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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Still nation time

OK, I’ve decided to continue yesterday’s discussion up here, because (a) I don’t want some of these arguments to stay buried deep in comments and (b) some people are still disagreeing with me, and despite my commitment to pragmatist pluralism, I think this has just gotta stop.  So the discussion of Glenn Greenwald and civic vs. ethnic nationalism can keep on goin’ afresh.  But those of you who are already weary of this topic and are looking for something else on this very serious blog are advised that Scott Lemieux and I are covering the Stanley Cup finals over at Lawyers, Guns, and Hockey, and an intrepid blogger known only as Moi Oci (I think that’s a pun) has devised a groundbreaking set of equations for calibrating dangerality against dangerosity.  You already knew I was the worst or second-worst professor in America, but Moi Oci has quantitative proof.

Now for civic nationalism and yesterday’s comments.  First, Ben Alpers.  In response to my comment --

I think it’s quite difficult, actually, to read Greenwald’s outrage as anything but an expression of civic nationalism.  Remember, he wasn’t alarmed by the creation of the category of “enemy noncombatants” and the Bush Administration’s decision to hold thousands of detainees at Gitmo.  That was the tocsin for any number of other smart attorneys at home and abroad, many of whom have been interviewed by the invaluable talking dog.  Greenwald, by contrast, wasn’t that kind of internationalist or universalist; he was motivated by the deprivation of a citizen’s rights, and though you can read that motivation as being directly or indirectly allied to a more internationalist revulsion at the tactics of police states, it seems, here, quite specifically directed at a breach of the citizenship protocols of the nation-state.

-- Ben kicks off all kinds of mischief with an innocent little parenthetical remark:

But does even a revulsion “quite specifically directed at a breach of the citizenship protocols of the nation-state” necessarily involve a commitment to civic nationalism (and here I’m using nationalism in its normal sense to designate a form of patriotism, or belief in the superiority of one’s particular nation)?

The answer to this question, absent the parenthesis, is simply yes.  An objection to a breach of citizenship protocols involves a commitment to civic nationalism.  Crucially, that commitment need not preclude what Ben wisely calls “a universal commitment to citizen’s rights, a commitment that includes a belief that the legal distinction between the rights of citizens and non-citizens is necessary to the functions of the nation-state, while still maintaining that states in general should honor the rights of their own citizens.”

But the parenthesis mucks everything up.  When you say you’re using the word “nationalism” in “its normal sense to designate a form of patriotism, or belief in the superiority of one’s particular nation,” you’re putting a big fat thumb on the scales (and in saying this I do not mean any form of recognition harm with regard to Ben’s actual thumbs).  You’re deliberately evacuating the term “nationalism” of its civic, procedural sense, and substituting for it a common form of jingoism.  You’re deliberately confusing Greenwald’s civic-proceduralist conviction that the president does not have the power to set aside laws passed by Congress, and substituting for it the belief that the United States (GoUSAFreedom!) is better than other countries.

That dice-switching hampers our ability to think clearly about states, citizens, and universal commitments to citizens’ rights; closer to home, here on this very blog, it created a kind of dogpile on civic nationalism, and plenty more blurring of the difference between ethnic and civic forms of belonging.  (Of course, on the Internet no one knows if there are any actual dogs on the dogpile.) Next up was Luther Blissett:

Just want to agree with Ben Alpers’ comment above.  The line between civic and ethnic nationalism cannot be so boldly drawn.

Part of the debate over immigration posits the Samuel Huntington argument: America’s civic documents, institutions, and procedures are the product of certain ethnic worldviews, and so America cannot allow in too many of certain ethnicities and must force other immigrants to assimilate in order to preserve its civic identity.

And part of my end of the debate rejects the Samuel Huntington argument altogether.  Look, folks.  Drop the Hardt and Negri already; it’s not like they have anything coherent to say about citizenship and rights.  And please, please don’t adopt Huntington for any purpose whatsoever, not even in the safety of your own home.  Nothing good can come of that kind of “experimenting.” Instead, look closely at the difference between these two principles:

1.  The executive branch should be bound by the laws passed by the legislative branch.

2.  This land is the rightful land of the Anglo-Saxon people, having been won in conquest and in accordance with the will of God.  (For “Anglo-Saxon” substitute any form of ethnos you like.  Even your own!  If you have one, that is.)

Now, I suppose you could blur these two forms of nationalism if you wanted to, by citing some ethnocentric crackpot who believes that the principle of the separation of powers is uniquely Anglo-Saxon.  But why would anyone want to do this?  In order to argue that we shouldn’t get too upset about Bush’s secret and illegal NSA surveillance, because, after all, this whole “the president is not above the law” business is merely one of the ethnic folkways of one little proceduralist tribe?

Next comes jpj, to take issue with my claim about the constitutional origins of the United States:

I would argue that Michael is wrong when he argues that the US was “founded entirely on civic rather than ethnic grounds.”

For most of our history, our laws reflected the idea that civil society was a racial trait.  I’m sure I don’t have to rehearse the litany of racially based laws the country has had.  Chinese Exclusion, the 1924 Immigration Act, the entire structure of Jim Crow in the South… The list could be endless.

There was even an entire theoretical apparatus on the “Teutonic Origins of Democracy” to support the idea that democracy was a racial trait of Northern Europeans and that extending democratic ideals to other European races, never mind the “colored” races, was doomed to fail.

Given that extensive history, whipping up concerns about Mexican invasions is all to easy to explain.

Again, I don’t want to get parochial about this, but in my experience, I’ve found that propositions that begin “I would argue that Michael is wrong” almost never pan out.  And this one is no exception!  You certainly don’t have to rehearse the litany of racially based laws in the United States, because, as it happens, I recently wrote a very scholarly (and very heterosexual!) lecture on the subject, a lecture commissioned by General J. C. Christian himself.  No one around here is going to argue that the history of the United States is free of ethnic nationalism.  But we will argue that the checks on executive power in the Constitution are not predicated on any form of ethnic belonging.  Likewise, there is no provision in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that declares the section null and void if the President happens to be a good ol’ boy with whom one would like to have a beer.  (That would be silly!) So yes, jpj is right that there is plenty of ethnocentric precedent for whipping up concerns about Mexican invasions.  But he is wrong to see this as having any bearing on the separation of powers.

Which brings me to Lee Konstantinou’s comment.  Lee starts off great:

The problem with Greenwald isn’t that he’s finally starting to smell the coffee (we’re all very pleased that he is, really) but that by justifying his complacency and lack of interest in politics in the pre-Bush II Era on the basis of some Constitutionally-enforced political equilibrium, he suggests that If Only We Could Return to Politics as Usual then Everything Would Be OK.  Well, sorry, but it won’t be OK.

But then goes horribly awry:

There is a strong case to be made that Bush II’s policies are merely natural extensions of what has come before.

If you’re arguing that Bush II represents a restoration of the Nixon Presidency rather than the Reagan Presidency, then this is just about right.  (In a recent essay, I harked back to my belief, in my more optimistic moments of 2004, that “progressives would begin to look back on the Bush Presidency as a failed attempt to re-animate the Reagan Era, complete with tax cuts, cowboy boots, winks to religious fundamentalists, and tactical Constitution-shredding on the side.” Hey, I was wrong about the “Reagan” part!  It happens, you know.) But otherwise, it’s a very serious mistake to argue that anything about this administration is a “natural extension” of anything.  When we make the case against Bush’s NSA program and the Cheney Archipelago, we serve no good purpose if we do not stress the unprecedented nature of these things.  To do otherwise, I’m afraid, is to fall into the trap of arguing things like, “well, Clinton was just as bad in his way, and that’s just like Cheney’s secret torture sites if you think about it,” and thereby making a “left” argument that winds up having strange affinities with the right in its attempt to normalize Bush II.

Which brings me, at last, to Eric J-D and his citation of Robert Jensen’s argument about why leftists should distrust liberals:

I think at times like these it is quite difficult to know what to do with someone like Greenwald.  Certainly the exigencies of the present suggest to some the necessity of forming as broad a coalition as possible with those who oppose the present administration, but as Robert Jensen argues here, there are good reasons for those on the left to be suspicious of the value of building coalitions with liberals.

Being somewhere between liberalism and the left, let me return the favor: Jensen’s article is a standard piece of self-flattery, in which “the left” is principled and steadfast, and liberals are compromising (and compromised) wimps.  But I don’t always see things quite that way.  (Except when it comes to The Left, because he’s always objectively correct.) Apart from the fact that Counterpunch has, in the past, spread a nasty (and quite stupid!) little fib about how I am secretly in cahoots with David Horowitz, thereby giving me good reason to be suspicious of them, I have reason to be suspicious of the value of building coalitions with any part of the left that champions the “Iraqi maquis.” (For a brief but scathing reply on the left, check out Joe Lockard; for a trenchant analysis of the decline of the New Left Review more generally, see Danny Postel’s recent interview with Fred Halliday.  Long story short, right now I have fewer coalition-forming problems with Glenn Greenwald than I do with, say, Alexander Cockburn or Tariq Ali.) Yes, there are times—more than I can count—when liberals have been disappointing, craven, or worse; this snarly blog has remarked on many of them.  But there have also been times when liberals have been consistent on domestic civil liberties and universal citizenship rights, as well as on Cuba, Liberia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East while “the left” has been all over the map, from good sound anti-imperialism all the way to noxious red-brown alliances.  So I don’t think there’s any reason to hold Glenn Greenwald to the Counterpunch standard of ideological purity.  Perhaps, in some people’s opinions, it took him too long to get where he is now, and perhaps he didn’t get there for all the right reasons.  But personally, I’m with cloudsplitter when s/he says,

To me, every voice of reason that’s raised against the erosion of civil liberties in America—while it’s still possible to raise them—is a welcome addition, and when the voice is as consistent and forceful in its articulation as Glenn’s, I’m a lot more interested in turning up the volume than in determining the exact motives for the decision to speak.

And that’s why, in closing, I’m going to direct you all to Amanda Anderson’s defense of Habermasian civic nationalism, as elaborated toward the end of The Way We Argue Now.  Anderson acknowledges that civic nationalism relies on a faith in proceduralism that, as I mentioned yesterday, seems unacceptably weak when juxtaposed to other forms of belonging:

proceduralism is seen as overly thin, arid, and abstract. . . .  It is further asserted that people need affective attachments and meaningful affiliations, that attachment to impersonal procedures and universal principles cannot provide the glue that holds communities of various scales together. . . .

Historically, the idea that participants in modern democratic life might fundamentally aspire to the forming of an attachment to abstract or universal principles has been a key issue in the debate over the possibilities for a nationalism defined in civic rather than ethnic terms (stretching back at least as far as J. S. Mill), and it has also informed discussions about cosmopolitan attachment (can one experience solidarity as a world citizen?) and about proceduralism of the type that Habermas espouses (not only through his concept of “constitutional patriotism,” but also through the idea of commitment to postnational institutions like the European Union and to international law).

Anderson then goes to argue that a commitment to proceduralism and civic nationalism need not be so arid and thin after all, especially if you take into account the history of ethnic nationalism:

Habermas has emphasized the ways in which citizens can form solidarities and affiliations based on a common struggle to install abstract principles and procedures at the heart of their national political institutions.  Sharing a common history in which there were collective efforts to overcome the damning effects of ethnic nationalism—as is certainly the case in Germany—can have the effect of what we might call “thickifying the thin.” In these instances, a shared dedication to principled democratic procedure itself promotes those forms of affective solidarity that Habermas elsewhere assigned exclusively to preexisting ethical life.  “The political culture of a country crystallizes around its constitution.  Each national culture develops a distinctive interpretation of those constitutional principles that are equally embodied in other republican constitutions—such as popular sovereignty and human rights—in light of its own national history.  A ‘constitutional patriotism’ based on these interpretations can take the place originally occupied by nationalism.” [Quoting Jürgen Habermas, “The European Nation-State: On the Past and Future of Sovereignty and Citizenship,” in The Inclusion of the Other, ed. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo de Greiff (MIT Press, 1998), 118.]

Thus, Anderson argues, “the collective attempt to resist forms of patriotism that attempt to subordinate or sidestep the rigorous demands of law, principle, and right—at either the national or the international level—can themselves promote productive forms of patriotic and cosmopolitan affiliation.” (By the way, this reminds me: wasn’t The Valve supposed to do one of their collective reviews of Anderson’s book?  Back in January, Scott Eric Kaufman was promising us a “book event” “in the next month or so.” And after all, wouldn’t they be better off reading Amanda Anderson than wasting their time and ours with houses of cards?)

This Habermasian project, I submit, is precisely what Greenwald’s How Would a Patriot Act? attempts to accomplish: to counter America’s history of narrow, ethnic nationalism with a constitutional faith, a procedural commitment to principled democratic procedure itself.  And every effort to blur the distinction between the ethnic nationalism of the Volk and the civic nationalism of political constitutions hampers that attempt.  In my humble yet tenacious opinion, the left should try to keep that distinction as clear as possible.

Posted by Michael on 06/06 at 01:22 PM
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Monday, June 05, 2006

Nation time

Glenn Greenwald opens How Would A Patriot Act? with an intriguing rhetorical move:

I never voted for George W. Bush—or for any of his political opponents.

I believed that voting was not particularly important.  Our country, it seemed to me, was essentially on the right track.  Whether Democrats or Republicans held the White House or the majorities in Congress made only the most marginal difference.  I held views on some matters that could be defined as conservative, views on others that seemed liberal.  But I firmly believed that our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse, by our Constitution and by the checks and balances afforded by having three separate but equal branches of government.

My primary political belief was that both parties were plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive, but that as long as neither extreme acquired real political power, our system would function smoothly and more or less tolerably.  For that reason, although I always paid attention to political debates, I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process.  I had great faith in the stability and resilience of the constitutional republic that the founders created.

All that has changed.  Completely.  Over the past five years, a creeping extremism has taken hold of our federal government, and it is threatening to radically alter our system of government and who we are as a nation.  This extremism is neither conservative nor liberal in nature, but is instead driven by theories of unlimited presidential power that are wholly alien, and antithetical, to the core political values that have governed this country since its founding.

I know of precincts on the left—actually, I inhabit some of them—where Greenwald would be dismissed on the basis of those first three paragraphs alone.  Many liberals would consider him foolish for believing that the question of who controls Congress and the White House—and, thus, who appoints the members of the cabinet and the heads of the regulatory agencies—makes “only the most marginal difference,” say, to women or to people in poverty.  Many progressives would take him to task, and rightly so, for describing the edges of the Republican and Democratic parties as “plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive,” as if the Democrats have a branch office of the Khmer Rouge to balance out the GOP’s far-right theocrats.  And many leftists would conclude that anyone who opens a book by professing the firm belief that “our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse” needs a refresher course in American history before he’ll be worth listening to.  For that matter, there are leftists who would dismiss the book well before they got to the first three paragraphs, on the basis of the word “Patriot” in the title.  This isn’t caricature, you know: there are plenty of people on the left who get pissed off every time Todd Gitlin tells them they’re insufficiently patriotic.  Which is understandable, up to a point, since no sensible person on the left likes being told that they need to proclaim their one-hundred-percent Americanism before they’ll be taken seriously.  But surely, as Greenwald makes clear, there is a form of patriotism that involves civic rather than ethnic nationalism (about which I’ll say more in a moment, for it is the very subject of this post), and surely, if you were a sensible citizen of the United States in 2002, it was plausible to argue that launching a war in Iraq and creating a Cheney Archipelago of secret torture sites from Gitmo to Kabul would not, ultimately, serve the best interests of the United States.  The problem is that in order to make that argument, you have to invoke something like a “national interest,” and, for various reasons, that’s a move that some on the left are unwilling to make.

What interests me about Greenwald’s opening, however, is precisely that it positions Greenwald as a disinterested proceduralist who was radicalized by the Bush Administration.  In saying this I don’t mean to suggest that Greenwald is misrepresenting himself somehow, or indulging in a “merely” rhetorical opening; I believe he’s telling the truth about his earlier self, for what that’s worth.  Rather, I mean that the author of How Would A Patriot Act? opens by saying that when it came to welfare reform or private-school vouchers or gay marriage or the minimum wage or workplace safety or universal health care, he didn’t really have a dog in the fight.  He was all about the Constitution and the separation of powers, and as long as those things were functioning, everything else would kinda sort itself out.  But then he began to get the sense that something was rotten and beginning to smell:

What first began to shake my faith in the administration was its conduct in the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested in May 2002 on U.S. soil and then publicly labeled “the dirty bomber.” The administration claimed it could hold him indefinitely without charging him with any crime and while denying him access to counsel.

I never imagined that such a thing could happen in modern America—that a president would claim the right to order American citizens imprisoned with no charges and without the right to a trial.  In China, the former Soviet Union, Iran, and countless other countries, the government can literally abduct its citizens and imprison them without a trial.  But that cannot happen in the United States—at least it never could before.

Isn’t this precisely the kind of reaction liberal Americans would like to have seen from their fellow citizens in 2002?  As opposed, say, to the more common “everything changed on 9/11” reaction known to faithful readers of this humble blog as “I used to be a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m really outraged by Chappaquiddick.” What Greenwald offers here is a mode of nationalism—of patriotism—that consists of principled opposition to the unlimited expansion of executive power by the Bush/Cheney regime.  It’s a mode of nationalism that might, and that should, be more popular than it is.

But, of course, in some circles “nationalism” is as dirty a word as “patriotism.” In the United States, it often speaks to the history of exclusion and exceptionalism—and in many other places, to ethnocentrism and funny ideas about the pure unadultered Volk as well.  You don’t want to go down that road, right, because it leads directly to Michelle Malkin and Pat Buchanan.

And that’s the point: think of all the Americans who’ve been whipped into a nationalistic frenzy in the past year—not by Bush and Cheney’s various shreddings of the Constitution but by . . . gasp! Mexicans. These are Americans who are just fine with NSA surveillance, and who think it’s perfectly OK for Bush to have lied about his NSA program repeatedly over the past five years.  Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants, though—that drives them crazy.  Why, that’s a threat to the very nation!

It’s possible to conclude, from the relative lack of nationalist outrage over Bush’s data mining and the outpouring of excess outrage over immigration, that any contest between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism will look a little like a reply of Spinks v. Tyson.  It will be ugly and embarrassing, and civil nationalism will be sent from the ring in about 91 seconds.  Civic nationalism, after all, involves a complex, reflective kind of fealty to procedure, to political forms and institutions; ethnic nationalism involves an unexamined fealty to the ethnos.  Even in the United States, which was founded entirely on civic rather than ethnic grounds, civic nationalism appears too “thin,” too tenuous a form of belonging to motivate ordinary, unaffiliated people to get up and ask how would a patriot act?  And as a result, when “patriots” do get up to act, more of them grab a gun and head for the border than grab a laptop and write How Would A Patriot Act?

It’s possible to come to that conclusion, yes.  I’ve come to it often enough myself.  But liberals and progressives who do so today, I think, give up too much along the way—rhetorically and politically.  So here’s hoping that Glenn Greenwald helps to make the (popular) case for a civic nationalism, with his tenacious love of liberty and with his many allies in the blogosphere.

Posted by Michael on 06/05 at 11:07 AM
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Friday, June 02, 2006

Arbitrary but fun Friday:  Nancy Fraser edition!

We open this Arbitrary but Fun Friday with a federal report and a beer ad.

First, the report:

Women Gaining on Men in Advanced Fields

By BEN FELLER
AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP)—Women now earn the majority of diplomas in fields men used to dominate—from biology to business—and have caught up in pursuit of law, medicine and other advanced degrees.

Even with such enormous gains over the past 25 years, women are paid less than men in comparable jobs and lag in landing top positions on college campuses.

Well, this is certainly a mystery, and it looks like we have two possible avenues of research into it—once we correct for the liberal bias of academe, of course.  The first would involve a study of the evolutionary psychology of women, to try to determine the biological mechanisms they have developed, over millions of years, that lead them to forego power and money in exchange for intellectual achievement.  The second would involve interviewing a handful of undergraduate women at Yale, to find out if they plan to have babies and raise families, thereby accounting for the “lag” in the power-and-money department.

OK, now for that beer ad.  Readers will surely recall Amanda Marcotte’s recent guest post on the new “man law” announced by Miller Lite—you poke it, you own it—and the explosion of antifeminist (and/or pro-ad) bloggolalia that followed her original post on the subject. 

There’s no correlation between the two, of course—it’s not as if stupid beer commercials are responsible for salary disparities between men and women, or the strange scarcity of female administrators on American campuses.  And it would take a virtuoso form of patriarchy-blaming to see these two things as part of a seamless garment.  Besides (to save the most obvious point for last), the federal study is “important,” and the beer ad is not.

But there’s a critical principle at stake here, and that’s why I want to follow up on one or two of Amanda’s guest posts.  It’s not just that I agree with her that (a) Go Fug Yourself is scathingly funny in a not-antifeminist way and that (b) “you poke it, you own it” is a gratuitous, smirking, juvenile piece of work.  With regard to (a), when Amanda writes, “I’m going to weigh in on this debate on the side of ruthless mockery,” she is both politically and theoretically correct, for as Karl Marx famously put it in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge, “it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless mockery of all that exists, including celebrities with unfortunate dress sense.” And with regard to (b), it’s worth keeping in mind that at the Budweiser-Miller level, beer advertising is not supposed to sell beer.  It’s not even supposed to raid a few beer drinkers from the other guy’s camp.  It’s almost purely about brand image, which is why Miller Lite’s self-parodic “Dick” ads of the late 1990s caused such a shitstorm in the advertising industry (as James Poniewozik pointed out at the time, while describing the ads like so: “This 1997-98 campaign, presented as the work of ‘Dick,’ an advertising ‘genius’ shown in a thick-sideburned yearbook photo, played off stereotypical beer-ad promises of sex and charisma, associating Lite with ugly, Dadaist images: fat, sloppy drinkers, a pitchman licking a Lite bottle in gruesome close-up”).  While it’s true that approximately 95 percent of beer ads are stupid (according to an independent study conducted by me during last night’s Sabres-Hurricanes game), there really is a world of difference between the stupid of the “Dick” ads and the stupid of the “Man Law” ads, and it’s perfectly legitimate for any cultural critic—even the Sacred Order of the Shrill feminist kind!—to say so.

But, again, my agreement with Ms. Marcotte is not the point.  The point is that the federal report seems to speak to “real” politics, the kind that involve money and power, and the beer ad seems to speak to merely “cultural” politics, the kind that involve offended sensibilities and deliberate or unintended slights to large or small fractions of the general human population.  And whenever someone unloads (what Amanda calls) the “I’ll give you something to cry about” counterargument in response to a critique of something like the Man Law ad, they’re basically trying to trump someone’s “merely cultural” concerns with something more real, more substantial, more about power and money (or health care, or abortion rights in South Dakota, or women in Afghanistan).  That is, if they’re being the least bit serious, as opposed to merely trollish.

Well, on my end of the campus quad, we spent most of the 1990s trying to hash these things out.  (Those of you who’d like to take this opportunity to use the Internets to read Judith Butler’s 1997 essay, “Merely Cultural,” can do so right here.  Not that she’s the last word on the subject, but she’s responding to a whole array of mid-1990s complaints that the American left had given in to identity politics and forgotten its, er, “common dreams.”) Some of you may remember those innocent days, when we campus humanists were merely Stalinist PC clones rather than objectively pro-Islamofascisterrorist dangeral types.  Depending on where you got your news, cultural politics were a distraction from the country’s massive shift rightward—or cultural politics held the key to understanding that shift and how to reverse it.  Cultural politics were the legacy of the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, from race and gender to sexuality and disability, and they represented either a challenge to or a fulfillment of the (long-betrayed) universalist promises of the Enlightenment; or cultural politics were the dirty-bongwater residue of 1960s counterculture delusions, in which merely money/power politics were rejected in favor of focusing on the deeper, more psychosociostructural foundations of social inequities. 

Late in the 1990s, Nancy Fraser attempted to referee the proceedings by jettisoning the rhetoric of “cultural” versus “real” politics and proposing, instead, the terms “politics of recognition” and “politics of redistribution.” Recognition harms, Fraser argued, could have redistributive effects, but they were not to be reduced to their redistributive effects; they were to be understood as recognition harms on their own terms, whether they consisted of ethnic slurs, jokes about the short bus, or nasty remarks about someone’s appearance.  At the same time, however, Fraser insisted that priority be given to recognition harms that do have redistributive effects, because hey (and I think I’m quoting here), there just isn’t world enough and time, everybody.

OK, so you can see where that last move just might set the cat among the pigeons.  As I put it in a 1999 review essay on Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country,

the cultural conditions in which gays and lesbians, or people with disabilities, or ethnic minorities live in the United States can be dehumanizing in ways that have nothing to do with taxation, federal spending, private investment, and the minimum wage, even though strategies of dehumanization may have broad implications for the distribution of goods; and surely any left worthy of the name should mount opposition to strategies of dehumanization without regard to their economic implications.

My point, obviously, was that people of good conscience shouldn’t have to consult the Power/ Money Chart, or wait around for some measurable economic or political fallout, before objecting to ethnic slurs, jokes about the short bus, or nasty remarks about someone’s appearance.  (Or stupid beer ads.) On the other hand (for we are nothing if not fair and balanced on this Libran blog), Fraser was merely trying to establish a “relevance” criterion for recognition harms, and though she doesn’t nearly have Amanda Marcotte’s sense of humor, I like to believe that she’d be OK with some ruthless mockery here and there, too.  After all, a left that goes around objecting to every single possible recognition harm in this sublunary sphere will quickly find itself way too busy with things that really are trivial in the grand scheme of things (and I should know, because I have the Grand Scheme of Things Chart on my wall right next to the Power/ Money Chart)—and it might find itself becoming kind of dour and humorless, too.

For example.  I happen to think that the “you poke it, you own it” ad is qualitatively different from, say, the Axe body spray ads, which are positively cringe-inducing, far beyond any hope of being read as hyperbolic self-parody.  (Perhaps Spin magazine could say to the Axers’ media buyers someday, “you know, we’re running a serious pop-music magazine here, and unlike some other pop-music magazines, we have almost no covers that feature scantily clad women.  We don’t see why we should be insulting our male readers by running ads about how your smelly product will induce five women to take showers with them.”) Part of the smirkiness of the “Man Law” ad lies in the fact that it’s not explicit, and that it scores relatively low on the dehumanization scale: it is, for one thing, completely bikini-babe-free.  But I was a 13-year-old boy once, and I can tell you precisely what’s going on here: part of the juvenile-giggling “fun,” in designing the ad, involved waiting for women to respond with outrage.  It’s as if you managed to get away with saying “who’s Dick Hertz?” on national TV, dude!  Even better, the women who object to the “you poke it” bit get cast as the Schoolteachers with the Terminal Hairbuns, rapping their rulers on the desk and saying, “Dick Hertz?  ‘You poke it you own it?’ If that’s your idea of humor, young man, you can explain it to the principal,” and off we go down the hall to the principal’s office, laughing all the way.  Get it?  The secondary “humor” is our mockery of the “humorlessness” of the women who picked up on “poke it”!  Good one, dudes!

So yes, even as beer ads go, this one’s deliberately annoying.  But I have my recognition-politics limits too, and I’ll close with a counterexample or two.  Here in my wing of the disability community, we’re acutely aware that no one knows what to call anything (remember “physically challenged” and “differently abled”?), and we’re especially wary of being casually stigmatized and dehumanized.  There are people who object strenuously to the term “Down’s syndrome,” preferring “Down syndrome” on the grounds that the possessive “s” makes it appear as if J. Langdon Down owns a segment of the population, sort of like “Jerry’s Kids.” (And I’ll assume you know how much the disability community hates the telethon phenomenon and the locution “Jerry’s Kids.") Personally, I could not care less about Down and Down’s.  As I said in Life As We Know It back when Jamie was five, I cared more about whether Jamie could say and understand a possessive “s” than about whether he was marked by one.  Likewise, every few years someone tries to recalibrate the official terminology across the board.  Most of us go by “people first” language, in which we say “a child with Down [or Down’s!] syndrome” rather than “a Down syndrome child.” (And both are better than “a mongoloid idiot,” which, back in the day, was entirely common parlance.) The rationale is that a person is a person first, and not a syndrome or a disease.  But recently, I’ve heard people argue that phrases like “a person with autism” regrettably suggest that autism is all a person “has,” and that “an autistic person” is more indicative of the adjectival nature of the autism and its relation to the human being it modifies.  The first (and second and third) time I heard this argument, I wondered just how many ways the deck chairs on the Titanic could be arranged—and in writing this, I do not mean to demean the people making those arguments, or, indeed, to demean any Titanic-Americans reading this blog.  I’m merely saying, in a merely cultural kind of way, that we all have different (and sometimes conflicted or internally contradictory) standards for what kind of recognition harms we consider significant, and what kind we consider trivial—regardless of whether those recognition harms conceivably have any redistributive effects.

So this Friday’s arbitrary but fun challenge, Nancy Fraser edition, is this: how or where do you distinguish between trivial and nontrivial slights to our common humanity?  And how or where do you allow for the ruthless mockery of everything existing?

Posted by Michael on 06/02 at 09:47 AM
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Thanks, Cap!

Yes, I know I promised I wouldn’t blog about hockey, but this isn’t about hockey.  It’s about labor and management.

Just WTF is this piece of pro-owner propaganda doing in the Associated Press account of the Carolina Hurricanes’ victory over the Buffalo Sabres last night?

[Rod] Brind’Amour also assisted on Justin Williams’ goal in the final minute to seal it, propelling the former Hartford Whalers into the finals against the five-time champion Edmonton Oilers.  The small-market, best-of-seven matchup, helped by the NHL’s new salary cap in this first post-lockout season, opens Monday in Raleigh.

Edmonton-Carolina is a small-market matchup helped by the salary cap?  Hello? As opposed, say, to the pre-lockout matchup of Calgary and Tampa Bay back in 2004?  Let’s see, we got a small-market team from the South, check.  And a small-market team from Alberta, check.  Looks like the salary cap is doing its work! 

Well, good riddance to those boring, predictable pre-cap days when the big-market Chicago Black Hawks and Los Angeles Kings dominated the West and the behemoth-market Montréal Canadiens and New York Rangers dominated the East.  Finally, we’ve got us some parity around here.

Paul Kiel is right.  This whole Associated Press bamboozlement enterprise has got to stop.

Posted by Michael on 06/02 at 09:41 AM
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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Now, where were we?

Hi again, everyone.  I’m back.  Ahhhh, west and wewaxation!  I had me a very nice break from bloggering.  And no major surgeries this time, I’m happy to say!  I have precisely the same number of internal organs I had when I went on hiatus, unless of course someone swiped one while I wasn’t paying attention.  I used my extra time productively, reducing my record times on minesweeper to 16 seconds (intermediate) and 105 seconds (expert).  In the outside world, I played an entire round of golf, and if you ask very very nicely, I’ll even tell you the story of Father’s Day 2005, when I went out and shot a dumb-luck 79 that featured three jawdropping putts on the final three holes, all of ‘em made with the thirty-year-old blade putter I’d found in the garage and tossed into my bag on a last-second whim as I was packing up the car.  You’ll love that story, trust me.  Also, I cleaned out my study at home and went to the gym and took a whole bunch of showers, not all at once.  What else?  I read some books, and will be happy to tell you about them.  I’ve also been watching some hockey games, but I promise not to blog about those.  Not today, anyway.

Many, many thanks to Amanda and Lance for their wonderful (and infallible!) guest blogging, for their incisive Go Fug Yourself-defending and Inner Liberal-embracing.  Quite apart from the west and wewaxation involved in a bloggering break, it was a real delight to stop by the site and find new great stuff every day.  Thank you both—and please feel free to call on me anytime for any kind of favor that doesn’t involve the commission of a felony.  (Misdemeanors are fair game.)

I’ll keep it short today.  You know what they say—after a long layoff, you don’t want to jump right in with a big heavy post and maybe pull a muscle or something.  We middle-aged bloggers need to take things gradually and rebuild our bloggering tolerance.  It’s no use pretending we’re still 23 or 24, when we could just fall out of bed one morning after a three-week hiatus and blog a few thousand words before breakfast.  Ah, those were the days.

So?  Did anything happen while I was gone?  Sloppy and opportunistic right-wing “reports” on the corruption of the universities?  Riots in Kabul?  Marines in Haditha?  Bold new literary theories that tell us to pay attention to what the author meant?  Bold new law-professor theories about how art is inherently conservative?  Bold new conservative readings of Lolita?  Has anyone heard any news about Fafblog?  Maybe some 5-4 Supreme Court decisions chilling the speech of government employees?  How about that Greg Easterbrook?  Did he write anything about how the very teeniest tiniest particle in the atom just may be the Holy Spirit, and how “science” dogmatically ignores people who are doing the important research into how the universe is held together by infinitestimally tiny “trinitrons”? 

Or, as I suspect, have things been pretty quiet around here lately?  Let me know what’s on your minds.  I missed you all, you know.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a brand-new Arbitrary But Fun Friday in which we debate the competing claims of the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution!  Stick around!  It’ll be arbitrary—but fun!

Posted by Michael on 06/01 at 11:49 AM
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