Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, October 16, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

Musical people are so absurdly unreasonable. They always want one to be perfectly dumb when one is longing to be absolutely deaf.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

No Aristocrats Need Apply

There are three hundred million citizens in the United States of America. And while some people really are incomparably more qualified than others to assume positions of effective leadership, you can still be sure that for every single one of the people who do manage to find their way through the dreadful sausage machine of a career in politics to eventual high public office there are countless thousands of citizens equally or more qualified who do not. While it is, of course, always absolutely commendable to take up a life of public service no-one, surely, is entitled to a position of leadership in a democracy like we want here in the United States.

Anybody who fails to be content with the service itself, whether or not it eventuates in a position of conspicuous leadership, seems to me to have demonstrated themselves to be unqualified for such leadership, should it be their lot to take up its burden of superlative service.

That is one among many reasons I find the dynastic pretensions of families like the awful criminal Bush clan or the crusty Adams clan before them -- or, yes, the Kennedys, and most certainly the Clintons, too -- to be terribly inappropriate to the American ideal of good democratic governance.

It's not that I don't think a Kennedy or a Clinton or, hell, maybe even some now-fetal Bush might one day make a competent President in the abstract. It's just that it seems to me unseemly, to say the least, to imagine that among the thronging millions of living Americans the members of any one family could pretend that anything other than straightforward privilege could be the factor that would situate more than one of them to the prominence of Executive power in a working democracy. And I simply find it hard to fathom how such obliviousness would easily square with the sensitivity fit for a suitably modest exercise of the vestigial sovereignty that inheres in the American Executive.

The same goes for anybody who says what John Kerry is reported to have said in this piece earlier today: "Americans give people a second chance. And if you learn something and prove you've learned something, maybe even more so. Now, I don't know what I'm going to do yet. We'll make that decision down the road."

I supported John Kerry before many of my peers did last election cycle. I supported him with my words -- of which I have many in abundance -- with my money -- of which I had scarcely any on hand -- and with my vote -- of which I had just the one I was proud and hopeful to cast for him. I think he was a fine candidate, more a man of the left than I expected the debased Party process to produce, and I think he was disgustingly maligned in the 2004 campaign to the eternal shame of the Republican Party. Not that they don't have plenty more, and much worse, to atone for these days.

But, be that as it may, I will not gladly support John Kerry again, nor will I be pleased to find him making another bid for the pinnacle. I think such a bid would be vainglorious and frivolous (as would be Hillary Clinton's, too, frankly) in an historical moment that demands serious commitments and painful choices no careerist will comfortably undertake.

Kerry has his "second chance" to serve his country as a statesman already. The petty calculus another Presidential run will inspire in Kerry is the last thing we have time for from him in a moment like this. I hope he will have the decency and sense to get behind Feingold or Edwards when the time comes to make Presidential noises. But for now he needs to concentrate on the needs of our debauched and devastated democracy, especially the moment his Party manages in November to skew the balance of power enough to demand real accountability from the Killer Clowns running this place for now to the enduring shame and danger of us all.

American democracy needs no self-appointed celebrities or self-satisfied aristocrats in this historical moment, but commited public servants who grasp and respect the ferocious but nonetheless quite fragile forces of People Powered Democracy that have burst on the scene in an era of global digital networked information, communication, and collaboration technologies.

Catching the Drift: More Evidence of the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

[via Majority Action] Find your frame, give it a face, lodge it in a compelling narrative, insert it into the media stream. People Powered Politics for the Emerging Technorpgressive Mainstream...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

Imagination is a quality given a man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humour was provided to console him for what he is.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Our PreMo President

I adore the blog Hullabaloo and read it nearly every day, especially the posts by its primary contributor “Digby.” But I want to comment briefly here on one of those rare posts of his in which he makes a point that drives me nuts every time I hear it made. Of our current President, Digby writes:
"His words indicate that he sees ‘history’ as the ultimate get out of jail free card. (‘I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma.’) Perhaps he truly does believe that he's God's instrument who has no real will of his own and therefore no culpability -- or maybe he's just a nihilist at heart. Whatever his reasons, he seems to have adopted a shallow PoMo-style philosophy that everything is debatable down through time so it doesn't matter what he does.

It is the attribution to Bush of a “PoMo-style philosophy” (a claim reinforced by Digby’s title for the piece: “The PoMo President”) that really annoys me to no end here.

Bush is a gangster, a liar, a dumb smug Aristocrat. His politics are the incredibly familiar politics of self-appointed elites fighting the ongoing emergence and expression of democracy. And, honestly, lying and stealing are just not even remotely what the intellectuals who tend to get corralled together under the heading of “postmodernism” by know-nothings who have usually never read anything by any of the thinkers they are deriding actually have in mind in their diverse writings.

Bush is, if anything, decidedly PreMo, not PoMo.

I simply cannot stress strongly enough that the term “postmodern” is precisely the same kind of term “politically correct” is: Namely, it is a smoke-screen behind which difficult ideas and difficult problems vanish the better to be replaced with clownish caricatures in which unappealing cartoons mouth self-referential incoherencies.

You know, almost nobody calls themselves “politically correct” or “postmodernist.” Almost nobody who takes the relevant ideas seriously would be so foolish as to claim to have accomplished a genuinely postmodern stance or attained a genuinely politically correct sensibility. If anything these are terms that function permanently to undermine certainty in our moral and pragmatic pieties, just so as to keep us open to criticism, open to unexpected voices of protest, open to invigorating change. These are good things, important things, things not to be derided or taken lightly by people of the left.

In fact, it is this very democratizing inculcation of openness that is usually the real target of those who insist most passionately that they discern in “postmodernism” some kind of terrifying “anything goes” relativism or in “political correctness” an attitude of smug superiority.

In almost every case I’ve personally encountered, criticisms of “postmodernism” or “political correctness” have been lodged by know-nothings who haven’t read or otherwise encountered much of the work they imagine they are critiquing so decisively. Too often the critique of “postmodern” relativism is a surrogate justification for unwarranted certainty in one’s own pet platitudes in a demanding era of rapid technoscientific transformation, just as too often the critique of “political correctness” is a surrogate justification for one’s cherished prejudices in a demanding era of pluralist stakeholder politics.

There is a lot of the usual hoo-ing and hah-ing about silly effete elitist academic types that gets unattractively indulged in the moment this sort of argument comes up, whether from the right (from which it makes a basic kind of sense) or, more and more lately, from the left (from which I think it makes no kind of sense at all).

One commentor to Digby’s post suggests, “As soon as I joined the postmodernist debate in graduate school, it was obvious to me that the real winners in the ‘there is no truth’ philosophy would be the right wing.” I can only wish that this person actually read a bit more carefully the texts they were assigned in grad school. It should be quite clear from Digby’s own formulation quoted above that Bush’s problem is not so much his jettisoning of truth as his fundamentalist certainty in the pieties he takes as truth.

Digby points out that it is a conservative “article of faith” –- no pun intended, I assume -– “that liberals ha[ve] no values and [believe] in nothing -- an image that sticks to us like flypaper, even today. Yet nobody has practiced relativism more successfully than the modern Republican party. The Republican President of the United States believes that truth is fungible and history is debated like a highway bill on the floor of the senate -- so it doesn't really matter what he does.” It is hard to know how we are to take this formulation.

It is true that the intellectual views that get tarred with the “postmodern” moniker tend to emphasize that warranted scientific beliefs are defeasible and that our criteria for warranted assertibility give us good beliefs in which we can put confidence but never final ones on which we can confer certainty, and also that warranted moral beliefs differ according to the moral communities which give rise to them and that the political reconciliation of these diverse beliefs must be partial, contingent, and ongoing.

While it is true that it is hard to justify fundamentalist faith or moral insensitivity once one has come to terms with these difficult contemporary worldly knowledges, it is simply wrong to imply that a person who understands the world in these terms has lost their ability to affirm the descriptions of consensus science or advocate reasonable political, moral, ethical, or esthetic positions. Why would a person who affirms a deliberative model of truth-formation and truth-ascription -- as opposed presumably to a model in which truth is a matter of unreflectively accepting one's intuitions or the assertions of priestly authorities -- go from there to the curious "implication" that, somehow, therefore, "it doesn't really matter what [one] does"?

Not to put too fine a point on it, I have come to believe that those who think or claim to think otherwise are either clinging to irrational prejudices or are just too lazy to think about challenging ideas.

Contemporary global technodevelopmental social struggle among contending plural stakeholders confronting pandemic, climate change, weapons proliferation, and global poverty is a struggle that needs the flexibility, responsiveness, and responsibility of democracy. I am inclined to agree with Bruno Latour that rather than claim to be modern or postmodern or post-postmodern or what have you it is best to admit that humanity has never quite managed the feat of “being modern” in the first place. All this is, for me, rather akin to Gandhi’s response to the question of what he thought of western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” But none of this reasonable irony and skepticism should give comfort to the cocksure reductionists who rail against the “fashionable nonsense” that presumably prevails in humanities Departments or among mean snot-nosed liberal intellectuals (you know, like me).

Progressive people never have anything to gain from an attitude of anti-intellectualism and any anti-intellectualist politics will ultimately benefit anti-democratic forces, whether it arises first from the right or from the left.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

MundiMuster! Vote YES on Oakland’s Prop O, Implement Instant Runoff Voting!

Here’s a special post for any Amor Mundi readers here in my town, Oakland, California. I want to call everybody’s attention to Measure O on this November’s ballot and to encourage you all to vote “yes” on O.

Measure O would implement the system of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV, for short) here in Oakland. IRV is a system in which one votes for one’s favorite candidate, in the usual way, but it also provides voters with an opportunity to indicate who their second and third favorite choices would be as well. Elections proceed exactly as they normally would (well, given the debased state of elections these days that isn’t really a recommendation, but you know what I mean): Everybody’s first choice is tabulated and if any candidate receives a majority of these first votes, then they win the election. The difference with IRV occurs only when no candidate wins a majority. In the current system, such a situation introduces a second round of the election process, with new campaigning, new ads, new ballots, another day of voting and so on. But with IRV, this “runoff” happens automatically and immediately, using the information voters have already provided. The candidate in “last place” from the first round of voting is eliminated and the ballots are recounted. Those voters whose “first choice” candidate remains on the ballots will be counted again as voting for that viable candidate, but those whose first choice has been eliminated will now be recounted according to their second choice, and so on, until a clear majority winner emerges.

Although Oakland will incur an initial cost of $400,000 to implement the IRV system, costly and commonplace runoff elections will be a thing of the past, and this initial monetary cost will pay for itself in a couple of election cycles. The benefits for democracy itself, however, will pay dividends from the moment it arrives on the scene.

IRV is a powerfully re-enfranchising and democratizing reform: This is so because,

First: People can vote for their real favorite candidates, according to conscience rather than partisan calculations about “electability.” That is because a vote for an unconventional candidate will not be a “spoiler” vote, even if your favorite candidate is too radical to remain viable for election but popular enough, nevertheless, to lose a more mainstream but still desirable candidate an immediate majority. In that case, one’s personal best candidate drops from contention and one’s second favorite but still preferred candidate receives your vote in the instant runoff. This system will therefore inject new and diverse voices and ideas into the election process, perhaps encourage a flourishing of smaller parties, and certainly appeal to a wider diversity of citizens and thereby reinvigorate pariticipation in our elections.

Second, since candidates will always be campaigning not only to receive votes as citizen’s first choice, but also the second choice of voters who prefer different candidates, IRV produces an inducement to a more generous and collegial campaign process. Winning candidates will tend to be the ones who garner substantial initial votes -- as is true already today -- but also those who manage not to alienate voters who would chose other candidates first. In such an environment, “negative” campaigning will no longer have quite the short-term “advantage” it has in the current system. And there is little question that the diminishment of negative campaigning will help citizens feel better about their elected representatives, better about the value of going into public service themselves, and better about their representative democracy in general, whatever their particular partisan affiliations, all by eliminating the cynicism and distaste that arises from the ugly, regularly reiterated ritual of mudslinging, oversimplification, and deliberate division that characterizes contemporary campaigning.

Third, here in Oakland November elections have considerably higher turnouts, especially among people of color, for whom November turnouts are typically twice as high (according to information from “IRV for Oakland”). Under the system of IRV, then, our representatives will be elected by more of the actual citizens they will be representing. That is, by definition, a more democratic and hence better outcome than the present system.

IRV is a system which already elected the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2004, effectively and cost-effectively. It is a system that has been used in Australia for over 80 years! While no system is perfect, it could not be clearer that American elections are broken and need reform. Here is an opportunity to make things palpably better here in Oakland. Vote “YES” on “O.”

For more information go here. For an impressive list of organizations endorsing Oakland’s “O” go here. For media discussions and endorsements of the Measure available online go here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Queergeek Report: BSG Season Three Opens Tonight

Battlestar Galactica returns to television at long last tonight, now scheduled to begin an hour earlier than we're used to, at 9pm in case you hadn't heard. Queergeeks who pine for the buff Bamber of the "wardrobe malfunction" last season may contemplate with perplexity a long arc of episodes in which we are treated to a plumped rather than pumped Apollo (Jamie Bamber in elaborate fattening prosthetics).

For them as needs their fix upfront (as it were), here's Lee and his little towel:

Secular Nation

In the immediate aftermath of the last catastrophic election in the United States, as the corporate media coughed up its hairball of self-congratulatory consensus narrative, explaining how the election result somehow represented a triumph for "Values Voters" -- every one of whom was apparently a homophobic war-mongering anti-science misogynist bigot with a taste for a very particular flavor of fundamentalist Christian theocracy -- many of the nation's many millions of secular progressives were left saucer-eyed and sucker-punched.

The thing is, though, that America had this long hard-fought Culture War, you see. And the secular progressives absolutely and decisively won.

A story in today's New York Times has provided a friendly reminder of the facts on the ground:
Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.

“I’m looking at the data,” said Ron Luce, who... founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, “and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work -- everyone in youth ministry is working hard -- but we’re losing...”

Genuine alarm can be heard from Christian teenagers and youth pastors, who say they cannot compete against a pervasive culture of cynicism about religion, and the casual “hooking up” approach to sex so pervasive on MTV, on Web sites for teenagers and in hip-hop, rap and rock music. Divorced parents and dysfunctional families also lead some teenagers to avoid church entirely or to drift away...

Over and over in interviews, evangelical teenagers said they felt like a tiny, beleaguered minority in their schools and neighborhoods.

They "feel" that way, of course, because it is absolutely true.

Needless to say, there are many Americans who maintain some form of religious or spiritual practice or belief. But in a secular society such beliefs are personalized or even aestheticized, and even those for whom spirituality is central to their identification will strongly and cheerfully distinguish the work of Belief from the work of Citizenship in their lives. We are conversational beings, both within and without, and our political commitments will often reflect our moral, ethical, instrumental, spiritual, and aesthetic commitments. But these inter-resonances, too, will be personal, partial, unpredictable. Collaborators in secular cultures will generally resist any imposition of the standards of or reduction to the terms of any one indispensable mode of social practice of warranted belief -- be it scientific, moral, ethical, esthetic, or political -- on any of the others.

Once upon a time (you'll forgive me if I oversimplify things somewhat) the queers and independent women and uppity negroes marched and discoed and generally raised hell together, and the dumb freckled know-nothing hicks who howled "disco sucks" in the eighties (which was always really about racist, sexist, homophobic panic at the prospect of a multicultural global order) became the "whiny white guys" of the nineties.

Of course, these milky malodorous malcontents had plenty of old ill-gotten money and a restless reserve of resentment at their disposal.

They weren't afraid of cheating, stealing, fear-mongering, or Lying Big. And they managed to maintain for a time the steely lockstep discipline of an army marching into a battle the loss of which looks likely to them to mean utter extinction (because, remember, once again, They Lost The Culture Wars).

They gave us Reagan's "Mourning in America," they crammed Bush I down our throats, they had their Gingrich Revolution and impeached even a Democrat who was enough like them to cheerlead NAFTA and "workfare" and media consolidation, and then finagled the incomparably ugly, deadly, criminal enterprise that is the current Killer Clown Administration.

But it pays to remember that even at the moment of their greatest apparent triumph and consolidation of authority, the facts on the ground are altogether different from the consoling fantasies the Cons tell themselves.

The insane profit-piles of the fatcat CEOs will be snatched from their hands with the imposition of sane progressive income taxation and property taxes. It isn't nearly as impossible as it may seem now. The dismantlement of our civil liberties will crumble in the courts and will be restored and reinforced by imperfect but better new laws. It isn't nearly as impossible as it may seem now. The warmongering unilateralism of the current era will be eclipsed as a tattered, traumatized, and economically vulnerable nation concedes to the demands of a more united and empowered world (and the legislators who bow to the inevitable won't pay any political price at all for their sanity, because they simply won't talk about it and so most Americans simply won't care). It isn't nearly as impossible as it may seem now. The military-industrial complex will give way to renewable energy and biomedical networks because that's where the money will be (and, once again, Americans won't rebel against any "losses" to their wasteful consumer "lifestyles" because the commercials they see on the tee-vee will simply tell them they aren't losing anything). It isn't nearly as impossible as it may seem now.

Among the mostly unintended consequences of this larger shift in our definitive mode of production will be an invigoration of democratizing forces already inhering in this diverse, vast, still-young nation... in the midst of a world confronting unprecedented problems and, now, at last, as capable as it has long been eager for fairness, freedom, and security.

Beyond all this, of course, I personally hope and will work with other technoprogressive folks as well to ensure that digital networks will facilitate democratic participation in local, national, and global governance, will abolish the secretive cultures of authoritative organizations like governments, corporations, and universities, and will transform prevailing research and property regimes to solve global problems rather than enrich elites.

I hope and will work with other technoprogressive folks to ensure that biomedical development will treat neglected diseases and rejuvinate everyone, universally and consensually. I hope and will work with other technoprogressive folks to ensure that the productive forces unleashed by automation and networked-organization will be redirected from conspicuous wealth concentration into the provision of a global basic income guarantee.

All of that is real work, more than a lifetime's worth I'll wager. But it is good work to do, worthy and rewarding work.

Above all, never forget, this is a secular nation, in a multicultural world, awash in a radically disruptive, dangerous, and promising technoscientific storm-surge. That's the thing to keep ever in mind, that the promise is as real as the peril. This isn't "Jesusland," if that is supposed to mean a land that has repudiated diversity, democracy, creativity, and science. The thugs may have a megaphone but they don't speak for the people. And the people are real, as the world is real, as solutions are real, as errors and sins exact real costs and real reckonings, and as sure as change is coming.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Cackles from the Balcony: Boys and Girls Edition

Tongue firmly planted in cheek but shared feminist sensibilities ironically edified nonetheless, James Hughes called my attention today to the following two headlines:

From USA Today: [Female Hormone] Progesterone Found to Help Brain Trauma

From Health News Digest: Elevated Testosterone Kills Nerve Cells

Can't say that that one's a shocker, exactly, all things considered!

Monster Tribe or Consensual Culture?

My good friend and colleague James Hughes recently raised an intriguing question on technoliberation, an online discussion list in which we both participate, and his question has set off a fairly lively conversation there. Hughes begins his discussion with a lovely provocation from Donna Haraway; namely that, "Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations." This leads him into what he describes as “one of my central obsessions[:] the proper definition of the boundaries of moral community[.]”

I happen to share with James an obsession to try to better understand the boundary-making and boundary-breaking that seems to be demanded by our normative lives as moral, ethical, esthetic, erotic, social, cultural, and political beings. And certainly some of his and my best, and sometimes our most heated, discussions have risen out of this shared obsession. I personally suspect that there is something unhelpfully constraining from the get-go that happens when we try to work through this shared concern by framing it through a question like the one James then proceeds to ask in this case: “[W]hat are the monsters that technoprogressives are willing to exclude from mercy, to give no quarter, to deny civil rights, and so on?”

Wouldn’t it necessarily be prejudicial to enquire into community by first foregrounding our intuitions about exclusion, mercilessness, denial and so on? And more important still to my own way of thinking about these questions, are we sure we would want to assume from the beginning that there are in fact seamless continuities or even clear analogies between the kinds of normative communities conjured up when one feels moved by mercy as when one feels compelled to guarantee civil rights? I worry that too many conclusions are already embedded in the initial framing of this quandary in this case.

Part of what James is trying to guard against here is what he calls “a certain kind of liberal sensibility which always bends over backward to humanize the Other, the monsters.” Now, I have to say that this sensibility seems to me personally something I have been far more apt to encounter in abstract caricatures of “liberals,” whether from the left or from the right, whether rosy or hostile, than in actual concrete practices among living, breathing liberal people, so-called -- and I say this as an inhabitant of the blessed blissed-out San Francisco Bay Area. But of this sensibility, however real or ideal it may actually turn out to be, James writes: “On the one hand this sensibility is a necessary and even heroic challenge to the pressures to dehumanize and demonize others, queers, cyborgs, Muslims, Huns, etc. But I have always been troubled by the occasional liberals I meet who have never consciously considered a boundary to their tolerance, and muddle along with a ‘embrace first and ask questions later’ impulse.”

I suppose the reason this sort of uncritically overgenerous normativity doesn’t worry me the way it seems to worry James -- and this is just a conjecture of mine, I’m not sure about it -- is that I strongly distinguish various kinds of normative assertions and the kinds of work they do. I have noticed that whenever I encounter what initially seems a too-sweeping or too-restrictive or too-uncritical normative attitude or ascription I usually seem to discover upon closer inspection that what first appeared unreasonable about it really arose from my own mistaken miscategorization of the kind of claim being made.

While people typically use some normative terms like “moral,” “ethical,” “righteous,” “desirable,” and “just” roughly interchangeably, it seems to me quite crucial in fact to distinguish them. Morals (a term which derives from "mores") are norms through which one identifies with particular communities while at once disidentifying with other ones. Moral communities always have outsides against which they distinguish and so define themselves. Ethics, on the other hand, are norms that are formally “universal,” that aspire at any rate to universal assent. Ethical beliefs are the normative correlate to instrumental scientific or factual beliefs, in that they aspire to, and may even sometimes provisionally succeed in attaining, the universal assent of consensus while remaining always defeasible in principle. Moral (as opposed to ethical) beliefs correlate more closely to political beliefs in a way, in that they arise out of plurality and assume plurality to be abiding and ineradicable. Morals create islands of relatively, at least partially stable identitification within the greater sea of difference while politics is an ongoing reconciliation of differences among peers who recognize that they share the world and history without sharing ends or identities.

It is right to be quite skeptical about whether or not ethical norms could actually ever attain the universality that defines them, or whether in fact they really amount to morals with delusions of grandeur. Indeed, the conjuration of a normative “community” of assent -- whether lodged at the level of the human species, the mammalian, the sentient, the aversive, or what have you -- also has its brute, inhuman, insensate constitutive outside. But it still makes an enormous difference in our normative lives on the ground that we distinguish norms which contain the constitutive assumption of “us/them” as against norms which aspire (even if only contingently, strategically) to universal assent. From the ethical perspective that asserts every sufficiently sentient being is a bearer of rights, moral communities that confer a sense of belonging, bearing, security, intelligibility on some individuals through an invidious comparison with other individuals (social democrats as against neoliberal corporatists, say, or secular humanists as against Dominionist Christians) the moral community may well seem parochial while from the perspective of the inhabitants of moral communities ethical universality may seem an arid abstraction with little to commend it.

I suspect that just as oftentimes people who claim to be mobilizing ethical claims are in fact are making very provincial moral ones, it is also true that those who would claim that only moral norms exist still leverage certain moral claims on the idea of norms that aspire to a wider assent than that of particular contingent communities to which they explicitly belong. For one thing, since one belongs to innumerable moral communities at once, most of which are constituted through norms that compete with one another, it is helpful to have an ethical clearinghouse to help adjudicate among them. Definitely I would disagree with the view that either morals or ethics are reducible to, subsumed within, or prior to the other. So, too, people often connect or even confuse political claims with moral or ethical ones -- I would suggest, for example, that the discourse of prohibition often amounts to moralizing, the overextension of morals into politcs, while the discourse of rights connects politics to ethical considerations -- or try to denigrate or reduce the proper normativity of one form from the perspective of one of the others.

James raises the following example: “If we couldn't wean zombies onto a brain replacement foodstuff (as [when] humanized vampires in fiction learn to drink blood from animals or blood banks) then I suppose zombies would be outside my gated community.” If the example seems frivolous, by the way, realize that the normative terrain of contemporary bioethics is thronged with such characters, Frankenstein monsters, golems, clone armies, designer babies, talking apes, humanoid immortals, sentient computers, and so on. This does not indicate a special whimsy in the discipline so much as the necessity of rapid and radical technodevelopmental churn: not so long ago chimeras, terminator seeds, raising the dead from catastrophic heart attacks, or observing the preborn in the womb on television screens would have seemed no less fantastical.

Be that as it may, for me framing a discussion of technoprogressive normativities so insistently with the question "what kinds of people should there be?" seems less clarifying than framing it instead with the question "what kinds of things should happen?" It seems to me technoprogressive normativity is political and should strive to secure a scene of informed, nonduressed consent, both in general and in technodevelopmental contexts, rather than devoting time to the imagination and construction of some newfangled moral community.

From the perspective of moral identification, I have no doubt that there are consensual ways-of-being-in-the-world of which I would disapprove (very possibly including the lifeways of some zombies, vampires, or misanthropic robots, say), and some of which I would even argue against as damaging or threatening lifeways. But as an ethical matter some of these lifeways I might affirm as perfectly legible ones, while likewise as a political matter some I would surely recognize as legitimate stakeholder positions with which I share the world and to which I have to reconcile myself somehow. I simply don't think the immediate and apparently inevitable turn to moralism (or what sometimes even looks curiously like tribalism) is really as helpful as so many futurists and bioethicists seem to think it is so much of the time. To the extent that disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle is profoundly stressful and disconcerting it is perfectly understandable that those who are caught up in the storm would turn to the comforts of moral normativity, to its promise of ready intelligibility and belonging, but this seductiveness is scarcely enough to recommend its adequacy to the real normative demands of our historical moment.

My guess is that the response to my own political and procedural emphasis here will be that the "scene of consent" which I offer up as a more useful normative alternative to imagined moral communities of identification and disidentification will itself ultimately rely on prior (and possibly disavowed) assumptions about what kinds of beings get to enter that scene in the first place, and I will admit that there is likely to be some cause for concern about that. But I still think there will be a real difference in the normative discourse arising out of a focus on what criteria must be satisfied to ensure that legal procedures are legitimate as opposed to a focus on what criteria must be satisfied before we are content to describe certain kinds of beings as sufficiently “like” ourselves as to be worthy of standing.

I would want a legal system that prosecutes any nonconsensual predation among criminal vampires, zombies, human corporatists, robot police, and so on -- but I don't think I need to assign a conclusive "us" or "them" to any of these beings to get that job done. Apart from the idiosyncratic and personal moral, aesthetic, erotic communities from which I gain my senses of belonging or the various stakeholder positions from which I testify to my political ends (and none of these communities are or could be broad or general enough to assume the formal universality of ethics or rights or law) I tend to be awfully suspicious of any focus on or overapplication of "us/them" formations.

James responded to my worries by saying: “Since I find the idea of consensual behavior orthogonal to the idea of a zombie, I'd rephrase what you are saying as ‘enforce the laws against individuals, not against groups’ which sounds right in general. The problem is when all the members of a group are likely law-breakers, which is of course what racists have always said about their despised out-group, but which would nonetheless be likely with a group like zombies or vampires.” Like another participant on technoliberation, “Sparkle Robot,” I worry that James may have simply been unlucky in the zombies whose acquaintance he has made, but joking aside, I see his point and am content that he has seen mine. I do still insist that the difference between those who have broken actual laws and those whose presumably definitive membership in some group is construed to render them more likely to break laws at some point looks to me like a difference that really must make a difference.

James concluded by proposing that a properly technoprogressive bioethical approach “to [a] species of psycho/socio-paths [would be to] stop them from hurting anybody, and fix them if we can.” Because I suspect that the application of this intuition will not in fact be to (alien or created) species but to communities of differently incarnated and enabled humans (and possible some sentient nonhumans) here and now and in the near future, I will admit that I still hesitate to endorse much in the way of nonconsensual "fixing" beyond measures to ensure that lawbreakers don't hurt others or violate the consent of others. This is because the suggestion of “fixing” seems freighted to me with overconfident ascriptions of “optimality” and with parochial perfectionisms and hence, since this is biomedicine we are talking about here, unfortunately with eugenicism.

Another colleague of mine, Nato Welch, made a different but also quite interesting comment in another moment within the same larger conversation on technoliberation. “I often find it useful to analogize ‘postbiological beings,’ ‘posthumans,’ or the variety of prospective forms of machine intelligence (whether personal, synthetic, or otherwise),” he wrote, “to forms of artificial personhood we already have: corporations.” He was quick to register his awareness, though, that “there's [been] plenty of criminality… exercised by such forms,” and so he didn’t want this comment to be misconstrued as any kind of corporatist apologia. This sort of caveat is sadly necessary in technology discourse, given the prevalence of corporate-military categories, assumptions, and aspirations in contemporary technodevelopmental theory and practice.

In any case, it seems important to me to remember that like the "body politic" (a figure through which many have sought historically to clarify claims about state sovereignty), "corporate personhood" is, after all, a metaphor. Presumably, the personhood of a nonbiological substrate intelligence or whatever is not assumed to be merely metaphorical in the various imaginary scenarios which pose ethical quandaries for those who are preoccupied with these questions as far as I can see. This is a difference that surely makes a difference.

Nato’s shorthand claim about corporate criminality bespeaks the risks to clarity of mistaking the metaphorical for the literal in this area. Although of course I know exactly what he was talking about, the fact remains that no criminality is exercised by corporations, of course. The criminality to which he refers is exercised by fully intelligible common or garden variety human beings in ways that are facilitated by certain business formations, just as, say, the nonviolent adjudication of disputes is facilitated among fully intelligible common or garden variety human beings by certain legitimate relatively democratic government formations.

Just to be sure I'm being clear here -- my point is that the metaphor of artificial personhood is just as dispensable as a way of grasping some of the appealing features one might want preserve in certain business associations as the metaphor of the body politic is dispensable as a way of grasping some of the appealing features one might want to preserve in governments. If we think of corporations as membership societies, or co-ops, for example, we no more need to attribute "artificial personhood" to corporations to justify the sometimes socially useful notion of limited liability, than we would need to attribute "artificial personhood" to the academy to justify the sometimes socially useful notion of tenure.

Where states are concerned the point is even clearer, since the shift away from sovereign conceptions of legitimate statehood has by now a long, if convulsive, history. As opposed to the metaphor of the body politic, one might think instead of the “ship of state,” of the Adminsitration of the “national household,” of the “arena” of nonviolent conflict resolution, and so on.

I think we can grasp all the things these social formations do and have done without taking too seriously the metaphor attribution to them of artificial personhood is all I'm saying. If that is true, then it probably won't make quite so much sense to try to think through the quandaries for nonhuman persons as our peers by way of recourse to limited-liability enterprises, any more than it would to schools or democracies or ecologies.

Now, if we want to cast about for clarifying analogies apart from corporations to think through the standing of nonhuman persons I agree with another suggestion of Nato’s that ”child emancipation strikes me as another model[,]” as also are some of the very conventional intuitions that arise from secularism (that the Faithful accept the testimony of the variously Unfaithful in courts of law), multiculturalism (the attitude of live and let live conjoined to the awareness of variation as a public good), and social democracy (the conviction that fellow stakeholders in the world, whatever their differences, need to be free, healthy, secure, informed, and materially invested in the preservation of that world).

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

Only people who look dull ever get into the House of Commons, and only people who are dull ever succeed there.

Point of the Spear?

A Yahoo! AP Headline by Pat Milton notes “FBI worries about an Osama-mobsters link.” Note well the portentious appearance of the word “yet” in the article’s second paragraph:
Though there is no direct evidence yet of organized crime collaborating with terrorists, the first hints of a connection surfaced in a recent undercover FBI operation. Agents stopped a man with alleged mob ties from selling missiles to an informant posing as a terrorist middleman.

It has been well noted that last week’s heartbreaking, history-making Congressional cave-in to the ongoing Bush Administration executive power-grab not only dispenses with the foundational principle of habeus corpus, “legalizes” torture and indefinite detention in the name of the President’s interminable, indefinable “war on a tactic,” but it also opens the door to the arbitrary assignment by the Executive Branch to citizens as well as to non-citizens of the slippery status of the so-called “enemy combatant.” You can be sure that the first citizens to suffer this catastrophic re-assignment will not be such presumably enticing figures as Amy Goodman and Keith Olbermann, but precisely the sorts of criminals and unsympathetic figures we are least pleased to discover sharing with us the frustrating procedural protections of legitimate law. However distasteful the prospect may be we will have diligently to observe and likely to resist the ways in which a “terrorization” of criminality unfolds, as it is very likely to be the point of the spear of an ever-broadening “terrorization” that will soon enough engulf legitimate citizen protest and then citizen participation altogether.

By way of conclusion, let me note in passing and without comment that those diligent readers who make their way through to the close of Milton’s article will be rewarded with another rather intriguing claim at the very end: “The Internet has become the new Afghanistan, allowing terrorist sympathizers to promote their radical ideas and to recruit and train followers right their home computers. That makes it far more difficult for investigators to identify them.”

They’re making their list, no more need for checking it twice, they’re gonna declare who’s naughty and nice... As Mike Malloy would say: Watch your backs, people.

The Real Scandal is that the Scandal is About Sex Rather Than Torture

dKos Diarist Boris Godunov is exactly right when he points out that while Republican Congressman Mark Foley’s interest in a Congressional page was inappropriate and unprofessional and, since it was clearly unwanted (which is clear from the page’s complaints), also unambiguously unethical, nevertheless, it is simply inaccurate to describe it as “pedophilia.”

The 52-year-old Foley’s apparent advances on the 16-year-old certainly seem in this case to have been predatory and unacceptable -- as was the widespread Republican coverup that is now being so spectacularly and painstakingly exposed -- but unless we want to imply that the 16-year-old age of consent in Great Britain and elsewhere (the District of Columbia and Foley’s own Florida, if I’m not mistaken, both included), constitutes a legalization of pedophilia, we need to grasp that something rather hysterical is happening in the exuberant pathologization of Foley’s conduct here.

The terminally awful John Hinderaker has defended Republican House Leader Denny Hastert’s coverup of Foley’s improprieties (a defense predictably promoted by the equally terminally awful Glenn Reynolds) by struggling to link the Foley scandal to an earlier scandal involving Barney Frank.

In that sex scandal, of course, the public exposure of consensual gay sex among legal adults was “scandalous” largely because the culture in which this sex was exposed was a pathologically homophobic one. Hinderaker seems to imply that Hastert’s silence about Foley’s altogether different and predatory conduct arose from the fact that he “assumed [Foley] to be gay” and hence, naturally enough, a sexual predator. It is as if Hinderaker wants to imply that Hastert’s disinterest in sexual harassment is somehow a badge of his urbane tolerance!

As Glen Greenwald properly and pithily puts the point,
Hastert knew that Foley was gay, so it would hardly have been a surprise to Hastert to learn that Foley was harrassing underage pages. Hastert is a very busy and important man and something as unsurprising as the fact that the homosexual Foley was a sexual predator pursuing underage pages would hardly have been news to Hastert and certainly isn't anything that should have prompted his attention. A gay Congressman pursues minors, the sun comes up in the morning. That's just the way the world works. Why would Hastert take notice?

What worries me (and, to his credit, Greenwald) in all this is, of course, the pathologizing equation of queerness and predation here. This is an old, sad, and endlessly damaging homophobic fairy tale that "justifies" to this day pointless and painful barriers to lesbian and gay adoption and teaching in public schools, and has fueled who knows how many “sex panics” in which queers get routinely rounded up lest they “recruit” impressionable youth into “choosing” the “gay lifestyle” and so on.

What is so troubling is that Hinderaker’s glib exculpatory equation of queerness and predation seems to me to reappear in so many of the condemnatory responses to Foley and Hastert as well, both from the right and the left, in the constantly insistently hyperbolically reiterated testimony about how “sick” “disgusting” and “perverted” the whole business is. Whatever the response, from whatever political perspective, there seems altogether too often to be a curious vulnerability to the homophobic equation of "gayness" as such with predation, pathology, and immorality.

It should really go without saying that nothing I am saying is intended to trivialize Foley’s clearly inappropriate conduct, nor to minimize the damage the page is likely to have suffered through this whole episode. Neither do I mean to rain on the parade of Democrats who look like they have managed uncharacteristically to commandeer another proximate pre-election news cycle by foregrounding the scandal to their benefit -- and hence to the benefit of us all should this contribute to their eventual retaking of the House, the Senate, or both.

But I must admit that I am weary of the forever pathologized figure of queerness in this country, so recently offered up as the scapegoat for the defeat of John Kerry’s Presidential bid to the righteous homophobia of America's so-called “values-voters” and now returning again it seems to take the blade in the service of a possible electoral victory for the Democrats.

I have to admit that I am a bit flabbergasted to find a sex scandal megaphoned across the media landscape these last few days, when I have myself been stunned into near paralysis and utter despair by the fact that the majority of rubber-stamp Republicans (and a handful of cowardly Democrats) have facilitated the Killer-Clown Crime Family of the Bush Administration in their ongoing project to consolidate an unprecedented imperial Executive, unanswerable to any other branch of government, eager to torture citizens without warrant or recourse in the prosecution of undefinable and interminable “wars” without bounds.

In a piece in today’s Huffington Post, Cliff Schecter pivots from Foley’s misconduct to the culture of today’s “Grand Old Party” at large: “Republican Sexcapades: Meet the Real GOP.” I don’t deny that Schecter has a point, or that this sort of rhetoric is probably a winner for Democrats in general. But the fact remains that to an important extent this sort of thing is a "winner" precisely because America is a damaged intolerant and puritanical culture and that this ongoing explosion of attention and censure is likely as much an expression and exacerbation of that damage, intolerance, and awful puritanism as a rejection of it.

Frankly, I am chilled to the bone to find that America, across the spectrum from right to left, has so cheerfully embraced a sex scandal rather than (or likely as a stand-in for) spotlighting the scandal of lawlessness and torture that is in fact the bloody face of the “Real GOP” in power today.