We blended in with the crowd

20 11 2016

Walt Whitman’s I contain multitudes gets its fair share of shares, and for good reason: it’s exuberant and ironic and sincere and boastful all at the same time, a declaration and excuse and an invitation to the tumult of life.

It’s easy to think of that tumult as a kind of playful churning, a shotgunning through rapids in which you are tossed and soaked but ultimately delivered, safely, to the sandy shore. It’s a ride, not a tsunami, not a hurricane; a volunteer thrill, not a crashing terror.

It is, of course, both.

I often forget this, that the multitude, the mix, the plural, contains not just joy but fear, that it’s not just a condition of freedom but the grounding of fear. I like to say about New York that we don’t all love one another, but we do, somehow, manage, mostly, to live with one another.

This is an accomplishment, albeit a fragile one.

Well, okay, not just fragile: there is a sturdiness to this and other places like this. There is a sturdiness to this country. But in taking for granted this sturdiness I have too often treated its fragility as a remnant, or mere theoretical possibility. I’d forgotten that if anything is possible, then anything is possible.

I don’t think we’re on the way to fascism, and do think that our many, varied, institutions, formal and informal, can serve as bulwarks against authoritarianism—emphasis on can. While inertia has its own force, there is nothing automatic in a defense of plural democracy: we have to act.

It’s hard, defending the tumult amidst the tumult. I don’t want everything to be political, everything to be are-you-with-us-or-against-us, even as I see the necessity of holding the line. I want to defend my side but since my side declares that everyone gets to pick their own side, do I end up defending those who would harm me?

I won’t hold to a principle which requires its own extinction, but neither will I abandon it for its practical difficulty.

This will take some doing, and some contradiction, too, probably. There is the theory, and the practice, and both will need some work.





Transmit the message to the receiver

15 11 2016

After being knocked flat, then crouching, I’m back on my feet.

Still not listening to NPR, but I’ve managed WNYC and the BBC. It’ll come, it’ll come.

So, what are we to do?

My principles remain. I am committed to pluralism, committed to politics, and (I’ll try to be) committed to life beyond politics. I’m trying to be human. Politics won’t make us human, but it can make it easier or harder for us to become human. Let’s try to make it easier.

What does this mean? Since I’m a political theorist, I’ll be reading (natch) some political theory. I’ll also be reading some history, and anything else that can help me see what I do not see.

But not just that. If theories are to matter at all, they must be connected to actions. To that end, I sent the local offices of my representative and my two senators the following letter:

Given the recent election of a man manifestly unprepared to take over the presidency of this country, I understand that there is a great deal of discussion as to how much or how far the Democrats should go to aid or cooperate with President-elect Trump. This is indeed a difficult question, especially for those who value the institutions of government and who wish to mitigate any damage his administration will likely cause.

My suggestion to and to your Democratic colleagues: do nothing to help him.

He ran a hateful campaign predicated on harming large portions of the American citizenry, he could not be bothered to do the work to make the transition to the Oval Office, and he has selected a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim propagandist as his Chief Strategist. There is nothing in his actions to indicate he cares one whit about the people who voted for Secretary Clinton or anyone who did not enthusiastically cheer on his candidacy. He has done nothing to indicate he wants to be president for the entire United States.

In requesting that you do nothing to help the incoming administration, I do not also mean that you do nothing to help your constituents or this country. If he happens to put together a bill (e.g., the oft-mentioned infrastructure bill) which would injure no one and would do good, please do vote for it. Do what is necessary to fulfill your obligations to your constituents and to this country.

Those obligations, however, do not extend to aiding a man who would harm us. Yes, Mr. Trump will need a great deal of assistance if he is to rise even to the level of mediocrity. But let the Republicans, who selected this petty and careless man to represent their party, take responsibility for him.

Had Senator McCain or Governor Romney won the presidency in 2008 or 2012, I would have been distressed, but I would not have been moved to write a letter like this to you. Whatever my deep policy differences with these men, I doubted neither their experience nor their desire to do what they thought best for this country. I have no confidence whatsoever that the President-elect is concerned for anyone beyond himself or those within his inner circle.

(With all the necessary salutations and sign-offs and such.)

In doing this, I was following some of the advice of Emily Ellsworth,* a former Congressional staffer. Yes, she advises a phone call would be better, but late last night the letter seemed a good idea. As the weeks roll by, perhaps I’ll call. I’ll do what I can.

And that, dear readers, is what I suggest for those of you who are similarly distressed and looking for something to do: Do what you can.

There are all kinds of good ideas out there, some of which may make more sense to you than others. Do those. Don’t worry if someone is doing something else. Moving a country is a big damned deal and requires all different kinds of work. If you can’t stand to talk to someone who voted for Trump, don’t. If marching seems silly, don’t march. If you can’t stand to think about the national scene, look local. Wear a safety pin, don’t wear a safety pin—do what makes sense to you, and be kind to those on our side whose sense is different from yours.

I think the way through is by becoming large: big-hearted, broad-minded, and standing up and with one another whenever and wherever we can.

No, no compromise with racism and sexism, no compromise with hate. No compromise with the small and the mean. But we will have to invite to become large those who have taken refuge in the small.

I’m not ready to do this, not yet. If you voted for Trump, well, today I don’t want to talk to you. But some of us are going to have to, and maybe, down the line, I’ll be one of those who is able to.

But right now, I’m doing what I can.

~~~

What to do? Make contact:





I keep finding hate mail in the pockets of my coat

7 09 2015

Long ago I promised a follow-up to my various religious exemptions/one law/pluralism posts about how to preserve that pluralism.

This is not that post.

Instead, it’s a quickie follow-up to yesterday’s post about doing one’s job.

As I have mentioned ad nauseam, I am a hardliner when it comes to one’s work duties, namely, that if you’re unwilling, for whatever reason, to perform a job, then you should quit.

Yes, you can try to negotiate these duties, try to convince your bosses that their policies are wrong, but, in the end, if you can’t do the job, then you shouldn’t do the job.

The flip side of this, which I have only occasionally mentioned, is that what you do off the job should have no bearing on the job.

There might be some reasonable exceptions to this, but I’m pretty comfortable stating that those exceptions should be few and far between. You might be a racist piece of shit on your own time, but if you can keep it together while you’re on the clock, then that’s all that should matter.

Now, some might argue that someone who’s a racist piece of shit off the job is highly unlikely to keep it together on the job, but unless and until that person loses it, she should keep her job. Judge someone’s work performance by her work performance, and that’s it.

Furthermore, this oughtta be a law—and not just as a protection for the worker (who most needs it), but as a defense for the employer: I can’t fire someone you don’t like just because you don’t like ’em.

This, to me, is an obvious corollary to telling the Kim Davises of the world to suck it up: if there are limits to how far you may take your personal life into a job, then there are also limits as to how far a job may enter into your personal life.

This is not a position I would have taken when I was younger. Back then, I had notions of throwing my whole self into a job, of defining myself almost completely by the work I do. Now, however, while I do gain a sense of self from my work, I’m also aware of the necessity of boundaries—both as a practical matter and for my own mental health.

I really do love teaching, but I do it because I get paid. It’s a job which I need in order to pay the rent, and I don’t care for my employer to take into account anything about my ability to do the job except for my performance on the job.

And not that I have much going on, but I most definitely to do not want them poking around in my private life.

~~~

There’s a thing about living in a city in which you can see into your neighbor’s apartment or hear your neighbor’s conversations/sex/fights: You pretend that you don’t. Your (and your neighbor’s) privacy might be a kind of fiction, but it’s the kind of fiction that works in real life.

I think we should take the same approach to social media and on- and off-the-job behavior as well: If the person sitting next to you is fine at work, but after work engages in behavior you find repugnant or ludicrous, pretend that you don’t know. Just let it be.

A little bit of breathing room is good for all of us.





If I’m so wrong

12 04 2015

Too many thoughts, not enough words.

No, that’s not right: too many thoughts in too many directions, words scattering after the thoughts.

I didn’t make the argument that pluralism is best protected by the one-law principle (I guess I’d call it), and have been stewing about how to brew up that argument.

David Watkins (aka “djw”) at Lawyers, Guns & Money had a couple of good posts, as did John Holbo at Crooked Timber—the comments are even more provocative than the original post—the latter of which spurred a multi-page effusion of thoughts that. . . led to no greater coherence of those thoughts.

So: more work to do.

One thing did seem worth mentioning now, however, and that is that I was wrong to assert that adherence to a one-law standard would be sufficient to protect and even promote pluralism: it would not.

I think it can protect pluralism, but not on its own. One addition might be a robust defense of one’s off-the-clock expressions against on-the-job discipline or punishments. That is, as long as someone performs her duties at work, what she says or does when not at work can’t be used against her by her employers.

There are issues with this, of course, in terms of salaried employees, or those for whom off-the-clock expressions might be fairly seen as relevant to the job (e.g., a fire fighter who hates Catholics or a teacher who argues that children of single parents are damaged), or for a boss or CEO who is to represent an entire company.

And that more is involved than just employers/employees implies that other principles/standards may be required.

As I said, more work ahead.





For worse or for better

29 03 2015

Lemme have another go at this.

If there are different laws for different groups, then the differences between the groups will grow. People will join Camp A or Camp 5 or Camp Potato, and their actions will depend upon what camp they are, and are not, in. Even those—especially those—who don’t care one whit about camps will be pressured to choose, to pick a side.

Absent a neutral law, neutrality is hard to maintain.

And absent neutrality, pluralism is hard to maintain.





Whatever we deny or embrace

25 03 2015

Sometimes a girl just wants a beer.

I don’t want to have to be bothered with the bodega owner’s religious beliefs, or the beer company’s political donations; I don’t want to have to run through some kind of checklist of acceptable/unacceptable views before I lay down my 10 bucks for a six-pack.

You see, all that time I spent spewing a not-inconsiderable number of words on the concept of “one law for all”, I was really just covering for my own laziness.

Okay, not entirely true, but if we decide to divvy up our laws and protections based on personal beliefs, then those of us who have strong beliefs (of whatever sort) are gonna end up wasting time trying to make sure we’re not paying for someone else’s loathsome agenda.

I don’t mind searching for fair trade coffee, say, and do try (although sometimes fail: Amazon) to buy products and services from companies which don’t mistreat their workers; connecting labor conditions to the purchase of things labored is a pretty direct relationship, and thus makes sense to me.

But beyond that direct economic relationship, I’m a raving pluralist, and thus neither want nor expect that everyone and every company which produces anything I could possible buy, use, or otherwise enjoy would line up with my own beliefs.

More than that, I think it would be bad if we only ever consorted with our own kind on every last thing.

How dull. How constricting. How small.

I do notice the expressed political or religious views of authors and actors and musicians, and yeah, it does affect my view of them—and I don’t like that. (I have yet to write the Play to End All Plays, but if I could get Brian Dennehy or Danny Aiello to star, I would be a fool to turn them down just because they’re conservative.) I don’t know these people, will never know these people, so if I’m watching a movie or listening to a song, why should their personal views have anything to do with my enjoyment of their performance?

Such tribalism is only human, I guess, but I don’t have to feed it; getting past tribalism is human, too.

Which is where one-law-for-all comes into play: it’s good for pluralism. When we enter the public sphere, each of us is by law equal to the other, which means that by law each can go where and do whatever anyone else can do*. It is a basic kind of justice.

(*Yes, there are some exceptions to this—“employees only” and “you must be this tall. . .” and all that—but the general rule stands.)

It is—horribly—clear that not everyone is treated equally and that injustice is a daily part of life. Still, that we are all to be equal under the law promises, if only in the breach, that each of us deserves to be a part of public life, that however different we may be from one another, we belong.

All right, I’m getting tired, my thoughts are wandering, and this argument is falling apart even as I make it, so lemme just jump to the end: having different laws for different groups disrupts that basic equality and obscures the basic standard of justice. Instead of being free to move about the country, one has to worry about getting/determining who to shut out.

And the second end: if we instantiate the lines we draw around ourselves, those lines come to matter more than anything else—more than the beer, the books, or the movies we could enjoy, more than ease of moving through our towns and our cities, more than the experience of being in the world.

I don’t want society to be a mush; I want us to be able to differ. And the best way to do that is to make sure that, whatever our differences, we are, by law, treated the same.





Go your own way

28 05 2014

Conservatives, like most populists, harbored deep suspicions of institutions not under their control, . . .

It’s a throwaway line in Nicole Hemmer’s re-view of three conservative texts from 1964 and their influence on the nomination of Barry Goldwater, but it shot out of the screen right at me.

OH! I thought. Oh! That makes perfect sense!

Not that you’d be suspicious of any institution not under your ilk’s control—that does not make sense, especially in a pluralist society—but that such suspicion could help to explain the resentment and fear of a politics and culture which goes its own way.

Even more, it helps to explain the disconnect within a hyper-patriot’s rants against the US: You people cannot be trusted with all that is great and good in this country and the fact that you hold power means it is no longer great and good.

They don’t live in “our” country, but in “my/not-my” country.

Anyway, I don’t know that this is necessarily a populist or even a conservative thing. Yes, populists may be skeptical of the institutions of power and conservatives might see themselves as holding the line, but as long as they can recognize that The Other—whoever The Other may be—is not alien then they can, however grudgingly, accept the legitimacy of that Other’s rule.

In other (Other?) words, it’s possible to be a populist or a conservative and a pluralist. Harder, perhaps, than it is for a liberal (ideologically, if not in day-to-day experience), but hardly impossible.

No, I think this suspicion is more a matter of authoritarianism mixed with righteousness: We must rule because we deserve to rule because we are right and you are wrong.

Not all authoritarianism is righteous—see the many, many nations run by mere kleptocrats—but righteousness fits easily within authoritarianism (of whatever sort). If you are convinced that you have the correct answers to all questions worth asking, then there’s really no point to granting space to anyone with any other answers—or questions.

It is perhaps not so odd, then, that righteousness is so often a part of anti-authoritarian politics as well. It can take the form of a kind of counter-authority—you are wrong and we should be in charge—but it can also be joined to liberationist sensibilities, as a way of shrugging off authority altogether.

The righteous authoritarian and anti-authoritarian are not, it should be said, mirror opposites. I’ve been around and have sometimes been a righteous anti-authoritarian and they (we) have been at most really irritating: it’s tough to get shit done without authority. Since they are fine with the notion of authority per se, however, righteous authoritarians have no problem taking and exercising power.

That makes them not irritating, but scary.

It also, in its own roundabout way, helps to explain why righteous authoritarians are suspicious of anyone running things who isn’t them. They assume that others will rule just as they would, so cannot trust that they might be merely unhappy under another’s rule. They thus translate that unhappiness into oppression and prepare themselves for the persecution they know is coming.

Whether or not it ever does.