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

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Plea from the Peanut Gallery

Quite often I get questions online (usually, actually, they take the form of accusations) from strangers asking me how I can support the President given his role in this or that terrible policy which I tend to agree with the questioner or accuser is a terrible policy. I used to answer these on the blog with lots of fanfare, but for the last few years I've usually just responded to these interventions one on one. Lately, my head has been so lost in Periclean Athens as I teach my summer intensive on Greek and Roman rhetoric at Berkeley I haven't been blogging very much and so I figured I might as well use the occasion of one of these familiar queries to post something a little more timely to the blog, even if these are things I've said a million times by now. I'm leaving out names, so my questioner doesn't feel called out in public or anything:
Your blog is interesting to read concerning enviro issues, transhumanism and futurology but I wish that you would spend some time on what you really think of [President] B[arack ]O[bama]. I voted for him twice and I no longer believe in him or his minions. Below is an interesting article by Noam which I agree. [The subject of the article is the Snowden revelations and the danger of the surveillance state.] Your take on BO these days would be a most interesting read on your blog.
President Obama hasn't done a lot that has surprised me over the course of his two terms so far. I listened to his statements on the campaign trail and examined his published policy positions quite closely before voting for him twice (like you) and arguing in public for his election and writing in defense of some of his policy choices and so on. If anything, I have been pleasantly surprised more often than unpleasantly so -- which is far from saying I enthusiastically endorse what he does. I have said in the past that Barack Obama is the most progressive American President since FDR and I still think this is true, and even obviously true. To say this is not to declare Obama consistently or even particularly progressive, by my lights, but to deny it is to reveal profound ignorance of presidential history (read up on FDR himself, and on the collaboration of the New Deal in the preservation of Jim Crow, for example).

I don't support Obama because I am unaware of these obvious critiques you are earnestly bringing to my attention, nor because I need a hero and think he is that hero. I think it is infantile to formulate one's support of a President as the best candidate on offer in an election or support of an administrative policy among others as a matter of "believing in" that President, as you say. Presidents are not replacement parents or matinee idols to sigh over, however our mass mediated and networked organizational forms seek to invest us in our representatives.

I wrote my dissertation on digital surveillance questions, and I must say WikiLeaks and the Snowden revelations were hardly shocking to me. (For more on my positions on these questions I recommend interested readers scroll down to the "Surveillance" sub-heading in the Superlative Summary.) I strongly disapprove of the ongoing elaboration of the aspiration of the unitary executive and of total information awareness that has continually consolidated over the course of this generation, and popular resistance and congressional legislation will have to be the sites turning these tides in my view. Needless to say, I have written on these topics repeatedly and for years.

But you have framed your query specifically in terms of the present President (who is one player in one moment of a longer and more complex historical struggle over surveillance after all) and for clarity's sake, let's step back and get at the more basic issues that really seem to be on your mind for which surveillance questions provide the occasion: I should think it goes without saying that for the likes of me there is no perfectly or even mostly acceptable and yet also electable President given my political orientation as an absolute foe of white racist patriarchal extractive-industrial corporate-militarism. A vote for an unelectable President actually as green and democratic and socialist as I am would be an entirely symbolic gesture that I suppose would make me feel better for a split second but would also be tantamount to a non-vote and hence a vote enabling the worst actually electable candidate on offer. I would consider such a voting practice profoundly narcissistic and irresponsible.

The US executive branch exists, it has real powers that have real impacts, and if you are an eligible voter in the US you can vote for the best available candidate or not, but if you don't you are complicit in the election of the worst candidate on offer should they win. There is much more to politics than voting, but voting remains an indispensable part of politics, as does critique of politicians to push them to conduct themselves more equitably and democratically. Pragmatism and idealism are both necessary and maintaining the balance in the belly of the beast of ongoing violence, exploitation, and climate catastrophe is and will always remain fraught and never easy.

But when critique is premised on fantasies of ideal candidates or seeks to castigate or demoralize voters from supporting best available non-ideal candidates I regard that as plainly reactionary political behavior. To anticipate a familiar objection to this line, I do not agree that the kind of pragmatism I am insisting on necessarily interferes with clarity of critique or righteousness of vision or impedes other forms of education, agitation, organization. It is always necessary to judge policies and also politicians against ideal outcomes by your lights, both according to your sense of the facts and your values, but it is no less necessary to judge policies as situated negotiations among actually diverse stakeholders and politicians against actually available alternatives and their policy advocacy against their record and their record as a totality of policies some of which will be better and some which will be worse.

Given the rancid white racism sexism heterosexism cissexism anti-science neo-confederate secessionist anti-tax pro-pollution gun-nuttified death cultism of the present Republican party, I fear Democrats with all their flaws will tend to be who we must vote for as advocates of sustainable equity-in-diversity -- at least, until the lesson of repeated losses compels Republicanism to change for the better or election reforms like instant runoff voting or fusion tickets render it possible for parties with smaller more specialized constituencies (like Greens or Democratic Socialists) outside the current established party duopoly to function otherwise than as spoilers enabling the most reactionary forces to prevail.

I hope you read my tone as expressing the forcefulness of conviction and not as an effort to insult or patronize you, because that is not my intention. My best to you, keep asking questions of constituted authorities and engaging every way you can in the service of sustainable equity-in-diversity, Dale

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