Thursday, July 31, 2008

Billmon's Back...

...posting at Daily Kos. There is much excitement among the masses. The Whiskey Bar was a bit of a revelation when I first found it, and I was very sad to see it go. This first Kos diary is . . . alright. Hopefully this won't be like the Star Wars prequels...

UPDATE: OK, this second post is more like it, right down to the Marx quote in the title.

What Libertarians Are Good For

The Cato Institute has an interactive map of paramilitary police raids in the US, an accompaniment to Radley Balko's work on this issue.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Comprehensive Goods, Comprehensive Evils, and the Problem of Resentment

I'm reading Zizek's new "book," Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. It is, as is to be expected, a hodge-podge of funny anecdotes, revealing examples, vague half-arguments, and prickly insights.

One of the vague half-arguments that I find most promising goes something like this: it is a mistake to call terrorists--Muslim or Christian or whatever--"fundamentalists" because "all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish," are essentially indifferent towards non-believers (p. 85). True believers find only self-confirmation in the lives and sins of heathens and apostates. They therefore have a sovereign disregard for non-believers. To become a terrorist, to declare war on unbelievers, is to admit that you are not motivated by faith at all, but by temptation and resentment. It demonstrates that you can only confirm your own goodness and faith by destroying or humiliating those who live otherwise, that is, by destroying those upon whom you have projected your own doubt and self-hatred.

What this suggests to me is something I already thought, but something for which I now have new and improved arguments: that the familiar liberal wariness regarding "comprehensive doctrines of the good" is utterly misplaced. Comprehensive doctrines of the good, according to the wary liberal, must remain private because whenever their believers get there hands on the coercive apparatus of the state we end up embroiled in religious wars. For this reason, liberalism eschews any summum bonum and leaves all metaphysics to the purveyors of commoditized wisdom and the hucksters of the spirit.

But what if the real danger is not coercive belief (and the attendant disagreements about the finer points of doctrine), but self-destructive resentment? If Zizek is right, liberals need to take Nietzsche much more seriously than they do, and as a brutally honest friend rather than a vicious enemy. The real threat to liberal society is not the fundamentalists who would impose their own good on everyone else, but the bad consciences who would renounce their own good just for the sake of depriving other of their goods also. The resentful subject would rather destroy itself or foreclose its own enjoyment than permit another (resented) subject's enjoyment.

I think it is for this reason that I am especially suspicious of the "liberalism of fear" proposed by Judith Shklar. Shklar claimed that liberalism had no summum bonum but only a summum malum, cruelty and the fear born thereby. This seems to me to make the resentful subjectivity coextensive with liberalism--liberals renounce all pursuit of the good, and seek only to police everyone else's pursuit thereof. Obviously, this liberal resentment is, in one sense, the polar opposite of the terroristic resentment with which I began, and I'm sure that many of the "friends of Shklar" I know will protest my characterization, but that's why I'm writing this on my blog and not in Political Theory. But the allergy to unabashed and public discussion and pursuit of a positive good is too similar to Zizek's diagnosis to go unnoted.

UPDATE: Edited to repair egregious misspelling.

UPDATE 2: Ripped from today's headlines... Fanaticism is not the problem, my friends. This sad-sack didn't believe passionately in anything at all, from all accounts. He was certainly not "cruel" in Shklar's sense of the word: driven by the pursuit of "some end, tangible or intangible," to "the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group." And despite the greater pretense to some sort of "political strategy," I would say the same about Tim McVeigh or al-Zarqawi or the like.

I have this label for some posts: "Conservatives want you to be unhappy." It started out a bit tongue in cheek, but I'm going to double-down on it: the fact that this chump in Tennessee read O'Reilly, Savage, and Hannity is unsurprising, for modern American conservatism has become the opposite of fanaticism, a political movement under the banner of resentment, intent upon standing athwart the pursuit of happiness by others, yelling 'Stop!'

The flip-side is that liberalism is not guiltless here, either. Despite at least one promised rebuttal, no friend of Shklar has yet stepped forward to defend the liberalism of fear against the vague guilt by homology charge in my main post. As it stands, the charge probably doesn't even merit a defense--it's pretty imprecise and seems like a conclusion without premises. Nonetheless, I think there is more to my doubts about Shklar than my sense that she has mis-identified her real enemy. The liberalism of fear is a liberalism that fears "a society of fearful people," and, by extension, the systematic cruelty that fosters such a society. But maybe, just maybe, systematic cruelty isn't the worst thing for human beings to face. Maybe we're actually better equipped to live our lives and be reasonably happy under the rule of fairly severe coercion than under the constant threat of explosive resentment. And maybe the principled avoidance of the former condition as the summum malum actually fosters the latter condition.

Maybe we need a bit more cruelty in our lives if we are to be happy at all.

Time suck

A word cloud of my recent Aristotle paper. Wheeeeee!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Salesmanship of Fear

Impending fatherhood has rendered me emotionally sensitive to a host of new triggers. Babies, mostly. And pregnant women. And the birthing of babies by pregnant women. All of these things are, without warning, liable to shatter my steely shell and leave me a blubbery trembling mess. This can be dangerous for myself and others if I happen to be driving down the highway at 7o mph.

Therefore, I would kindly ask GM to deep-six their current radio campaign for On-Star.

The ad portrays an On-Star operator responding to a car crash involving a pregnant woman. The ad opens with the operator talking to the woman immediately after the crash. The woman is alright, but she is worried because she is pregnant. The operator contacts 911, and then connects the woman with her husband, and the add closes with his panicked concern for her and her tearful assurances that she's alright.

I had to scream at the radio--transmute all my fear and sadness and relief into anger--in order to keep some semblance of my wits about me.

Look, I know that advertising always plays on the passions. And usually the sad passions, at that. Getting people to feel a need for your product frequently involves activating anxieties and then offering the product as a balm for those anxieties. (Even thought this appeal to fear and anxiety is usually, and most effectively, subtle and mediated; the insurance commercial that directly says "You will die and then your family will be poor and helpless" is the exception, and recognized as such.) But this experience brought this home in a particularly forceful way. Rather than enabling us to confront our hopes and fears and live with them, advertising encourages our fear by offering up a savior. You should be afraid of losing your spouse or child in a car crash. You should buy a GM car with On-Star to allay that fear. The fear doesn't actually go anywhere when it is allayed in this way. Rather, it is preserved as a dark background behind your new attachment to your GM car. Should something happen now, should the On-Star fail to save your loved ones, you are left completely unprepared. This isn't what was supposed to happen.

Aristotle distinguishes optimism and courage. Optimism is the expectation that you will prevail, that things will turn out as you hope. Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to act beyond any hope of things turning out well. I know that I am congenitally prone to optimism, but, as the birth of my child nears, I am more and more aware that optimism is not what is called for. It is grossly insufficient to the moment. I'm no less ruled by fear just because I always tell myself everything will turn out alright.

But this just points up the falseness of any attempt to bring about "freedom from fear" by means of such optimism. Hope and optimism do not free you from fear. They silently preserve its dominion.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Conference Announcement

World History and Historical Materialism
An International Conference at the University of Manitoba(Winnipeg, Canada)
March 12-14, 2009

The field of World History has been a growing area of scholarship and education over the last three decades. In focusing on the global impact and implications of colonialism, imperialism, the mercantile and industrial revolutions, as well as revolutionary resistance from the early-modern period to the present, World History provides a framework for understanding international capitalism, contemporary politics, and the relationship between economic systems and the dynamics of diverse societies.

This conference will examine the relationship between the historical roots of World History and its contemporary social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions. We invite paper submissions on a range of topics related to World History and Historical Materialism and encourage papers on the following themes:

• Class and Global Developments
• Authoritarian Capitalism and Human Rights
• Empire, Imperialism, and Neocolonialism
• Political Economy of Gender and Sexuality in Global Contexts
• Revolution and World History
• History of Communism and the International Left
• Postcolonialism, Eurocentrism and the Politics of World History
• Global Finance and Neo-Imperialism
• Race and Racism in World History
• Labor, Work, and the History of Migration
• Democratic and Popular Resistance to Global Capitalism

Confirmed Plenary Speakers: Bruce Cumings (University of Chicago), Karen Dubinsky (Queen’s University), Rosemary Hennessy (Rice University), Rebecca Karl (New York University), Hyun Ok Park (York University), Mary Poovey (New York University).

We welcome individual submissions as well as panel proposals. For individual papers, please send a 250-word abstract and a one-page CV (maximum); for panel proposals please send a 250-word panel abstract along with a 250-word paper abstract and one-page CV for each presenter.

Proposals can be submitted by email, fax, or mail to:
Tina Chen ( / David Churchill (
Department of History
Universityof Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba
R3T 2M8

Fax: 204-474-7914

Travel subsidies may be available for graduate students who present papers at the conference.

Deadline for submission of proposals: October 1, 2008

Hosted by the Interdisciplinary Research Circle on Globalization and Cosmopolitanism and the Department of History at the University of Manitoba.

Friday, July 4, 2008

What's to Love?

People on the nets seem to like this Peter Beinart essay on American patriotism. Not sure why, exactly, except that it has that middle-of-the-road quality that makes everyone feel like they got their props. "Liberals think patriotism is x, and conservatives think it is y, but isn't it really a bit of x and a bit of y?" This is the bad dialectics that believes it has mediated two concepts when it has imagined itself to have kept what is good about each and discarded what is bad.

Anyway, the essay ends with this bon mot:
So is wearing the flag pin good or bad? It is both; it all depends on where and why. If you're going to a Young Americans for Freedom meeting, where people think patriotism means "my country right or wrong," leave it at home and tell them about Frederick Douglass, who wouldn't celebrate the Fourth of July while his fellow Americans were in bondage. And if you're going to a meeting of the cultural-studies department at Left-Wing U., where patriotism often means "my country wrong and wronger," slap it on, and tell them about Mike Christian, who lay half-dead in a North Vietnamese jail, stitching an American flag.
What immediately jumps out at me is that when Beinart needs an case of pathological right-wing patriotism, he can appeal to an actual organization, but when he needs a balancing case on the left, he goes straight into the ether of Platonic forms. No actual institution is needed, for he can appeal to that august "Left-Wing U."

This seems to me to be a symptom of the underlying schema by which patriotism is usually discussed. Conservativism is rooted in the actual institutions and traditions of the nation, and therefore loves the past of the country. Liberalism aspires to the regulative ideals of the nation, and therefore loves the future. Its the contest between Right and Left Hegelians, between those who emphasize the constitutive reality of the idea and those who emphasize its critical, regulative reality. The right loves what is, the left loves what ought to be.

But the world just doesn't divide up that way.

Liberals love the past just as much as conservatives, they just love a different past--the past of labor organizing, abolitionist struggles, civil rights movements, etc. Liberals love the liberal past, which seems to them to be embodied more in struggles and movements than in official institutions. Conservatives love the conservative past, which tends to be the officially recognized and sanctioned institutions of the military-industrial complex and the nuclear family.

And the pasts loved by both liberals and conservatives are not actual, but imaginary. They are at least as regulative and ideal as they are constitutive. Beinart claims at one point: "To some degree, patriotism must mean loving your country for the same reason you love your family: simply because it is yours." But this never happens. We may say this from time to time, when we are unable to give an account of why we love something, but our inability to give voice to something ought not be mistaken for a positive sign of that something's non-existence. On this question, I am convinced by Plato and Aristotle: we recognize something as ours only because we think it good. The bad parts get excised.

For patriotic folks, conservative and liberal alike, the parts of America they don't like don't count. The bad parts are the inessential, the accidental dross, the mere appearance that is overcome by the inner reality. The disagreement is not about America's past versus its future, or the real versus the ideal America, but about what is good and lovable.


Atrios: "Amazingly, on every single issue there is, both political parties get it wrong but Peter Beinart gets it just right."