Friday, October 12, 2012

so what are you going to do about it?



Dr. Farley is, of course, correct in the limited sense: violence is the grammar of the state, its deep structure, and the continued existence of the state necessitates continued brutish violence. (I'm not a fan of nations, either, but I find it more plausible that we'll dismantle the state before we convince people to stop conceiving of themselves as part of a nation.) But you'll recognize my dilemma: if I said that the obvious consequence of this is that all progressive people should take it as their duty to work towards the end of the state, in a direct and real way rather than as some metaphorical or vastly distant goal, I will be dismissed as unserious and not worthy of consideration. (Right? Right.)

Many, many people have given Obama an exemption from judgment on drone strikes based on this logic that the state is always going to be violent. Well: even if it's true that the state is always going to be violent, Obama himself has near total control over this particular program and could end it if he wanted to; even if he was constrained in the way people suggest, he would still be morally culpable for the consequences of the program; and if indeed this is an excuse, it is an excuse for literally any violent action the state takes whatsoever. Hey, that state is violent. Might as well nuke Tehran, right? But no one is interested in exploring the logical conclusions of that manner of thinking.

There's also been a tendency for people to suggest that some sort of moral grappling with these issues is appropriate, just not from any of the people who are actually grappling. So theoretically, there is a principled questioning of the moral virtues of the drone program, but it certainly isn't being undertaken by me, or Glenn Greenwald, or Daniel Larison, or Noam Chomsky.... There is some mythical Very Serious progressive character out there who can discuss these issues, but that person does not exist on Planet Earth. My commenters keep insisting that, yes, they have taken the drone program seriously, and yes, that there are deeply disturbing questions afoot, but that no one who has ever actually considered them is worthy of anything but contemptuous dismissal. All for all, liberal Democrats online have created an intricate rhetorical lockbox that at once permits the notion that drones could be a morally dubious issue and at the same time dismisses all possible alternatives as unserious and all people looking for them as fraudulent and unimportant.

So much of this stems from the consensus idiom of contemporary progressivism: the stance of "always already." This stance is so widespread that it is nearly universal. You see it in blogs and on Twitter and Facebook and all over. The posture is of people who are not merely correct in their positions and certain of that correctness, but have always already arrived at the appropriate conclusion. It's not just the typical liberal condescension about the superiority of their ideas. It's a special haughtiness that comes from the notion that all moral questions were settled before the current argument began. The drive now is not merely to demonstrate that you are correct, but that the issue was dispositively settled long ago. This, certainly, is the language of my liberal critics in the comments here: yes, there may be some moral confusion at hand in this issue, but it was hashed out before we ever began arguing. And of course this is all bound up in the Cult of the Savvy thing that has completely captured mainstream American liberalism, the idea that there is an incredibly narrow range of permissible opinions which all must be articulated with the passionless attitude of an actuary discussing an insurance policy.

People have asked why I have focused a lot of my disagreement on Lawyers Guns and Money, and it's for this reason: because that entire blog is an exercise is the the stance of always already. I think the bloggers there are smart people who have written some great things, but I don't know that they are capable of talking about left-wing and antiwar ideas with any tone other than professorial condescension. Even when they are acknowledging the merits of the other side, they write as though there is no way anyone could or should struggle to arrive at satisfactory answers. Hard to think of argumentative attitudes that could be less conducive to changing the status quo.

20 comments:

Greg Sanders said...

I think this discussion is muddied by the conflation of two seperate issues:
1) Criticizing the drone program prior to the election.
2) Criticizing liberal democrats for being passive about the drone program.
3) Not voting for Obama on the basis of the drone program (in a swing state, with no form of ranked voting, etc.)

I think much of the discussion on LGM has focused on point #3. Your discussion has touched on point #3 but, I think, has been mostly concerned with points #1 and #2.

You're of course welcome to handle this any way you want. I think there's an instinct on the liberal democrat side to go straight to point #3 as it's the easiest point to mount a defense on and because of the outcome of the 2000 election.

Regardless, I think from a tactical perspective, the smart thing for you to do is both criticizing the President and calling out foreign policy types that are giving him a pass that they wouldn't give a Republican President in a similar circumstance. As a liberal dem, I think we can take some pride in the end of the Iraq war and the administrations vehemently unconditional 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan plan and can legitimately focus our energy there; however, that's a debate worth having and as we start to leave Afghanistan we need to refocus on de-escalation in Pakistan and Yemen and if antiwar activist don't do their legwork now that's less likely to happen.

In any event, I think some of the LGM-types might similarly have different stances on point 1 and 2 versus point 3 and I'd lose some respect for them if I was wrong about that.

Standard disclaimer on speaking for myself and not employer here.

Anonymous said...

"My commenters keep insisting that, yes, they have taken the drone program seriously, and yes, that there are deeply disturbing questions afoot, but that no one who has ever actually considered them is worthy of anything but contemptuous dismissal."

I think that is just not true. On this site, at least, your commenters have mostly said that they very much disagree with the drone program. The only real issue, per Greg Sanders, is whether not voting for Obama/not voting at all is best way "to do" something "about it."

"This, certainly, is the language of my liberal critics in the comments here: yes, there may be some moral confusion at hand in this issue, but it was hashed out before we ever began arguing."

Again, that seems to be plain false, to me. On this blog, the commenters, to repeat, have mostly said that there is a lot more than "moral confusion" about the drone program. They have mostly condemned it outright.

On your more general point, I just don't buy it. Not only here, but elsewhere, there are plenty of liberals (even among those who plan to vote for Obama) who agree with you, Greenwald, Larison and Chomsky. If these folks think the moral issue is "settled," it is because they think it is settled against the drone policy.

And, again as with your first three (or four...how many is it now?) posts, one wonders why you are surprized/dismayed that folks on blogs that are all about electing Democrats in general and re electing Obama in particular are not jumping up and down with glee at your criticsms of him. Many of these folks are explicitly operating under the lesser of two evils theory, the rest are engaging in politics as spectator sport/us against them tribalism. This too has been pointed out to you many times, but it never seems to sink in. Folks such as these, especially those in the second group, ARE somewhat dismissive/contemptuous of attacks on Obama from the left. And, yeah, both groups are even more impatient with them during election season. To both groups, the "status quo," at least when it comes to Obama v Romney, is very much what they want to keep from "changing," and they feel, quite rightly (from their point of view), that you are not only not contributing to preserving that status quo, but are actually undermining it. They don't like that, sure, but why would they?

Anonymous said...

"if I said that the obvious consequence of this is that all progressive people should take it as their duty to work towards the end of the state, in a direct and real way rather than as some metaphorical or vastly distant goal, I will be dismissed as unserious and not worthy of consideration. (Right? Right.)"

Because you WOULD be unserious and not worthy of consideration. "The state" does much more than launch drone strikes. It maintains, to one degree or another and at varying levels of success, every aspect of modern civilization. Without "the state," millions of people in America will either die or languish in worse poverty than they are presently suffering. Are you suggesting that we trade that for the lives of non-Americans? Most Americans, across the political spectrum, would call that a bad trade.

quixote said...

The point doesn't "sink in," Anon @ 10:59, because Freddie's argument, as I understand it, is that lesser evil-ism only applies when the evil is actually lesser.

Obama, by committing war crimes and crimes of state (e.g. the treatment of Bradley Manning), as well as the entire saga of playing Calvinball with his campaign promises and promoting kleptocracy, is evil enough.

When Romney is disqualified for merely promising some of the things Obama has already done, then one is hardly justified in acting as if one holds the high moral ground. Or even has a grasp of basic logic.

That has no bearing on tribalism, of course, as you say. But leftists like to say they're reality-based, not tribal. So they have no excuse to apply completely different standards to Their Guy vs. The Other Guy.

Anonymous said...

quixote:

"The point doesn't 'sink in,' Anon @ 10:59, because Freddie's argument, as I understand it, is that lesser evil-ism only applies when the evil is actually lesser.
Obama, by committing war crimes and crimes of state (e.g. the treatment of Bradley Manning), as well as the entire saga of playing Calvinball with his campaign promises and promoting kleptocracy, is evil enough."

More than evil enough.

Nevertheless, a cogent case could be made that Romney would be more evil still. More and greater war crimes and crimes of state, and even worse kleptocracy, can be plausibly argued to be in the offing with a Romney win.

"But leftists like to say they're reality-based, not tribal. So they have no excuse to apply completely different standards to Their Guy vs. The Other Guy."

True, but they can still make the claim that, even using the same standards, Their Guy is better than the Other Guy. Even positing that both are evil, there is such a thing as degrees of evil. That is the whole basis of the lesser of two evils approach. Where Obama has killed hundreds, Romney will kill thousands, where Obama has killed thousands, Romney will kill tens or hundreds of thousands. While Obama has winked at torture, Romney will embrace it. Where Obama sends a drone, Romney will send a B 52. Where Obama has given three quarters of the loaf to the one percent, Romney will give them fifteen sixteenths. Obama rattles the sabre at Iran, but Romney will use it. Etc, etc.

If your premise is that there are only two choices (and that is the premise of the lesser of two evils approach....one can certainly criticize that premise, but if you're going to argue against the choice for Obama to the lesser of two evil-ists on their own terms, you have to accept it) they have a case.

To push up against Godwin's law, if one really believed that he had only two choice, and the choices were Mussolini or Hitler, one, if one was a liberal, would presumably choose the latter. Which doesn't mean Il Duce was not evil, or not "evil enough," but only that the other guy was even worse.


Anonymous said...

er, should have been "the former" in the penultimate sentence, not "the latter."

bobbyp said...

A car is careening down a hill, out of control. The brakes have failed. Two guys in the front seat struggle against each other to take control of the wheel. One says, "We must turn left and go over this 200 ft. cliff." The other says, "No, no, no! We must turn right and go over this 1,000 foot cliff, now!"

The rider in the back seat says, "I'm outta' here. I'm jumping out." One of the drivers turns and says to him, "You fool! You want us go over a 1,000 foot cliff? Are you an idiot?"

Jargon said...

I can't get these anonymous people set straight but:

Anon1: I can't remember specific comments well enough to say if the majority here fall into this or not, but the majority of online liberals I've read (obviously there are exceptions out there) only recognize the drone campaign as evil when confronted on it. Some actually use it to boast about Obama, but leaving aside those people, many only address it when someone brings it up as a reason not to vote for Obama and only then does it become a lesser of two evils discussion. In other words, they never actually treat it as an evil. At worst, it's an inconvenience because it means they have to spend their time lecturing radical liberals on why they need to vote for Obama anyway.

I always think of the discussion about Ron Paul on the internet months ago, when Greenwald and others were praising his foreign policy ideas. The prevailing line was that Ron Paul is disqualified as a candidate because of his other objectionable stances and actions. This was a perfect example of what Freddie is talking about in his post. The posts listed Ron Paul's bad qualities and then branded him disqualified, with no discussion of why Obama's bad qualities didn't do the same, or what someone who prioritized foreign policy over abortion rights, for example, might think about the issue. Instead it had already been settled, Ron Paul was disqualified, Obama was not, by implication and everyone should move on. By the way, that's a pretty obvious example of how tribalism doesn't just affect the Obama bumper sticker waving crowd but even the supposedly thoughtful "lesser of two evils" crowd.

Anon2: Differentiating between American lives and non-American lives is exactly what Freddie is rejecting.

matt said...

The Democratic party is indeed a very poor vehicle for advancing the goal of dismantling the state. So is the Republican party, and the Green party, and the Libertarian party. They're all lesser evils, if we really are morally bound to dismantle the state. And not in the sense that some subset of their policies are bad, but in the sense that they are fundamentally opposed to that overarching goal.

Also, the people you are arguing with probably don't just think that dismantling the state is 'unserious', but rather immoral and utterly futile.

And I hate to say it, but rhetorically speaking, might there be anti-drone voices that a low-information and sometimes shallow audience might respond to better than Greenwald and Chomsky? (HRW, for example)

Steve said...

This is good stuff, Freddie. Epater la progressoisie. I don't think you're exactly serious when you suggest the state must be destroyed, or that you think anyone is on board with whatever violence the state might hypothetically perpetrate. But online liberals need to hear this stuff, even if it irks them.

Anonymous said...

"I can't remember specific comments well enough to say if the majority here fall into this or not, but the majority of online liberals I've read (obviously there are exceptions out there) only recognize the drone campaign as evil when confronted on it."

My view is that "tribal" Democrats, and members of the "Obama clan" of that tribe tend to dominate on line. And this is particularly true of the sites that Freddie has mentioned.

"Some actually use it to boast about Obama, but leaving aside those people, many only address it when someone brings it up as a reason not to vote for Obama and only then does it become a lesser of two evils discussion. In other words, they never actually treat it as an evil. At worst, it's an inconvenience because it means they have to spend their time lecturing radical liberals on why they need to vote for Obama anyway."

Not really sure what the point is here. Whether they specifically see the drone program as evil or not, they are convinced, and, as I argued above, not without some reason, that Romney. on balance, is more evil than Obama. And of course, Romney, to them, is evil in ways that Obama is not, whereas, when it comes to the drone program itself, there is no reason in the world to believe that Romney will be any better than Obama, and pretty good reason to think he will be even worse.

"I always think of the discussion about Ron Paul on the internet months ago, when Greenwald and others were praising his foreign policy ideas. The prevailing line was that Ron Paul is disqualified as a candidate because of his other objectionable stances and actions. This was a perfect example of what Freddie is talking about in his post. The posts listed Ron Paul's bad qualities and then branded him disqualified, with no discussion of why Obama's bad qualities didn't do the same, or what someone who prioritized foreign policy over abortion rights, for example, might think about the issue. Instead it had already been settled, Ron Paul was disqualified, Obama was not, by implication and everyone should move on. By the way, that's a pretty obvious example of how tribalism doesn't just affect the Obama bumper sticker waving crowd but even the supposedly thoughtful 'lesser of two evils' crowd."

I disagree. The tribalists dismiss Paul out of hand, but the lesser of two evilists, as with Romney, look at Paul in toto, including, but in no way limited to, his views on abortion, and see him as more evil, on balance, than Obama.

And, as with Freddie, I find this notion of "it's already been settled" to be strange. To partisan Democrats, of course, the issue, any issue, really, when it comes to choosing between the two main parties and their candidates, is settled in advance. Other folks will say that, perhaps, on this particular issue, Paul really is better than Obama, on balance, Obama is better than Paul and Democrats are better than Republicans. And, again, where is it, exactly, that the issue was treated as "settled?" On websites more or less devoted to tribe Democrat/clan Obama. On other sites, like Counterpunch and Greenwald, the issue is not so treated. Partisan websites are partisan. Yes, we know that.

Anonymous said...


"A car is careening down a hill, out of control. The brakes have failed. Two guys in the front seat struggle against each other to take control of the wheel. One says, 'We must turn left and go over this 200 ft. cliff.' The other says, 'No, no, no! We must turn right and go over this 1,000 foot cliff, now! The rider in the back seat says, 'I'm outta' here. I'm jumping out.' One of the drivers turns and says to him, 'You fool! You want us go over a 1,000 foot cliff? Are you an idiot?'"

Nicely done, but your analogy presupposes that one can jump out of the car. One can abstain from deciding which way the car should go (abstain from voting), but leaving the car (leaving the country) is not so easy. And, then too, if one agrees that leaving the car is not an option, and one agrees that only the two guys in the front seat have any chance of steering the car (or, if you prefer, that we are running out of road in front of us, can't stop the car, and choosing between cliffs really are the only two options), perhaps it would be better to help the guy who wants to drive over the two hundred foot cliff over the guy who favors the the thousand foot cliff side.

"This is good stuff, Freddie. Epater la progressoisie."

Yeah, because ridculing liberals and espousing completely unworkable nihilistic/anarchist views like getting rid of the State really contributes a lot. There are already sites, like "Who is IOZ," which make a living out of doing that.

redscott said...

I just wanted to second the post. One thing that's surprised me about the progressive blogs this time out is the rhetorical turn they've taken. I expected the lesser evillism (yes, on drones, civil liberties, and accountability for torture, Obama sucks, but what's the alternative?), but I didn't expect the virulence of the attacks on people who have these concerns. To me, the question is tactical - it's clear that neither party really gives a shit about these issues, so the question is whether you try to co-opt the more sympathetic party and work within it or stand apart, the classic conscience Whig position. I expected disagreement over that, but I didn't think that opting out of the duopoly on these issues would expose those taking that route to charges that they were immoral, selfish, narcissistic, fuck I don't know, maybe even farmyard animal molesters. It's a difficult problem, and I don't think either possible approach is so bulletproof (who knows whether either will work?) that you can be certain you're right and that the other side is not only wrong but bad people for not seeing that they're wrong. That sense of rabid certainty, which you see a lot on LGM and Balloon Juice, really surprised me.

LGM specializes in this really weird disjunction. On the one hand, they're very willing to trot out endless excuses for why leaders on the progressive side can never do anything fundamentally different (Scott Lemieux specializes in the theory of the powerless president with literally no power of the bully pulpit). On the other hand, they get very indignant, pugnacious, and almost persecutorial (witness the weird feud with Crooked Timber) if anyone at the ordinary joe level like us wants to criticize those leaders and hold them accountable in any way. They kick down at the hapless masses like us while rationalizing almost anything that Obama in particular has done or failed to do. I honestly didn't expect academics in particular to eagerly embrace the role of party apparatchiks and enforcers of party discipline, but that's the road they've chosen to go down. It really does seem that they hate people like Conor Friedersdorf or Greenwald way more than they hate actual conservatives! It's bizaree.

Jargon said...

Anon1: My point is that if they truly think drones are evil, and by extension that Obama is evil, then you would expect recognition and repudiation of that evil. And more effort put into replacing that evil with good. I haven't seen too much of that. So the "lesser of two evils" spiel doesn't seem too sincere, it seems more like just another tactic to get votes to beat Romney.

Greenwald does recognize and repudiate Obama's terrible often, and for that he gets push back not just from the Obama tribalists but from the crowd that I think we're discussing.

bobbyp said...

...perhaps it would be better to help the guy who wants to drive over the two hundred foot cliff

But he wants to drive the car off a cliff. And you think the rider should help him do that?

bobbyp said...

perhaps it would be better to help the guy who wants to drive over the two hundred foot cliff

Help him? He want to drive the car off a cliff.

bobbyp said...

oops. narcissistic double posting. apologies.

Neil said...

I'd agree with anonymous #1, in support of your commenters.

This is the only blog I read, so I grant that I am well under informed on these sorts of intra-liberal quarells, but I frankly don't get it and would be happily excoriated in these here comments if someone would in so doing explain this all to me. I know people don't come to a blog to read the awful long-winded comments, but it's too late to stop all those anyways.

I would have to guess -- and perhaps I'm well wrong and this comment is already done with -- but I'd have to guess most Americans, even most Obama voters, are content with the drone program. Even amongst people who are vaguely anti-war (and I'm speaking specifically about the affluent Massachusetts suburban parents I grew up among), I'd imagine they're by and large content with whatever tactics are used when the war is ongoing if they protect their Republican friends kids. So, like, one can withhold one's vote, but will it matter with the Drone Program? If it would matter, then by all means one ought to do it.

But I don't know that it would. I'd imagine that, in the same way that I can't imagine the Republican party would continue to exist if the far right actually took hold and started to dismantle Medicare, Social Security, etc., I can't imagine the Democratic party would continue to compete (on a federal level) if the far left took hold. In which case, withholding a vote would only be so that the slaughter of innocents can not be done with your approval. Which, again, I say is totally valid, very noble. But I just don't think, in that case, a person should vote for anyone ever at all, since the slaughter of innocents is just an inescapable fact with the state, and if one can't tolerate any of it, then there's no point in getting involved.

Is it more likely, assuming that one persuades a large group of like-minded voters to do as they do, that witholding votes will help transform the Democratic party or help to swing the election?

(In support of Freddie's campaign against anonymity: gmail is neiljohnsonmail).

Brendan said...

bobbyp, your analogy actually argues the other way, because there is no real-life equivalent of jumping out of the car. You're going over one of the cliffs whether you want to or not. I'm not convinced the analogy is all that apt, but insofar as it is, it weighs against you and Freddie.

I'm genuinely undecided about whether or not I will vote for Obama. I find this philosophically difficult. I tend to agree with Freddie, though, that his liberal critics are not seriously addressing him. If all the criticism and activism in the world can NEVER translate into a vote against the Democrat then, ultimately, what good is it? Can't it always be safely ignored by the mainstream?

Sorry for the wishy-washy comment. As I said, I really am not sure where I stand.

JK said...

Ohhhh, you don't actually read your blog's comments!