Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On the use of rhetoric in place of complex political thought

Consider the way two words are used in political discourse: "progressive" and "liberal".  Consider further the way the meanings of these two words have evolved in line with the persuasive intent of the speaker or writer.

The word "progressive" has been appropriated by people on the left to refer to positions and policies they prefer, thus implying that policies and positions with which they disagree are "regressive", i.e. perversely contrary to the direction of progress, the underpinning of modern, and particularly U.S. American, optimism. People on the right, of course, do not refer to their policies as regressive, but as conservative.  They do not oppose progress, they want to conserve tradition, what is good in the past. But now, free market advocates believe that they are promoting progress and that "liberals" stand in the way with obstructionistic regulations and confiscatory taxes.  In any case, by appropriating words that evoke values that few would disavow (progress, conservation of what is good in tradition) politicians and those who advocate for political positions seem to substitute slogans for stimulation of independent and critical thinking on the part of the citizenry.  Are political positions so difficult to defend, so fragilely sustainable, that people should not be rather encouraged to consider their merits and demerits?

Another word that has been appropriated and re-appropriated is "liberal".  This word has a particularly complex variety of meanings.  In its origin, the word derives from the Latin "liber" or free.  To be liberal, then, is to be free, to be a free man, to act freely. According to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, "liberal" means "not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted".  In other words, not "conservative", thus fitting with a traditional U.S. political use of these words---although could one not be both liberal and conservative?  Could one not be open to "new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted" while at the same time wanting to conserve what is valuable in tradition?  Of course, but then one has to do some thinking about what is good in what is new, and what is good in what is old, and evidently the populace is not up to the task, or cannot be trusted to think these issues through in the right way.  Merriam Webster online also defines liberal as "believing that government should be active in supporting social and political change".  Evidently, believing in what is new entails belief that the government should promote that which is new.  When did that equation get established?  Could one not be inclined toward what breaks with tradition without believing that government must play a crucial role in promoting change?  Doesn't government often enough play a conservative role? Aren't there conservative people and forces in government?  The idea that government stands for change is at the heart of tea party ideology that wants to see government shrink and get out of people's way so they can act freely (i.e. liberally?)  Wait, this is getting confusing. Now, we have "neo liberalism" in which freedom, i.e. liberalism, stands for "free" as in "free markets".  But now we have liberalism implying freedom from government.  I guess the "neo" signals the meaning of "liberal" is the opposite of what it used to be. I want to be free (or do I?) but I'm getting conflicting, contradictory, advice as to the direction in which freedom lies. Perhaps this is a good starting point for a real discussion, one that acknowledges that, as Isaiah Berlin liked to point out, there is no such thing as pure freedom. For one thing, there is positive freedom (freedom to do what I want; but what do I want to do?) and negative freedom (freedom from interference, which can also be known as interaction.) If I'm free to work hard and make money, am I not less free to enjoy a day at the beach? 

So maybe the problem is not that politicians don't want us to think for ourselves, but that the issues are so complex and multi-faceted, so fraught with contradiction and paradox, that its far easier to join a side than to think.  

Why is sex so much the focus of reviews of "Blue is the Warmest Color" or "La Vie d'Adele"?

Reading a number of reviews of "Blue is the Warmest Color" (La Vie d'Adele in French) led me to anticipate that the sex scenes, extended and realistic, or idealized, would be the highlight of the experience of viewing the film. The reviews led me to believe that the sex scenes somehow broke new ground.  I wasn't sure whether I would be shocked, embarrassed, titillated, or what.  I didn't know whether all the attention was due to the graphic nature of the scenes, or perhaps the fact that the lovers were so young, or both female.

What I found, instead, was a film that portrayed a young woman, an adolescent, in the process of discovering herself, or exploring herself, in an interesting but fairly ordinary human way.  Sex, or her sexual orientation, seemed to be one particularly salient aspect of her self exploration.  What struck me most about the film was the focus on the faces, close up, the level and subtlety of emotional expression in the faces of the young actors, particularly Adele. This was ordinary life in all its pain and wonder. Why the one dimensional focus on sex?

In the final scene of the film, after the relationship between the two lovers comes to an end, eighteen year old Adele walks off into her future, while a young Arab man wistfully watches, clearly smitten with her.  At that point, I thought about the Tunisian origin of the filmmaker, a man from the French colonies.  I wondered then whether the film depicted the experience of a Tunisian feeling as excluded by the French as a man would feel being in love with a woman who is in love with another woman. I have sometimes thought about the colonizer-colonized relationship as a kind of intense, violent, surreptitious love/hate affair underneath the political, military veneer.  I first contemplated this level of colonialism while reading about the alleged erotic/professional relationship between D.W. Winnicott and Masud Khan, the British psychoanalyst with his Pakistani protege.  I imagined that their relationship reflected an erotic connection underlying and motivating the violent possessiveness of colonialism.  Could the erotic connection work both ways, with the erotic connection of the colonized to the colonizer accounting for the former's vulnerability to the latter's contempt, his internalized racism, his identification with the aggressor?  Was all this embodied in the Arab man's hapless, helpless, hopeless, fascination with the French teenager who is totally engrossed, body, mind, and soul, in her French female counterpart?  With such thoughts in mind, the one dimensional focus on the sex in the movie came to seem a reflection of an eager willingness to distract ourselves with the spectacular and the titillating, rather than attend to the painful, violent, and complex realities of life at the intersections of politics, bodies, and minds. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On reading "Indefinite Detention"  in Precarious Lives by Judith Butler.

In this chapter, Judith Butler outlines the dangerous implications of the U.S. government's (or any government's) arrogation of the power to detain people indefinitely and without trial.  I learned a great deal from this chapter. For example, amazingly, I hadn't known that if and when detainees at Guantanamo Bay are tried in military tribunals, a verdict of innocent can be set aside by the President. Due process and the separation of powers do not prevail: a dangerous precedent and breach of the Constitution.

Butler's chapter is written in a philosophical language that is likely to be inaccessible to all but philosophically sophisticated people, specifically those who are conversant with the work of Foucault, and with post-structuralist, postmodern, language in general.  This amounts to a small audience for a political argument.  I suspect that people who are inclined to become sophisticated with this body of thought are unlikely to need convincing that indefinite detention makes a mockery of due process and the separation of powers in the U.S. government.  On the other hand, the great majority of people who might be influenced in their opinions by Butler's arguments are unlikely to be conversant with her language, not because of any inherent incapacity, but due to unfamiliarity with the jargon of this branch of philosophy or critical studies. These considerations lead me to wonder: for whom is this chapter, and other articles like it, written, and for what purpose?

There is value for many of us who are conversant with Butler's language in clarifying our thoughts on these issues in the face of our fear and confusion about terrorist threats.  The process of writing and reading is often coterminous with the process of thought itself.  Additionally, much writing in the tradition of Foucault is addressed to unpacking rhetoric that justifies the marginalization and dehumanization of people.  It is possible that the deconstruction and unpacking of such rhetoric requires a technical language to get underneath the subtle and obscure manipulation of people's opinions, in this case by evoking fear and rage simultaneously with a sense of righteous victimization and entitlement to retaliate. Perhaps an obscure language is necessary to illuminate how techniques of manipulation are obscurely carried out.  Nonetheless, we need to try to translate our thinking into plain language if we hope to have a significant impact.

Butler's arguments, however, have a rhetorical force of their own; they are not simply objective demonstrations of the uses and distorting effects of rhetoric on the other side.  There is an argument being engaged on both sides as to whether it is a good or bad thing to detain people indefinitely who are suspected of plotting violent attacks on the United States and its people.  Each side seeks to demonstrate the flawed arguments being deployed by the other side, as well as the rhetorical techniques deployed, in the course of marshaling arguments in favor of a particular point of view.  But my impression is that those who defend indefinite detention present their arguments in a much more broadly accessible form than those who take a critical attitude.

If the purpose of articles such as Butler's is ultimately, to influence the opinion of the populace, how does it happen that those who oppose indefinite detention present their arguments in such an obscure manner that the great majority of people would not be able to decipher what is being said?  In this way we, those who oppose indefinite detention without due process, are creating or reinforcing the impression that this position is the province of an exclusive elite.  While both sides try to dismiss or disqualify the views of the other, only those who present an argument against such detention present their arguments in such an exclusionary way.  Those who do not identify with the intellectual elite may be left with the impression that a position critical of the status quo is not for them.

There is a temptation among those of us who think of ourselves as "intellectuals" to talk and write in a way that signals our membership in an elite intellectual club.  We may need to forego such satisfactions if we hope to make a difference in the wider world.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Obama's speech on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict.

Race relations in the U.S. have often been characterized by what psychoanalysts call "splitting." The very notion of "black" and "white" is a prime illustration of splitting, which occurs when "never the twain shall meet."  In fact, black people and white people form a continuum, both in terms of color and genetically, but we categorize them in black-white fashion so we can believe that there is an absolute separation between "us" and "them".  Politics, especially in a two-party system, tend also to be characterized by splitting: Democrats vs. Republicans, Tea Party Republicans vs. Old Guard Republicans, and so on.

Psychoanalysts speak of a process by which these splits are overcome, as it is recognized that the complexity of anything in life cannot be captured in a simple binary.  Yet, these binaries are essential as well: they simplify an overwhelming reality for us; binaries allow for taking positions, emotional and/or political.  It is hard to talk about anything without invoking binaries, language is full of them.  We need to use a lot more words to be true to the complexity of things than to put them into widely used baskets. When we do try to bring binaries together into a more complex view of reality that recognizes opposing views and feelings, psychoanalysts speak of the process as "containing".

So when Obama talks about race and the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, his starting point is splitting on two levels.  Race is split into black and white, and his listeners tend to be split into pro and con on the verdict.  Obama's goal, politically, is to bring pro and con together into a "more perfect union".  In terms of race relations, his goal is to bring black and white together by presenting how many black people, including himself, feel about the verdict, without reinforcing splitting (and damaging himself politically) by alienating too many white people.  (Note how I am using the words "black" and "white" reflexively, and to save words.)  He is seeking to "contain" both intellectually and politically.

Obama seeks to accomplish this goal by a strategic use of vagueness, and by countering most of his assertions of a "black" point of view with a qualification, wording that moderates his position.  For example, Obama said:

"Now this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It is not to make excuses for that fact---although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.  They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history."

Obama gives a nod here to a range of feelings that are often set in opposition.  "African-American" is a less polarizing term than "black" and "white".  Black people are African and American. Violent crime is often a black on black problem (giving a nod to a wish on the part of some whites to disassociate themselves from the problem of U.S. violence).  He gives a nod to the idea that to look at the historical context, or roots, of that problem in white racism is seen as making "excuses", by some people, white and black.  He then invokes an "historical context" for violence in "poor" black neighborhoods, consisting of a "violent past".  Here is the vagueness.  He does not say explicitly that the violent past to which he alludes consists of white racist violence against black people.  He goes on to "trace" the "poverty and dysfunction" in poor black neighborhoods to this "very difficult history".  Obama thus manages to acknowledge a white defensiveness that aims to disassociate whites from collective responsibility for racially based violence, AND to connect black on black violence to an earlier history of white on black violence.  Again, he does so without calling white on black violence by its right name, and so he does not put white collective responsibility in whites' faces.  He avoids language that could have been taken as  blaming whites.  In fact, he does not blame whites.  He blames no one, in that he "traces", he makes a connection without implying simple or direct causation.  In this way, Obama offers an alternative to "poor black" internalization of a violent self-image, to self-blame, without blaming whites.  To have done so would have been to initiate a cycle of accusation and defensiveness that would have been damaging both politically, and to his own goal of containing the feelings of a wide range of white and black people.  He would have reinforced, rather than undermined, splitting. The politically astute statement, and the containing statement, coincide.

Nonetheless, Obama does not shrink from exposing an underlying racial bias in those who would defend the acquittal of George Zimmerman while denying that race was a factor.  He asks: "---if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?  And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?"  This last "he" is ambiguous grammatically.  It could refer to either Zimmerman or Martin.  And that is precisely the point.

I suspect that behind Obama's question is a thought that is familiar to most African-Americans, but that would take aback most Euro-Americans (I include myself here) who stopped long enough to think about it.  Barack Obama, has once again created a mental space capacious enough to include the racial sensitivities and biases on all sides that few Euro-Americans want to admit still deeply divide this nation.