Wednesday, May 25, 2011

feminism is general, relationships are specific

I happen to be of the opinion that the reason why so many people don't self-identify as feminists, even while holding largely conventional feminist beliefs, is that feminism has been subject to a relentless, coordinated, and well-financed misinformation campaign. Those who are opposed to the central tenets of feminism (most importantly and prominently the elementary notion that women are of equal value to men) have worked tirelessly for decades to discredit the movement through distortion. So it didn't come as any surprise to me when, this past semester, my class of upperclassmen universally defined feminism as a man-hating, baby-hating, joyless caricature. Establishment power works to preserve its position of privilege and doesn't play fair.

I bring this up because I am consistently annoyed by a particular vein of argument that goes something like this: many people seem to enjoy behavior X, but behavior X is seen as antifeminist or sexist, therefore feminism prohibits people from doing things that they enjoy. To make this less abstract, consider this post of mine wherein I argue that, for example, rough sex or similar could in fact be part of a loving and progressive relationship between equals. I had a commenter informing me that, nope, if you get rough with your girlfriend in a sexual context, if she's a feminist, she'll "cry rape." So people are forced to choose, in this reading, between their commitment to feminism and their enjoyment of aggression (or whatever) in sex. Feminism prohibits making that choice.

Well, there are indeed a lot of (righteous and necessary) arguments in the feminist tradition that repudiate violence against women. But is a feminist woman forced to thus abandon rough sex, if her partner likes it and she is eager to please him or her? Or if she enjoys it herself? She is not. Feminism, as a part of the classical liberal tradition-- an inevitable consequence of liberal ideals, incidentally-- is a self-limiting critique, which is precisely what gives it its strength. Feminism is not a set of rules that Andrea Dworkin drew up which you must follow or be subject to angry screeds. Feminism, if you'll forgive this dude for doing a bit of defining-- it's sub-optimal for me to be doing so, but I think necessary right now-- is a set of arguments and ideas that work to improve the conditions of women and help address the millennia of oppression that they have labored under.

To the degree that feminism suggests behaviors to avoid, it does so in terms of general behavior. Those rules can be set aside if both or all parties are engaged in effective communication, in a sphere of  true gender equity, and with genuine, informed consent. That means that, yes, there are names a woman's partner can call her when having sex that we would not define as enlightened or consistent with feminism in a broader context. Broadly speaking, feminism deals with general behaviors. Committed relationships (of whatever kind) between consenting adults are about the particularities of two people and their contexts. Communication is both important and frequently difficult, but that's relationships for you. Note that the conditions of genuine equity between partners are essential; a maid might tell her employer that she's okay with him referring to her as "sweetie," but if he's the boss, and she's aware of the importance of a sociable relationship, her consent might not be sufficient.

So consider the gloss on feminism from above, that it prevents (or attempts to prevent) people from doing things that they enjoy. Well, it's true-- sometimes, commitment to feminism compels you to not do things you'd enjoy. I'm sure many men enjoy harassing strangers on the subway, grabbing their secretary's ass, or a whole host of other noxious behaviors. But the idea that you can't, in a committed relationship, with mutual consent between adults, enjoy whatever sexual play you both desire while remaining a feminist is just bullshit. And I imagine that people suggesting otherwise know it's bullshit.

I'm not saying it's always easy. Like any ethical commitment, feminism has consequences. I kind of dig the few Odd Future songs I've heard, but I feel forced by my commitment to feminism to conclude that Tyler the Creator is a misogynist asshole. Whether that means I shouldn't support his band is a complex question, but whether I should tell other liberals that I think so is not. More importantly and directly, my commitment to feminism means that I have to operate in professional and academic settings with a conscious commitment to how I treat and refer to women peers and coworkers. That doesn't mean that I can't, over time and with care, develop relationships with these women that aren't as formal. But such informality can only be earned over time and engaged in with communication and consent.

Don't believe the hype, guys, seriously. I get you-- if I can't call my baby my baby, to hell with it. But that's the thing about a relationship, that you have earned a set of behaviors with one particular person that you wouldn't engage in with other people. And if people insist that's antifeminist, you insist to be shown which feminists are saying that, and in which contexts. 90% of the time, those claims are just part of the antifeminist noise machine.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

military intervention continues to be a crisis of democratic governance

Via Yglesias, things look grim in Libya.
With Libya essentially divided in half by conflict, the U.S.- and NATO-backed rebels who control much of the east are carrying out what many view as a campaign of retaliation against those once aligned with Gaddafi, according to relatives and rebel commanders and officials. Such targeting raises questions about the character of the government taking shape in eastern Libya and whether it will follow basic principles of democracy and human rights. Moreover, such acts could further deepen divisions in Libya’s tribal society and diminish the sort of reconciliation vital for stability in a post-Gaddafi era.
I know I keep making this argument, and I know that it isn't exactly burning up the Internet, but I continue to think that military intervention, outside of the specific and limited cases of self defense of ourselves or our allies, is antithetical to the principles of an informed polity directing a democratic nation. I actually think that those who are pointing out that we didn't have sufficient information to intervene in Libya aren't giving us enough credit. It's not that we didn't have sufficient information about Libya, but that it's impossible for foreign powers, isolated by distance, language, and culture, to have enough understanding to intervene in a way consistent with pragmatic purpose and support for humanitarianism.

There are many issues that force free peoples to decide issues with imperfect knowledge. But we attend to them because we are in fact forced to address them. We most certainly were not forced into action in Libya. Some people hate the term "wars of choice," but I find it an elegant and sensible metric. Now that we have chosen to intervene in this immensely complicated conflict, and it is Libyans, not Americans, who will live with the consequences of our ignorance. You don't have to be a crazy lefty and believe in the ideas of self-determination and national sovereignty (as long as we have the state) to oppose the endless projection of American military power. You only need to believe in our limits-- financial, informational, moral.

I think about Samantha Power when I read about this retaliation. Does she recognize that she has blood on her hands? Would that kind of recognition puncture her resolve? I am reminded of the danger of Americans doing good, and I think about what a perfectly quiet American she is.

Friday, May 20, 2011

credit where due

Because of my incredible influence and vast readership, and because I know how desperately the Internet yearns for my opinion on recent blogging about Israel/Palestine:
  • Matt Yglesias is at the height of his considerable powers when it comes to the conflict, and has really shined lately. See this post for a good example. I really believe liberals online need to do a better job of making the case for our values, and I think Yglesias writes about the conflict in just that spirit. 
  • I will echo Andrew Sullivan in saying that Jeff Goldberg, whatever my reservations about how he defines the conflict or his history, has been on fire.
  • This from Jon Chait is characteristically well-expressed and (in foreign policy discussion at least) uncharacteristically sober and fair.
  • Natasha Lennard offers a good rundown of some of the nutty reaction to Obama's invoking the (absolutely banal) use of the 1967 borders as guidelines for a two state solution.
To respond to an emailer, I want to point out that I can endorse particular posts from particular people and that shouldn't be taken as a blanket endorsement of that person's general attitudes towards Israel and Palestine. Yes, I am disturbed by the way that the mainstream political media, in describing this conflict, foregrounds Israeli needs above Palestinian needs as a matter of course. Yes, it is occupiers who bear responsibility for ending occupation, not the occupied. Yes, there is a disturbing tendency for people to treat both participant groups in this conflict as equally culpable in the name of moderation. Yes, pursuing this particular path to peace involves cooperation with some noxious actors, like the bigoted Benjamin Netanyahu. (Or, potentially, the vile terrorist elements within Hamas.)

But I believe there is genuine opportunity here. If the United States, given its unique relationship with Israel, bears a moral responsibility to help to ease the suffering of the Palestinians and restore lost legitimacy to the Jewish state, then that responsibility is shared by the members of the American democratic polity. And as much of an idealist as I am, and as much as I hate compromise, this is a situation where the status quo is simply untenable. To abandon this opportunity for peace because we dislike some of the actors involved would be disgraceful.

the great thing about progress resulting in more choices is that YOU GET TO CHOOSE

I could go on a long rant here and talk about how "progress" is discussed on the Internet-- it's almost always a way to undermine opposing viewpoints of the future and to enforce a particular vision of what progress entails. (One of the central tragedies of the Internet is that it is potentially a vehicle for genuine diversity and is in practice a vehicle for conformity.)

So here's Ned Resnikoff, doing good work in opposing the shallow hordes who want to tell you that because ereader technology now exists, and they prefer ebooks, therefore there is no legitimate preference for paper books. You'll hear lots of different arguments (and I use the term lightly) for why YOU MUST CONFORM TO TECHNO UTOPIANISM but the long and the short of it, as Ned suggests, is just that people need to enforce their taste. There's a great insecurity underneath the snark and smug superiority that attends to most enforcement of gadget worship, which is part of a larger tendency on the Internet: people who so desperately need to have their choices validated that they must deny that other choices exist. What's clear to me is that, more and more often, people are so insecure, so lacking in self-possession and so toweringly solipsistic, that they need not only to be flattered by media that tells them they are correct in what they choose (whether it's products or services or media), but that they need to undermine the very idea that other rational, thinking people could make their own adult decisions and make other choices.

What makes this so frustrating is that a huge part of the point of progress in capitalism is more to choose with how you spend your money. If every time a new choice appeared it eliminated some other choice, that wouldn't be progress at all. New innovations don't have to drive out established ways that work very well; to think so is a sure sign of a facile mind. If you'd always prefer the new new hotness, choose it for yourself. These things are true: many choices are subjective. Personal taste is real. Arriving at different and equally valid choices from similar evidence is possible. Goods that deliver similar experiences through different means exist. Adults can determine their own criteria for what is useful, valuable, or worthwhile.

Here's the beauty of it: I own an ebook reader. I also continue to purchase more paper books than I can afford. Some people will only buy ebooks. Some will only buy paper books. That's freedom for you! Choice is the point of progress, in capitalism. If you want to only consume books electronically, be my guest. Enjoy. Bully for you. And if you want to tell other people why you prefer ebooks, base on  your personal taste, fine. Just stop with the nonsense that this discussion is about anything more than what you like, and perhaps ask yourself why you're so invested in other people doing exactly as you do. It's grating, and frankly, antidemocratic.

Update: This is a very cool response.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders is a matter of law

Jeff Goldberg does good work pointing out the simple fact that Israel withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders is in fact an idea that is so widely recognized as to be banal. I also think it's worth reminding those who are showily attacking that idea as "anti-Israel" that a large part of the reason for this is that the occupation, now in its 44 year, is a violation of international law and treaties that Israel is bound to uphold.

There are plenty of practical and moral reasons for Israel to withdraw, as I've written about for years, and certainly some of them are in the best interest of Israel, as Goldberg has written about for years. But it's always worth pointing out that Israel is a signatory and contracting power of the Geneva Conventions  and the Hague Conventions of 1907, both of which forbid the occupation. That statement is controversial, of course-- nothing regarding Israel and Palestine is not. But most would agree that the occupation violates the spirit of these treaties that Israel is bound to uphold. And certainly, I can imagine very few who would defend the legality of the destructive presence of the settlements in the occupied territories. I'm a skeptic of the practical importance of international law-- laws are made by victors-- but the symbolic importance of restoring the borders to a condition consistent with Israel's treaty obligations shouldn't be underestimated.

The shamelessness and opportunism of conservatives in government and media would astound, if movement conservatism hadn't extinguished any sparks of credibility years ago. They say that they are defending Israel while trying to perpetuate a status quo that isolates Israel internationally, dooms it through demographics to a small handful of equally noxious choices, and undermines the moral legitimacy of both the state and the righteous purpose of providing a safe home for Jews in the world. (How many movement conservatives, if they were honest and actually consistent in the application of their religious beliefs, would be forced to say that all Israeli Jews are condemned to hell?)

Solving this conflict is not merely a matter of delivering justice and self-governance to the Palestinian people; it is about restoring the legitimacy of the Israeli government and ensuring that the principles of democracy and freedom which attended its creation, albeit in a flawed and partial manner, are carried out in practice. I'm a pessimist by nature, and this conflict has defied good intentions and optimism for decades. But I am deeply encouraged by the slow evolution in our political dialogue and the rise of Palestinian activists who are dedicated to nonviolent resistance. There are always going to be those who claim that one must favor one side in an Israeli/Palestinian binary, but we must insist on nothing less than freedom, justice, and peace for both Israel and Palestine. If there's ever a time for idealism, this is it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

annoying critical habit (preemptive edition)



I adore Terrence Malick.

I adore Terrence Malick.

I adore Terrence Malick.

So now that you know that, and have an appropriate context, I just want to do a little bit of preemptive arguing about The Tree of Life, which is not out yet and which I have not seen. One of the things Malick does consistently in his movies, and which the above trailer strongly suggests is present in Tree of Life, is to have various characters engage in voice over narration that does not focus directly on what happens onscreen, or even fit into the narrative of the movie. Often this narration speaks in unapologetically philosophical or symbolic terms, about some of the most broad and meaningful questions of human existence. Some find this maddening and trite. In combination with his gorgeous visuals, sense of scale, and almost unspeakable delicacy, I find it enchanting. Sorry to gush. Your own taste is your own taste.

However, while no one is obligated to feel any one way about Malick's films, I really am annoyed by a consistent tic in critical reviews of his work. A lot of times, film critics will take individual lines from the narration, totally deprive them of context, and remark at how moony or pretentious the words are. You can find this all over-- check Malick's Rotten Tomatoes-- but here's just one example from Charles Taylor:
Malick has seized on the interior monologues of Jones' characters and smothered the movie in the voice-over narration he used in "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven." And it's easy to see why. If everything is explained to us, Malick doesn't have to dramatize it, and thus nothing gets in the way of his presentation. "Only one thing a man can do," begins one of the movie's inscrutable ponderances. "Find something that's his. Make an island for himself."
After having encountered this trope several times, I find it infuriating. Of course the effect is lost when you totally deprive the words of the context that makes them work. It's true that taking any individual lines or shots of a movie and discussing them in a review is always, to a degree, denying context. But in this kind of reading, the presentation of Malick's lines is done so showily, and so meticulously designed to inspire ridicule, that it is simply critical malpractice. I find this to be exactly like going to a club, finding an individual dancer who is moving her body in a throng of others, and videotaping only her. No one could look anything less than silly so removed from the necessary context; no one but a fool would think that such an exercise has anything to do with the experience of the dance.

On a related note-- I will spend not one moment of my life worrying about whether I'm being pretentious. Not one solitary instant. That's not an argument that I'm not pretentious; I'm quite certain I am. But I am also certain that living the kind of life I need and want to live, where I can surround myself with the kind of beauty that I feel is necessary to endure the slow motion tragedy of living, means abandoning concerns about pretense. Others will have to adjudicate that. The events of my life have taught me that self-possession can steel you against a whole array of big tragedies and petty indignities. Meanwhile, all the time you spend sitting around your apartment, not being pretentious, is no defense against anything at all.

the analogy holds

So first, I have a new post up at Balloon Juice about private school vouchers.

Second, via his little Twitter sidebar, I see that Matt Yglesias and Ned Resnikoff are chatting about it. Yglesias says, regarding my piece, "I think it's absurd to write about school choice without talking about housing policy. The non-poor have lots of choice!" To which Resnikoff responds, "Not sure I understand what you're getting at. Is this about picking a school district to live in?" To which Yglesias replies, "Exactly -- the non-poor have school choice by choosing where to live, the poor aren't allowed to move to good school districts."

First, in my defense, posts should only be so long, particularly when they are at somebody else's digs. I'm a guest at Balloon Juice. There's much that could be talked about in terms of housing policy, sure. I will talk about it sometime I'm sure. But for now-- I think Yglesias is actually reinforcing my point. Yes, indeed: the non-poor have more choices in life than the poor. This is not the damning criticism he seems to think it is. Think again about transportation. Not only do the rich have the ability to not ride the bus, they have the ability to choose a Honda Civic or a Ferrari or a team of sherpas to carry them around. Do the rich have more options? Yes. Yes, of course. I don't see how that's an argument for voucherizing public programs.

Like me, Yglesias supports universal access to quality health care. Does that mean that, if we get it, the rich will suddenly stop having more options? Of course not. They'll have the option to jet to France to get medical care or to see some New Age shaman or just go to different doctors that those receiving socialized health care can't. I don't understand how this lack of "choice" is any different from the poor's inability to pick up sticks and go to public schools in Palo Alto. Yes, things are better for the rich. Yes, that entails more choice. It sucks. I can think of some ways we can change that, and I'd like to implement them, but they involve dramatically changing our system of resource distribution. If Yglesias is asking for that, then I like him more already.*

*Note to my endless cadre of emailers: more than I already do. I have written many more words of praise for Yglesias in my life than I have words of criticism. Look it up.

Update: See E.D. Kain for a sympathetic but different perspective.

Update II: Yglesias in comments:
Short of radically changing the distribution of income (though that could be be) is radically changing housing policy. In prosperous suburbs all across the United States it's generally illegal to build the kind of apartment buildings full of small dwelling units that poor people would be able to afford.
I'm on board!

pacifism and intention

Note: Because I am incompetent, I accidentally deleted this post, and I can't find any way to restore it through Blogger. I had to go into Google Cache and republish it. Sorry to those of you who lost comments. -FdB

I think that absolutely everyone should read this profoundly necessary evisceration of Sam Harris, the Moe of the New Atheist Three Stooges, written by Jackson Lears and published by the Nation. It may be my favorite essay published this year; it goes well beyond the usual stalking horses of New Atheism and speaks to some of the fundamental analytical and ethical issues confronting our species, particularly when it comes to progress and the limits of knowledge. Read the whole thing, seriously.

I just wanted to highlight one particularly effective part of the essay because I think it connects with some of the issues that have come up regarding the Osama bin Laden killing. There's nothing remotely unusual, for me, about feeling totally alienated from the political blog mainstream, but it's worth saying how profoundly, dispiritingly wrong the conventional politico mainstream is when it comes to pacifism. And it comes from a place, as most political conformity does, of incoherent moral reasoning.

Lears rightly dings Harris for his inconsistency when it comes to pragmatism, consequentialism, and intentionalism.

Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape, he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”), or how his new view differs from the pragmatism he had previously condemned. Pragmatism, the argument that ideas become true or false as their impact on the world unfolds, is nothing if not consequentialist.
Indeed. Harris must defend the moral supremacy of intentions, as any defender of American aggression must, because that is the fig leaf with which we defend our ceaseless appetite for killing innocent people. As it has become harder and harder, thanks to digital technology, to deny that we and our proxies routinely kill civilians whose only crime was living outside of the developed world, it has become more important for those who insist on the superior morality of the United States to, say, Hamas to defend our rosy intentions. The problem with intentionalism, of course, is that intentions are impossible to empirically verify, and thus intentionalists are endlessly vulnerable to the dishonest. (This is particularly a problem for a defiant empiricist like Harris, although as Lears makes plain, Harris's commitment to empiricism is similarly inconsistent.) I am frequently aghast at the prevalence of foreign policy intentionalists in the political world; such people have no capability whatsoever to condemn a power like the United States, which kills innocent civilians as a matter of routine and yet claims always that such killing is not its intent.

Israel is perhaps the most striking example of the degree to which intentionalism can be applied like magic to inoculate a nation against criticism. It is taken as an article of faith that Israel never intends to kill innocent people while Palestinians always do, despite the fact that, in recent Israeli military campaigns like the Lebanon or Gaza incursions, the IDF kills far more civilians than terrorists do. Those of use who are critical of Israel are constantly called on to reconcile three divergent thoughts: that Israel never intends to kill civilians; that Israel has one of the most advanced, best trained militaries in the world; and that Israel is constantly killing civilians. You can detect the tension, I'm sure.

Now consider Adam Serwer, in response to yours truly:
Pacifists and many on the right actually retain similar moral frameworks when it comes to violence, although they come to different conclusions. Both are absolutists in that neither make real moral distinctions between different kinds of violence. In practice, the latter aids the former by blurring the moral lines between preemptive war in Iraq and violence in self defense. So while I don't think pacifism in this case is particularly moral, in practice their blurring of the distinction between justified and unjustified acts of violence gives them a kind of moral equivalence torture lovers are furiously trying to achieve.
 Now, one needn't target Serwer specifically; this sort of profoundly grown up moral logic is, after all, the bread and butter of establishment liberalism. But you'll note the difficulties bubbling under the surface, and you'll recognize why left-wing defenses of actions like the killing of bin Laden are typically so rife with anxiety. This is a consequentialist criticism; it asks us to consider what effect pacifism has in a world where others won't honor the pacifist moral code. Indeed, an intentionalist moral framework seems to me to privilege pacifism above all others. If intentions are what matter, pacificism is the logical endpoint of human moral progress as typically defined. Pacifists don't want anyone to commit violence or kill. The relevant criticism of pacifism is necessarily consequentialist, as is expressed here.

The problem with consequentialist arguments against pacifism is that consequentialism is the enemy of all projections of political violence. The OBL raid killed several other people, after all. Did they deserve to die? A pacifist has the clarity to say that no one deserves to die. For most of us, the question is tangled and provisional, but sure few would argue that the others deserved to die for the same reasons as OBL. If the consequences of killing bin Laden include the death of those who we are less morally justified in killing, I don't know how a consequentialst reading of the killing concludes that the operation was moral with anything like clarity or certainty. All of this occurs, also, as part of a broader conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, purportedly part of the same struggle that resulted in the bin Laden killing, where innocent life is taken daily and as a matter of course. Intentionalism requires that we respect those who would avoid the intentional taking of human life altogether; consequentialism requires that we judge those who kill children with drones in an equivalent moral vocabulary that we judge those who fly planes into buildings.

Perhaps I'm guilty of hypocrisy here; it would be far from the first time. At its worse, this kind of tangled logic strikes me as "any port in a storm" moral reasoning, where you throw together a potpourri of justifications and ethical theories as necessary to get to the point where you can justify America's various acts of violence. (It seems to me that this is pretty much the only way you could ever justify our endless capacity for military projection, through ethical frameworks tailor made for that task.) But I, too, am neither a consequentialist nor an intentionalist, or any other -ist, out of a fussy commitment to going through life with my political and ethical frameworks unnamed. This is why, despite my great admiration for their total indifference to the conventional definitions of seriousness in our corrupt political dialogue, I can't call myself a pacifist. I'm just muddling through as well.

But surely context matters. This conversation has been happening in a landscape where only a tiny handful of voices have expressed a measure of skepticism or uncertainty about the raid that killed bin Laden, where the national mood was one of abject joy. The most commonly expressed opinion, even among liberals, was that this was not only a moral action but one of unquestionable moral value. I can't tell you how many liberals I know responded to my questions by saying some version of "wait, we're doing this now? Even bin Laden, you've got to find a way to undermine America's righteousness?" This is the atmosphere that has been meticulously created and jealously defended by establishment liberals, one that has been enforced through the kind of endless hectoring and demonizing of dissent that Glenn Greenwald has endured on Twitter. (I know, I know-- the progressive cause will fail until Greenwald's hands hang from Bob Kuttner's mantelpiece.) Surely, the bar is higher for those who claim not only that OBL's killing was moral and legal, but that these facts are facts and uncontroversial. 

All of this, I think, is deeply unhealthy to a muscular, unapologetic left. Never mind that "on this point, we can all finally agree" is a sentiment that is inherently illiberal. The OBL killing demonstrates, painfully, that the American left has retained its worst impulses, impulses which 9/11 and its long, sad aftermath revealed-- the seemingly ineradicable urge to purge in the contemporary American left, and the omnipresent specter of "I've got a big dick" liberalism, where nominal lefties demonstrate their toughness and courage by advocating that other people go die in war. This dynamic will never leave us; I'm sure William Saletan will desperately signal what a terribly tough guy he is by saying others should go fight for the rest of his life. What the OBL affair demonstrates so unmistakeably, and so depressingly, is that many other prominent liberals can, in the face of such extreme events, get with the nationalist program, and take their turns policing the discourse.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

pay no attention to the oppression that is personally inconvenient to me

So Jeff Goldberg does as Jeff Goldberg does and somehow manages to make the recent rebellions in the Arab world a reason to undermine protests of the occupation of Palestine. What's interesting is that Goldberg is doing what he accuses the repressive Syrian regime of doing: he is using another set of protests as a distraction from the moral valence of the protests that are inconvenient to him. Whatever the machinations of the corrupt and dictatorial Assad regime, it does nothing to undermine the fact that people are protesting at the border because the treatment of the Palestinians is a travesty.

Incredibly, Goldberg calls the nakba "largely self-inflicted" because "the Arabs rejected the U.N. partition plan for Palestine, attacked the just-born Jewish state and then managed to lose on the battlefield." I'm sure that if the UN decided to partition and repopulate Texas with no meaningful democratic mechanism for resistance and then helped enforce that decision militarily, Goldberg would say that Texans brought it upon themselves.

Goldberg ends his post with a video of some of the atrocities carried about by the Assad regime against protesters, which is interesting, given his distaste for the use of similar images of Palestinians killed by the IDF. I'll resist the urge.

Incidentally, Palestinian activist Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, an acquaintance of mine from my antiwar activism days, has (again) been arrested, as part of a protest march towards Al Walaja, with three other Palestinians and seven internationals. The last I heard, he was being taken to Atarot, near Ramallah. For Palestinian activists who live and work in the United States like Dr. Qumsiyeh, there's always a particular fear of returning to Palestine to protest; it is not unheard of for the Israeli government to prevent them from returning back to their homes in the US.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

accidental wisdom

An emailer to the Daily Dish:
The only liberals still living in the 1960s are a tiny fringe with little power or representation; the left could purge every last one and it wouldn't change a thing.  Liberals have moved to the right
So perfectly true; so observant about contemporary liberalism; so in keeping with the tenor of the times; so much the worse for us.

note

So a reader points out, correctly, that however correct I am in my assessment of Christopher Hitchens's recent piece on Noam Chomsky, to entitled the post "Christopher Hitchens is full of shit" is cheap and uncalled for. She's right. I stand by the arguments in the post but using that terminology was degrading, and more to myself than to Mr. Hitchens. It was stupid, I shouldn't have done it, and I'm sorry.

I'm not a pacifist, actually

Serwer responds.

I believe (?) Serwer is ultimately agreeing that his position is that members of Al Qaeda deserve neither rights as soldiers nor rights as criminals, which I just find inconsistent with a belief in universal human rights. There's a lot you could say, but the crux of it is this, I guess:
DeBoer takes the approach that even if the killing were consistent with the law, it doesn't matter because he believes there are no circumstances in which the government is justified in killing anyone. I don't take that view, and I particularly don't take the view that American service members are just "the government" and so cannot act in their own defense while those who are trying to kill them are part of the unbreakable circle of life. 
Not true. I'm not, actually, a pacifist myself. I am protective of pacifists and frequently convinced that the are better people than I. I maintain a belief that any liberal claiming that the defense of torture is the moral equivalent of pacifism is, frankly, dangerously deluded. I also think that the refusal to stand with people like radical pacifists is a symptom of precisely why the American left is toothless. Mainstream liberals capitulate and capitulate and capitulate to the right wing in moving the center-- and the extremes define the center-- and then find it difficult to enact the policy platforms they want when the American mainstream is too far to the right. Forget about whether this is more liberal or less; as a matter of practical success, it's a disaster. And it teaches young leftists everywhere that whatever else is true, their movement counterparts won't stick up for them.

I don't know if the killing of bin Laden was legal or not. What I do know is that criminals should be captured with nonlethal force whenever that is possible and given fair and public trials to determine their guilt. If a drug dealer starts shooting at the cops, they have a right to use lethal force to subdue him. They don't have the right to burst into his home, kill many unarmed people, and shoot him despite the fact that he was unarmed, elderly, and sick. So tell me: is a situation like the one that our best available evidence tells us occurred in Abbottabad a situation where a reasonable attempt was made to use nonlethal force? It's hard to tell, given that the people responsible for the raid keep lying about it. But I don't find the idea that such an attempt was made even minimally convincing, given the facts, and many are saying plainly that this was simply a kill mission.

I suppose we'll just have to remain in the dark when it comes to whether the Obama administration and the team that raided made a reasonable effort to apprehend bin Laden without killing him. It seens clear to me, though, that if they didn't (there are elections to think of, after all) then bin Laden's killing was inconsistent with the legal framework for fighting terrorism, and in my opinion, a moral lapse.

Adam Serwer on the legality of killing OBL

Cord Jefferson is asking questions.
unless he was surrendering—the White House says he wasn't—there's no legal reason why the Navy SEAL team shouldn't have assassinated him. Military law is a bit different than federal law when it comes to killing, and things get even more lax when it comes to the laws governing the CIA, which had authority over the Bin Laden mission. By all accounts, shooting him was legitimate. But was it justified?

That's a harder question. We know Bin Laden was 54, diabetic, with an enlarged heart and kidney stones. In other words, without a weapon, he was probably no match for a physically elite, well-trained team of soldiers armed to the teeth. And though the heat of battle can make people do rash things, the commandos at least had the time, resources, and wherewithal to handcuff people in the compound in zip ties. If others were cuffed, why not Bin Laden?
These come in the context of his asking what is to me actually a bigger question-- since when are liberals cool with shooting people in the face, without due process? Jefferson is asking, I take it, based on the simple logic that principles are principles always and that liberalism and democracy require that all humans, even the very worst of them, be afforded certain rights. Whatever flaws of the Nuremberg trials, they are an essential act of justice for Western civilization, because they established that the worst human beings we can imagine are nonetheless worthy of human rights.

Adam Serwer is attempting to provide answers, or at least, answers to the questions of legality. It's important to point out the context of all this, which is liberals scolding those of us who ask questions about the bin Laden killing for being tiresome, radical, and illegitimate. I can't tell you how many mainstream liberals have voiced exasperation or anger at the very presence of these questions, saying things such as "this is why I hate being a liberal" and "I'm so sick of the left"-- sentiments well-known to those of us who had the sense to oppose the Iraq invasion prior to it happening. This is in part what Cord Jefferson was reacting to, not merely the justification of the action but the glee with which it was attended and the rhetoric of absolutism that questions were answered with. And this is what Glenn Greenwald is referring to in today's column, when he mentions accusations of radicalism or terrorist sympathy. One only needs to check his Twitter feed to see a daily barrage of insults and accusations against him for continuing to ask questions.

Part of the difficulty with this debate is that everyone (well, everyone who wants to have a debate at all) is interested in questions of legality and moral justification, but in different mixtures. For me, as I've said, legal questions are very important, but subject to distortion by the fact that American power makes ex post facto legal justifications inevitable. So there's this very interesting piece from Wired, which ends with the rather depressing admission that the point of all of this is to eventually change the laws-- in order to inoculate our military from criticism  prevent illegality in the future. So there's a sense in which people like Greenwald and Serwer, et al, are talking past each other, but I think it's still a conversation worth having.

I'm afraid that there's a central confusion in Serwer's piece, and many like it: a glaring inconsistency regarding the question of whether bin Laden was a criminal or a enemy combatant. Here's Serwer on the crux of the question of legality:
Furthermore, even putting aside the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden was the leader of an organization that was executing attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. To argue that  he was not a legitimate military target based on that alone is to propose that American troops are prohibited from defending themselves from those who are attacking them in a war zone. One needn't believe that the powers of the AUMF extend to Mogadishu or Sanaa to recognize its legitimacy in the context of the raid in Abbottabad.

In short, there is no need for a "bin Laden exception" owing to his particular evil, because he was already a lawful military target.
The emphasis on his status as a military target is importance because it changes the question of due process. Enemy soldiers and officers are subject to different legal rules than criminals, although interestingly, for positions like Serwer's, soldier's rights are in many ways more protective than criminal rights. So far, so good. And yet despite the fact that Serwer is adamant that bin Laden was a military target, duly authorized by Congress, he is also sure that Al Qaeda is not a military organization that deserves the legal treatment as such. Check out this Tweet: "because AQ is a criminal organization not a state or entity acting in self defense." I think you'll forgive me for being confused. If Osama is a military target, and the head of Al Qaeda, what sense does it make to say that Al Qaeda is emphatically a criminal organization?

Well, if I follow the strands of the Twitter argument correctly, for Serwer it's necessary to keep this kind of criminal/military fusion because he at once wants to assert that bin Laden was a military target not subject to conventional due process and at the same time assert that Al Qaeda has no equivalent right to, say, kill President Obama. As this discrepancy shows, it's a difficult line to walk with any argumentative consistency. So Serwer is the latest who has taken to creating a "heads we win/tails you lose" fusion for terrorists where they deserve neither the treatment of enemy soldiers, protected by the Geneva convention and a large body of international law, nor the treatment of criminals, protected by domestic laws of due process. There is a long tradition in human history of those engaged in war to attempt to designate subhuman status for certain combatants, which is entirely the point of the meticulous erasure of rights of the accused for suspected terrorists. Denying habeas corpus, the right to counsel, the right to fair and speedy trials, the right to public openness and accountability in justice-- all of this is part of a larger project of rendering terrorism suspects inaccessible to elementary human rights. I'm afraid that Serwer is now contributing to that project.

There are many tensions here. (I would be very curious to know if Serwer thinks it would have been appropriate for soldiers to have put bullets into the face of Timothy McVeigh.) One of the weird things about the assumed radicalism of questioning the bin Laden killing is that opposition to the death penalty exists and is considered a mainstream opinion. Yet consider that those opposed to the death penalty are asking for something actually more radical than those criticizing the handling of the bin Laden raid. After all, people opposed to the death penalty (like me) think that it is wrong for the government to kill people even after a full and fair trial with due process and rights of the accused. Bin Laden was denied such due process, and more to the point, we were denied it, a trial always being equally about the public's right to rigorous examination of the facts. But somehow opposition to the death penalty is a mainstream position and criticizing the bin Laden raid is not.

Like I said, legal questions are complicated, and I'm entirely unqualified to answer them. The broader questions of what this all means for our country and the left in particular, I think, have relevance as well. There's a telling moment at the end of Serwer's piece, where he writes, "Does anyone other than pacifists and those who revere violence for its own sake fail to see the importance of such distinctions?" I suppose that Serwer is not drawing a moral equivalence between pacifists and "those who revere violence for its own sake" here. But he certainly is marginalizing both equally. And this gets to the heart of one of my great frustrations with our politics. Is Serwer interested in pursuing the path of peace? I'm sure he is, and I'm sure some would groan that I even ask. And yet Serwer, like many liberals, finds it fit to treat pacifism as more disqualifying than neoconservatism or other aggressive ideologies. The question is whether the American left can ever really support the project of peace when it consistently expels those who work for it most ardently from the ranks of the serious, for fear of being perceived as too radical by the public.

After, I'm sorry to say, Serwer says, "However, those arguing that the killing of bin Laden is illegal because 'violence is always wrong' are on no firmer ground than those who support the use of torture as legal on the basis that it would lead to lives being saved," explicitly equating the morality of pacifism with the morality of support for torture. Which, from my biased and limited vantage, is just categorically wrong.

All of this has consequences. It's all part of the same old dynamic: the right respects and honors its fringe, invites it to the table, and attends, at least in rhetoric, to its concerns. The left forever seeks Sister Soulja moments to excise its fringe from polite conversation, in the vain hope that this will somehow compel the people who despise us the most to take us more seriously. And then we wonder why the center resides where it does.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is full of shit (but beloved of influential writers)

In this weird, weaselly attempt at a takedown of Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens describes 9/11 Truthers as "impatient with innuendo." Here, I must confess, is something the Truthers and I share. I too am impatient with innuendo, which is why I find this latest execrable column so exhausting. The crux of the thing is that Hitchens wants to accuse Chomsky of being a) a Truther and b) an apologist for 9/11, so he dances and feints and hints and suggests, without actually accusing-- in short, he does exactly what he accuses Chomsky of doing.

He doesn't actually accuse Chomsky of these outright for the sensible reason that Chomsky is neither a Truther nor an apologist for 9/11. The problem is that he does not then do the responsible thing and refrain from intimating that Chomsky is one but rather undertakes one of the more cowardly and evasive performances of writing in recent memory. Hitchens is guilty of a whole panoply of sins, none more tragic than the utter absence of a self-critical process and none more glaring than being wrong about just about everything, but rarely before have I known him to be so guilty of cowardice. Say what you mean.

The public record, in which Chomsky has recorded his opinions on every political question imaginable-- because he is asked-- would quickly yield the perspectives Hitchens is looking for. Here is Chomsky refuting 9/11 conspiracy theories in about the least vague terms imaginable. You might consider the entire book that Chomsky published about 9/11 for repeated and consistent denials of the morality of killing innocent civilians on 9/11. This stuff isn't hard to find. Hitchens writes, "It's no criticism of Chomsky to say that his analysis is inconsistent with that of other individuals and factions who essentially think that 9/11 was a hoax." If this is his admission that Chomsky is not a Truther, it's as weird and awkwardly constructed as I can imagine, which I guess is the point. He then says "However, it is remarkable that he should write as if the mass of evidence against Bin Laden has never been presented or could not have been brought before a court." It's remarkable? I find it demonstrably unremarkable, considering that, well, the mass of evidence against bin Laden has never been formally presented in a legal setting-- the way we answer questions of crime and legality, or we did, when we were the society of our ideals.

Hitch continues, "This form of 9/11 denial doesn't trouble to conceal an unstated but self-evident premise, which is that the United States richly deserved the assault on its citizens and its civil society." Again, Noam Chomsky has repeatedly and adamantly denied that the United States or any victim of terrorism deserved the assault. If he felt the opposite way, Hitchens would provide a quote. Instead, he presents this weird non-sequitur:

After all, as Chomsky phrases it so tellingly, our habit of "naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk … [is] as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes 'Jew' and 'Gypsy.' " Perhaps this is not so true in the case of Tomahawk, which actually is the name of a weapon, but the point is at least as good as any other he makes. 
If you can explain how this sentence has anything whatsoever to do with the ones that preceded it, or how it proves anything at all about Chomsky's views on 9/11, you're a better man than I. If Hitchens doubts that the United States engineered the slaughter of the Apaches or the Algonquins who used the tomahawk, he should consult a history book. In any event, it's got nothing whatsoever to do with the argument he's presenting. This is elementarily ineffective political writing, which wouldn't survive a fisking in any high-profile blog. But Hitchens being Hitchens, I'm sure he'll largely get a pass.

Of course, bullshit serves its purpose-- it creates space for other people to parrot it without public accountability. So if you took to Twitter or Facebook or low-profile blogs you'd be sure to find people sharing the link and praising it, which creates another layer of unaccountability for what is a post that actively shirks standing for anything.

Hitchens is, to me, a tragic figure; his talents as a rhetorician are real and considerable, but he has lived on the razors edge of self-obsession and myopia for so long that he seems to lack any meaningful ability to interrogate his own opinions at all. This has been confounded always by the personal feelings of other influential writers, and now especially by the fact that he is ill. Now, it is perfectly common to encounter glowing hagiography written about Hitchens that is almost totally uninterested in the question of whether he is actually correct in his opinions or not. Martin Amis's recent love note (and if you ever thought writing was not a game of insiderism and influence trading, let that essay put the thought to bed), which appears to have disappeared from the Guardian's website, is a glowing example. Nobody seems much to care that Hitchens was profoundly, wildly, incredibly, disqualifyingly wrong about Iraq, or about pretty much everything post-9/11. They just care that he's funny and gives good quotes and is an "iconoclast" and labors endlessly to craft his image. That's what counts, not unspeakably wrong opinions.

Hitchens is beyond the ken of mere mortals such as myself, but to those who think that, with his time apparently short, the way to honor Hitchens is to write nice things about him that conveniently ignore his disastrously wrong recent opinions: don't. That's not honoring. In fact, it's one of the worst insults to a critical intellect I can imagine.

mass murderer is enough

So in response to some emailers and commenters, who feel that I have not spent enough time talking about how horrible a person Osama bin Laden was, allow me to say: for me, "mass murderer" is enough. That's enough to condemn him, for me. Is there a deeper insult? A more thorough moral disqualification? Perhaps "one who has committed genocide." In any event, acknowledging his horrific crimes on September 11th, and others, is more than enough.

I would ask what, exactly, might come from me joining the rest in showily beating my chest and heaping derision upon a corpse that was guilty of the most unforgivable crime we have. What would that accomplish? Is the idea that I need to prove to you that I condemn Osama, his organization, his actions, and everything that he stood for? I'm sorry, but proving what's in our minds remains beyond the powers of mortal men. Oh, but they try.... I'll tell you: all of the desperate signaling of so many these last few days, people working so incredibly hard to show that at this event they accept all of our antique, dust-covered national narratives-- the same that many of them showily reject when not doing so threatens their social positioning-- well, I can barely express how naked the crude postmodernism was, the kind where the need to show that you're feeling something completely obscures whether you're actually feeling it. But I can't blame them; that's the tragedy of our times: never to experience, always to show that you're experiencing. What's that line? "Welcome to the desert of the real"?

Well, what you feel is your business and what I feel is mine, and now he is dead and the question is only what kind of a country we want to rebuild in the wake of his death. For now I can only observe: we live in the kind of country where so many say "hey, just this once, don't question the government, don't ask questions, just go along." We live in the kind of country where someone as powerful as John Kerry commands us to shut up and move on for the good of the motherland. We live in the kind of country where countless random Twitter users attack Glenn Greenwald for keeping his convictions about civil liberties and the rule of law (for being principled), as loudly as they celebrated him when the president he criticized was on the other team. You can like these realities or you can dislike them or you can be indifferent towards them, and you can work as your conscience dictates.

But sell your fucking purity tests somewhere else. You cheered bin Laden's death in between twiddling with your Dominoes app and remembering to Tivo America's Next Great Fry Cook. I have no interest in public celebration, yours, mine, or anyone else's.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

apparently "the fog of war" is a spell from World of Warcraft that makes you lie all the time

Whoops!

Whoops!

Whoops!

I don't know what really happened. Neither do you. We'll never know, because the people who do know are never going to stop lying about it.

because, you know, we never violate international law

So you see this rising tide of anxiety about the predominately glib reactions to putting a bullet in the head of a unarmed and disabled man, and like most anxiety in this culture it is expressed by a kind of full-throated insistence that there's nothing to feel anxious about. It seems that people, both right and left, are now finally turning to the question of whether this assassination was legal. There was an interesting Twitter debate about it between Adam Serwer and Will Wilkinson last night, although as is the way of Twitter, it's hard to weigh in on a conversation that happened in that forum.

Now, there's the fine print issues of whether the raid and killing (of five) was in fact legal according to international and US law, which I'm not qualified to weigh in on. (Here's an interesting article on the question from the foreign press.) But I'm perfectly qualified to point out that the whole debate is stunningly irrelevant to whether we would have proceeded or not. Is there anyone in the world who thinks that, had it been demonstrated conclusively to the administration that this action was illegal, they would not have gone ahead with it? Anyone at all? People who seek to justify the raid by pointing out its legality are engaging in sophistry, because they are well aware that the fact that we carried out the mission has everything to do with power and nothing to do with legality. Defending an action's legality when that legality was entirely uninteresting to the people who undertook it reeks of ex post facto justification, which is usually a sign of doubt.

The point of international law, after all, is that there be consistent standards of legal conduct for all countries. But international law exists in a context where everyone involved knows that no such consistency will ever exist, and that the relative military and economic powers of various actors determines everything. The United States can send a kill squad into a foreign country it has not declared war on because it is the United States and not for any other reason. And if we were particularly concerned about international law, we'd just flex our muscles and change it. That's life as the hegemon.

The idea that identical justifications could be used for similar actions by non-superpowers is of course a symbol of rank unseriousness. So we can think of the South American nations which have endured death squads and the killing of civilians by the military and intelligence services of the United States. They might decide that they have a responsibility to protect their citizens by, say, sending assassins to kill a CIA apparatchik, and they might use precisely the same reasoning used by bloggers and pundits all over the place now. (Here's a version from the New Republic-- you'll be shocked to learn that even the liberal TNR supports the legality of the killing-- but there are others bouncing around.) But to suggest that they might have a point is to excise yourself from the church of the savvy. Everybody knows it's different when we do it.

I'm glad the threat of Osama bin Laden is gone from the globe, although I wanted our 9/11 Nuremberg with him and Khalid Sheik Mohammed. I like for criminals to be tried in fair courts; I'm old fashioned like that. And there are a lot of deeply complex moral and ethical questions that stem from opportunities to stop mass murderers. Yes, we should analyze whether the killing was legal; it's an essential question, after all. We don't get to pick and choose when legality matters. But please. Please. Don't pretend that the question of legality mattered to the people who undertook this assault, and drop the notion that there would ever be any consequences for us if it was proven that it was illegal. This had nothing to do with legality and everything to do with power. We are the United States, Pakistan is a dirt poor Muslim country, and those are the only facts that will have any meaningful relevance in this case.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

establishment liberalism's turn

There have been so many moments, lately, that teach us about American liberalism. That so much of what we've learned is depressing is, I guess, just life. But Wisconsin, the Ryan plan and entitlement fight, Libya, the deepening cult of Obama, and finally, yesterday's big news-- each is revealing.

You have undoubtedly seen the rising chorus of scolding progressives, angry that those to their left have the temerity to insist on the valence of liberal morality even when person in question is a Very Bad Man. Whatever the philosophical justification for using liberalism as an excuse for blood lust and nationalism, the reason is clear: this is their turn. This is the professional liberal's opportunity to wave the flag, to celebrate violence-- there were fireworks in San Francisco-- to engage in the kind of patriotic conformity that they have been told for a decade is the duty of all decent people. This is their turn to feel tough, and anyone asking for discrimination or pause makes a convenient target. I've never been made to feel less than tough by a conservative critic. I've never felt like I have to showily demonstrate my willingness to lob ordnance when it's necessary. It seems most DC liberals do, and if I had to hazard a guess, it's because they aren't particularly confident in the moral calculus that underwrites their ideology.

You can see a lot of this tension in the way that liberals calling for the righteousness of violence are harping on the (unintentionally) misrepresented quote from Martin Luther King. They say to themselves that they are decent liberal people, and they want MLK to be their hero, but they are congenitally unable to live with genuine radicalism. So they take his message and they water it down; they make it palatable for the Very Serious mindset by taking what was unequivocal in him and rendering it a toothless, centrist mess. This is the way of all who radically ask for peace-- King, Gandhi, Jesus, the Buddha. Each insists on what is precisely not assimilable to the mass ideology of political violence.

So you have people like Adam Elkus, who performs a service for DC liberals by attempting to undercut the radical nonviolence at the heart of King's message. This post has been shared and twittered endlessly; that's service blogging  for you. You'll note that he harps on the fact that the quote being sent around is a misquote, but note that only the first line is misattributed, and that the elementary idea of that first line was stated with nothing resembling ambiguity by King in Strength to Love: "no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being." Seems rather clear to me, but then all of the great pacifists resisted the mushy excuse making of the regular order. When you ask for the actual commitment to nonviolence that King stood for-- when you know aikido in combat-- there are consequences.

Nobody has to get on board with my views; they are marginal for a reason, I guess. But I wish they would stop pretending that people who are not their heroes are, that people would stop, for example, emailing Andrew Sullivan, announcing that they are pacifist Buddhists, and defending the people who danced in the streets in the name of an event that killed five people. I assure you: the Buddha would not look kindly on putting depleted uranium into anyone's skull. Not even the bad man. (Whose Grave Would Jesus Piss On?) I feel about these liberals trying to square the circle of holding MLK to be a hero while supporting remorseless celebration of human death the way I feel about neoliberals who listen to Dead Prez. Feel however you feel, but please, recognize the incongruity, and perhaps look for new heroes. I recognized the genesis of the misquotes because I have had Strength to Love embedded in my consciousness since I was thirteen years old. It's important to remain conversant with King's actual words, not just the pale imitation of him that exists in the popular consciousness. If even the left is incapable of remembering the actual legacy of Martin Luther King, his voice has been silenced.

I also ask that any so engaged in this embittered campaigning against those who ask for pause at this moment consider context. There were thousands in the streets the other night. There are many hundreds of prominent Internet celebrities who are justifying and celebrating and expressing glee. How many are there of us who are asking for restraint, who insist that the expression of sentiments like "rot in hell" is antithetical to the liberal character? A couple dozen? The asymmetry of annoyance should be instructive. This is part and parcel with the common tendency among establishment liberals to dislike conservatives but hate the left. How often does the average professional liberal break bread with a conservative or libertarian? And how often with a socialist, or a pacifist? It tells you all you need to know about the American left, and why it is the way it is.

I wish someone could puncture the bubble, because what these liberals need now is precisely to feel the discomfort that comes when cherished ideas about the world and the self are brought into conflict with each other. That tension is the womb of the liberal project. But unfortunately, establishment liberalism has meticulously crafted a cone of silence around itself, precisely to prevent the uncomfortable questions that principle engenders.

Update: The number of posts now calling bullshit on that quote, without pointing out what Martin Luther King actually had to say on the matter, grows and grows. Megan had the good excuse of going first, but each new post on the matter gets less and less defensible. Because, again, liberal Internet media is run by DC liberals made uncomfortable by King's sentiment. It's remarkable how people can call bullshit on others without actually checking their own bullshit, how people who are paid to assemble facts can't bother to check them. Please-- professional journalists, do your job.

Monday, May 2, 2011

fake MLK quotes, real MLK sentiment

Megan calls bullshit on a quote being Twittered.

Well, okay, but isn't the relevant context his book Strength to Love, and, you know, his entire ethos? Here's a few of quotes from StL, but you can find similar sentiment in dozens or hundreds of places in his collected speeches and writings.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction ... The chain reaction of evil--hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars -- must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.
and
When we look beneath the surface, beneath the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God's image is ineffably etched in being. Then we love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God's redemptive love.
and
love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.
and
We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.
and
no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.
Seems relevant!

Update: Mystery solved, I'd say.

the forever war

Josef Mengele died a happy old man, living in comfort with a family in a beautiful slice of South America. He drowned; I guess some might take solace in that. If you require a belief that justice is done on earth, slit your wrists.

Osama bin Laden is dead, and so our culture has made the curious decision to return to the world of 9/12: outwardly confident, showily defiant, wrapped in assertions of our power-- and yet, pecking and cawing beneath it all, the dirty bird of our fear. I don't know of a surer sign of a weak nation and a frightened people than so many working so hard to signal their toughness. It's true all the time: those who work to show you they're strong are weak. And as we assemble more and more little insults-- I'm sure bin Laden's ghost is all tore up that you won't call him Mr., Bill-- to add to the grand narratives of American power and moral vengeance, all those little lessons we learned in the aftermath of 9/11 shrivel and die. It's black humor, but it is funny, the way that our media (especially the supposedly free new media of blogs) parrots the administration's version of events, and each commentator tries more desperately than the next to find some new angle to degrade our enemy. (That he may have used his wife as a human shield-- which I don't know, by the way, and neither do you-- seems to me to be largely insignificant, when you consider he murdered thousands of innocent people.) We can't merely secure our goals, we have to "win." We can't merely win, we have to emasculate our enemy.

You should be reminded of all the wrong turns we took following 9/11, and you should be worried now. Even if you don't feel a little discomfort at national glee over human death, you might remember how much these moments have cost us and will continue to cost us. There's no wondering if this action was legal; nobody cares. That's the sort of thing successful terrorists do to a free people.

Liberalism is the self-limiting discourse. In the small-l, classical liberalism, Enlightenment-values sense that I'm told all American political ideologies share, liberalism is not just a philosophy but a critique of all philosophies. In its only true form, it undercuts itself always, sets its own boundaries, and holds its own dictates to be immutable rules never. You can't go to war for liberalism; such a thing is a contradiction in terms. You certainly can't be a warrior for liberalism. And liberalism can't ever win, not really. If you ever find yourself in the kind of position that calls itself victory, liberalism tells you to question what happened, to never stop in asking questions. If you've really won, if you stopped and stood in a place you call victory, you've ceased to represent liberalism. It is a slippery, frustrating commitment, the commitment to liberalism. There's nowhere to stand. Ever.

There is no such thing as righteous violence and no such thing as confident liberalism.

We have longed for the declaration of victory, and this event, which has changed very little, gives us the pretext to do it. That this collapse into the symbolic is understandable makes it no less scary. Behind it all, the ceaseless, oppressive force of the cult of Obama pushes and pushes. I have never witnessed anything like it in my life, the way this man has become venerated by people who are ordinarily discriminating. At the height of Bush's popularity, I often wondered if the hero worship could go any deeper. But now I know that there's always another side, and here it is: so many liberals who so bitterly rejected the tenor of those times are now weeping and beating their breasts with adoration for our dear leader. I never cared much about what was American, but it is true that leader worship is un-American. It is true that it is antidemocratic. It is true that it illiberal. American progressives largely don't care, though; that was Bush. This is their guy. So much for them.

When people speak of Obama as a potential liberal Reagan, I ask them to really think about what they are saying. The problem of Reagan isn't just his policies. The problem is that the very idea of a fawning attitude towards a president gives us nothing. I like Obama's policies a lot more than I do Bush's. That does not make me forget the essential wisdom of distrusting authorities, and particularly our executive.

Have you seen pictures of him? Always this same face, always-- that gentle, beatific smile. What you have here is that rarest kind of man, the real true believer. The kind that really and truly believed that the murders he committed where blessed by god. There isn't anything that you can do to such a person; you can kill him, but you can't possibly puncture the emotional armor of his zeal. Bin Laden went to his grave assured that he had been right all along, right about everything, and that his project carried with it the objective blessings of human order. Print all the nasty newspaper covers you want of him, and sacrifice your dignity in summoning a Two Minutes Hate; it only feeds the monstrous ideas that created him. I'm sure he enjoyed the moment of his martyrdom.

Here is what history should teach you: every great act of evil in the history of humanity, every one, was committed by people who were certain. Certain that they were right, certain that they understand the world, certain that they had unique access to the truth, certain that they could plant their flag on one right thing, and take their stand. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, you had this strange and constant assault on the various relativist boogiemen that, we were told, threatened our way of life. Few people asked what sense it made to complain about the Derridas of the world when it was men like bin Laden, who was as far from a relativist as any could ever be, who had committed the crime. But such talk was inconvenient. We had our own certainty and our own righteousness and the time was not for asking about root causes but instead for planting our own flags.

You'll likely find an opportunity to feel solidarity with someone who is usually your political enemy, in the coming days. Some shared moment where you look over to someone who you know you disagree with, and say, "we got 'em!" and along with everybody else in the office, you feel all one, for a little while. Here's Conor, celebrating that unity. He means well. Unity is just conformity wearing a nicer dress. And I have to say to Conor at this moment what I had to say, after five and three quarter hours of weakness, on September 11th: I don't want to be unified with you. Not in this. Not behind the righteousness of violence. Not in the orgies of nationalism. Not in anything. Not at the moment when so many ask for unity, because those are the moments when the refusal of unity is most necessary. That, too, is liberalism: dissent in the heart of all things. The scariest word I know in politics is consensus. You should flee from it, if you find it.

That the good people in America want desperately to feel proud of the country again, I can understand, although "my country" is a concept I walked away from years ago. That people feel tremendous anger against a horrific person who committed inexcusable crimes, I understand. And that I am tempted to take up the flag and get with the communal program, I can't deny. I'm human, after all. But I know how things start, and I know that, within the crowds of people crowing and whooping and letting forth with anger, hides the most dangerous impulse that ever resided in the human heart.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

democracies do what they want

One of the petty hypocrisies involved in much American support for the Arab uprisings is that this support is based on the idea that Arab democracy is going to give Americans what they want. You'll find this attitude embedded in any argument that insists we should support internal rebellions because of all the good policies and benevolent changes that will occur in the new regime. People never seem quite to realize that support for the edifice of democracy that is conditional on support for the policies of that democracy is a sham. This is why, for as much as Afghanistan and Iraq reveal about the fundamental character of America, the most important foreign policy evolution of the Bush era was the election of Hamas in Palestine, and the requisite abandonment of democracy there by this country's policy apparatus.

Now, then, we're starting to get the kind of policy from Egypt that should start to throw people's real convictions into relief:
Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces General Sami Anan warned Israel against interfering with Egypt's plan to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on a permanent basis, saying it was not a matter of Israel's concern, Army Radio reported on Saturday.... An Israeli official on Friday told The Wall Street Journal that Israel was troubled by the recent developments in Egypt saying they could affect Israel's national security at a strategic level.
National securitah, of course, being the reason for Israel to fear an opening of the border, and not their explicit aim to keep Gaza and its people in a state of permanent economic ruin.

For me, this is a heartening development, and if even some of the narratives of the Arab Spring are true, this kind of pressure is inevitable. Israel has been, for over forty years, perpetuating one of the great humanitarian and democratic crises in the world; amid all of this talk of the democratization of the Arab world, precious little has pointed out that the United States is the major (and moving towards sole) underwriter of an Israeli regime that keeps millions of Palestinian Arabs in a state of permanent dispossession. If the greater Middle East is indeed being swept up in a new spirit of freedom, Israel will find its position more and more uncomfortable. I pray that this new geopolitical situation in the Middle East never results in military action against Israel. But if they are truly surrounded by a newly empowered and engaged Arab people, Israel will come to find their position untenable, as well they should. Because the status quo for the Palestinian people is indefensible.

Meanwhile, those who so loudly cheer the intervention in Libya, and who push for the same in Syria, are going to have to come to terms with the fact that free people don't always do what you want them to do. I support the Libya resistance against the Qaddafi regime, although my support (crazily enough) doesn't mean I abandon the bedrock democratic principles of non-interference. But I don't pretend that the rebels are "good guys," that they will give me what I want, or that the spirit of criticism of all governments will be extinguished when they take power. The question is how far Egypt or any other can go away from American desires before people really consider the reality of true self-determination. How frosty can things get with Israel? Could Egypt transition to, say, a socialist government without western supporters of the Arab Spring jumping ship? Could a theoretical Saudi Arabian uprising be permitted to severely restrict the flow of oil to America and its allies? Could a new Arab democracy increase its government's interoperability with Islamic fundamentalism (as the Iranian revolutionaries did) and still earn the praise of Western intellectuals?

All of these aren't merely questions that you can ask about the difference between the morally preferable process of democracy and the morally uncertain outcomes of democracy. These are questions you have to ask, when your country is killing people in the name of other people's freedom.