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Friday, March 11, 2011

Selling My Soul

Adapted and upgraded from the Moot, from an ongoing conversation with Friend of Blog (and, unquestionably, a good guy) "Martin" asks:
"Obama is now a president who tortures. Gitmo and Quantico are his Abu Ghraibs. Can you support a president who tortures? How much of your soul do you have to sell to win this battle?"


How can people be so innocent after Chomsky and other left intellectuals have been publishing their exposes for decades (occasional errors of fact or judgment notwithstanding)? Honestly, just which American President since WW2 has not committed war crimes in your estimation? What kind of world do you think we are living in? Have you sold your soul because you were willing to prefer some Presidents as better than others for election despite this undeniable and undeniably debased state of affairs?

Let me add, that the absolutely intolerable abuse of whistleblower Bradley Manning consists of enforced solitary confinement, incredibly harsh treatment, extended nudity and exposure, harassment, deliberate humiliation and threats of violence -- all abuses taking place across the American prison system in state after state after state. Is it that you are unaware of this? Have you sold your soul by not prioritizing this issue in your consideration of Presidential politics hitherto? I am painfully aware of this issue, have read about it extensively, lecture about it when I teach Foucault and Angela Davis -- and yet knowledgeable though I am, appalled though I am, it is not something I blog about or prioritize as compared with many other also urgent issues.

My point is not to trivialize the war crimes of the American Executive and our crappy idiot Empire, my point is not to trivialize the criminal mistreatment of Manning, but to suggest that the address of such evils take incomparably more than declaring a plague on both your houses in the name of an "activism" that functionally acquiesces to an organized Republicanism now captured by the most energized reactionary elements in the country.

Pretending and then acting upon the pretense that Democrats and Republicans are the same just because they both palpably suck isn't actually engaging in either analysis or activism at a level that addresses the evil that presumably you are responding to here. That isn't exactly what you are advocating here (although you have flirted with just that in testifying to your righteous and proper indignation over the Administration's treatment of Manning and other civil rights abuses presumably "justified" by the lunacy of our so-called global war on terror), but at times like these you need to think clearly. It isn't only that the politics crystallized by the abuse of Manning is just one facet of the political constellation we need to keep in mind in supporting a political party and its candidates for election, it isn't even just a question of properly prioritizing these facets: to reject the Democrats for their failures in even this one facet is to functionally affirm Republicans vanishingly few of whom are any better and who together are incomparably worse not only on this very issue but on a host of others all of which contribute their measure to a larger anti-democratizing trajectory that would disempower those of us who do struggle on this and other issues, large and small, as a matter of practice rather than just sloganizing deduction.

Thinking politically this way isn't easy, I grant you, but trying to express this hardship through the metaphor of selling or keeping your soul does great violence to the political demands at hand, it seems to me. If Manning were to escape confinement and seek asylum in Europe or South America I would loudly and materially support those who aided him, and I hope I would have the courage to shelter him in his danger in my own home if it came to that, even at the risk of sharing his fate. I can't be sure, but that, at least, is a circumstance in which it makes sense to me to speak of "selling" or "keeping" one's soul. That would be a real moral and ethical moment.

Treating Obama's egregious failure in this issue of policy as a pretense to forsake the indispensable politics of the American Presidency (an Obama landslide will have coat-tails that would re-enable a Congressional landscape in which it would be possible to resume the struggle for carbon taxes, EFCA, a green stimulus, not to mention turn the tide at the state level demonstrated over the last weeks as so potentially transformative in the catastrophic fight against organized labor) looks to me like bad politics justified by righteous morals in a profoundly indulgent form that does no justice to the rectitude of the morals themselves.

By all means, support organizations that are fighting for Manning (are you? I am), demonstrate your rejection of the unitary executive in petitions, letters, education, agitation, organizing (do you? I do). I'll be right behind you in demanding a war crimes tribunal for Obama officials right along with Bush officials if it comes to that. But I still don't think it makes much sense to focus on that at the cost of Obama's election to some union-busting woman-hating climate-change denialist beholden to authoritarian christianists and white-racist gun-nuts.

America is a notionally representative corporate-militarist plutocracy and our Presidency reflects that reality. Progressive taxation, publicly funded elections, breaking up media monopolies are structural requirements that would create countervailing powers to the imperial executive and corporate-militarist drives against civil liberties. There are many vocal Democratic organizations and politicians actively devoted to precisely these sorts of campaigns. Do you believe that Obama and McCain (substitute any of the Republicans in the field for 2012) would be equally likely to veto legislation making taxes more progressive, enacting publicly funded elections, breaking up media monopolies? Be honest.

Majorities don't want America to be policeman for the world and screwing people who work for a living so that the rich few can be richer still, but incumbent-elites continue to profit from this state of affairs. Enabling the latter in the face of the former creates the structural conditions under which abiding anti-democratization flourishes in the Executive, come what may.

We live in a country for which it actually can be said that our President is at once the most progressive President since FDR and also that our President is engaging in war crimes (as did FDR). That the latter is true does not alter the urgent importance of the former in the midst of our terrible distress. The distinction isn't any less indispensable for being so ugly on the ground.

There's no such thing as a soul, anyway. That's what brains are for. You have a brain and a conscience, Martin, and that means you have work to do, seems to me, just like me. If you have to sell your soul or whatever to work for democratization with the materials actually at hand, so be it.

Politics are not the nursery.

8 comments:

Martin said...

Honestly, just which American President since WW2 has not committed war crimes in your estimation?

Maybe I wasn't paying attention in the 90s, but Clinton's biggest moral crimes were 1) ignoring Rwanda and 2) military involvement in Yugoslavia / Kosovo. On the first point, one can argue, as I often do, that we shouldn't be the world's police force, so while tragedies like Rwanda are unfortunate, our passivity is not moral culpability any more than anyone else's. On the second point, that was a 3 month engagement that pales in comparison to the 2 years of inherited warfare that Obama has maintained. But more insidiously, Obama has adopted Bush's doctrine of spying on and detaining American citizens, and beyond even Bush, turning a blind eye to the torture of American citizens.

Relatively speaking at least, Clinton was a great president. Obama is not.

Have you sold your soul because you were willing to prefer some Presidents as better than others for election despite this undeniable and undeniably debased state of affairs?

Yes. That's my answer right now. Maybe I'll feel different as some time passes, but right now, yes. Let me turn it back to you: what would it take for you to reject Obama? An invasion of Iran? How about just another escalation in Iraq? Remember, we were supposed to be down to 30,000 troops by now, so the current deployment is a *massive* escalation from what we were promised -- and one of the main reaqsons that we voted for him.

Let me add, that the absolutely intolerable abuse of whistleblower Bradley Manning consists of enforced solitary confinement, incredibly harsh treatment, extended nudity and exposure, harassment, deliberate humiliation and threats of violence -- all abuses taking place across the American prison system in state after state after state. Is it that you are unaware of this?

You have to be kidding me. Google my name.

My point is not to trivialize the war crimes of the American Executive and our crappy idiot Empire, my point is not to trivialize the criminal mistreatment of Manning, but to suggest that the address of such evils take incomparably more than declaring a plague on both your houses in the name of an "activism" that functionally acquiesces to an organized Republicanism now captured by the most energized reactionary elements in the country.

This is the scaremongering we're seeing. It's just that the new boss ain't much better than the old boss (more on that later).

Pretending and then acting upon the pretense that Democrats and Republicans are the same just because they both palpably suck isn't actually engaging in either analysis or activism at a level that addresses the evil that presumably you are responding to here.

They don't all suck. On specific points, weirdly enough, Rand Paul achieves the moral character of Dennis Kucinich. On others, obviously not. We just don't have enough options to make a fine tuned choice. So it appears we are forced to sell our souls. That is the only effective activism we have, and which you are advocating: vote for the Democrats or suffer the consequences. It's a shitty choice, which also disgusts me.

continued...

Martin said...

at times like these you need to think clearly. It isn't only that the politics crystallized by the abuse of Manning is just one facet of the political constellation we need to keep in mind in supporting a political party and its candidates for election, it isn't even just a question of properly prioritizing these facets: to reject the Democrats for their failures in even this one facet is to functionally affirm Republicans vanishingly few of whom are any better and who together are incomparably worse not only on this very issue not to mention on a host of others all of which contribute to a larger trajectory that would disempower those of us who would struggle as a matter of practice rather than just logic to hold us all, Democrats included, to a higher standard ourselves.

It seems to me that voting for *these* Democrats isn't helping. On a few points it is, like DADT, but I guess our priorities aren't the same. I understand why that's an important issue to you. Extending tax cuts for the rich or torturing innocent American citizens is more important to me. You are, by your own admission, a queer, atheist, vegan, etc., but you speak openly and live in relative comfort. I don't think your plight compares to the abuses that Obama is promulgating on others right now, American and non-American alike.

Maybe by being "in the tank" for Obama all this time you've really just been duped by a slick political machine. Maybe. I was too, of course. The Roman columns, the epic music, it was all so profound in 2008, and that fantasy has slowly eroded away these last two years. It just came into stark relief recently.

I'll be right behind you in demanding a war crimes tribunal for Obama officials right along with Bush officials if it comes to that. But I still don't think it makes much sense to focus on that at the cost of Obama's election to some union-busting woman-hating climate-change denialist beholden to authoritarian christianists and white-racist gun-nuts.

So you're willing to vote for someone that you would later support a war crimes tribunal against. Think about that, Dale.

What about these countervailing issues? Union-busting: I agree with you, that's dangerous, but it's happening already, with Obama in power. Woman-hating: what political consequence does that have? Despite some aggrandizing, Row v Wade is not materially in danger. Climate-change policy: not materially different in Democratic or Republican control, as far as I can see. Gun nuts: no material difference in our gun laws in the forseeable future. THE material difference that Obama could make is on the war and torture. Right now.

We live in a country for which it actually can be said that our President is at once the most progressive President since FDR and also that our President is engaging in war crimes (as did FDR). That the latter is true does not alter the urgent importance of the former in the midst of our terrible distress. The distinction isn't any less indispensable for being so ugly on the ground.

Except that having the most progressive president, and voting for "more and better" Democrats has turned out not to be the panacea we imagined.

What's my alternative? I have no answer. Just contempt and disgust. We've reached a point where good progressives are willing to vote for people that they would support war crimes tribunals against. Because, well, that's better than the alternative. I have no answer to that.

Poor Richard said...

Dale, I agree with you about the realities and demands of being a political "adult". In an election between Obama and any conceivable Repub I WILL go out and cast a vote and it will be for Obama. I will probably go considerably beyond that by making contributions, etc.

That said, Obama still sucks. He is little more than a spokes-model.

Lately I've been thinking that my minimum standard to consider a president both a "real" president and a good president would be this:

He or she would have to at least be a fairly heroic whistle-blower. He'd have to say something like, "Look, folks, you and I both know I'm not really in charge of a f-ing thing around here; but I can damn sure tell you more about what's really going on here than most people; and if something happens to me before I finish telling y'all about it, the whole story was transmitted to all my favorite people and media outlets 5 minutes ago...."

Yr blog looks pretty good!

Poor Richard

Dale Carrico said...

I don't think your plight compares to the abuses that Obama is promulgating on others right now

Are you claiming I am comparatively more comfortable than you and in consequence comparatively less clear about why war crimes are bad, or why Obama's treatment of Manning, which we both abhor, may lead you but not me to wash your hands of Presidential politics even if that indulgence means acquiescing to organized authoritarianism at the expense of those compromised but real forces on our own side in much that matters to us?

I must say that I am a bit amused at the reference to DADT inasmuch as a few months ago many people who were throwing up their hands in such disgust were upset precisely about Obama's paralysis on DADT. This pouting and stamping about gun regulations and climate change legislation not getting implemented -- it is as if you suddenly aren't aware of the actual Democratic efforts to do something about these issues in the face of Republican obstructionism, as if you want to pretend that there are as many Republicans as Democrats who are passionate about gun control and environmental regulation. You deride more and better Democrats, but contemplate more and worse Republicans and assess where you priorities will be. No difference? Sometimes I think Americans inhabit a cartoon universe.

So you're willing to vote for someone that you would later support a war crimes tribunal against. Think about that, Dale.

Do you really think I haven't thought about this? I don't find this attitude even remotely paradoxical. You say that voting for Democrats wasn't the panacea "we" imagined. Speak for yourself. I never expected a panacea. Republican obstructionism and subsequent irrationality was even worse than I expected, but Obama has been fairly predictable, his Administration tracking his campaign pretty consistently.

Dale Carrico said...

Although I voted for Obama and supported most of his efforts before the mid-terms and defended him as doing his progressive best (defensibly so even where I disagreed with him) on issue after issue against those who seemed to want to pretend the Presidency was a magic wand, the fact is I was never "in the tank" for Obama, and always used that expression sardonically. I'm a secular democratic socialist feminist queer, as you say, and how anybody thinks I could be truly fully unqualifiedly "in the tank" for any actually electable political figure in the USA is entirely beyond me. I daresay Obama is better than I hoped we could get at this historical juncture -- still quite true, even with his many deficiencies still very much in view -- and I also daresay he could achieve far more of what his left detractors want from him were they to whomp up enthusiasm behind him rather than attack him from his left in ways that are often easily as idiotic as those who attack him from the right.

What's my alternative? I have no answer. Just contempt and disgust.

Needless to say, very helpful.

We've reached a point where good progressives are willing to vote for people that they would support war crimes tribunals against.

I wouldn't mind seeing Carter and Clinton standing before such a tribunal as well. Is that really such a shock to you? Ever heard of East Timor, or anti-humanitarian Iraqi sanctions? Just how naive are you people? Given your age, Martin, if you have ever voted for a President then you have supported both a war criminal and a plutocrat. Given what your country is, that goes without saying. Do you get that about this historical moment and your country?

Choosing which President to elect from the two party menu isn't an act that addresses problems at that structural level, one votes for President to help shepherd policy compromises through Congress in relation to party organizations with platforms in a way that, if you are very patient and very diligent and very lucky alters the institutional conditions that enable deeper changes over the longer term. It'll take more than a perfect President to turn the tides of officially condoned torture and security sanctioned violations of civil liberties -- you trivialize these problems if you fancy they can be addressed by so superficial an action as a Presidential campaign. That particular rot is deep and was long in coming and will take a long fight to remedy. It isn't exactly encouraging to see how quickly how many give up the fight. Americans really are too lazy to be believed.

Dale Carrico said...

Obama still sucks.

As I say, he is hardly love's young dream to a secular democratic socialist feminist queer vegetarian anti-militarist environmentalist aesthete like me. I happen also to think, tho', it isn't very sensible to spend too much time megaphoning the "he still sucks" message, since it would appear that too many Americans who need to vote in their own interests get demoralized by reality and then acquiesce like sleepwalkers to fascism if you don't whip them up into a frenzy of hysterical fandom about every single goddamn election. I suppose the total suffusion of public discourse with the norms and forms of advertizing -- incessant deception, deadening repetition, and hyperbole -- has done its work.

Dale Carrico said...

Row v Wade is not materially in danger.

In the last few months, Roe v Wade has been radically undermined de facto if not de jure through the implementation of a host of material barriers and harassments in State after State captured by Movement Republican governors and legislatures emboldened by low Dem voter turnout especially by youth voters who I believe are thinking too much like my "plague on both their houses" detractors are -- and the skew of the Supreme Court toward a Movement Republican partisanization via the malign activism of the Federalist Society leaves Roe in the balance, incomparably more precarious at the federal level than you suggest here. Empty Republican promises about jobs that never made any sense in their formulations but the senselessness of which never mattered to spoiled Americans who just wanted to "throw the bums out" provided a magic carpet ride into power whereupon they immediately started shifting billions more from everyday people to billionaires, attacked abortion and women's health and starting union-busting (insert "I told you so" here). Once again too many good smart righteous people to Obama's left underestimate the irrationality and organized authoritarianism of Republicans in their disgust with Democratic compromises and inadequacies -- all of that disgust morally and ethically well justified, of course, but not necessarily politically so, which, as I stress again and again and again, is a different mode of reasonable belief-ascription, with different standards of warrant, than either morals or ethics or aesthetics or commerce or science.

Poor Richard said...

it isn't very sensible to spend too much time megaphoning the "he still sucks" message

I rarely do. I usually suck it up and make the same arguments about political pragmatism you have made here, keeping my personal anguish at the magnitude of the lesser evils to myself.

I may have silently swallowed so much of my Obama disappointment that it has started oozing out of my ears.

Seeing you argue the pragmatism case so well here tempted me to give myself the luxury of a rare "Yeah, but...the horror...!"

But your chastisement is perfectly apt.

The hysterical teen in the haunted house stops freaking out and says, "Thanks, I needed that."

PR