only half hide his racist bias and on top of his, was also unashamedly homophobic; added to this my dad was counseled by family friends that it was irresponsible to have his adolescent son’s principal companion be a gay man in his low 30s. I am relating this autobiographical tidbit because despite this great gift of exposure to a wonderfully loving black man in these formative years, who influenced me greatly in many ways, I was unable to purge the racism in my bones, or was it genes.

 

Years later while dating a gifted former black student, whose outward joyfulness acted as a cover for her everyday anguish and deeper racial torment, she let me know gently that I would never be able to understand her because, as she put it, “we listen to different music.” It happened, I had just taken her to a Paul Winter concert that she didn’t enjoy, and so I missed the real meaning of her comment until this recent reading of Rankine’s Citizen. In effect, it took me several decades to hear this dear friend because until recently I was listening without really, really being able to hear! Of course, the primary failing is my own, but it is a trait I share with almost the whole of my race, and probably most of my species, and is indirectly responsible for the great weight on the human spirit produced by low visibility suffering that goes unnoticed everywhere in the world except by its victims. To become attuned to this everday racism, as Rankine shows so convincingly, is also to become even more appalled by the high visibility racism that in our current societal gives rise to public condemnations across the political spectrum.

 

What Claudia Rankine shares and teaches is that every African American citizen must live with the existential concreteness of racism while even the most liberal of American white citizens live with only an abstract awareness of their own unconscious racism or, at best, their rather detached empathy with the historical victimization of our African American co-citizens. Just as blacks have the torments of racism in their bones, whites are afflicted with resilient mutant forms of unconscious racism. We learn through this extraordinary lyric that moving on, for either black or white, is just not an option! And yet it is a necessity!    

[*] The numbers refer to the lot #s on the Kindle edition. Citizen was a finalist for 2014 National Book Award in the Poetry category. The winner, ironically, was Rankine’s teacher at Williams College, who described her pupil as ‘a phenomenal student.’

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.

 

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.’

Breaking Free: Choosing a Better Human Future

8 Mar

 

I have long believed that prospects for a hopeful human future depend on radical and visionary feelings, thought, and action. Such an outlook reflects my view that the major challenges of our time cannot be met by thinking within the box, or implementing the realist agenda of doing what it is feasible while disregarding what is necessary and desirable. For instance, with respect to climate change such a conventional approach avoids asking what needs to be done to give future generations positive life prospects, but seeks, at best, to do what seems politically feasible at the moment, that is, far too little. This means not putting a cap on energy or water use, not limiting carbon emissions or prohibiting fracking, continuing to encourage economic growth, and refusing to question consumerism. In effect, this conventional approach does not meet challenges, but at most seeks to defer and mitigate harmful effects to the extent possible. In effect, it opts for a worse human future, and remains in bondage to the deformities wrought by clearly deficient neoliberal prescriptions for human fulfillment.

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Against this background, it was a personal breakthrough to meet Jeff Wilson who is, of all things, a dean of the arts college and faculty member in environmental and biological sciences at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin. This is a small mainly undergraduate university with about 900 students, and is what is called a ‘historically black’ college, established in 1881 by some Christian initiatives, with the specific mission of providing higher educational opportunities for former slaves freed in the course of the Civil War. What makes Jeff charismatic is his radical sensibility that has crafted a most unlikely project that has been receiving increasing media attention—converting a trash dumpster into a place of residence, not in the name of austerity, but all in the name of promoting a vision of sustainable living. For those like me unfamiliar with dumpsters, other than as an annoyance if driving behind a garbage pickup vehicle in a crowded city, the idea of living in a 33 square foot enclosure that must be climbed to enter or leave struck me as a kind of ecological stunt when I first heard about it. Like many first impressions this one was quickly superseded by a sense of awe almost at the point of contact.

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That is, until visiting the site, which is on the campus, and actually a project of a student group, intriguingly named “Green is the New Black,” and part of a vision, appropriately radical, to make black colleges take a national lead in the years ahead in producing green campuses throughout the country in every black school. Getting back to Wilson, it is obvious from appearance and style that he strikes his own pose: he is unusual in dress and deeply engaging and infectionously friendly when it comes to sociability, with lively wit and a robust sense of self-irony. He did not come to this experiment in sustainable living overnight. He had earned a PhD at the University of Canterbury and did post-doctoral work at Harvard, he has written numerous papers published in scientific journals on environmental and biological issues, and won an award as the outstanding teacher in all of Texas when he was still an assistant professor. Through it all, he realized that the academic career of a typical scholar, however dedicated, was not going to get done the job of sustainability given the obstacles.

 

As his girlfriend, Clara Benson, a writer by trade, remembers her first impression of Jeff, “This guy was trouble of the best variety.” And speaking of their affinity transcending differing personalities and vocations, she writes, “We live for the unexpected, the experimental, and the subtly disruptive.” My only skeptical reaction is the use of the word ‘subtly’! Jeff and Clara, as is increasingly customary in our digitized era met in cyberspace, via social media, and before long embarked on a most usual ice-breaking three week adventure journey through the Middle East and Europe with no luggage or even a change of clothing. Obviously, the idea of reinventing how we live together happily on the planet has been gestating in Jeff’s restless mind for some time.  Clara’s wonderfully witty and lucid narrative of their trip together was published on November 11, 2013 by Salon.com, and won such a huge audience that a book and film are presently in the works.

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The Dumpster Project is, first of all, a vivid reminder of unsustainability. It is also a carefully conceived way of showing that there are other alternative ways to organize society. Jeff started living in the dumpster on February 4, 2013, and he and students will continue to camp out there in sleeping bags for a year, relying on solar light and water hauled and then filtered from a nearby river, subsisting without any normal links to water or electric supply. This phase will be followed by adapting the dumpster to the energy and water use of the average American, getting all the appliances to be found in the average home, and measuring their environmental footprints in relation to energy and water use, with the expressed intent of dramatizing the gap between what is possible and what is necessary. And there is the third phase described as the ‘Ultimate Dumpster Home,’ which will incorporate the best of design and innovation to show that life can be fulfilling within drastically scaled down proportions, with the goal being one of creating a net-zero energy home that still manages to enjoy the comforts of a normal home. For further exposition I recommend Jeff’s website <www.dumpsterproject.org><info@dumpsterproject.org>

 

The overall focus, and inspiring imagery, is captured by Jeff’s slogan, “We are the new 1%!” The dumpster takes up 1% of the living space used by the average American family. Further, the energy/water regime is shaped by getting along on 1% or less of what is currently the fashion in America. At a deeper level the new 1% is based on a different kind of leadership—toward a sustainable and hopeful future—that contrasts with the old 1% that feasts on a hyper-consumptive life style, portrayed as decadent and dehumanizing in the recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street. It is a matter of repudiating the elites of wealth while celebrating emergent elites of sustainability, worthy ecological pilgrims of our time. As well, the activist challenges posed by the Occupy Movement’s claim in 2012 that “we are 99%” resonates with the conviction that change comes from the people, and not from governments and bureaucracies. Despite the smallness of the dumpster, the scope of the message is as large as the planet, or perhaps, even the universe.

 

I was drawn to the inspirational value of this brave trust in the power of imagination once it is made actual! In the past, I have written about the importance of engaged citizenship to heal the wounds of the planet, and praised particularly, ‘the citizen pilgrim,’ those who have embarked on a life journey in search of a better future. Citizenship, then, becomes enacted in time and is not conceived only as a dimension of space as, for instance, in opting to be ‘a world citizen.’ It is in this spirit that I acknowledge Jeff Wilson as an exemplary citizen pilgrim!