Politics


Below is a lengthy passage (the underlining is mine) about the relationship between the US and Iran.  I’ll paraphrase to save your eyes the workout.  Iran and the US have narratives about themselves and the other, and everything is interpreted through that narrative.  The final part of the passage is the meat.  Beeman explains one of the communicative differences between Iran and the US: a (non)European model of diplomacy.  Given these differences of communicative style there are misunderstandings, which are then filtered through the already operating narratives.  This article does a great job of falling into this pitfall.  Imam details a misunderstanding and provides the Iranian explanation and then the article does the narrative filtration of ‘dem bad, we good’ to try and make a coherent argument.

Many of the conservatives (I do not mean Republicans as there are plenty of Democrats just as, possibly more so, hawkish) dismiss articles like Beeman’s as ivory tower ephemera.  But those people are not reading the bottom portion of Beeman’s passage.  There is a materiality and empiricism to what the (many within) the academy are saying.  If the risks are precisely as catastrophic as conservatives claim, then shouldn’t they pay attention to all commentary?  This myopia in the face of catastrophe either proves their incompetence or the insincerity of their supposed catastrophes.

Beeman, William.  (2003).  Iran and the United States: Postmodern culture conflict in action.  Anthropological Quarterly, 76(4)

For Iran, Iraq, the Taliban of Afghanistan, and terrorist organizations such as Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, the United States became the “Great Satan,” to borrow Iran’s epithet. The Middle Eastern oppositionists saw America as an external illegitimate force that continually strove to destroy the pure, internal core of the Islamic World. It was also seen as the inheritor of the mantle of colonialism carried out earlier in the 20th Century by Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. For the United States, the resistant forces of the Middle East took on a demonic form—that of the “crazy outlaw” nations and terrorist groups whose activities were illegal, unpredictable, and irrational. Every president from Ronald Regan to George W. Bush vilified these forces. In Nader’s terminology, they represented disharmony in an extreme form, because they threatened the international social and political order. Each side’s mythology of itself and its role in world affairs complimented this “mythology of the other.” All of the Middle Eastern forces counted their efforts against the United States as proof of modern success in confronting a formidable enemy. For Iran this was the Revolution of 1978-79 and the subsequent 444 day hostage crisis. For Iraq, it was the Gulf war. For Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, it was a series of aggressive attacks against the United States. These included bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington. These groups thus become not just revolutionary oppositionists; they become the guardians of justice and equity for the people of the world. For the United States, a more complex structure which I term below the “U.S. Foreign Policy Myth” held sway. As I will explain below, this myth sees the “normal world” as a body of nation-states arranged in a dichotomous structure—for or against the United States and its interests. The oppositional forces of the Middle East confound this model. The United States therefore places them in to a residual category, and tries to eliminate them—to purify the world, as it were. The United States therefore becomes not just the guardian of democracy or freedom, but of world order. These mythologies became ideological filters for transmission (or, more accurately, non-transmission) of messages between the two cultural worlds. Such filtering might be sufficient to create the kind of abortive understanding that took place between the two nations with such relentless regularity. However, the ideological problems were reinforced by a communicational structure that was equally conducive to reinforcing the mutual negative images both nations held of each other. A Problem of Discourse The communicational problems can be thought of as problems of mutual discourse which became more and more severe as time went on. The United States and all of the Middle Eastern opposition forces mentioned above have operated with different, often contradictory notions of how discourse on an international level should be managed. This often caused drastic misreadings of the content of communication between the two cultural worlds, and mutual accusations of deviousness, insincerity and bad faith. The formal study of discourse has seen considerable growth during the past two decades. Discourse analysts posit a set of implicit contextual agreements between parties which allow face-to-face conversation to take place in an unimpeded manner. Critical theorists such as Bourdieu, Derrida and Baudrillard have extended the term discourse to include the culturally contextualized rhetorical practices of governments, scholarly institutions and commercial business. The theoretical relevance of discourse studies for this problem will be discussed in greater detail in the following chapter, but I wish to underscore here the need to understand the contextual factors which underlie disturbed discourse as a key to explaining. The United States government is bureaucratically geared to speaking to foreign powers using a set of communicative routines and principles inherited from eighteenth and nineteenth century European diplomatic practice. The practices emphasize face-to-face communication between elite governmental officials at equivalent levels (head of state to head of state, secretary or minister of foreign affairs to secretary or minister of foreign affairs, etc.). Special protocol rules apply for communication between persons who are of non-equivalent hierarchical position. These principles thus imply a universal hierarchy of bureaucracy, and a universal set of understandings about management of discourse parameters within that hierarchy. The routines are widely used because they are implicitly accepted by the international community who learned them from colonial powers.


I was going to write about this, but here is a take on it.  A superior take on it as it encompasses what I was thinking but then adds on and renders it much more clearly than I would have.

http://www.woodenpickle.org/?p=74

I will begin this dialogue with a quotation from Caldwell in 2004:

The complexity of the relationship between bio-sovereignty and humanity is most evident in the issue of humanitarian interventions. If such interventions limit nation-state sovereignty, they serve as a ground for bio-sovereignty. Every potential case for intervention — whether or not it is acted upon — raises as a question the status of life, and calls for a sovereign decision on life. The post-sovereign world of bio-politics described by Foucault now takes on a new meaning. Foucault argued that in modernity, man’s politics placed his existence in question. If, as Agamben argues, sovereignty maintains its power by deciding on the status of life, then a world in which politics places life in question by retaining the power to decide its fate, is not post-sovereign. It is the open expression of the sovereign ban or exception.

Human rights, from this perspective, is the discourse of life in a state of permanent crisis. Moreover, human rights and sovereignty share the same referent: an indeterminate and precarious bare life. Agamben therefore asserts humanitarian organizations, “despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight” (1998: 133).12 Humanitarianism, speaking for the very life sovereignty grounds itself in, provides the justification for the “exceptional” measures of sovereign powers. Today’s “moral interventions,” exemplified in the work of NGO’s who categorize and call attention to human rights violations, prefigure “the state of exception from below” (Negri and Hardt 2000; 36). This complex situation, in which humanitarianism and sovereignty work together, should not be taken as a condemnation of humanitarianism. It is rather a sign of the failures of a tradition which requires humanitarianism while reducing its effectiveness.

The apparently emancipatory, law bound discourse of human rights thereby finds itself implicated in very old paradigms of domination. The relation is similar to the way that early modern discourses of rights proved complicit with novel forms of surveillance and regulation. The language of human rights does not stand outside the crises such rights are invoked to counter; it does not stand outside the sovereign powers that produce life as endangered. Neither natural nor exceptional, humanitarian crises belong to a “structure of permanent emergency” which has become “objectified in institutional arrangements” (Edkins 2000a: 146).

Taking this approach to Haiti yields an easy answer for us: ignore it because answering the pleas for help would merely reinforce the bio-political spectrum which allowed the Haitians to live in such vulnerability that this crisis could happen.  However, there are millions dead and more dying and this neglect is not justifiable. What then is to be done?  Some are bypassing governments and trying to go in as individuals and associations and work with individuals.  The US and the Haitian governments have asked for this to not happen.  And they are correct to do so.

There is an economies of scale problem for those of wishing to bypass the state.  The destroyed infrastructure in Haiti makes navigation and distribution nearly impossible without government support.  This is all without the usual problems of violence, protection and also the sheer overwhelming nature of magnitude.  How then do we overcome the scope problem and still not reinforce the Caldwellian dillemma?

Caldwell is wrong when she invokes the ‘permanent state of emergency.’  Not so much incorrect as needing a corrective.  Truly there is such a condition, in that, there is always some emergency somewhere.  But we could reconfigure this crisis in a way that denies the state’s ability to entrench the bio-political control.  The reason the permanent state of emergency works is that there are zones of emergency and zones of non-emergency.  Allowing a retreat into safety is what allows the state to reassert itself.  If, however, we were to reconfigure the map so that all zones are emergencies and no zones are safe then the government is seen less as a guarantor and more of a cause.

Here we stumble into ’emergence.’  It is always around and needs to always be massaged.  Caldwell’s real problem is not the state, per se, but rather the current configuration of the state.  Withdrawal from the state is not the answer but rather the, paradoxically seeming, embrace of the state.  Last Friday there were two callers into The Diane Rehm Show that shocked me.  These callers asked why it was our problem in Haiti.

Such callousness always shocks me.  It shouldn’t, and yet it does.  The true enemy for Caldwell is not the regime of bio-politics but rather the ideological formation that allows these questions to make any sense at all.

Caldwell, Anne.  (2004).  Bio-sovereignty and the emergence of humanity.  Theory and Event, 7(2).

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All attempts to listen to nature are social constructions-except one. Even the most radical postmodernist must acknowledge the distinction between physical existence and non-existence. As I have said, postmodernists accept that there is a physical substratum to the phenomenal world even if they argue about the different meanings we ascribe to it. This acknowledgment of physical existence is crucial. We can’t ascribe meaning to that which doesn’t appear. What doesn’t exist can manifest no character. Put differently, yes, the postmodernist should rightly worry about interpreting nature’s expressions. And all of us should be wary of those who claim to speak on nature’s behalf (including environmentalists who do that). But we need not doubt the simple idea that a prerequisite of expression is existence. This in turn suggests that preserving the nonhuman world-in all its diverse embodiments-must be seen by eco-critics as a fundamental good. Eco-critics must be supporters, in some fashion, of environmental preservation. Postmodernists reject the idea of a universal good. They rightly acknowledge the difficulty of identifying a common value given the multiple contexts of our value-producing activity. In fact, if there is one thing they vehemently scorn, it is the idea that there can be a value that stands above the individual contexts of human experience. Such a value would present itself as a metanarrative and, as Jean-François Lyotard has explained, postmodernism is characterized fundamentally by its “incredulity toward meta-narratives.”  Nonetheless, I can’t see how postmodern critics can do otherwise than accept the value of preserving the nonhuman world. The nonhuman is the extreme “other”; it stands in contradistinction to humans as a species. In understanding the constructed quality of human experience and the dangers of reification, postmodernism inherently advances an ethic of respecting the “other.” At the very least, respect must involve ensuring that the “other” actually continues to exist. In our day and age, this requires us to take responsibility for protecting the actuality of the nonhuman. Instead, however, we are running roughshod over the earth’s diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems. Postmodern critics should find this particularly disturbing. If they don’t, they deny their own intellectual insights and compromise their fundamental moral commitment. (Wapner 2003, online)

Here we have an interesting defense of nature, however, this argument still bothers me the same way ‘greens’ bother me.  Preserving nature is all well and good, but often that preservation comes at the expense of material conditions that could improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  For example, I am not talking about tearing down an old-growth forest so we can produce more pink mini-skirts, but rather tearing it down so we can plant more soy, or cilantro or some other food product.

Being ‘green’ is often a privileged position that requires a certain flexibility only affluence can provide.  The criticism to cutting down the old-growth forest for food production then turns to current inefficient productions: we could easily feed everyone if less meat were eaten.  I have no dispute with that argument, however, poor people are often not in the position where they can meet the ‘green’ alternative.  The greens are good about trying to change those conditions but in their cautions and delays it is the poor and not the overconsumptive that bear the costs.

Wapner makes the same error when he talks about the ‘other.’  There is no single other, instead there are others.  Wapner, however, reduces them to the same and then treats them all with the same ethic.  Applauding his consistency aside, this is too easy.  The starving child in the favela deserves more respect than the still-unkown, and hence unexpressed, flora/fauna in the rain forest.  I can get on board with Wapner in a larger criticism about the way the world is structured, but this argument only further shackles the poor as we wait for a change in that structure to happen.

This is precisely what happens in our haste to shuck the grand narratives a la Lyotard.  While I am willing to reform and accommodate, it is important to keep in mind that there are grand struggles.  I am not persuaded that postmodernity’s toolkit necessarily results in relativism resembling apathy, but I am persuaded that the toolkit is easily misapplied into a consumptive apathy.  We must constantly be on guard for this deflation of concern for the other.  One tool the system uses for that deflation is to push us into a concern for an other that cannot speak, allowing us to instead neglect the other that is not only speaking but yelling at us.

Wapner, Paul.  (2003).  Leftist criticism ofDissent, Winter.

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Jeffrey Flier, the dean of the Harvard Medical School, agrees that one of the problems needing to be fixed is the employment based system (the easiest implementation of health care as a negative right).

there is our inefficient and inequitable system of tax-advantaged, employer-based health insurance. While the federal tax code promotes overspending by making the majority unaware of the true cost of their insurance and care, the code is grossly unfair to the self-employed, small businesses, workers who stick with a bad job because they need the coverage, and workers who lose their jobs after getting sick.

This employer-based system arose not by thoughtful design but as an unforeseen result of price controls during World War II and subsequent tax policy. How this developed and persisted despite its unfairness and maladaptive consequences is a powerful illustration of the law of unintended consequences and the fact that government can take six decades or more to fix its obvious mistakes.

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Good vs Perfect

I have been interested for years in the debate about how we should pursue a better world.  Do we settle for compromises?  Do we stick to our guns and demand more from others?  I constantly come across pithy little axioms that help me only to then come across one that concludes differently.  My favorite so far is “do not hold the good hostage to the perfect.”  Sadly though, it is usually accompanied by some nonesense such as, “our health care system is the best in the world.”  1. Debateable.  2. Tell that to someone who is un(der)insured.  3.  Even if it is, it can be better.

I’ve made it no secret that I think Obama has shirked from what he really wants, campaigned on, and from what we deserve.  But do I then support the reform that will come out of Congress?  Do I refuse to support it, a la the sans papier, as a minor tinker that merely placates true anger?

Case for the Perfect

What is even more ironic is that ‘moderates’ who practice what they like to call ‘pragmatism’ lend credibility to the genocidal enterprise, and in doing so they contribute to very ‘inevitability’ of genocide, which they then decry as the very reason for the need for pragmatism. Sometimes you will hear the bit about ‘losing the middle class’ by abandoning some supposed middle road. This is curious, since one would be lucky to have half the population turn out for an election in a place like America, where half the population is already alienated from the entire political system. This is not surprising when you consider that they are being offered choices in evil. The choice is between genocide and genocide, and the wide spread alienation is a symptom of the very ‘inevitability’ of systems of genocide which pragmatic moderates help to cement into place by lending credibility to the system by functioning as ‘moderate critics’ and thus normalizing genocidal systems.  (Lifton and Markusen 1990)

This argument is initially compelling to me, but it misunderstands apathy.  If apathy was created by moderation and by choices among only immoral poles then how was apathy originally caused?  Lifton and Markusen’s account is totalizing and incomplete.

The example some refer to is slavery, but that analogy breaks down.  A person can choose not to be a slaveholder and can try to change laws allowing slave holding, even if that change is merely a reform and not an abolition.  Abolition should be the goal, and that pressure should never let up, but if it is not achievable then some restrictions can be better than none.  Accepting a reform, a step in the right direction, does not necessarily have to detract from theultimate goal, especialy when it does improve material conditions for some.  It does seem a fine line to walk, and maybe it is too fine a line.  But that remains a question for the particular struggle.  Clearly, health insurance reform pales in comparison to the magnitude of slave trade.

Case for The Good

The best answer I have seen so far to the “moderation as genocide” argument is in the end of the Elbaum book.  It’s a lenghty passage but given its reliance on past experience and not just abstract speculation as well as the centrality of apathy and pragmatism it seems appropriate and necessary to include the whole argument:

But this entire framework (shared – though with different post-1917 icons – by pro-Soviet commnism and Trotskyism) is fatally flawed.  The conditions of economic , political and social life are so marked by constant change – and the history of popular and revolutionary movements is simply too complex – for there to be one pure tradition embodying all essential truths.  A great deal can be learned from previous left experience, and identification with the history of the revolutionary movement can be a great source of strength.  The contributions of Marx and Lenin still shed light on the workings of capitalism and the process of social change.  They stand out for their breadth of vision and insistence on linking theory, practical work, and organization-building in an internationalist prject.  But it is an unwarranted leap from there to belief in a single and true Marxist-Leninist doctrine with an unbroken revolutionary pedigree from 1848 to present.

This nevertheless was the mindset of the New Communist Movement, and it had profound and negative consequences.  Even when activists learned through bitter experience that a particular system of orthodoxy was fundamentally flawed, impulses to break with dogmatism and explore new theoretical terrain were overwhelmed by the push to find another orthodoxy.  From one angle the history of the movement boils down to a series of such shifts, with each juncture seeing a previously dominant group fall by the wayside and a new organization rise to proclaim that at last the true path had been found.  From the early 1970s to the 1980s this process was repeated again and again – each time with more fallout.  By the late 1980s too little energy or confidence was left for another cycle.

Additionally, this theory-as-orthodoxy mindest prevented the New Communist Movement from making any new and significant intellectual contribution to the left’s understanding of US society.  In cotnrast to nearly every other 1970s/early 1980s US left tendency, the New Communist Movement produced almost nothing in the way of original studies illuminating new features of US social and economic development or hidden chapters of US history.  A few thoughtful works were produced by “independent” Marxist-Leninists or individuals associated with some of the movement’s atypical groups (the Democratic Workers party, Sojourner Truth Organization, and Line of March).  But the publishing houses of the main New Communist organizations issued almost nothing that remains of value to serious left researchers and scholars.

The movement’s narrow conception of revolutionary theory also contributed mightily to its descent into the sect-buildng trap.  For a sect, allegiance to past doctrine takes priority over engaging with current reality.  Doing battle with heresy takes precedence over finding common ground with others.  Control over affiliated “mass organizations” is equated with leading popular movements.  Most of the largest groups avoided the worst manifestations of sectarianism for at least a few years.  But even the most broad-minded ultimately succumbed to the lure of such a mechanical and miniaturized version of Leninism.

Indeed, at the very moments when the most promising organizations seemed on the vege of breaking out of their sect mentality, they typically became dizzy with their small-scale success and lost sight of the tremndous distance between their intial accomplishments and what it would take to become a historically significant force.  Instead of accepting and grappling with all the complexities that accompany building deep ties to the working class, they retreated to the safe ground of dontrinal purity and of being a big fish in a small pond. (2002, 323-5)

It’s a mouthful but easily the best answer yet to the orthodox positions.  I do not advocate the ad hominem attack of the last sentence but it is a criticism that finds significant traction in popular culture (I am thinking here of Governor Pawlenty, Representative Wilson and conservative pundits who consistently criticize health care reform advocates as being to lazy to understand complexities.)

In any case, Elbaum provides a better accounting of public apathy as well provides historical study of the effects of such orthodoxy.  Those refusing to compromise are never able to achieve gains in material conditions by holding firm to the perfect.  Only those willing to make reforms can effectively improve conditions.  However, if one is forced to stand outside the system then the never-give-in call for change can make the reformers seem more moderate.

As a person who can only hope to influence policymakers I should tell my representatives to push for a single payer knowing and hoping that this makes them more willing to establish  massive bargaining power with insurance companies.  I do not want to accept such a minimal approach to politics because it denies creativity and micro-political maneuvering.  And again, however, that is a risk that need not be necessary.  It’s only a possibility and one that can be countered as long as radicals remain vigilant.


Elbaum, Max.  (2002).  Revolution in the air. London: Verso Books.

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