Mumbai 29 November 2008Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Islam, Modernity and Modernism, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
Note: I am no expert in Indian history or politics, so this is just a casual reaction from an outside observer. I would love to hear from readers who are better informed or have deeper analyses to offer.
There is a lot of really good commentary floating around the interwebs about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, this past week, and I have been trying to sort out all the intricacies of what happened. The social scientist in me (and my base personality) goes quickly to trying to understand such an event, the structures, attitudes, and practices that would lead us to such a show of violence. Unfortunately, much of the early analysis drew facile parallels with Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism(s), but I really don’t think that works. Although global Islam is (loosely) connected, it seems that this Indian event is much more deeply tied to a particularly Indian inter-communal conflict, one that has been brewing and boiling over for decades, if not centuries. Whereas terrorism born of Saudi malcontents is anchored in an anti-modernity and anti-Americanism, that is, a long post-colonial history, it seems that the Mumbai violence, while certainly connected to British imperialism, has as much to do with internal inequalities. It looks to be a domestic terrorism only loosely (perhaps even ideologically) connected to global interactions. Although Pakistan and India are separate countries, which makes it look like an “international” affair, I think that the partition of Pakistan from India in the late 1940s is evidence of internal divisions within the subcontinent more than of an international conflict.
To me, then, the terrorism in Mumbai looks far more like a failure of pluralism, or more pointedly, a failure of plural democracy. One of the key weaknesses at the origins of the modern state of India, which Ghandi warned of, was the imagination of India as hindu, and all others as Others. The national imagination of the Indian state wove into it the pre-existing communal conflicts between Indian muslims and Indian hindus, and really hasn’t ever allowed for a true and equal pluralism to develop. See “India’s Muslims in Crisis” by Aryn Baker for a brief primer on the status of Muslims in India.
Unfortunately, the global Ummah is made up, partially now, of a culture of terrorism, where injustices (perceived or real) are dealt with through direct violence against anyone perceived as benefiting from or participating in the oppression of muslims. It is perhaps far beyond this now, but maybe not: Is there no Ghandi for Indian Muslims? Are there no other ways for Indians to demand their full equality within the modern Indian state without resorting to violence of this kind? Or am I just naive and idealistic?
Lakoff on Obama v. Clinton 3 February 2008Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Cognitive Science, Democracy, Politics.
Tags: Barak Obama, Caroline Kennedy, framing, George Lakaff, Hilary Clinton, liberal values, New York Times, Ronald Reagan
Lakoff often irritates me for what I think is often a sloppy misapplication of his research on linguistic frames to politics; but his is the first description of Obama v. Clinton that I’ve read that really articulates what I’ve been struggling to define over the past few weeks (even more since Edwards dropped out). Why does Obama continue to appeal to me so much (despite his ex-gay mistep a few months ago)? It’s the combination of policy + vision that really gets my attention. And we hear endlessly about “conservative values” and “value voters” from the MSM, but no one ever talks about the values that drive the left, that we too are values voters. This resonance with Obama for me goes back to his speech at the 2004 convention, where in the middle of the DNC trying to play the center (Clinton’s fucking “triangulation politics” has ruined the Democratic party for the past 15 years), and in the middle of the Bush administrations campaign of misinformation and outright lies, here comes Obama like a fresh breeze. It wasn’t substantive in a political sense, but it was a reminder of what the best in politics can be. It’s not that I value rhetoric over pragmatic policy making; but it is that I respond so strongly to the values that drive those policies. [Hat tip to my friend Hank for pointing me to Lakoff’s piece.]
Political endorsements rarely make interesting reading. But this year is different. Take the endorsements of Hillary Clinton by the New York Times [NY Times, January 25, 2008] and Barack Obama by Caroline Kennedy [NY Times, January 27, 2008].
To the editors of the New York Times, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama agree on policy goals:
“On the major issues, there is no real gulf separating the two. They promise an end to the war in Iraq, more equitable taxation, more effective government spending, more concern for social issues, a restoration of civil liberties and an end to the politics of division of George W. Bush and Karl Rove.”
What matters to the editors is experience in “tackling … issues” — in mastering details of policy and carrying them out one by one. “The next president needs to start immediately on challenges that will require concrete solutions, resolve, and the ability to make government work.”
To Caroline Kennedy, policy is not the real issue:
“Most of us would prefer to base our voting decision on policy differences. However, the candidates’ goals are similar. They have all laid out detailed plans on everything from strengthening our middle class to investing in early childhood education. So qualities of leadership, character and judgment play a larger role than usual.
“I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.”
The difference is striking. To the editors of the New York Times, the quality of leadership seems not to be an “issue.” The ability to unite the country is not an “issue.” What Obama calls the empathy deficit — attunement to the experience and needs of real people — is not an “issue.” Honesty is not an “issue.” Trust is not an “issue.” Moral judgment is not an “issue.” Values are not “issues.” Adherence to democratic ideals — rather than political positioning, triangulation, and incrementalism — are not “issues.” Inspiration, a call to a higher purpose, and a transcendence of interest-based politics are not “issues.”
It is time to understand what counts as an “issue,” to whom, and why.
In Thinking Points, the handbook for progressives that the Rockridge Institute staff and I wrote last year, we began by analyzing Ronald Reagan’s strengths as a politician. According to his chief strategist, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan realized that most voters do not vote primarily on the basis of policies, but rather on (1) values, (2) connection, (3) authenticity, (4) trust, and (5) identity. That is, Reagan spoke about his values, and policies for him just exemplified values. He connected viscerally with people. He was perceived as authentic, as really believing what he said. As a result, people trusted him and identified with him. Even if they had different positions on issues, they knew where he stood. Even when his economic policies did not produce a “Morning in America,” voters still felt a connection to him because he spoke to what they wanted America to be. That was what allowed Reagan to gain the votes of so many independents and Democrats.
There is a reason that Obama recently spoke of Reagan. Reagan understood that you win elections by drawing support from independents and the opposite side. He understood what unified the country so that he could lead it according to his vision. His vision was a radical conservative one, a vision devastating for the country and contradicted by his economic policies.
Obama understands the importance of values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity.
But his vision is deeply progressive. He proposes to lead in a very different direction than Reagan. Crucially, he adds to that vision a streetwise pragmatism: his policies have to do more than look good on paper; they have to bring concrete material results to millions of struggling Americans in the lower and middle classes. They have to meet the criteria of a community organizer.
The Clintonian policy wonks don’t seem to understand any of this. They have trivialized Reagan’s political acumen as an illegitimate triumph of personality over policy. They confuse values with programs. They have underestimated authenticity and trust.
I actually have to disagree with both Kennedy and the NYT on the policy issue. On some policies, I think Clinton is clearly better: she knows her stuff backwards and forward on issues such as health care reform. And I find many of her policies to be too much of a compromise for the right-leaning wonks’ benefit. It’s not that I’m against compromise, just that I want to hear the grand ideas and goals up front, and like a barter system, you can’t give too much to the opposition up front or you end up with a center that is far to the right of world political norms.
Youtube for Intellectuals…There is hope for the internets 7 January 2008Posted by Todd in Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democracy, Democratic Theory.
Tags: Big Think, debate, intellectual, Internet, Youtube
Big Think is a youtube-like venture that just went live this morning. Big Think posts interviews with leading intellectuals, thinkers, movers, and shakers in American and global culture and then viewers can post video responses, a sort of delay-time video debate, or at the very least, a place for ideas to circulate. I’m thinking this sounds ripe with possibility.
Although I admire the optimism of the founders and brains behind Big Think, I still have some skepticism about how the internet can function to heighten debate and dialogue. Of course, it can’t be much worse than mainstream media, which caters to the lowest-common-denominator as it is. The Internet seems to be a wide-ranging cesspool of everything from scat porn to nazi propaganda to raving bloggers (present company excluded, of course).
On the other hand, because the Internet’s profit structure and raison-d’être are so different from MSM, maybe there is a way that it could function like Jefferson envisioned small-scale local democracies should, within the right parameters. Given the global reach of the Internet, it’s no small irony that I’m saying it could be like small scale democracy: But when a site like Big Think comes along with a particular vision and they set boundaries to create a different kind of online exchange, the potential for democratic and/or true intellectual exchange increases. We’ve all seen gradual shifts in online interactions already, for example on social networking sites (compare Facebook with the original Friendster, for example, in terms of advertising, layout, openness, privacy options, etc.); or the change in dating sites or chat networks since the late 1990s.
What gives me hope is that people seem to have eschewed the early idea of cyber social spaces as free-for-alls and have begun doing online what they already do in face-to-face interaction: they create actual community dynamics, with boundaries and rules that allow the group to function smoothly and to meet particular ends. (To be fair, ancient bulletin board and newsnet forums used to do this in the early 1990s before the WWW.)
Big Think looks like a promising step toward making an internet space for a more public and engaged kind of dialogue (and more human, in a sense, since it’s video); but with time delay that allows for cooler thinking (hopefully); and perhaps moving the intellectual dialogues that already occur online out of the private or small echo chambers into a larger and more diverse field of views.
Okay, now I’m being overly optimistic.
[edited for some truly appalling grammar and spelling]
Right Wing Propaganda and Poor Children 13 October 2007Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Journalism, News, Political Commentary.
Hopefully, many of you already know that Pres. Bush vetoed the S-chip program which provides medical care to poor children through state mechanisms. The Democratic response was to deliver a plea to Pres. Bush through a 12 year old boy, Graeme Frost, and his sister, who had been severely injured in a car accident. The right-wing blogosphere got a hold of the story and began a smear campaign against the Frosts and their children, trying to discredit the Democrats. It turns out that none of the Republican claims about the Frosts is true, and yet the MSM continues to report the story as if there is doubt or the Frosts are tainted or the Democrats are bumbling idiots, even though it was the Republicans who got all the facts wrong and engaged in a smear campaign of a disabled 12 year old child.
It is amazing to me the utter lack of anything resembling ethics on the right side of the aisle over the past 20 years. The depth of Republican cynicism about democracy, truth-telling, debate, science, and let’s face it, human life is jaw-dropping. Even more distressing, however, is the utter lack of integrity in the MSM. Is journalism really dead? Can journalists not actually check the facts on the press releases coming out of party headquarters anymore? Has the function of the 4th Estate devolved into a mere delivery system for party and corporate PR?
American democracy in a state of total decay.
Reclaim Your Right to Criticize Religion 15 May 2007Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Journalism, Religion.
When will we get past this notion that public critique of religion is somehow discrimination or an abridgment of rights? A religion’s truth claims are legitimate targets of inquiry and even ridicule. A religion’s actions are legitimate targets of judgment and moral critique. Are we really saying that the right to practice whatever religion you want to means that you are protected from being offended by people who disagree with you?
If free speech means anything, it must mean the right to vet the cultural practices, including religious, of those around us. Tufts university’s recent ruling on a newspaper ad criticizing Islam reveals the utter depravity of the misguided notion that religions must be protected in their practice and beliefs from outside criticism.
Problems with Pluralism 8 December 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights.
In another forum I participate on, we’ve been commenting on the past few years of anti-gay politics in America and this great article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. A good friend of mine posed this question:
Can we ever really acknowledge, embrace differences without somehow ordering them? What say you, Todd?
Here is my meandering response:
I have a pretty negative outlook on this because of some stuff I’ve been reading in cognitive science lately. If the findings are correct, one of the functions of our ‘social brain’ (frontal cortex, among other things) is to determine ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, or as one research calls it, enemy/friend distinctions. Less than 15,000 years ago [corrected 20/7/07], humans as a species lived in small bands of hunter gatherers, and you can see how this function of the brain would be useful for survival and would mediate in-group conflicts while promoting care when dealing with people who are “different.” It seems clear that various cultures have their own in/out definitions that are based on any number of factors, such that the definitions of in/out, friend/enemy are not hardwired, but learned. But the capacity (need?) to learn them is, or seems to be, at present.
In american society, pluralistic and immensely diverse as it is, we find multiple (innumerable?) in/out and friend/enemy systems layered on top of each other, perhaps corresponding to other kinds of institutions and identities, where even individuals may have different systems depending on context, and they probably change over time.
The only hope, to me, seems to be the ongoing debates and dialogues about inclusion and exclusion that democracy itself fosters. That’s the only way to manage in an ethical way that kind of pluralism, without devolving into violence. canada, the U.S., and in some respects brazil are actually doing the best job of it at the moment (maybe Australian, but I don’t know enough about that country to say). I think europe is creating some intensely problematic formulations of multiculturalism right now that cannot work in the long run, all the while ignoring the deep-rooted racism that underlies their surface multiculturalism (esp. Holland, England, France, Sweden, Germany).
In other words, I think that social conflict may simply be inevitable among humans, and multiplied exponentially in large, pluralistic societies; so the trick is to set up a system of interaction with concomitant values, whereby those social conflicts can be continually worked out. The in/out boundaries will be quite different in 50 years, I’m sure; so the key is to have, maintain, insist on the democratic values that allow the “out” parties to fight their way in, and the “in” parties to increase their capacity to share power.
Democracy is messy and slow and fragile. But I can’t think of a better way to manage pluralism. What scares me is its fragility. Democracy relies on its citizens (i.e., participators in the civil society, not its nationals) sharing a set of values revolving around Tolerance (e.g., human dignity, equality, individual freedom and rights); if the central values of tolerance disappear or whither, the democracy cannot stand. The far right of the Christian Right, the Dominionists, are the antithesis of democratic tolerance; likewise some of the anti-speech policies being enacted right now in England from the left. To me, the fundamental battle against the Christian Right isn’t about specifics like “gay rights” or “immigration,” but about the meaning of Tolerance and its practice in our pluralistic society.
Holy Sodomophobia, Batmensche! Ultra-Conservative Muslims and Jews Find Common Ground at Last! 7 November 2006Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, War & Terrorism.
In case you haven’t been following the hooplah, last summer, Jerusalem’s World Pride day was canceled because of the brief war in the Lebanon. This fall, Jerusalem’s gay pride organization applied for and received a parade permit for a later Pride Celebration in the capitol city. A few weeks ago, the ulta-conservative, ultra-orthodox wing of the religious in Israel began protesting the upcoming parade and have threatened violence. The police comissioner requested that the parade permit be rescinded (because caving to extreme hatemongers is always the right answer!), but Israel’s human rights minister (I believe that’s his title) said “Absolutely not! This is a democracy and we do not accede to threats of violence” (paraphrased). So yesterday, these conservative wingnut rabbis have–wait for it–but out a $500/per dead body bounty on any gay or lesbian people killed during the parade. But wait, there’s more! The ultra-orthodox, ultra-wingnut branch of muslim clerics in the Palestinian side of the city have called for a day of unrest and violence behind the old wall of the city–wait for it–to pull police and military away from the Pride Parade, in order to facilitate the violence against the gay men and women in the parade on the part of the wingnut ultra-conservative Jews.
Peace in Israel-Palestine: Could it be this easy? Just get them all to hate gays enough to cooperate? Why didn’t we think of this in 1948?
Click here for the latest development.