In competitive policy debate we have an argument called E-Prime, that we ought not use “to be” and its conjugations because the verb implies a solid static meaning when such rigidity is rarely accurate.  The famous example is, “The runner is a woman,” when discussing some of the former Olympic champions that were revealed to be cheating and/or hermaphroditic.

This argument is not particularly persuasive and is used mainly when there is not a sophisticated negative strategy available.  However, as I age I am come more and more to believe in a variant of the argument.  I tend to dismiss declarative statements as statements of fact and instead see them more as wish-fulfillment.  This is easily seen when people talk among themselves.  I cannot help but cringe a little when someone says, “I have a high threshold for pain” or the classic “Homey don’t play that.”  Homey does play it and wishes he didn’t, hence his enthusiasm for the distancing move.

So when I encounter Che’s famous statement about the revolutionary being “guided by great feelings of love” I have to snort-laugh a little.  Che wants the revolutionary to be guided by love.  Revolutionaries want to be guided by love.  In my experience though, they are not.  Meeting many of the activists that partook in the Battle for St. Paul I believed that many of them were rather disaffected artsy kids that were angry for whatever reason.  This is not to say that those kids are impartial to the sufferings they rallied in support of, but to attribute that concern as the guiding principle is wish fulfillment.  Che’s declaration also serves the classic us/them trope of rhetoric.  If ‘we’ are the ones guided by love then ‘they’ are by definition not guided by love.  Regardless of accuracy this move is moralizing and hence more affective.

Elbaum (89) gives another example of this happening.  When discussing why 1960s radicals were drawn to the communist regimes despite the human rights abuses Elbaum says the evidence of abuses were not considered credible because the sources dismissing the abuses were also the strongest critics of US imperialism.  Much scholarly research is still concerned with the power/failures of persuasion (and evidence) and why people continue to believe something in the face of clear evidence (I contend this is the question central to Marx’ opus).  To me the answer seems obvious: persuasion only works on the choir, affect is what matters most.  The continued neglect of this is an act of wish fulfillment: scholars wish it weren’t so, they wish people could be persuaded.

The failure of debate is probably best treated by popular pundits than by academics.  Arianna Huffington’s most recent book (Right is Wrong) is about this very breakdown in society.  The August recess and the town halls aptly demonstrate this lack as people were vocal about Obama being the next Hitler.  Barney Frank dismissed one of his constituents aptly and appropriately when he said arguing with her would be like debating a kitchen table.  Sadly Frank was only partly correct: debating with anyone and not just her.  I suspect most of us in this community are either atheists or not moved by religious appeals, but there is a certain genius to the “What Would Jesus Do?” slogan.  If Obama had couched reform as the right thing to do instead of being about containing costs (a proposition open for debate, obfuscation and fear tactics) then we would be seeing a very different public dialogue right now.  Obama has a good story.  He defeated Hillary and McCain on the back of that story.  But that story has since disappeared and now he is President Wonk.  Even The Shrub understood this.

With this approach to persuasion one then has to ask, one being fond of theory and nuance, “what then of theory and nuance?”  After all, why do distinctions matter if the crowd merely follows the cool kid?  This question also comes into the easy criticism of my theory: what constitutes “cool” and how does it exist beyond the grid of intelligibility?  Clearly, coolness is not exogenous and independent of rhetoric.  Being able to talk about theory, after all, is cool to come people.  I will own this blindspot as this balancing act I am not yet able to account for.  Ultimately though, my question is about how to organize and recruit.

Theory and those discussions are important, but only after someone has been recruited into the choir.  Until then we, as organizers, ought to be concerned with being model  people (not necessarily the same thing as role models).  We need to be people our targets want to be, want to be around, and accepted by.  Once that level of affection is achieved then the theory is important.  So, trying to explain why capitalism is predatory and it is not just a problem of predatory lenders is important but only affection is achieved.  This model leaves many ambiguities and does not help close many of the difficulties of the organizers, after all, when has affection been achieved?  Is this person more receptive and hence more affected by an ability to cite authors?  In short, what motivates this person? The traditional persuasion model is still applicable, but how applicable?  My answer is to listen, not to what she says she wants but how she describes others.  The magic is in the audience’s observations not the audience’s pronouncements.

Elbaum, Max.  (2002).  Revolution in the air: Sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso Books.

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the 44th President of the United States...Bara...

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I posted earlier in the week about my pessimism, melancholy anyone?, surrounding the election of Obama.  Simon Critchley has an excellent piece over at Adbusters which draws on similar arguments i tried to make but then foes further.  Critchley is a better thinker and writer than I am so I strongly suggesting more time there than here.

Besides the better explanation he actually offers an ethic to conitue on, whereas at the time of writing I was only able to offer a negative criticism and not a way out of the impasse.  Cricthley draws on Badiou to try and make politics distant.  Instead of relishing in the political victory we should strive for the same progressive victories in every facet of our lives but without the penetration of the state.

I will leave you with a section from the Critchley piece which best sums up my melancholy, better than I could defend it to be good-liberal friends:

The second possibility is the reverse, namely that the popular force that has been mobilized around Obama’s presidential campaign simply exhausts itself in its governmental victory. On this view, once Obama has been elected, citizens can switch off politically and sit back and watch how well his administration does. Politics becomes reduced to a spectacle of media and governmental representation. Furthermore, this possibility is undoubtedly the one favoured by the Obama campaign itself, which explains the somber, slightly disappointed tone to Obama’s speech on the night of his victory: ‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term’. On this view, the rhetoric of change (‘Together we can change the country and change the world’) was simply what it took to get people mobilized. Once the victory is secure, there must be no further mobilizations at the popular level. All must henceforth be mediated through the apparatus of government. Politics as the experience of a people suddenly present to itself and aware of its awesome power has to die at the precise moment when a representative government is elected.

This is perhaps the tragedy concealed in the events of the late evening of November 4th: as I walked to the subway at about 10 p.m. a vast United States flag was being unfurled in Union Square; there were spontaneous parties in the streets of my part of Brooklyn, and many others can testify to much more exotic, collective experiences. This was a moment when people, no longer cowed by the power of the state and held in check by the police, suddenly become aware of their power and the power of their activity, which is nothing less than the activity of liberty. At such a moment, no force can stop them and a demonstration or street party erupts into being. This is collective joy. There is the potential for a political moment here, but it is a potential whose actualization is denied by the very representative process which is being celebrated. At the moment when people become aware of their power through the activity of the vote, they are simultaneously rendered powerless by the representative process. Liberty slips from the hands of those who have suddenly become aware of its power. In the face of such human fireworks, it is not surprising that Obama cancelled the firework display planned to accompany his victory speech. The message is clear: ‘The victory is yours. But when you’ve finished celebrating, dancing and crying, return to your homes and be quiet. Thanks to you, the business of government is ours and we will take it from here. We’ll let you know how it goes. P.S. Please don’t take popular sovereignty too literally’.

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To-day’s topic seems obvious: the loss of my phone.  Kind of.  I did lose it at the DFL party the other night in downtown St. Paul.  Appropriate since I also lost whatever sense of connection I had to Democrats.  For as long as I can remember I qualified myself as a voting Democrat, even though there were the libertarian-voting-Democrat years.  While I still am a voting Democrat, I have swung to the opposite direction: radical-voting-Democrat.

Neither will bring any real change

Neither will bring any real change

Until a few days ago I was not going to vote at all until a conversation with Ursa.  While Obama is too conservative for my tastes (employing the partial birth vocabulary, uncontested respect for property, lack of universal health care, etc…) I was persuaded that this election really matters.  So, despite my desire for a more liberal candidate – echoes of my grandmother: “How do you know he is not a socialist?” echoes of my reply: “Because I am a socialist and he is not me.” – he is a step in the right direction.  I hate to sound like the clichéd American choosing the lesser of two evils but it really was a choice between two evils.

Perusing the newspapers to-day there are all sorts of references to Obama’s election as a blow to racial barriers.  This is crap.  For a couple of reasons.

First, a proof provided by my grandmother.  She was torn about how to vote because she believes that neither a black person nor a woman have any business being in the White House.  Let us assume she votes for the black man instead of the woman, is this really a blow to racism?  Is it okay to proclaim racism dead when it may be the product of competing bigotries?

Second, was Obama black?  The question really is: was he black enough?  This question has been raised repeatedly and summarily dismissed, but is it so easy to dismiss?  Has Obama faced many of the plights of the typical black man in the US?  Has he been the product of stereotypes afflicting many black men?  Or maybe he is instead the exception that proves the rule. I will not list out the differences between Obama and most black men (internationalized upbringing, difference in parental backgrounds, etc…) because they are by now rote.  A black man is now President-elect, but I fail to see how that will change day to day interactions on the street as people are led by their cognitive habits.

My real beef, however, with the claim of the tumbling racial boundaries is that it is the wrong fight.  I am not arguing that racism is neither an important fight nor a good thing.  Race is incomplete as a struggle to make our society more equal and happy.  What about the intersections of struggles?  Does a black woman benefit from the same reliefs afforded a black man?  What about class?  Does Obama not just prove that the real barrier is not race but rather wealth?  Can a poor man, regardless of skin color, ever be elected President?  Of course not.  Even though he may be black, Obama is well educated, married to a well educated woman and is wealthy.  It is understandable that a person may be held down and the attribution may be his skin color, because one cannot see wealth whereas skin color is easily identified.

And this gets us to the heart of the issue: there are too many people to-day that see themselves as set apart from the problem, as though eating a few organic tomatoes can solve working conditions for farm laborers.  As though voting for a black man makes all right with the world.  Admittedly, they are better than many by accepting some change in their lives as a mechanism of progress instead of waiting for the (black) man to save us all from ourselves.  But, liberals are too easily bought off by this acceptance – “I’ve done my part.”  Here is a smarter person than I with a similar thought, mine is the echo:

While Lossky [a Russian exiled after the revolution] was without a doubt a sincere and benevolent person, really caring for the poor and trying to civilise Russian life, such an attitude betrays a breathtaking insensitivity to the systematic violence that had to go on in order for such a comfortable life to be possible.  We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploration, including the threat of violence. (Zizek 2008, 9)

This is also seen in the “I voted” stickers.  Great, you voted.  I am proud of you.  You voiced dissent.  And yet one cannot help but witness the stigmatization of some that are not wearing their stickers.  “It’s your civic duty.  You must vote!”  “I voted because I wanted to tell the government that I am not satisfied.”  As though voting is THE way to speak to power.  Even if power is listening, do they interpret your vote the way you want it to be interpreted?  Of course not.  Voting does, however, grease the system and make it appear as though it is functioning smoothly.  The problem is that the system is so greased that a dissenting abstention is also interpreted incorrectly: as apathy.  And apathy is (incorrectly) interpreted as outside the realm of political acts.

Obama Superman

Obama Superman

On election night I was in a sea of people chanting “Oh” “Bama!” “Oh” “Bama!” and I was disgusted.  The problem is the cult of personality.  It is easy to see him as salvation when we have given up on the grand struggles.  Bring back the parties.  Bring back the grand commitments.  Bring back normative assessments.  If there were larger struggles than the choice of 34% to a 38.5% tax rate then we might actually find what it means to be engaged.  The last general election with such a large turnout as last night’s was in 1910.  Is it any surprise that that election happened immediately before the Red Scare.  Political engagement is seen as disruptive and anti-American, whereas voting is supposedly the way True Americans voice their preferences.

Zizek, Slavoj.  (2008).  Violence.  NY: PIccador Books.

Senator Kerry made some interesting observations on Sunday’s “This Week”.  He claims to support Obama because Obama “can say things to South Africa that a white president cannot.”  I do not buy this argument.  Maybe Obama would be more persuasive, but is that added credibility necessary?  The US is, after all, the global leader and the president would have that backing, regardless of what the president looks like.  It seems this argument also cuts against Obama because there may be things he cannot persuasively say to another nation that a white President can say.  These interpretative dilemmas are a good reason to stay out of the race-baiting calculations for whom to vote.

Kerry also claims that no Democratic nominee will ever again be victim to Swift-Boating. This immunity is because Democrats now know how to deal with this tactic, how to account for what was his blunder: “we thought we had answered the lies enough.”  This sounds to me that Democrats have not learned the lesson.  Clinton knew the lesson, and Rove knew the lesson.  The lesson is not to answer adequately but instead to not address.  Responding to an accusation grants the accusation some legitimacy, traction and free media coverage.  Only respond to accusations that already have traction.