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.





Here is my blood shed for thee

13 12 2008

Last thing about Ainadamar (for awhile): Did I mention that after the performance I trekked up to Corporate Bookstore and bought two books on the Spanish Civil War?

Wait! There’s a reason for this! The libretto  included broadcasts from Radio Falange, and I wanted to know if these were the product of David Hwang’s imagination or actual transcripts. Here’s a sample (translated)

Our youth must be ready//to shed their blood generously/ for the sacred cause of Spain//Whoever is not with us/is against us//We’ll exterminate the seeds of the Revolution,/even in the wombs of their mothers//Long live death!

And later:

. . . And if we find them dead, we will kill them again. I give you permission to kill them like dogs, and your hands will be clean.

Well. I just started Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain (c. 2006) so I don’t know if these are actual transcripts, but he does note, on p. 56 that the nationalist Foreign Legion, ‘Composed in large part of fugitives and criminals. . . were taught to be useful suicides  with their battle cry ‘Viva la Muerte!’‘ And, skipping ahead to p. 424, Beevor notes that ‘Ideological and religious invocations deliberately tried to make the violence abstract. . . . Carlist [nationalist] requetes were told that they would have a year less in purgatory for every red they killed, as if Christendom were still fighting the Moors.’

So much for the notion that Al Qaeda invented the (anti-)political cult of death.

In any case, I was seized by the notion of the ideological underpinnings of massacre. What makes it killing those who are not trying to kill you okay? It seemed—seems—a tremendously important issue.

But as I thought more about this, I remembered the work I did a lifetime ago in a human rights seminar in grad school. We were trying to theorize about human rights abuses, and, frankly, having a terrible time doing so. There were too many massacres, across all populated areas, from all different ethnic, religious, and ideological groups: how does one find a way through such a fog of data?

One key feature, as discussed by Leo Kuper in his book Genocide, was the dehumanization of the victims. They were a cancer, an infection, rats, insects—anything which not only removed them from their fellow humans, but which also made it a positive good to eradicate.

But the casting out of humanity of the victims is only part of the story; what of the killers? There have certainly been a number of studies of the sociology and psychology of mass killing—cf. Ervin Staub The Roots of Evil; Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors; Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, among others—but what of the specific ideological indoctrination? Robert Proctor gets at both the material and ideological aspects of Nazi scientists and doctors in Racial Hygiene, as does Benno Muller-Hill  in Murderous Science, but even these are more sociological than political-ideological.

What kind of ideology posits mass murder as a good? National Socialism was proudly genocidal, but does all fascism necessarily lead to the valorization of massacre? And Stalinism was clearly genocidal, but that seemed more cultic or psychopathic than ideological. (That said, Bolshevism wasn’t all sunshine and daisies, and Bolshevism clearly shaped Stalin. And no, I’m not one to think Lenin was somehow betrayed by Stalin: ol’ Vladimir may have been more pragmatic than Stalin, but he was a revolutionary, after all, with all the ruthlessness that implies.) The errors and crimes of Leninism and Stalinism are clear to me (if not their precise etiology), but Marxism is an ideology, if not always a practice, of liberation.

Capitalism? Certainly, in practise it has sanctioned the treatment of humans as ends rather than means, and there is plenty of violence woven into long history of the emergence from pre-capitalist economies and societies as well as colonization. And, oh yes, there were more than a few killings commited in the defense thereof during the Cold War. Yet, as with Marxism, as an ideology it pitches liberation.

Furthermore, I think it makes sense to distinguish between massacres, such as My Lai, and concerted extermination. It may make little difference to the victims of such massacres whether their deaths were the result of  a (morally, psychologically) chaotic situation or a fixed program, but as I’m trying to get at the programmatic content of mass murder, the distinction is important. In the former case it is a kind of criminal accident, a breakdown of ordinary operating procedures: Even if the soldiers or killers are not ultimately punished, the massacre itself must be explained [away] as something extrinsic to the (political, national) cause itself. In the latter case, however, massacres are intrinsic to the cause, necessary as both means and end.

Hm. I think that’s a part of it: an ideology in which death is not a mere (unfortunate) means, but a desired end. And this bifurcates: it is necessary and good to kill these others, as it is necessary and good for ourselves to die in battle against the others, and for ourselves.

So back to the ideology of death. Is this its own ideology, or a component of other ideologies? Can it be integrated into other ideologies? Does it require a belief in some kind of life [for the killers] beyond death?  And whatever its status as a freestanding or constituent part of another ideology, does the embrace of death mark the ideology as anti-political?

That last question, at least, I can answer: Yes. Politics is about the world, a particular kind of being-in-the-world which is predicated on human life (yep, Arendt again). To disdain such life is to disdain politics.

I’m not saying anything particularly shocking here: What violent dictator hasn’t asserted his triumph over politics? And while I think there is a political (i.e., worldly) agenda of Al Qaeda, from what I’ve read of bin Laden or Mullah Omar’s speeches, ideologically, they’re all about wiping out politics.

Sigh. Don’t know how much this helps me with the whole exterminationist-ideology thing, tho’.

Anyway, I did at least discover that one line from the opera is authentic. It is the response of the fascist Ramon Ruiz Alonso, to the question of the crimes of Lorca:

He has done more damage with his pen,/than others have with their pistols.