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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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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.

The other night I saw Moon (Duncan Jones) and was thoroughly impressed.  Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) is one of the only actors in this movie and he can pull it off unlike Will Smith’s doomed attempt in I am Legend.  Moon was a nice break, a nice return to actual sci-fi.  No big explosions.  The threat in the movie was the environment and yet it was the extraction of resources from said environment that drove the story along.  The beauty of the movie was that it represented a return to a lost genre and it remained relevant enough to us.  The story is that humans have created mining outfits on the moon to extract Helium-3, which is then sent to Earth as an energy supply.  People can relate because after last summer we all appreciate the importance of energy in our lives and we have all at some time experienced a job that was really awful.  Moon is about such a job and how the worker/s deal with it.  The genius, though, is that the story is a parable for labor and its relationship with corporations.

Roger Ebert raises some other interesting (non-political) questions about the film.  While watching the film we are obviously supposed to think of 2001.  I do not, however, think this is mere allusion or homage.  I think the universe of Moon is the same universe of 2001 with the stories exsting along side each other.  I really have no reason to think this as all my proof are satisfied by the allusion theory.  A second viewing is in order for this test.  I suspect, however, that Ebert pays no heed to the labor side of the movie because the movie is pure cynicism.  There is not an advocated politics or solution to the problem.  It would have been easy to make one, even a flippant comment at some moment would satisfy it.  Instead though the movie is purely educational about the lack of trust one can put in corporations, or at least technologically advanced energy ones.  Frankly, I am surprised I cannot find this criticism in the press.  Maybe Rorty is correct, that we have become the cynical society uncaring about political solutions and instead merely fixated on defining the problem.

Such people find pride in American citizenship impossible, and vigorous participation in electoral politics pointless.  They associate American aptriotism with an endorsement of atrocities: the importation of African slaves, the slaughter of Native Americans, the rape of ancient forests, and the Vietnam War….They begin to think of themselves as a saving remnant – as the happy few who have the insight to see through the nationalist rhetoric to the ghastly reality of contemporary America.  But this insight does not move them to formulate a legilative program, to join a political movement, or to share a national hope….In the early decades of this century, when an intellectual stepped back from his or her country’s history and looked at it through skeptical eyes, the chances were that he or she was about to propose a new political initiative. (7-9)

Despite his conservatism I have to hand it to Rorty’s clarity and mastery of language.  His romanticism for the past,however…  This quotation smacks of the old man playing the “Back in My Day” fiddle: change is bad because it is change.  Rorty would probably respond that he identifies the normative basis for this conservation: the dissolution of a national hope.  However, we must keep in mind that losing a national hope is not the same as losing hope.  Cynicism may not directly attach itself to a hope, but it is the other side of the coin.  The basis for such a criticism also contains a sense of utopia for which we should strive.  I have no problem placing my hopes in a dream that crosses national borders.

I also contend that Rorty is looking at an incomplete transcript.  His quotation is part of a larger discussion about Henry Adams and other cynical authors.  Because Adams, and likewise Moon, did not explicitly state a politics does not mean there is not one.  Because the reader/viewer is not explicitly told what the solution is does not mean she is unable to figure one out.  Or unable to incorporate the piece’s criticism into her already formed ideal world.  Arguably, the criticism works best by allowing others to identify a problem they may have never before encountered and alter their already formed ideal solution.  Offering a political solution only increases the opportunities for dismissal of the problem.

Rorty wants to call the cynics naive?  I can return the favor.  Here is Dwight Conquergood:

Oppressed people are doubly displaced and degraded: first, by the political and economic structures of violence and exclusion, then by armchair academics-cum-liberators … [S]laves, serfs, peasants, and untouchables are not fools, although at times they may act the part in the presence of power when it is in their own best interests to do so…. Moreover, resistance is not limited to insurrections and uprisings.  Foot-dragging, pilfering, grumbling, conning, and gossiping about one’s overlords are the strategic infrapolitics of the powerless that prepare for and underpin rebellion when it does break out. (89-90)

The answer will be that Rorty and Conquergood are talking about two different groups of people as they both try and target the same group: the Heidegger reading bohemian.  Despite their conservative agreement, Rorty makes the same error Conquergood describes: having too myopic a view of politics.   Even if Rorty’s world is preferable (I would also prefer a reemergence of grand political battles) I will return to an above observation: there are not criticisms of Moon for being apolitical.  Rorty may lament the loss of a less cynical world, but this is where we are and those harpings will not elevate politics over infrapolitics.

Conquergood, Dwight.  (1992).  Ethnogrophy, rhetoric and performance.  Quarterly Journal of Speech, 78, 80-97.

Rorty, Richard.  (1998).  Achieving our country: Leftist thought in twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP.

The Discomfort Zone
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I am constantly awed by the strange places I will come across an engagement or a novel argument.  When I lived in Vegas back in 1996-97 I once had Mormon missionaries knock on my door.  I invited them in for a chat.  They were nice enough and I gave them a good run for their money.  Enough so, that they then asked if they could return the next night with an elder(?).  Of course.  So I made dinner for the next night, for the three of them, myself, the girlfriend and the GF’s father and stepmother (the two of them went to the same church(?) as the missionaries and had heard about this meeting.)  Dinner ended and the GF’s stepmother excused herself and my GF (I guess good LDS practice is to let the men do the serious intellectual lifting.)  And it began.

“Do you believe in God?”  “No.”  And they were done.  They had not done any training about how to handle an atheist, after all, who in Vegas admits to not believing?  They were skilled to the initial concession and then working away at their prey’s underthought belief system.  It was a short conversation with the usual gambits: better-safe-than-sorry, isn’t-it-depressing-to-just-die, and the oh so persuasive relativism-is-anarchaic.  I didn’t budge, having easily worked through these problems well in advance of the meeting.  We all left on good terms and they even learned that non-believers can be caring and compassionate and even live as and appear to good believers.

There are times in my prostelizations that I feel like those missionaries.  Once someone concedes that she has an obligation to help others out then I can work through their underthought politics to get them to my politics.  Libertarians are to me what the careful atheist is to a Mormon.  Libertarians do not rush into the initial concession most do and they put up a fight about the very premise of an obligation to an-other.  I think I can win this debate based on a preferred worldly outcome, but as an obligation?  That’s a more difficult engagement, precisely because of my atheism.

In any case it is odd to come across an anti-libertarian argument in a fiction writer’s essay about his mother’s death (or is it really about Katrina and New Orleans?)  Jonathan Franzen, of The Corections fame, makes the following argument in The Discomfort Zone:  “When private donations replaced federal spending, you had no idea who was freeloading and who was pulling twice their weight.” (8)  The rant is that libertarians contend private parties replace governmental charities in the face of a vacuum, but there is no clearinghouse for who is charitable and who is not.  An interesting argument, but not a persuasive one.

First, it still begs the question of obligation.  Maybe it is true that people do not replace the governmental charities, but the Libertarian says the argument still assumes one is obliged to be charitable. Second, the accountability question is obviated by the Libertarian argument that people become more charitable when they are not required to be so.  Franzen’s argument only gains traction once the Libertarian claim has been studied empirically and found to be inaccurate at which point the Libertarian has already lost the fight.  The truly moot argument is Franzen’s.

Yes it was a novel argument, but that’s possibly because it is a non-winning argument. Nonetheless, it was an unexpected turn and moves me closer to embracing Franzen as a writer and thinker (I did enjoy The Corrections but after a couple of years I am unable to think of a thing about the book except that it involves parents aging and dementia.)

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Sayyid Qutb

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Theodore Dalrymple has another stunningly simple piece in City Journal this month.  His argument is simple and consequently does not stand up to scrutiny.  First he moves through a comparison between Communism and Islamism, conflating the two to as Lenin and Qutb, respectively.  They are similar because 1. they call for the abolition of the state, 2. they do not shy away from violence and finally they believe in vanguardism and not mass movements.  To say that theses differences make them the same, except the obvious different telos, is laughable (even if allowing the conflation of the two writers as emblematic of the two ideologies.)

He then spends some time to mark the ideological approaches offered as laughable for two reasons.  First, the preachers of the idological movements are privileged.

Avoiding material failure gives quite sufficient meaning to their [the struggling] lives.  By contrast, ideologists have few fears about finding their daily bread.  Their difficulty with life is less concrete.

Dalrymple then marks this academic-cum-liberator lifestyle as “the treason of the clerk”, a phrase coined in 1927 by Julien Benda.  If that argument has been floating around so long and still has not gained traction then maybe Dalrymple should investigate that instead.  His argument for dismissal of ideologists as privileged is actually the very argument advanced by Lenin, and maybe Qutb, for liberation.  By a vanguard.  Maybe Dalrymple is writing to an audience that does not have the background to dismiss this argument as easily turned and handled by the ideologists.

Dalrymple’s second argument is that ideology stands as a form of fetishistic disavowal, it serves as a token allowing the ideologists to avoid confrontation with what they are realyl upset about.  One can almost hear Dalrymple calling Qutb a homosexual in this passage.  Maybe there are larger questions at stake, more personal questions for individual activists, but that does nto change the veracity of their criticisms.  These are ad hominems.  Maybe if Dalrymple could show how the personal baggage affects the credibility of the theory, then there would be an argument.  Never mind the fetish is a Marxist form of interrogation to criticize the world as we know it.

Why then does Dalrymple go through these moves?  Surely he is not writing to dismiss Marxism and Islamism, as though the reader of City Journal needs such prodding.  Dalrymple then turns to environmentalism, claiming that it to is an ideology and ergo ought to be held under the same scrunities.  Except he, at no point, tries to show environmentalism as callign for 1. state dissolution or 2. violence or 3. vanguardism.  Dalrymple cannot even identify a voice that leads this new ideology.

The problem is that environmentalism is not an ideology, it is a platform.  It is a goal and a way of evaluating policies; it is not a cohesive story told to flatten out contradictions.  It rests upon a belief in purity, a belief shared by Islamism and modern day political conservatism.

This understanding is an easy one to make if someone believes, as Dalrymple does, that she is outside of ideology: that ideology is the space of an other, a marginal other.  Dalrymple’s other is a traumatized (impure) body, so all of us normal folk (pure) who enjoy buying things and selling our labor are immune to the vagaries of ideology.  Just the obverse, it is when ideology is most invisible that it works its magic on us the most.

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War in the Middle East
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Hadar has an article to-day, that is not at all surprising for him.  He says Obama needs to change the tactic of the Bush administration in its approach to quelching anti-Americanism in the Middle East by prioritizing the Israel-Palestinian question.  I have been reading Hadar for over a decade now and he consistently strikes me as having the most sophisticated analysis of the Middle East, I would definitely recommend checking out his writings.

The crux of his argument is simple: the status quo has parties invested in maintaining the status quo.  The best the US can do is to alter the equation, namely US assistance.  The problem is obviously not the truth of his claim but the political realities, what politician can afford to publicly divorce the US from Israel?  And yet that is exactly what is needed.

Maria Luise Kaschnitz has a short story called “Going to Jerusalem” which tracks a similar problem.  A town has been afflicted with a strange illness.  Quaranteened they all wait for the first death so an autopsy can be performed to hopefully determine the nature of the affliction.  One day a stranger arrives and through his storytelling he takes the affliction away temporarily.  Eventually he dies, allowing the affliction to be cured.  The political suicide is the courage needed to salve the situation.  Fortuntely the current economic crisis may provide the cover Obama needs to gut US assistance to Israel.  Maybe then Israel would be more willing to approach the Palestinian question honestly, knowing that they stand as the sole guarantor of their security.

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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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