We might as well try, 1: See how we are

12 07 2012


First, an error (which will nonetheless remain): I was thinking we might as well try was a Beth Orton lyric, but it is not; the line I was thinking of, from “Pass in time” is You might as well smile/cause tomorrow you just don’t know. Since we might as well try fits so well, however, it’s staying.

That’s how it is.

(That whole cd is fantastic, by the way. Central Reservation. I’ll post a vid, below, along with the X vid; I know that lyric is right.)

Anyway, to begin the beguine, the human.

Hannah Arendt’s admonition that we should pitch “human nature” in favor of the “human condition” made a kind of intuitive sense to me when I first read it, although I couldn’t put that sense into words.

The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum (“a question I have become for myself”) seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. . . . [I]f we have a nature or an essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a “who” as though it were a “what.” The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with “natural” qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?

She says, in effect, that we can’t get outside of ourselves, which is what is really sufficient to be able to determine any essential qualities; more to the point, even if we could determine an essential what, that helps us not at all with the how and who of us.

On the other hand, the conditions of human existence—life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth—can never “explain” what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely.

Arendt noted earlier that

The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. . . . In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same condition power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.

I know, right? Right?

Okay, so it was good that Arendt was such an acute thinker, because she wasn’t always the sharpest writer. Still, I wanted to give you the excerpts, if only to give you a base from which to jump off and all over my interpretation of that base.

Which is: we are whats, material beings, but not just whats. To  divine a human nature is, in a sense, to reduce us to a what, and since we can’t get outside of ourselves (which would be necessary for such a reduction), it makes no sense to try. We may, in fact, never fully understand even our whatness, much less the how and who (and don’t even bother with the why) of humanness, but we can look around and make sense of the world we live in, both given and constructed. Thus, to speak of the human condition is to refer to that double-existence: one (please forgive the Heideggerianism) always already there, and one we are constantly re-shaping and re-creating.

And of course you understand that even the givens are fluid—Heraclitus and all that, right?

I’m as bad as Arendt, aren’t I? To boil this nub into a nib: We live in a world made over by us, and which makes us over. We condition and are conditioned, and the best chance we have of making sense of our selves is to make sense of those conditions and conditionings.

And that nib into a bit: We live in our relations to the natural world, the world we make, and to one another; we cannot make sense outside of these relationships.

So what does that mean for this project? That we start in the world, with actual human beings in all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses and not in some abstracted stick-figure of what someone things we should be, if only we could get rid of all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses.

The mess is our condition; get rid of that, and you get rid of us.


And now, as promised, Beth Orton:

And X:

Osama bin Laden is dead; and. . . ?

2 05 2011

A few thoughts on the death of a murderous fanatic:

1. I am opposed to the death penalty, in every case. Thus, as I noted in a comment at TNC’s joint, I may be parsing matters to consider bin Laden not the subject of a criminal trial, but a casualty of war.

2. I don’t like facile comparisons of bin Laden to Hitler or Al Qaeda to the Nazis; whatever the totalitarian similarities, the differences, I think, are are even greater.

Nonetheless, this quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem came to mind:

[J]ust as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang. [emph. added]

To want to cleanse the world of its inhabitants makes you an enemy of the world and its inhabitants and gives us license to treat you as such.

I don’t celebrate his death—“grim satisfaction” seems the appropriate cliche—but I do think a kind of rough justice was done.

3. There are concerns that this action will give the US cover to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later. Would that this would be so.

4. The death of bin Laden matters. I say this not as an expert on terrorism but more generally as a political scientists: Even if the death were only symbolic—his operational role was said to have diminished greatly in the past few years—the symbolism still matters. In both war and politics, symbolism matters.

As to whether this will lead to a retrenchment or fracturing of Al Qaeda, well, either is a possibility. Bin Laden was apparently a charismatic figure, and his former number two (now presumptive leader) Ayman Al-Zawahri is not; that could matter in terms of holding together a far-flung criminal operation.

Or not: The cell structure of Al Qaeda may mean that those freelancers gathered under the Al Qaeda banner have long since left the base of The Base behind.

We’ll find out.

5. Some are concerned at what happens next.

As a general matter, I’m not concerned; something always happens next.

As for specifics,  I (somewhat surprisingly) again agree with Jeffrey Goldberg:

Television-based analysts are already asking if the killing of Bin Laden will provoke revenge attacks by al Qaeda. Is there a stupider question in the world? The implication, of course, is that now, al Qaeda will truly be pissed off at the U.S. Unlike in 2001, when al Qaeda was only marginally angry at the U.S.

He backs off that somewhat in later posts—yes, some terrorists may be moved to strike out in rage or grief—but as Al Qaeda was not much a political organization, that is, it was not an organization with which one could negotiate, any acts around it or in reference to it or against it would lead to a reaction.

That there are reactions does not mean there should be no actions.

6. There are domestic political implications of all this, but it seems small, today, to consider them.

7. To circle back around to the Arendt quote: Yes, I think she got it right.

There are a lot of reconsiderations of her work in light of a new book on Eichmann (The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah Lipstadt), but I don’t know that any of the old or new criticisms can erode the acuity of that judgment, which deserves repeating:

[J]ust as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations. . . we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.

The way is dark, the light is dim

15 01 2011

So I was going to write something about civility in politics.

Three times, I was going to write something about civility in politics—even had a header for one of ‘em—but then I remembered: Been there, done that.

I think civility is a fine thing, and as mentioned in a very early post, I very much like the idea of going at it hammer and tongs with someone—and then eating pie.

Argument and pie: What could be better?

I still believe that. But I also believe that, in the face of incivility, tut-tutting about the rudeness of the other fellow is of no use; no, the correct response is tit-tatting: if he broke a metaphorical bottle over your head, and if you don’t like having metaphorical bottles broken over your head, then you smash one over his. If he comes back with a verbal fist to the face, then a lexical plank upside the head is appropriate.

Do not let the adversary get away with anything. Make him pay. And when he gets tired of being bloodied—and acts accordingly—then so should you.

The rules of politics are set and enforced by the participants, so if you want civility, you not only have to practice that civility, you have to enforce it—which means you have to punish incivility.

There is no other way.


It should be obvious that what works in politics does not necessarily work in, say, intimate or even collegial relationships, nor, for that matter, in the practice of science or in the arts or religion. (The truly interesting question is whether these gladiatorial tactics are appropriate to war—but I leave that to the military strategists among you.) My understanding of politics is predicated on conflict; my understanding of friendship is not.


I don’t think the Tea Partiers are fascists anymore than I thought GW Bush was Hitler, and any such comparisons are as sloppy and mendacious as those linking Obama to Stalin or Osama bin Laden.

“Sloppy and mendacious”: But what if people really are afraid that Obama is a Secret Musselman in thrall to an anti-colonialist anti-American communist conspiracy?

Grow up.

The evidence is lacking, just as evidence that Bush planned the hijackings on Sept 11 is lacking. The sincerity of beliefs matters not one whit if those beliefs are, to quote a couple of automotive philosophers, “unencumbered by the thought process”.

The proper response to such charges is either mockery or a swift linguistic kick in the shins.


Well, okay, the fists-up response is not always appropriate. One can engage in a kind of political discourse which seeks understanding, and to which nonsense might best be met with questions as to why the interlocutor believes that, or even a polite I disagree.

And, ff course, if one is outnumbered and such verbal disagreement could lead to a physical beatdown, keeping one’s trap shut is also a fine tactic.


I hate eliminationist talk, and find it stupid and counterproductive, if not potentially dangerous. I don’t  engage in such talk, don’t laugh at jokes about assassination, don’t as a general matter invite the spectre of real violence into the arena of politics.

It’s not because I’m good, but because I’m an Arendtian, and I think politics has a purpose which can be shattered by violence.

(Yes, I have invited public figures to engage in anatomically impossible acts on themselves, and will likely do so again the future. These aren’t my best moments, but I think a not-unreasonable response to the denigration and dehumanization of an entire category of human beings.)

Aristotle and Arendt both thought politics ennobling; a part of me agrees that yes, it offers the possibility of us inhabiting one of the highest kinds of human being.

But, as Machiavelli pointed out, one rarely reaches that pinnacle unscathed.

h/t, and for a completely different set of views, see James Fallows here, here, here, and here

“While violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it”

8 01 2011

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ, was shot at point-blank range today.

She is in critical condition; according to press reports, 18 people were injured and as many as six were killed.

This is very bad news.

Every shooting is very bad news, of course, as is every murder. But political murder in a representative system carries another meaning, one which states that, in effect, the will of the people does not matter.

There’s a lot to criticize in the notion of “the will of the people”, and a lot to question in our version of representative democracy; nonetheless, it’s what we’ve got and it’s how we confer at least a bare legitimacy on our system of governance. We don’t have to like it, of course, and so we bitch and we organize and we try to sway our fellow citizens and our members of Congress to change.

This means we’re always failing: If Dems win, GOPers lose, and vice versa. Those who want change battle those content with the status quo. There may be some win-win or lose-lose situations, but in a pluralist democracy, you don’t always get your way.

To be political is to reconcile oneself to failure—without giving up.

Political assassins will not so reconcile themselves. Whatever their motivations, whatever their goals, they cannot accept that they lose, cannot accept that others may legitimately win. And so they seek to destroy the adversary’s victory, destroy that legitimacy, and, symbolically, to destroy not only those others, but everyone who allowed the victor to take power.

In so doing, the assassin acts against us all: as citizens, as participants in the political process, as those who, whatever our misgivings, in the end accept a flawed and frayed system of governance over the alternatives of purges and violence, who in the end accept the ballot over the bullet.

What we’ve got is not the best, but is what we’ve  got, it is ours—assassins be damned.

Anything you can do, I can do better

12 09 2009

Who would you like to see together?

Don’t be perverted—not like that! No, more along the lines of Here are two people who I’d love to see do whatever it is they do, together.

I was watching  clip of k.d. lang singing a Leonard Cohen song, and thought, Man, I wonder what she’d sound like with Cassandra Wilson?

Two amazing vocalists and interpreters, together.

So, my first duet: k.d. lang and Cassandra Wilson

Then again, I’d long thought that it would be great to listen in as Hannah Arendt and Edward Said argued.

Thus, the first duel (albeit a friendly one): Arendt and Said.

Who else?

  • Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg
  • Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X
  • Arendt and Malcolm X
  • Malcolm X and Bernard Lazare
  • Janis Joplin and Cass Elliot
  • PJ Harvey and Patti Smith (definitely a duel)
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Dawn Upshaw (Really. Have you heard her on Golijov’s Ayre? The woman can sing anything.)
  • Eddie Cochran and The Clash
  • Brett Favre (back in the day. . .) and Randy Moss
  • Martina Navratilova (back in the day. . .) and Serena Williams
  • k.d. lang and Lizz Wright
  • Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen (just for the hell of it)
  • Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell (hot and cool, together)

Who else?

I can’t be the only one who wastes her time thinking about this kind of thing. . . .

Power to the people

15 06 2009

The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. —Hannah Arendt

The events in Iran thrill, in every sense of the word: the demands for liberation, the fear of the reaction, the unpredictability, and as the most basic argument for a notion that power is about politics—the public gathering of citizens—and that violence is the antithesis of power, that it scatters the public and as such, eliminates power.

Violence: Witness the crowds literally scatter as the motorcycle cops accelerate into them, their riders swinging batons at anyone near.

Power: Watch the crowd assert itself against the agents of the state, pushing back against the police and security forces, as when those around a BBC reporter kept a security agent from interfering with his broadcast.

Unfortunately, as Arendt knew, politics was bound up in what she termed the ‘frailty of human affairs’, such that Wherever people gather together, [political space] is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily, and not forever. Power is evanescent, ‘not an unchangeable, measureable, and reliable entity,’ but one utterly dependent upon the presence of others, a presence which can be dissipated by apathy, more urgent needs, and, of course, weapons.

But while violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it.

Ahmadinejad and the Iranian security apparatus may succeed in dispersing these crowds, in denying these bodies politic their destabilizing (not least because of their unpredictability) potentialities, but in so doing will have condemned themselves:

[From the destruction of power] results the by no means infrequent political combination of force and powerlessness, . . . In historical experience and traditional theory, this combination. . . is known as tyranny, and the time-honored fear of this form of government is not exclusively inspired by its cruelty. . . but by the impotence and futility to which it condemns the rulers as well as the ruled.

Yes, there is always the concern about mob rule, but as the photos [hat tip: Daily Dish] and videos of protesters aiding injured policemen attest, the ‘mob’ in Iran are the ones wearing the uniforms—or the be-robed men directed the men in uniform.

Who knows how this will end: the beauty of Arendtian politics is inseparable from its terror, the potentiality from its frailty.

But still! To witness what we can do! The promise. . . !

Violence cancels politics. . .

14 06 2009

. . . and politics cancels violence.

It’s a basic Arendtian equation.

See what’s happening in Iran: check out Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish.

I was never a huge fan of Sullivan’s, especially in his brash I-know-how-to-be-an-America-better-than-you-do phase, but in these past few years he’s been chastened by life—and become a much more interesting thinker as a result.

More to the point, for this post, is that he’s been posting as fast as he can on the situation in Iran, throwing up amazing photos (here, among others) and videos (here, and here, among others)  of street protests, as well as a variety of commentary on the elections. The urgency of the posts matches that of the activity; the Times’s coverage is pallid, by comparison.

Fascinating, heartbreaking, and breathtaking. Go. Read it all.

Thinking like a mountain and wishing like the sea

22 03 2009

My t.v. sits there, mute and uncomplaining. Or mute and seething. If a t.v. could, you know, uncomplain or seethe.

Do I liberate it?

I’ve watched t.v. twice since I’ve moved in, and both times it was chore: I don’t have cable, so the reception was more snow than picture. I’ve thought about getting the Roku box and streaming movies through Netflix, but beyond my initial research, I’ve done nothing about it.

So do I sell or give away the t.v.?

It’s in decent shape, but it’s also a few years old, and the big ol’ console type—not a sleek, new flatscreen.

I dunno. If someone would offer me 25 bucks, I’d probably unload it.

A plant would fit nicely in its spot.


On my continuing inability to write that elegant piece on abortion, or to patch together anything coherent on Israel and Palestine: why oh why?

It’s not as if I don’t have well-formed ideas on either issue. On abortion, for example, I think that it’s a no-brainer that it remain legal, but that morally, it’s murky. And that it’s murky means that, for some people, it’s not a no-brainer that it remain legal. I think it’s silly to expect all women to feel guilt or shame or regret for terminating a pregnancy, and silly to expect that no woman would feel guilt or shame or regret for terminating a pregnancy.

But wait! There’s more! There’s freedom and equality and sex and contraception and men and motherhood and meaning and. . . all that.

So much to write.

Similarly with Israel and Palestine. Why should I take side other than that of peace and pluralism? Why would I support a two-state solution, one which implies—no, practically requires—a single-identity set of states, which in turns would necessarily involve some version of ‘transfer.’

As in ‘ethnic cleansing’. As in a crime against humanity.

Hannah Arendt (who was and is not beloved in Israel) made the argument in favor of a Jewish homeland—but not a Jewish state. Edward Said (who has his own unbeloveds) ended up supporting the goal of a single state as the most just solution.

The current situation is unjust. A two-state solution would simply reify this injustice, and in so doing, make such reification irresistible. In other words, the injustice involved in bringing reality to the two states would itself become an argument in favor of the process of states-making itself.

Perversity. The entire damned situation abounds in perversity. Again, so much to say.

Too much to say, perhaps. Perhaps that’s why I am unable to say it.


I am temporarily working three jobs again, but the third job will soon go away for the spring and probably the summer.

The second job (teaching) is secure through December, and probably the following spring.

Job1 is the current angst-generator. It’s a retail position, not difficult, but low-paying and irritating in the usual way of retail positions. It sucks up time, both on the job and in travel. And did I mention the customers?

But it has had one great benefit, however: benefits. Most part-time jobs do not offer health or other benefits, but this one does.

This has kept me working there even when I thought AAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH! That, and the need to pay rent.

But I now qualify for health care through Job2, and am in the process of switching my coverage. Wrinkle one.

Wrinkle two: My store is in the midst of a shake-up, and not all of us currently employed will be offered jobs past June. I went through the process to keep my job, but I’m not at all sure that I do want to continue working there.

This is different from the AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH reaction. I’m getting more courses, and while the pay for adjunct teaching is lousy compared to a tenure-track job, it’s great compared to retail. And there’s a good chance I’ll be able to continue working off-and-on at Job3—a job which also pays more than Job1, and is closer to home.

The big reason to leave, however, is that I have no damned time to write. I wrecked my life to leave academia, and wrecked my finances to move to New York to write—which I have, in my first two years here, managed to do. In the midst of my third year, however, I haven’t been able to grab those chunks of time necessary for writing.

Yeah, I have time to blog and to web-surf and to play spider solitaire, but none of these activities requires the particular kind of concentration I engage in while writing. These are filler activities, wind-downs—only now I’m winding down from my commute or course prep, not from cranking out a crucial scene.

And I have a new idea. I have characters and a rough sense of where I want to begin. I want to find out what happens. And I don’t have time to write to find out what happens.

The economy? Oh, yeah, that. How could I give up a job in this economy? Is wanting or needing to write enough? Yeah, the check’s small, but it’s not nothing; how could I give that up?

Perhaps I won’t make the cut, which means the decision is out of my hands. But this is my life, and it should be in my hands. I should have to figure out what to do.

Should. Not that I have, yet.

Rat bastard

6 01 2009

Brandon Darby is a coward.

Mr. Solidarity-Forever collaborated with the FBI, working as an informant during the Republican National Convention as well as, according to the New York Times, ‘cases not involving the convention. He defended his decision to work with the F.B.I. as “a good moral way to use my time,” saying he wanted to prevent violence during the convention at the Xcel Energy Center.’

Who is Brandon Darby? According to the Times, he’s an organizer from Texas ‘who gained prominence as a member of Common Ground Relief, a group that helped victims of Hurrican Katrina in New Orleans.’ According to those who commented in response to his letter on the Independent Media Center website (first link), he’s likely a long-time snitch, informing on ‘fellow’ activists and radicals for at least a couple of years.

According to Darby himself, ‘Though I’ve made and will no doubt continue to make many mistakes in efforts to better our world, I am satisfied with the efforts in which I have participated. Like many of you, I do my best to act in good conscience and to do what I believe to be most helpful to the world. Though my views on how to give of myself have changed substantially over the years, ultimately the motivations behind my choices remain the same. I strongly stand behind my choices in this matter.’

Darby apparently didn’t like the thought of a good protest, by those of ‘pure intentions’, being ruined by those who ‘used the group as cover for intentions that the rest of the group did not agree with or knew nothing about and are now, consequently, having parts of their lives and their peace of mind uprooted over.’

Translation? He didn’t like violence.

I don’t like violence. Once again, I’m with Arendt in standing for politics and positioning violence as the anti-politics. I’m not a pacifist, but I find it difficult to justify violence in an open society. Whatever the problems of the American polity—and there are many—we have the ability to address those problems politically, not criminally or violently. We (whoever the ‘we’ are at the moment) may not win, but rarely are we finally vanquished. We get to act, and to act some more.

Violence works against such action, works against a notion of a gathering together for public action. It seeks to alienate rather than engage, and to separate us from rather than ally ourselve with one another.

And no, I’m not a procedural or deliberative democratic theorist, either, who thinks if we all just talk to one another long enough we’ll all get along. I’m with the agonistes, who see conflict at the center of politics.

Which is precisely why I’m opposed to both to violence and the shitty, underhanded behavior of the so-called protector of the pure:

It is very dangerous when a few individuals engage in or act on a belief system in which they feel they know the real truth and that all others are ignorant and therefore have no right to meet and express their political views.

Additionally, when people act out of anger and hatred, and then claim that their actions were part of a movement or somehow tied into the struggle for social justice only after being caught, it’s damaging to the efforts of those who do give of themselves to better this world. Many people become activists as a result of discovering that others have distorted history and made heroes and assigned intentions to people who really didn’t act to better the world. The practice of placing noble intentions after the fact on actions which did not have noble motivations has no place in a movement for social justice.

This isn’t even coherent. Is he trying to keep intact the innocence of those who would otherwise defend the actions of violence aggressors? Or perhaps I could offer a psychological explanation, and repeat that last sentence Right back atcha, Brandon!

If politics has no place for violence, it has no place for innocence, either. You want to be a political actor? Stand by your actions. No hiding, no pretending, no I-didn’t-know-any-better. There is conflict, and you’re on one side of that conflict. Why on you on that side? In what do you believe? You want social justice? Then you stand up for it first and foremost on your own side.

There are always hangers-on and trouble-makers at any kind of political gathering. Most of the time they’re only annoying, and some of the time they’re dangerous. Confront them. Stand up for your principles and state that those who would use violence are not, in fact, on your side. Hell, go so far as to say that you’ll treat any and all who’d suggest violence as an agent provocateur, the suggestion itself as prima facie evidence of informant status.

Got that, Brandon? You confront these people publicly, you put yourself forward—you take the risk—with the idea that you will get others to join you. That is politics. It’s not easy, and you will be opposed, but you know what? The conflict will at least occur in the open, and by attempting to draw others in, you have a shot at deepening both politics in general and the commitment to social justice in particular. You take a risk, and you take responsibility, and you invite every other person at that gathering to take the same risks and responsibilities, and give each of them the chance to act.

But no. You had to play Big Daddy Protector, foreclosing the possibilities that your fellow activists could, in fact, take care of themselves and, perhaps, grow politically. You robbed them of their chance to act.

That’s the real shame of your informant activities—that’s what makes you a rat bastard.

As for the rest, well, is it ironic or unsurprising that a man who says it is ‘My sincere hope is that the entire matter results in better understanding for everyone’ ran to the F-fucking-BI! rather than engage in this ‘discussion’ when it mattered. That’s what makes you a coward.

Respect yourself

23 12 2008

I’d eat pie with Rick Warren. Yeah, I verbally smacked him around yesterday, so maybe he wouldn’t want to share a slice with me, but, as I’ve mentioned before, I think pie is a fine chaser to argument.

To move a bit further out on the spectrum, were Pat Robertson or President Ahmadinejad or Archbiship Akinola to invite me to dinner, I’d go and have at it. (Not that I’m sitting by the phone, waiting for these gents to call. . . .) Fascist, Klan member, Stalinist, misogynist—why not? We’d have either a thoughtful discussion, or I’d get my licks in; regardless, I’d learn something.

But I wouldn’t invite any of these folks into my home.  The public is the place in which to engage others whose views are not your own: this is precisely why the notion of ‘the public’ is so important to a pluralistic society. But private or personal places are just as important to this society, as a place to which we may retreat, and be among our own kind (however one’s ‘kind’ is defined). Discriminatory behavior in the public sphere is rightly curtailed, and even certain prejudicial expressions may justly be disdained in, say, the courthouse or workplace.

But of course we ought to be able to discriminate in intimate matters. Not every person I run into is (or wants to be) my friend, and the ability to work well with someone hardly requires that I engage in deeply personal conversations or hang out at the beach with that person. I like some things and dislike others, and when I’m feeling particularly low or high I want to spend that time with those who are more or less in sync with me. Yeah, we’ll have our disagreements, but we’ll also share some basic values. I don’t mind keeping my guard up, but I also greatly appreciate the chance to relax that guard.

Why am I chewing through all of this again? True, tsuris with Pastor Rick set off this latest round of mental mastication, but any excuse to gnaw away at the concept of tolerance. (Here ends the dental metaphor.)

And it helps, again, to refine different dimensions of tolerance. Personal tolerance is perhaps a matter more of  one’s ethos—how does one live with oneself—than a question of politics or justice, or how one lives and shares power with others. (Okay, that’s a little dodgy, but can you see the distinction I’m trying to make, that how we think about personal matters differs from how think about public ones?)

So on to the public: Tolerance among equals is a worthy goal, and necessary to a healthy politics. This hardly implies agreement and comity: partisans may shriek at or ignore one another, but as long as no side attempts to push the other outside of the law or the practice of politics or society, it’s fine. Such tolerance may arise solely from the calculation that one lacks the authority to shove the others around, but, again, absent such shoving, this form of tolerance is not only unproblematic, but praiseworthy.

Tolerance among unequals is problematic, and implies a kind of right of dominion by those who profess such tolerance. This is where debates about minority (be they ethnic, linguistic, sexual, or religious) rights come into play: Those who oppose the claims of minorities to live both as minorities and as equals arrogate to themselves the position to determine the worth of those minorities. In other words, the dominant decide the status of the dominated. Thus, when someone in that superior position states that she ‘tolerates’ the minority, she simultaneously reinforces [the status of] her own superiority and the ability [such a status allows her] to dominate, to set the boundaries for, the minority. The minority does not get to determine its own status, which is instead contingent upon the sufferances of the superior. Tolerance, in this scenario, is less to be welcomed than feared.

Feared: too strong a word. No, this  form of tolerance ought instead to be treated skeptically, tested, and exposed for what it is. Given that such actions are at least possible under a regime of dominance-tolerance, it is preferable to condemnation and repression.

And one should push against this kind of tolerance. Hannah Arendt in The Jewish Writings and Steven Biko in his speeches and writings (I’m still trying to get hold of a copy of Black Consciousness) made substantially similar points: it is not enough to be told we can enter society if we leave behind a constituting element of our humanity. For Arendt (following the 19th c author Bernard Lazare), the notion that she is only allowed to be a citizen, a human being, if she is willing to discard her Jewishness is unacceptable—and she criticizes those Jews who make such a bargain. Why should I accept that I am less than human as I am? she asks. Biko, too, was unapologetically black: it was not a defect to be overcome, nor a sickness to be diagnosed—and treated—by (violently) oppressive whites. He was a threat to South Africa’s apartheid regime because he would not accept the lie at the center of that regime: that a black person was a lesser human being.

Twenty-first century America is not 19th century or pre-WWII Europe, nor is it apartheid-era South Africa. But Lazare and Arendt and Biko’s message is centrally important to any social justice movement: do not let the dominant define who you are.

So (to wind this a very long way back around) it’s important to confront Rick Warren and others who make similar arguments about the basis of their version of tolerance. Of course, such confrontation with their words is also a confrontation with their status, so it is unsurprising that he and others who argue against equality for GLBT folk react with such furious self-pity: We’re not only dissenting, we’re not apologizing for that dissent.

We’re no longer respecting their authority, but asserting our own.


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