This land is my land, 2

13 03 2016

If both order and freedom are necessary for politics, then how to reconcile them?

Hobbes said, in effect: you choose order, and whatever freedom may exist without disrupting order may, but not must, do so. Rousseau tried to bring the two together by denying that in a democratic society there is any conflict between them—one may speak unironically of being ‘forced to be free’. Locke sought a kind of middle way: you agree to the founding (representative) order which in turn allows for a wide, although not absolute, set of liberties.

These snippets do not, of course, do justice to these men’s thoughts, but do indicate the various ways early modern thinkers thought about how to build and maintain a truly civil society, that is, a society in which men may interact without violence.

Civility in politics, then, is less about manners than about the manner of our engagement with one another.

Now, that manner may also be a political matter: What kind of protest is acceptable? What are the appropriate venues of protest? How does one comport oneself while protesting? Are there forms of protest which are out of bounds? What if the protest overwhelms the phenomenon one is protesting? What if political speech intimidates protesters? What if protesters of political speech intimidate advocates?

Who is in the right and who is in the wrong?

And that question is where we go off the rails, thinking that the answer can be determined outside of politics itself. It can’t.

I tend to go far along with Arendt in positioning violence opposite of politics, but, Hobbesian that I am, I can’t completely deny its role in politics itself. If might makes right (and it does), then violence, as one form of might, can make right.

In the US political system there are supposed to be limits on violence in politics—that is a mythical part of our foundational order—but its use has often succeeded in containing insurgent (and non-violent) political acts. Almost every liberation movement in our country has been met with violence, both official and not, and has had to justify itself as worthy of its freedom to be political, that is, to be included in the political order itself.

That, by the way, is the radical promise of politics: that order can be challenged, upended, re-ordered, without bloodshed. That blood is so often shed demonstrates the practical limits of that promise.



This land is your land, 1

13 03 2016

Man, are we Americans bad at politics.

I don’t know if we’re uniquely bad, but we do seem to have some difficulty with the notion that disagreement (and expressions thereof) is normal.

I’m not just talking about the violence at Trump rallies, but also to violence at protests generally as well as meltdowns about campus politics. Disagreement over whether the best way to accomplish x is achieved by y or z is still acceptable, but disagreement over the fundamental means by which we prioritize x over p or decide that only y or z are worthy options is considered uncivil.

The very heart of politics—uncivil!

Granted, there are many plausible ways of understanding politics, and not everyone would go along with my Arendtian/Crickian view which places distinctiveness and pluralism at the center of political life. But if one accepts that a complex society will necessitate substantive differences amongst the members of that society, then the management of those differences will in turn be required to maintain both its complexity and functioning.

There are, as Crick notes, any number of ways for societies to deal with complexity, among them attempts to bring its various pieces into line and/or to suppress expressions of difference. It is only in politics, Crick argues, that the freedom which arises from and allows further complexity may be found and strengthened.

Or, as Madison somewhat more pessimistically put it,

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. …

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

So, what Madison is resigned to and what Arendt and Crick celebrate is the endurance of difference and disagreement—and of politics to allow and make use of its expression.

Some leftists have argued that an open politics (of the sort often found in democracies) is merely reformist or bourgeois (as did the Communists in the Weimar republic), and thus fail to take seriously the radical possibilities contained within politics. Madison may indeed have been a conservative of a sort in wanting to limit what politics could accomplish in the new American system, but it was precisely because he saw that politics could be transformative that he sought to limit it.

And there is something to his conservatism, as well. As Crick noted, the first requirement of any system, political or otherwise, is to maintain order and thus provide security to its citizens or subjects. This is Hobbes’s basic insight: absent a leviathan, life is but a ‘war of all against all’, ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Fear matters, as does security.

But even as they matter, they are not all that matters, and the promise of politics is, pace Arendt, the promise of something more.


They say the best things in life are free

6 02 2014

I am not a subscriber.

I expect that I’ll become one; I’m kinda surprised and I haven’t ponied up already.

The Daily Dish. I’m talkin’ ’bout Andrew Sullivan’s Dish.

I read it every day, and often click over to one of the sites Sullivan links to. I like very much that he pays his interns and that he provides health insurance to his workers. And given my general “fuck you-pay me” ethos (tho’ that doesn’t quite match the situation, here), it makes sense that when someone whose work I read asks that he be paid for that work, that I pay him.

But I haven’t.

A big part is that I’m still able to read the bulk of his posts without clicking through. I know he reduced the number of free hits from 10 to 5 in any given month, but there’s still a lot that’s free. If he were even stingier with the words, I’d probably already have cracked open my wallet.

There are other reasons for my procrastination. Every time this past year I was thinking, Yeah, I should sign up already, he’d offer up some bullshit post (What’s the big deal with expecting retail/hospitality workers to fawn all over me? I’m so so brave for publishing Charles Murray’s shit-work on race and IQ, etc.) and I’d think “Fuck if I’m rewarding that.”

It’s not that I won’t pay to disagree or that I have to like everything he publishes. I don’t care about beards and his posts on his religious beliefs could be nominated for his own Poseur Alerts, but, whatever. And I do like the shots of his beagles. No, it was more a specific response to a specific post, as if sending electronic cash his way just after he posted something terrible was a kind of reward for that specific terrible post.

That may not make sense, but when you’re lookin’ for reasons to say procrastinate, just about anything’ll do.

Which leads me to my next point: I don’t think he’s a very good political analyst. He can’t separate out his own concerns from those of the candidate or of the exigencies of either a campaign or governance. He kept banging on about the debt and deficit—which, fine: his blog—but in arguing that Obama could make great political gains by tackling D&D he was just. . . wrong.

And, of course, he’s by turns amusing and irritating with his semi-regular emotional collapses  (alternating with the “meep meep” nonsense) regarding the daily fortunes of this president.

Then there’s the–uck–Clinton-spazzing. Jesus Christ. He barely held it together while Hillary was Secretary of State, but now that she’s no longer a part of the Obama administration he’s reverted to Bill&HillAreSatan and already frothing about 2016. *Looooooong sigh*

Finally, I am still deeply, deeply angered over the fact that those who supported and exhorted and castigated on behalf of the Iraq war have paid no price whatsoever. They’ve kept their jobs,  their t.v. gigs, they’ve made money on books and in speaking fees, and they’re still available to opine on the next new thing.

They helped to shove us into disaster and the worst that has happened to any of them is that they’ve had to say “Sorry”.

Sullivan has, of course, said “sorry” and made a great show of repentance—but as you can tell by the way I worded that last phrase, I don’t fully believe him. He says he feels bad, and maybe he does, but that’s because he should. He was part of a terrible venture, and he should carry that until the end of his days.

Oddly, it is in part that anger over his Iraq war advocacy that will lead me to subscribing: I want to read his “Deep Dish” piece on how he got it all wrong. I generally don’t bother with contempt-reading (hence my drawing back from Dreher), but I expect the experience of reading the piece to be grim.

I’m angry just thinking about it.

Still. And so what. Whatever else I think of Sullivan, I do think he’s honest, or at least that he strives for honesty. I like a lot of what he does, dislike some, and skip past the rest with an “Eh”. I don’t know if I’d enjoy sitting down to a meal with him—maybe, maybe not—but I don’t need to be besties with someone to appreciate what they do.

And, for the most part, I do.

So I will—subscribe, that is.

Tomorrow. Yeah, tomorrow.

Don’t get your back up over this

7 09 2011

I’m less clear about how we “get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack”. Online and off it has been my experience that people generally don’t appreciate it when you point out (even if gently with leading questions) that they don’t have much of a basis for their not so considered opinions, they feel certain and righteous about their position and have been told over and over that they have a right to their opinions as if that in an of itself justifies the opinion at hand, they may even have a one-line answer from some undergrad class they took in support of it. Whatever the reason people seem to have a hard time separating judgment of the basis of an idea that they may hold from judgment of their persons, even, maybe especially, with strangers, so how to bring some of the philosophical ethos of pushing the ideas, fleshing them out, and testing them and their implications from the seminar into the public realm. and what rewards are there to share with people who don’t yet have a taste of how such demanding work/research can be.rewarding?—dmf

Just when I thought I was done (for now) with this question, you pull me back in. . . .Ha, no. Really, d, Imma stealing from you to feed my blog.

I think it helps to classify one’s interlocutors. If you’re dealing with adversaries—those who seek to get one over on you and vice versa—then it’s anything goes. If they’re shifters, you punish them by not letting go of a single thing they say and not giving in on a single point they make. You point out all the ways they’re wrong, admit of no wrongs on your side, and go after their credibility. “You were wrong on this, and you were wrong on this, and this, and this. . . why should anyone take anything you say seriously?” Attack attack attack.

Despite my vociferousness on this matter, it’s actually not my preferred way of doing things. I like rules, like the notion of “keeping one another honest”, and prefer not to cheat in order to win an argument. If there are no rules, however, then you’d be a fool to act as if there were. The best you can hope for is to diminish the shifter’s sphere of influence.

Or, if you’re not in the mood, you simply walk away—preferably laughing the whole while. (This is how I deal—or don’t deal—with Objectivists.)

Not all adversaries are shifters, however, so some standards apply. If the argument is “staged”, as in, we both know that the real person we’re trying to convince is not the other but neutral others who are listening in, such questions may take on an edge, and some shortcuts in service to the performance are acceptable, but you can’t go too far in upending your adversary. You can’t get mad and you don’t want to make the other person mad, as that would ruin the enjoyment for onlookers, and you have to know when to shrug and let something go. You want to appear reasonable and creditable to those onlookers, so while light jabs are acceptable, garrotting is not.

But if it’s not a performance, if I’m simply trying to suss something out, I find it best simply to ask questions. My forte in verbal combat is in going after the other person’s argument, so I get as much information as I can about that argument. I ask real, not gotcha, questions, and allow the person a full answer. And if their information is or appears incorrect, I’ll ask about that, as well.

If it turns into a fight, I’ll use their words against them, but a lot of times the mere process of asking the questions leads away from the gladiatorial arena. Because I don’t twist their words or mock them or sneer at their views, if I offer them the benefit of the doubt, they’ll often open up, both in expanding upon their views and in their willingness to hear my concerns. And I don’t try to convert anyone, not overtly, anyway. I just ask questions, ask them to think about x from the vantage point of y, and then let it be.

It’s the soft approach—something which I would have abjured when younger—but now I can see the possibilities, and not just the threat, of such softening up.

The Old Man knew this long before I did:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

There is a crack, in everything/That’s how the light gets in.


(h/t Zoe Pollack, The Daily Dish: Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”)

If I’m so wrong and you’re so right

5 09 2011

is this all about convincing other people to share our intuitions and if people don’t share such faith (religious or otherwise) convictions on what possible basis would they be convinced by anything we say that builds on them? Is there no obligation to try and have some researched basis for our public opinions?—dmf

No easy questions, eh, d?

I don’t know that there’s any one, good, way to deal both with clashing ontologies and the question of the quality of the opinion. Habermas attempts to do so, as do Guttmann and Thompson and deliberative theorists generally—attempts which tend toward the suppression of fundamental conflicts and an optimism regarding shared language. Focus on a respectful process and practical goals, G&T advise, and use reasons which can make sense across any epistemological or ontological divides. Aim for consensus rather than winning, or rather, see consensus as winning. The point is not just to solve problems, but to deepen democratic discourse generally.

I am, unsurprisingly, skeptical of the deliberative approach, of the willingness of different sides to agree to a shared approach, and of the desire for mutually-agreed-upon outcomes over a clear win. That said, I think it can work in specific instances, especially those in which participants really do want to solve a problem and where some version of splitting the difference (as in, allocation of funds) is possible.

It does not work on matters where an underlying principle is so closely related to the position that any disagreement on the principle makes impossible any agreement on outcome. The exemplar of this kind of conflict is that over abortion: female autonomy runs up against fetal personhood, such that the right to choose cancels the right to life, and vice versa. There is no splitting this difference, at least as it is currently configured; there are only winners and losers.

These sorts of polarized debates (which can arise for any number of reasons, including hyped-up partisanship) make it very difficult both for us to find a shared language (fetus/baby; undocumented immigrant/illegal alien; etc.) and to agree upon any standards of debate. If I am convinced I am right I won’t agree to any standards which might allow you to win the argument, and will dispute your starting point, reason, evidence, and conclusion.

The abortion debate, however frustrating and exhausting it may be, may nonetheless remain within the confines of democratic debate. We may not be able to resolve the conflict, but in the main (not, necessarily, on the margins), it can at least be contained by such debate.

That’s not always the case.

Consider the political debate over global warming. Most scientists agree that the planet is warming and that human activity has contributed to increased temperatures. If I think global warming is scam designed by extremist leftist-environmental types, I’m not going to listen to anything you have to offer which might prove me wrong. I’ll bring up the so-called climate-gate and take issue with any inexactness of your evidence, and will offer my own scientists and state that the reason they’re not published in scholarly journals is bias, plain and simple.

I am energized by fierce political argument, but this shit is disturbing. This isn’t simply about two sides disagreeing about the evidence, this is one side outright rejecting the relevance of evidence: it can’t be so it must not be. And if we can’t stand on the same ground on an issue for which there is clearly only one place to stand, then how the hell are we going to have any kind of conversation or debate about what to do about that issue?

In other words, what should be a good and vigorous political debate about what to do in response to a phenomenon (anthropocentric global warming) has been made impossible by one side of that debate declaring, in effect, that its politics don’t allow it to see the preponderance of evidence for that phenomenon. In short, the political commitments of one side has forced it to rule out the existence of the phenomenon itself.

There is no way to deal with this kind of reality-shifting except to defeat it. By any means necessary.

There are other kinds of less dire political debate wherein some notion of reason and evidence is accepted by the various participants. There may be scuffling over evidence or even the sources of evidence but not over the need for evidence itself. In these cases, your question of obligation for a researched basis is mooted insofar as it is beneficial for the participants to have done their homework ahead of time.

In other words, the best way to get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack.

Dealing with reality-shifters, I’m afraid, is largely a negative affair. You have to beat them (metaphorically, of course!) into submission, allowing them no quarter in any debates. You’ll never win them over, but you might be able to win nonetheless by so discrediting them to any larger audience. You trample over the shifters to speak directly to the audience, and smack ’em back down whenever they pop up with an objection. You rely, as ever, on reason and evidence, and offer zero respect for arguments which rely on neither.

However much such a strategy may be in service to a democratic politics, it is not democratic itself; it is, instead, brute, and brutal, politics. It is a ground war, one fought to establish whether the elements necessary to democracy will be encouraged to flourish, or not.

There will always be disagreements over the grounds, the standards, and the desired outcomes of debates; a democratic politics takes for granted the disagreement over desires, accommodates those over standards, but may shatter if it becomes too preoccupied with the grounds.

Whatever other commitments its citizens make, whether some have one foot nestled in heaven and some, dangling over the abyss, the other must be planted on common ground.

Don’t do this

2 06 2009

Or: how not to argue.

I did a little bit of drinking in high school. I mean, I didn’t drink EVERY day, and I was sober during school hours. And it wasn’t like I was hitting the bars every night—not when I didn’t have a decent fake ID. No, until I turned 18 (when I was only at the bar TWThF and Sat nights), I was forced to drink in cars and on country roads and in barns and friends’ basements and at the beach.

It was all very trying.

Anyway, one night my friends and I were at G.’s sister’s house, drinking and. . . I don’t know, playing cards or drinking games or something, when J. and I got into it.

J. was pro-life. Vehemently so. As was/am I, on the other side.

Why we thought it was a good idea to engage in this particular discussion at this particular time is beyond me. (I think I recall something about alcohol and impaired judgement.)

Anyway, I don’t (surprise!) remember exactly what was said, but I believe it ended with me pounding my fist on the table and shouting and her screaming at me and crying.

Helluva party.

A day or so later, sober, J. and I had a little sit-down and decided that, henceforth, we would not discuss abortion. Ever.

And that held, including the time our senior year when the sociology or world politics class we were taking screened an abortion (I think it was prolife) film. Other students were all ‘Ooo, J. & [yours truly] are really gonna go at it.’ Another teacher left his post to witness the fireworks.

J. looked at me and I looked at her and we both shrugged. Nope, we said. We don’t talk about this anymore.

We were such disappointments.

And that was it. We remained friends and drinking buddies throughout the rest of high school, and while we have long since lost touch with one another, I still remember what a truly good and funny friend she was.

There is an important epilogue to this story: At one point after our blow-out/armistice, I asked her if I could ask her some questions about abortion for a paper I was preparing. I don’t want to debate you, I said, or get into an argument. I just want to know.

She was wary, but she agreed. And in the library, just the two of us, I was able to ask her why she was pro-life, what she thought about the women, and what exceptions, if any, she would allow.

Her views, at least back then, were extreme: No exceptions. But she was calm in explaining her reasons why, and I was calm in my questions of her. There was no argument, and I learned something I wouldn’t have, otherwise.

We had re-established a kind of trust. Each knew where the other stood, and that was it. We could talk about it, carefully, without screaming about it.

So, J., wherever you are, thanks.

You can all just kiss off into the air

15 04 2009

Since the Femmes worked so well for me last night, why not again tonight?

The post title is offered in a kind of resigned cheer, a reminder to myself that for all my words about arguing and then eating pie, sometimes all one can do is argue. And then walk away. Perhaps waving a finger or two.

I’ve been teaching a democratic theory course, and have been using Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s Democracy and disagreement as my main text and whipping boy. They lay out an argument and a procedure for dealing with moral disagreement in politics. It appeals to my pie-eating sensibility, even as I distrust their bland, mm, blandishments on behalf of their version of democratic deliberation.

The distrust wins out. While the notion that morally serious people could find away around their disagreement appeals, it also repels: Let’s just all make nice, shall we? Or, to put it another way, I don’t think it works, and it conceals a fair amount of coercion, to boot.

The problem isn’t the coercion so much as it is the dishonesty regarding the coercion. There are winners and losers in politics, and pretending that the losers did not, in fact, lose—or forcing the losers to pretend that they didn’t lose—is to engender precisely the sort of dishonesty which leads to a repudiation of politics as such. Given that politics is one of the few ways we citizens have to disagree without killing each other, such alienation is dangerous.

No, don’t worry, I’m not about to head off into another rhapsody on the magical powers of politics. Rather, this is all a too-long preamble to a consideration of combox wars.

I’m a regular reader of and irregular contributor to the comments sections of a couple of conservative blogs, and even though I ought to know better, I am sometimes shocked—yes, shocked!—that reason and evidence do not always prevail.

Many issues, of course, do not turn on reason and evidence. You think the fetus is a person deserving of rights over and above those of the woman who carries it; I do not. You think that the alleged personhood of the fetus means it must prevail; I think that even if the fetus is a person, it does not automatically prevail.

I speak in terms of liberty and equality; you speak in terms of slaughter and dismemberment. And on it goes.

And when I suggest that we simply disagree, you call me and others like me murderers and Eichmanns and the worst this country has to offer. I decline to write (in the combox) what I think of you.

This isn’t a pity party for poor ol’ me, nor even a slam against the other side for their unreason, not least because my side (and, shockingly, I) have engaged in our/my share of unreason.

Nope. This is simply to note that reason has its limits, and passions its pleasures. Because as pissed as I can get at political opponents (see various rants), I also thoroughly enjoy ripping through the other side.

In addition to all my reasons, it’s also what makes me want to win, and to want to see you lose.

This, too, is politics: deep passion, surging forward, beaten back, never reconciled.

So, yes, let’s all make nice, shall we? And let’s be honest when we won’t.

*Post script

So y’all understand as I laugh about tea bagging and 2M4M and NOM, and hope as I rarely hope that the right somehow finds a way to make use of ‘tossing the salad’ and ‘watersports’.