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Kosovo—A Failure of Pluralistic Democracy 26 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, International Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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[Both commenters and doing a bit of my own research have corrected some of my misinformation, so be sure to read the updates and comments  before allowing your head to explode.]
[UPDATE/CORRECTION II, below (thanks to anonymous commenter)]
[UPDATE I, below]

I had a student from Serbia in a globalization course a few years ago who added an always interesting perspective on ethnic conflict around the world. During the section on retribalization and ethno-nationalism, his presence in the room always forced the conversation into more nuanced and careful discussions. Although he was deeply critical of Milosovic’s policies against the Albanian-Kosovards, he never let us forget that the Albanians were, for lack of a better word, immigrants and so the dynamics were far more complex than they had been portrayed in the “West”.

Albania over the past few generations has been poor and oppressive, and Yugoslavia had allowed immigrants from Albania into Kosovo. (I do not know this history well, and so this is very surface-level and from the perspective of my student, a Serbian man. If I’m misrepresenting the history here, I’d appreciate factual and interpretive corrections in the comments.)

My student tried to get his classmates to understand that for the Serbians in Kosovo, it was about a complete loss of control, of culture, of governance; he said it would be as if Mexicans in Los Angeles suddenly decided they wanted independence and wanted to wrest control of the society from Americans; then the government of California instituted ethnic cleansing policies against them; then the rest of the United States came in, defeated California, and made Los Angeles county a protectorate and allowed the Mexicans to come back. Three years later, I’m sure he would add, then the Mexicans declared themselves independent and the rest of the United States recognized Los Angeles as an independent nation even though California refused to and claimed that Los Angeles still belonged to California.

The point here is, of course, not to justify the ethnic cleansing policies of the early 90s, but to explain that the ethnic tensions are much more complex than we were led to believe. And my position is to keep pulling my hair out in frustration over the continual reification of ethnic identities, be they Serbian or Albanian or Kosovard.

For me, the ultimate tragedy of Kosovo isn’t that the Serbs lost their majority sometime in the past, nor that Serbia is “losing” the region that was the birthplace of its form of Christianity. Rather, the tragedy is that around the world, various ethnicities believe that they cannot live together and form democracies together; that the only way for a democracy to function is for everyone to have the same ethnicity, or that every ethnicity must have its corresponding nation. [Philosophically, this is why I have a huge problem with the establishment of Israel historically; although now that Israel has existed for going on five generations, that critique is purely theoretical.]

This is founded on a deep misunderstanding of ethnic identities in the first place: That they are permanent and essential, that they transcend other social considerations, that they necessarily exclude interaction and cooperation with other ethnic groups. It reproduces dangerous notions of purity. It precludes cooperation and compromise in favor of complete control.

Ultimately, it forecloses the possibility for real, pluralistic democracy and creates a world of ethno-Nations, reinforcing the power of dominant cultures instead of mitigating them, and permanently ghettoizing ethnic minorities. This is the continued fragmentation of democracies along ethnic lines. And that is a failure of democracy itself, which has been designed for the past 200 years to accommodate differences and protect minorities. Replacing Serbian dominance of Kosovo with Albanian dominance is not a difference in kind, but a difference in flavor.

[Caveat/Question: Are the Serbian-Kosovards in favor of independence also? Is there a move to make Kosovo into something new that is neither Albanian nor Serbian? Or is this an Albanian-Kosovard political action?]

UPDATE: I heard an interview with a professor at San Francisco State this morning on KPFA and he clarified a few things and reinforced my feeling that this was a failure in pluralism and highly problematic for the future of pluralistic democracy.

1) The albanians and serbs have been fighting over Kosovo for a lot longer than I had thought, dating back to several skirmishes with the Ottoman Empire. So my student’s analogy of immigrants to Los Angeles ultimately falls apart, in my opinion. The ethnic conflict is far older and the borders far more fluid than the analogy allows. The Serbs have never been a majority in the region, for example.

2) The Albanian-Kosovards were supported by the Maoists in Albania against Tito. The Albanians were known for their brutality and repression of the Serbian minority.
3) Tito had brokered an odd deal of semi-autonomy for Kosovo, with the Albanian majority in control, but with Serbia still having nominal control of the region.

4) Milosovic was more or less an opportunist who used Kosovo to fuel ethno-nationalism for his own political ends startingn in 1989. His adminsitration sent “settlers” from Serbia into Kosovo to “reclaim” it. The ethnic cleansing began in earnest in the early 1990s, and the northern part of Kosovo, the Albanian majority was forcibly removed (today, that northern section remains Serbian controled and the Albanians never returned).

5) The Albanian-Kosovards think of themselves as Kosovard, and *not* Albanian. They are kind of like Irish, who speak English, but don’t think of themselves or identify as English.

6) When the U.N. brokered the semi-autonomy for Kosovo at the end of the Balkans war, the backroom chatter was that Kosovard independence would be an inevitability, a matter of time.

So I’m left with the same critique: The history of the ethnic relations in Kosovo are as tortured and as convoluted as Israel-Palestine, with both groups having deep historical connections to the land. But both are insisting that they simply cannot live together and that the only possible solution is an ethnically pure state? I’m less concerned about Kosovo breaking off from Serbia now, than I am about the fact on the ground that the establishment of a free and equal Kosovo with minority rights intact and protected seems slim to none. It looks like all that’s going to happen is, at best, a kind of mutual apartheid, with separate government, education, and medical services.

As a side note: More irritating is the commentary from the West which speaks of this in that irritating Huntington mode, as a “conflict of civilizations”. In fact, both the Albanian and the SErbian Kosovards are relatively secular and non-practicing. Religion becomes a disingenuous ethnic identity marker to justify and explain what amounts to a refusal of Tolerance, the fundamental value and practice necessary for a pluralistic democracy.


Demographic history of Kosovo:

The 1921 Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes population census for the territories comprising modern day Kosovo listed 439,010 inhabitants:
By religion:
Muslims: 329,502 (75%)
Orthodox Serb: 93,203 (21%)


History as an Academic Discipline 30 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, History, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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Last fall, a former student of mine, now in graduate school, asked me to give my impressions of the state of History in the academy. As a sociologist who’s first research project was historical (the book is almost done, damn it!), I see history as both an insider and an outsider. As I recently learned the hard way from a couple of brutal peer reviews on one of my articles, historians are often baffled by sociological methods of dealing with the past. Anyway, here are the five observations I made about History’s development over the past 35 years or so:

1. I think that the move to “social history” in the late 60s early 70s was a key development, as historians moved to write histories of populations, lifestyles, and cultures using some really creative applications of quantitative method. It was the culmination of a trend that had started in the 1950s (or earlier), but using the methods of sociology to answer historical questions broadened the scope of what we considered “history” in ways that, in my own bias, I find key to our understanding of how societies and cultures move through time.

2. The move to environmental history, seeing the environment as a historical actor, and as constraining the choices of historical actors transformed the possibilities for how we understand the ultimate and proximate reasons for cultural change.

3. I like that for the most part, during the 1980s, history avoided the most irritating parts of the “linguistic turn” (i.e., poststructural criticism/theory), but am irritated that in the history of sexuality, it was overly influenced by postmodernism (especially by Foucault) and has yet to extricate itself from the most problematic parts of postmodernism’s assumptions, which actually use historicism to make unhistorical claims.

4. I think the historical profession is doing the best of all the social sciences at reaching the public. But I find academically that, like many of the social sciences, the tightening of the job market for academic historians and the glut of PhDs has produced a lot of mediocre work, as new professors are under extreme pressure to publish at all costs (like I said, I think this is a problem in all the social sciences, not just history).

5. Despite what I just said in No. 3 above, I’d like to see historians engaging more in sociological and anthropological theory and methods (again my own bias), because although I love historical method, I often find basic mistakes in historical analysis of cultural and social phenomena, given what other social scientists have been researching about how societies and cultures function. [To be fair, I likewise think that sociologists and anthropologists should be required to understand the basics of historical method and especially the researched history of their areas of research, as I often find astounding historical ignorance in social scientific research. I’m not a believer in interdisciplinary utopias, but I deifnitely think that overlapping disciplines need to be aware of the research in the other social sciences.]

Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, American Democracy, and de Toqueville 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democracy, Democratic Theory, History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Reviews, War & Terrorism.
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[This is Part One of Three entries considering Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States, trans. by Patrick Camiller (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2005 [2004]).]

In a world dominated by the United States, many people around the world, scholars and laymen alike, are trying to understand what America means, why it behaves as it does, and how its actions in the world can be controlled or mitigated in some way. To this end, Claus Offe goes back to three key European sociologists, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno, who visited the United States and wrote analyses of American society, culture, and politics. Offe creates a kind of four-way rubric to judge where a European critique of the United States may come from. Basically, it can either see America as a kind of avant-garde of democracy and democratic social organizer, the experimenter that allows the European to look into its future; or it can see America as a “latecomer society,” as under- or undeveloped, immature. Either of these views can then be given a positive or negative moral value.(1)

Starting with de Tocqueville (hereafter dT), Offe seeks to explain American society in the 21st century and especially the actions of its federal state in the global arena since 9/11. Are there characteristics that dT observed in the 1830 that could explain the War in Iraq, the hostility toward state-sponsored social programs, and the U.S. domination of international economics? Offe argues that for the most part, dT saw America in the first vein, as an avant-garde of what was to come in other democratizing countries in Europe. DT spent much time in his two-volume Democracy in America comparing the U.S. to France and Europe in general; dT’s primary focus was perhaps more about understanding Europe than America.

Although he had a broad view of the multiple causes of American social outcomes, dT concluded that the key to the relative stability of American society lie in customs, or as Offe refers to them, referring to Belah’s now famous turn of phrase, “habits of the heart.” For dT, it was the particular aspects of American life and experience that created a taken-for-granted, or unconscious way of being in American interaction that produced the stability of the society. Mainly, Americans believe that they are all free and equal (dT does address the contradictions of Indians and Slaves as well); they are accustomed to a cacophony of divergent opinions and ideologies, but they settle upon a sort of general consensus that they treat as provisional; and they set up their country to allow a constant “learning by experience” in the government, where if something doesn’t work, they tweak it. All of these allow the American society to flow relatively smoothly and foster a deep kind of liberty, or self-government without hereditary hierarchies or powers. (11-18)

Offe focuses on a handful of key parts of dT’s argument to show the fundamental argument that he made in 1835: The greatest threat to American democracy is from possessive individualism, a particular kind of ‘equality’ that Americans embrace and live for: economic equality. Offe makes the careful distinction between actual economic equality and the American cultural notion of equality, which is that you may be rich today, but you could be poor tomorrow; and I may be poor today, but tomorrow I could be richer than you. Or to put it another way, Americans believe in the possibility of economic equality and accept the capriciousness of markets, making and breaking fortunes, as a matter of fact.

For dT, the lack of hereditary hierarchy leads to a generalized greed in the American consciousness, where the possibility of of gaining economic advantage over your neighbor becomes a kind of passion for equality, governing American life. Because this passion for equality occurs in an unpredictable market with uncontrolled upward and downward mobility, it is infused with fear, creating what Offe calls a “micro-tyranny,” or a self-imposed internalized tyranny, where personal decisions in the market slowly begin to overshadow all other kinds of freedom and all other social actions. (19-20)

A drawback of commercial activity based on possessive individualism is the monotony o flife, the melancholy and ‘strange unrest’ of business people, who cannot enjoy what they have earned, and the loss of republican virtues. (21)

In this context, political liberty becomes a burden, so that the drive for ‘economic equality’ ultimately leads to a gradual relinquishing of political and social power to the state. But because the state is set up to respond to the majority’s will (based on what is “most” rather than what is “best”), the state will ultimately focus its attention on the market as well, being primarily an instrument of the pecuniary interests of the misplaced equality. In this way, America was set up in 1835 for its people to literally chose despotism in order to live in their economic environment of possible economic equality. For dT, this creates an America of undifferentiated individuals who are, in fact, actually conformists in the market, and who have no care for their past or their future, nor for their social relationships in the present. All that matters is their economic lives. (22)

Most problematic for dT is that the rule of the majority ultimately means that culture and politics, the realm of values, ideas, and intellect, is subject to the a flattening, a dumbing down, a forced conformity to the will of the majority (whom he presciently calls the ‘middle class’). One hundred years before Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, dT was theorizing the “culture industry”; and several years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, he predicted the concentration of capital and the dehumanization of the workers in America. (23)

His theory of the culture industry foresee’s Adorno’s in stunning accuracy: equality in possessive individualism leads to cultural conformity. Artists produce for the market or for bosses rather than for art’s sake. Utility outstrips aesthetics or meaning as the motivation for artistic production. The democratic aesthetic sense is reduced from the “great” to the merely “pleasant or pretty.” His theory of the concentration of capital simply sees workers native abilities and desires subordinated to the will of their employers; and the concentration of economic power transforming the state to the protection of the wealth of the owners. In this situation, the newly wealthy class have no social obligation to the rest of America, and act out of the socially acceptable possessive individualism. Ultimately, the majority are wage workers who are dependent upon employers for the livelihood and social status. (24-28)

DT argued that American culture had one major counter-valing force that prevented the demise of the democratic society: its “habits of the heart” as produced in religious communities and in voluntary associations. Simply put, dT believed that without centralized government, Americans were forced to interact with each other in voluntary associations; but that these associations were incredibly flexible, forming around the changing needs and opinions of their members. This, combined with the voluntary nature of American Christianity, acted as an ethical check to the worst possible effects of “equality”: possessive individualism and the passion for equality (29-34).

Offe’s critique of dT and his theorizing from the present (eminent critique) arises from a world quite different from that of 1835, wherein the United States dominates the political and economic scene for the entire globe. For Offe, dT could not have seen some key historical developments in American society, especially in the 20th century. First, Americans have gradually lost their attachment to voluntary association; Offe gestures to the large and growing body of communalist sociology, which documents and often bemoans the loss of community in American life. So the primary check on “equality” is eroding or, by some alarmist accounts, actually already gone. Second, Offe argues that associations in American society are, as often as not, instruments of social control and enforced conformity. In other words, associations can be used to counter-democratic ends as easily as they can uphold and undergird democratic societies. And third, Offe points to the actual structure of American democracy, where power is vertically diffused among state and local agents and agencies, such that the federal state lacks the power necessary to integrate the society as a whole. Offe says that the American state is blocked by communitarian localism: that is, local associations are communal, but rather than undergirding the democratic society, the serve to fragment it. (34-35)

Offe’s assessment of American cultural trends underlying the state are breathtaking in their clarity: American cultural history began with a distrust of the state, and from its founding in the Constitution, American institutions have had as their modus operandi protection of the individual from the state (rather than from other individuals). For Offe, this led to a misplacement of community in religion, where religion became historically the locus of lasting American communities. The mistrust of the state combined with the necessity of having a state led to what Offe calls “nation-building without state-building.” If nothing else, Americans are as a lot anti-state. Offe points to the frontier history and colonization as the sources of these mindsets, where people had to live together and survive without the presence of a state. (37-8)

The federal institutions (state-building) — as Madison, et al., created them — strip power from the federal government necessary for social integration (nation-building). The social and cultural powers left up primarily to local authorities or more commonly left out of the law at all, gives huge power to the courts who must arbitrate social interaction with only a minimum of actual law to guide them (hence the huge body of case law in American jurisprudence). So both the legislative and executive are left only with regulating the economy and dealing with foreign affairs and conflicts. Offe argues that the location of American community in religion and voluntary associations created a society where the government must effect social integration but lacks the necessary powers to do so. (38-40)

And so, Offe argues, the executive and legislative seek enemies outside the boundaries of the United States, extending the frontier of yesteryear out into the global scene. To say it another way, because the American state is so feeble domestically, it must exert itself outward on the non-American world.

But Offe goes a step further to argue that because American religion, the locus not only of community but of social morality, is outside the purview of the state, it exists pre-reflexively. That is, morality of the American society is literally a habit of mind, a self-evident truth; so that in the foreign policy sphere, unexamined moralities are enacted upon the world with America as missionary, savior, democratic hero. There are no social formations set up for society-wide discussions of morality, for critical examination of social morality and collective argument. All such arguments happen in local communities (usually but not exclusively religious) and are then enacted unexmained in the public sphere.

As current developments since 11 September 2001 have illustrated, in all these projects this dominant power proceeds in its (now for the first time structurally unendable) war against ‘evil’ and for ‘good,’ not by rule-bound but by decision-bound principles, not in the framework of recognized international law and human rights norms, but unilaterally, even if supported at the time by an alleged ‘coalition of the wililng’ of individual staes. This policy of voluntaristic coalition-building may be understood as precisely a resurrection of the spirit of voluntary sects and local associations on the plane of international politics. (41)

Connecting ‘habits of the heart’ or customs of a society to the behaviors of its federal state and its government is a tricky endeavor. Inevitably the generalizations can serve to overwhelm the specificity and, especially in America, the diversity and conflict among competing ideas. On one hand, I found myself nodding in amazement at Offe’s analysis: yes, dT saw the possible weakness or tendency toward despotism (loss of liberty) in American ‘equality’ but his antidote was too weak. But something about Offe’s focus on religious community is bothersome to me. Indeed, in what I wrote above, I’ve already gone beyond Offe’s actual argument and expanded it in ways that move past religious communities in terms of the location of morality-formation. What I suppose bothers me is the tenuous connection between the religious communities and voluntary associations and the enactment of that morality. It seems particularly clear in George W. Bush that he is uncritically enacting quasi-religious moralities in his conceptions of America’s role in the world. And while I agree with Offe that American electorate likes (for the moment) its religiosity in the Executive, I also think this represents a particular historical moment in American history, post 1973.

Obviously, the American state lacks the power to enact major social programs that would or could serve to integrate the society; and its legislature and executive are limited in ways that are regressive from a European perspective. But equally obviously, at the empirical level, the kinds of moralities that get enacted in the government are hotly contested. Even GWB’s war on terror, though initially immensely popular, was contested from the beginning. While the system may allow someone like GWB to emerge, I’m not sure that it necessarily would have led to those particular values.

On the other hand, I can see the frontier mentality and Manifest Destiny enacted throughout American foreign policy since the 1850s, leading to America’s particular kind of imperialism, a kind of indirect empire. And I definitely see the values Offe critiques (i.e., America as missionary of democracy, as the scion of ‘the good’) as having been continually enacted for 150 years now–but never unilaterally and always with a great deal of controversy and cultural battles, beginning with the Mexican War and coming all the way forward to the War in Iraq.

Ultimately Offe’s theory fails to explain why, despite the massive resistance from the people (often the majority of people, as in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam), those particular values get enacted by the government. In other words, it doesn’t explain why the American executive behaves as Offe accurately describes, despite the fact the morals arising out of the people don’t necessarily match or support its action. Yes, we have the habit of the heart of our voluntary association, yes that leaves a void where social integration is concerned; but why did one particular set of values become the dominant one expressed in the foreign policy of the American state, even in the face of opposition from its people?

Hitchens on Free Speech 15 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, History, Islam, Judaism, Law/Courts, Religion.
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I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens, whose columns in the Nation I used to love to read, but who continues to baffle me with an almost irrational support of the war in Iraq. But lately he has emerged as a modern-day Voltaire (at the risk of overstating), poking at sacred cows (i.e., religion) and insisting on the necessity and ultimate Good of radical free speech. Like Voltaire, he seeks purposefully to offend his reader-listener precisely because he can and believes he should be able to do so.

In Canada, hate-speech is against the law and several European countries are leaning toward outlawing “offensive” speech. This is a dangerous gigantic leap backward to Voltaire’s day, when people who said things offensive to the powers-that-were (i.e., the king and the church) were imprisoned, tortured, fined, or killed for speaking their minds. Here, Hitchens speaks at Hart House at the University of Toronto during a debate about the possible decriminalization of hate speech in the frosty country to our north.* Hitchens offends everyone from Canadians, to gays, to muslims and christians, to women, Austrians and people from Yorkshire. But he does so to make his point: Free speech must remain inviolate. Watch it knowing you’ll be offended at least once, and then listen for its core argument.

Thanks be to One Good Move for posting the speech. Here are a couple of excerpts on Youtube.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

*Canadian multiculturalism is in some ways extreme in its niceness and its fear of offence, but rises to the level of anti-democratic principle as the government reifies racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities by funding them merely to exist. I love Canada, and was probably a black jewish lesbian from the Northwestern Territories in my last life; but I fear their efforts to create a pluralist utopia may actually end up destroying some basic freedoms.

John F. Kennedy on Secrecy and Security 8 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, Journalism, Politics, War & Terrorism.
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Although he had his faults, like all men and women, he was a believer in democracy and freedom. His words stand in stark and alarming contrast to the cynics who run our country today. Thanks to whoever posted this speech to YouTube and to Mike the Mad Biologist for spreading the word.

Political Fervor 4 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Democratic Theory, History, Politics.
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[On a post-mormon forum I participate on, there’s been some discussion about why Mormonism breeds such intense political feelings in addition to the religious identity one would expect, so much so that it is often impossible to have a rational discussion about politics with a mormon (or any religious person, for that matter. Here are some of my thoughts:]

Cognitive Scientists have done a series of studies on people’s reactions to political discussions (not ideas) and here’s the thing: people have to make a concerted effort to stay in a ‘rational’ mode. If they don’t, emotions take over, so that the emotional brain controls the discourse. I’ve found this to be true here in the Bay Area as well, even among secular, left-wing people. I thought when I left Kansas for San Francisco, I’d be politically free; but I find that the political culture here is just as reactionary and normative as it was in Kansas, only from the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve been scolded in a Berkeley parking lot by complete strangers for throwing away a plastic bottle (instead of recycling it) and have been called a Republican and a fascist (in tones approaching religious fervor) because I questioned the city’s policies on homelessness and, more recently, school busing. In short, people seem to hold political positions uncritically, in general, and emotionally; and they are usually identities as much as or more than they are political positions.

In social psychology (i.e., microsociology), it’s been pretty well demonstrated that, at least in democracies, political affiliation is rarely a mere alignment of parties and even rarer of intellectually substantiated argument; rather, it is almost always an alignment of values and group boundary drawing of peoplep who share those values. Values can (and should!) be discussed and arrived at rationally whenever possible (we should have reasons for taking the value positions we do), but the reality is that most often we *feel* our value positions, rather than think about them. And thus, our political affiliations, which are value affiliations, are emotional attachments, not rational choices.

American politics’ two-party steaming pile of fresh bullshit has the frustrating cultural effect of making Americans think that all issues only have two sides and two possible solutions, and one is evil and one is good. I cannot see how American politics could possible ever get better until we have a multi party, proportional representational system, and publicly funded proportional campaign financing. But I digress. My point here is that the emotional nature of political affiliation is then exacerbated by the fact that we have a political culture based in a duality that forecloses our ability to see the complexity of issues and possible solutions to problems.

All this historically is actually connected to the way Americans do/have done religion. Where disestablishment had the unintended effect of imbricating religious participation and political participation completely by the 1830s. My small point is simply that it is deeply American to have inextricable relationships between faith and politics. Even during the long 100 year long period where ostensibly evangelicals believed that religion was incompatible with secular politics, they framed religious issues as political issues (think: Scopes trial; temperance movement; etc.). And so people’s religious identities and political affiliations are woven together in vexing and vexed ways.

Democracy: A Journal of Ideas 4 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, History, Political Commentary, Politics.
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Reading through the blogosphere last night I stumbled upon what looks like a possibly great new quarterly journal about the trials and travails of democracy today. Taglined “a progressive” journal, the inaugural issue (Summer 2006) had some really fascinating content, including two excellent review essays, one about the House of Representatives and another about Islam in Europe. Features on public funding of medical care and the failure of neoconservatism round out some interesting reading. Check it out. I’ll be probably be posting some responses to some of the articles over the next couple months as I digest them.

Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

From the editors’ message to readers:

Yet we launch this endeavor at a time when American politics has grown profoundly unserious. As they have amassed more power for themselves than at any point in nearly a century, conservatives have grown tired in their thinking as it’s become clear that their ideas have failed. But instead of stepping into the breach with a coherent response, many progressives have adopted a compulsive fixation on electoral posturing and crafting the message of the day. Progressives too often have come to eschew bold ambition, preferring to take shelter in the safe harbor of “realism” and “competence.”

The times demand more. We are undergoing a profound transformation in our economy, in the nature of global realities and national security threats, and the character of American democracy and society. This transformation has rendered obsolete the comfortable assumptions of the 1930s, the 1960s, the 1980s–and even the 1990s. As progressives have during previous times of similar flux, we must craft a response that moves beyond the mere criticism of the right wing or a rigid adherence to the past. We need a twenty-first-century progressivism that builds on our proud history, is true to our central values, and is relevant to our times.

Truth 31 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Ethics, History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion.
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As some of you know, I participate in what's called "small group ministries" at the Unitarian church accross the street from my house. It's more or less a small group of people who get together a couple times a month to discuss spiritual, ethical, or personal issues. In some ways, i find it meditative, because it requires you to listen to others attentively and take their experiences and points-of-view seriously; on the other hand, I just find it a welcome social-spiritual outlet for me, as my life has become increasingly isolated over the past few years. I got this quote from our group's meeting last night. [A brief google search reveals that this quote is quite commonly known; I must not have paid attention to that day in my early-modern English lit course in college.]

Our faith and knowledge thrive by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion. If the waters of truth flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. The light which we have gained was given us not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge. Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions. Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to consciences, above all liberties. And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field we do injuriously to misdoubt her strength. For who knows not that truth is strong, next to the Almighty, she needs no policies, no stratagems, to make her victorious. Let her and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth [to be] put to th worse in a free and open encounter?
—John Milton

With all the beating the Enlightenment has taken over the past 35 years, I find myself increasingly drawn to the values and ethics of enlightened inquiry, even though I take the critiques seriously. Post-post-modernism, I find that I still hold dear this idea of free interchange of ideas, active seeking of truth, the ongoing flow of truth as humans work to find it. I would add to Milton only that truth is an event horizon, a calculus limit, a mirage in the distance, which dissipates as we move toward it. Truth is, nonetheless, the best possible end-in-view of our intellectual activity; we may never arrive, but an ethical search for truth is a good way to live out one's life.

A Return to 1950s Anti-Gay McCarthyism 16 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, History, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Politics.
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Salon.com's War Room reports this morning that the Bush Administration has changed the wording in the guidelines for legitimate reasons to deny security clearances. Apparently, whereas the guidelines used to say that it was unlawful to deny a security clearance based on sexual orientation, the new guidelines have added the wording "solely based on" sexual orientation. While this may not seem like that big of a change, it opens a loop-hole that will allow the administration to deny or revoke security clearances to individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. To highlight why this is problematic, consider how one might react if the guidelines read that security clearance could not be denied "solely based on" the race of the individual.

During the 1950s, thousands of gay men and women in Washington, D.C., were fired from their jobs, because of their sexuality. Police raided bars, followed men in parks, and even surveilled private homes for evidence. More commonly, the FBI blackmailed individuals by interrogating them and threatening to out them publicly and fire them unless they gave lists of people who were homosexual. The witch hunt was not unlike the current atmosphere in the military. (For an excellent history of this period, I highly recommend David K. Johnson, Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians by the Federal Government.)

And equality for sexual minorities takes yet another step backward.

Moral Art vs. Moralizing Art: “Munich” and Violence 12 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Cinema, Ethics, History, Judaism, War & Terrorism.
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A movie that successfully asks difficult and complex moral questions is rare. It is far too easy for art to fall into moralization, rather than morality. Moralizing art tells us the right answer, so that believers feel comforted in their moral superiority and unbelievers will see the error of their ways and experience a conversion. But moralizing art is never good art. Rather than fostering an opening of the heart and mind, encouraging a careful and compassionate consideration of difficult issues, it feeds us the moral outcome as if we were children in Sunday School. In order to make its point, moralizing art must rely on piecing together images and ideas in nearly propagandistic ways; in movies, this means easily-recognizable and readily intelligible representations that require no subtlety of thought, setting up situations that emotionally resonnate but are not in fact realistic, and most aggregiously in film, giving us two-dimensional characters that are actually no more than stereotypes. This year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, "Crash", is such a moralizing film, reducing characters to stock types, and putting them in situations where, of course, their Evil is made clear. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times wrote today a great response to "Crash's" boosters: Race relations in today's Los Angeles simply don't work the way they are portrayed in the film. For me it is far more simple: "Crash" is moralizing art, and therefore bad art. It hits the viewer over the head with dumbed-down, simplistic moralisms, which aren't helpful at all in understanding the realities of race relations or drawing moral conclusions about race.

Moral art, unlike moralizing art, must be firmly anchored in realistic situations, must represent human beings in their complexity, their moral ambiguity, and show that in real life, morality is not clear and easy, but messy, dirty, and often bloody. Real human beings make morally wrong decisions constantly. Good people do bad things, and vice versa. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is a much more successful moral film. What I found impressive from the first 20 minutes of the film is the equanimity with which the violence was portrayed. There was no difference in style, technique, or point of view between Palestinian-perpetrated and Israeli-perpetrated violence. The film focuses on the Mossad group that is hunting down and killing those whom the Israeli government had pointed out as the planners of the Munich murders. The characters (and the audience) must grapple with the possibility that what the Mossad assassins were doing was, in fact, immoral. At the most basic level it asks what kind of response to violence is justifiable.

Because of the focus on the Mossad group, the audience is never asked to consider the moral issues from the Palestinian side. And so the movie fails as an examination of the nearly 100-year-old Palestine-Israel conflict (war?). Although it might be too much to ask a film about a group of Israeli assassins to equally humanize and explore the Palestinian point-of-view, I found the moments when Palestinians were represented to fall back into the moral ease of stock characters giving stock speeches. For example, as the team cases out a French-Palestinian's apartment to plant a bomb, his wife delivers a shrill speech about Palestine's suffering; and again, a PLO agent working with the KGB delivers an even more shrill speech to the Bana character. To the extent that these two scenes work at all, it is because of the effect they have on the main characters, who are visibly troubled by confronting real human beings whom they must kill. But these scenes do little to humanize the Palestinians for the audience. So this is not a good film about Israel-Palestine, and should not be interpreted as such. But that should not be grounds to dismiss "Munich" as a failure.

Rather, where the movie succeeds as moral art is in the gradual transformation of the main characters, as they confront what they have done and the implications of violence for violence's sake. When you talk with a man in his home and listen to his wife talk about the suffering of her people, and listen to his daughter play the piano, what then does it mean to murder him? What if he wasn't even involved in the crime you are murdering him for? And most poignantly in the film, what does it do to you to kill him? In other words, does perpetrating violence, even when you believe yourself to be morally justified, come back to damage you, to destroy your own moral self.

Some have dismissed the film as only so much "liberal Jewish handwringing," but if I were Spielberg, I would take that as a compliment. What is most remarkable and humane and worthy about liberal Judaism (and for that matter, liberal Christianity and liberal Islam) is its willingness and indeed its insistence on moral handwringing. Religion that teaches moral absolutes, a black and white world, is a religion that will easily fall into violence, be it social, cultural, or the infliction of bodily harm. Easy morality allows violence against "enemies" and clearly defines who those enemies are: anyone who is not like us. Liberal strands of Judaism, over the past 200 years or so, have stepped out of tribal formulations of ethnic identity and asked what it means to be a Jew among human beings. From an early script of "Munich" available online (the dialogue in the finished movie—where punctuation doesn't count—was more precise and polished):

We're Jews, Avner, Jews don't do
wrong because our enemies do wrong.

We can't afford to be that.. .
decent anymore.

I don't know that we ever were that
decent. Suffering thousands of
years of hatred doesn't make you
decent. But we're supposed to be
righteous. That's what I was
taught, that's Jewish, that
beautiful thing. That's what I
knew. Absolutely.
And I think I've lost that. Avner.
I've lost that too.

Oh that's, that's —

That's everything. I've lost
everything. My, my soul.

Ultimately, the film shows men who are transformed by killing. They become paranoid, haunted, detached. They are morally mangled as they systematically kill other human beings. I suspect that on both sides of any conflict the oucome is the same, unless you have forced yourself to believe in the facile morality that justifies without question or reflection the perpetration of violence. I suppose the ultimate question, and perhaps the most fearful one, is whether someone who believes the facile morality, someone who refuses the moral question and kills or maims believing they are doing the Will of God or that they are fulfilling their patriotic duty actually feel the impact of taking human life. Palestine-Israel or U.S.-Al Quaida: one soldier facing one sniper—one insurgent with one hostage—one suicide-bomber on one bus—one military pilot and one apartment building—one assassin and one target.