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

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Reactionary Hyperbole Against Democratic Thoughtfulness

This is a little self-indulgent, but I am re-posting a condensed version of part of my editorial from last Saturday that I think many didn't have the patience to read their way through to:

Hyperbolic discourses appeal not only to unreasoning fears but to unreasonable greed, and the making of hyperbolic threats is all too often correlated to the making of hyperbolic promises.

At the very same moment when irrational fears of "Death Panels" are being stoked by the rich beneficiaries of the catastrophically failing status quo (fears of fictional "Death Panels" that function precisely as the smoke screen behind which vanishes the lived reality of the "death panels" of brutal for-profit insurance company exclusions and rationings of health care), so too irrational fantasies of eternal youth and seamless happiness are stoked by advertising images wreathed in pastel hues and in the iconography of soft pornography and science fiction futurology for pills of questionable efficacy and by pop-tech articles handwaving about accelerating technoscience.

Hyperbole demoralizes us by deranging our sense of scale, befuddling our awareness of the ways in which individual agency, when it is organized, is more than equal to the forces of incumbency, ignorance, and reaction at hand.

Hyperbole encourages us to leap in a single bound from the passive indifference of the ignorant consumer to the passive resignation of the knowing doomsayer.

Hyperbole enlists us to assume the vantage of an essentially aesthetic perfectionism that falsely promises to immunize us from the inevitable disappointments of stakeholder contestation, by draining all the actual stakes of the contest at hand of significance as measured against idealized outcomes disconnected from struggle as it plays out in history.

Of course, the repudiation of hyperbole must not be an excuse for complacency, an evasion of the actual stakes of the struggle, a relaxation of vigilance, lest it become a rationale for incumbency and reaction after all. But the point is to focus our intelligence and organize our energy on the actual terms of the tasks at hand, neither squandering our energies in hyperbole nor anaesthetizing our sense in complacency.

Our present distress in the struggle for real health care reform is certainly all too urgent and real, in all its danger and its promise, but it also reconnects us to the ongoing and abiding and in fact interminable struggle of civic democracy of which the battle for health care reform is just a part, an episode. We must eschew demoralizing and distracting doomsaying and hyperbole not only to make a necessary contribution to the sanity, and hence likely efficacy, of the health care debate itself, but we can also take the health care debate as an occasion to make a deeper and vitally important point about the democratic civilization our devotion to which inspires our separate devotions to struggles for universal health care, freedom of expression and access to knowledge, a decent living and equality before the law, a celebration of the dignity and contribution of diverse lifeways in a shared world, and so on in the first place.

To be lost in a daydream of effortless abundance, and to pay cheerfully the price of an acceptance or uncritical obedience to authorities for an infantile fantasy of ease is to relinquish actually thoughtful (in every sense of the term), actually responsible, actually civic, actually critical, actually intelligent, actually collaborative struggle as a citizen and even as an adult in the world and in history, on the actually-existing terms in which these are presented to us (incumbent on us) and present-ed among us (the open futurity in our plural present). To be lost in the contrary nightmare of delirious doomsaying, proliferating tipping points, conjurations of accelerating acceleration, of technodevelopmental singularities, apocalypses and ends-of-history, and to pay resignedly the price of an acceptance that democracy has or must fail the test of the moment, that true elites must have their way with us or that false elites will have their way with us come what may, is to relinquish that same actually-thoughtful citizenship and adulthood in the world and in history.

Democracy, after all, is just the simple idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that effect them. It is not, properly speaking, an eidos aspiring after a singular instantiation, like a blueprint, but better grasped, substantiated, and incarnated as a democratizing struggle, the struggle through which ever more people gain ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them. It is a dynamic struggle of contesting energies and aspiration, peer-to-peer, but also a struggle yielding up a bounty of stubborn accomplishments, institutions, rights, laws, norms.

Every social formation is riven with contradictions, irrational distributions of resources, authority, luck, and every social formation confronts crises (pandemic, environmental disruption, corruption, invasion, insurrection) that exacerbate these contradictions or transform their terms.

Democratic forms of governance -- in their connection of legitimacy to consent and of taxation to representation, that is to say, in their definitive investment in the thoughtfulness of all, or ever more of, the people -- add to these structural susceptibilities to crisis inhering in all social formations the special susceptibilities of the people to thoughtlessness, the proneness to irrational passions of fear, greed, complacency, and rage, and the retroactive rationalizing exceptionalisms of the fearful, the greedy, the complacent, the enraged.

The situation of the democrat is even more dire since democracy includes among the stakeholders and peers to which it would be beholden, even those authoritarians who despise democracy and those opportunists, cynics, and hypocrites who would cheerfully game it.

Of course, this "advantage" of authoritarians, opportunists, cynics, and hypocrites is always provisional. Like the benefits that attract some people to the thoughtlessness of authoritarianism, opportunism, cynicism, and hypocrisy in the first place, their advantages are parochial, short-term, and short-sighted, and enormously vulnerable to exposure, rejection, refutation, and ridicule in their parochialism and short-sightedness.

To be a democrat is not to indulge some naïve fantasy or muzzy hopefulness, but to believe as a matter of fact and with good reason that people in general are capable, intelligent, and open to criticism, after all, whatever their susceptibilities to thoughtlessness and irrationality, and that open, consensual orders and collaborative, contestatory organizations of collective effort are, in consequence, more intelligent, efficacious, and resilient than incumbent, authoritarian organizations of that effort.

One might disagree with this belief, or with the reasons democrats might adduce in support of that belief (among them the many stunning accomplishments of the long struggle for more knowledge, more equity, and more diversity in the world).

But it is interesting to note how rarely even the would-be authoritarians, opportunists, cynics, and hypocrites explicitly defend the contrary proposal that they in fact palpably embody a superiority in ability or substance that justifies their privileges or rule over everybody else. Far from a naïve or muzzy idealism, democracy has so prevailed in the memory and imagination of the people, it has become so commonsensical, that even those who denigrate and undermine it must do so stealthfully or through proxy discourses, like racist fear-mongering or hyperbolic handwaving sales-scams.

I think democratically-minded Americans should be proud and hopeful not only or not even mostly because we can point to a history of comparable achievements in times as dark and even darker than our own, but because we are right to believe that -- whatever its fragility -- thoughtfulness is a force more powerful than thoughtlessness, that the attractions of thoughtfulness can be compelling even to those who are caught up for the moment in the irrationality of fear, greed, or despair, that the works of thoughtfulness abide in history, in memory, and in culture not only as inspirations in the midst of the present distress but as resources that facilitate our present work.

No comments: