Sunday, September 14, 2014

Normalizing Civility, Policing Critique, Enforcing Silence and Misunderstanding Collegiality

How we ought to understand the terms "civility" and "collegiality" and to what extent they can be enforced as professional norms are dominating discussions in academic journalism and the academic blogosphere right now.  (So much so, in fact, that it's practically impossible for me to select among the literally hundreds of recent articles/posts and provide for you links to the most representative here.)  Of course, the efficient cause of civility/collegiality debates' meteoric rise to prominence is the controversy surrounding Dr. Steven Salaita's firing (or de-hiring, depending on your read of the situation) by the University of Illinois only a month ago, but there are a host of longstanding, deeply contentious and previously seething-just-below-the-surface agendas that have been given just enough air now by the Salaita case to fan their smoldering duff into a blazing fire.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll just note here at the start that I articulated my concerns about (and opposition to) policing norms of civility/collegiality or otherwise instituting "codes" to enforce such norms some months ago (March 2014) in a piece I co-authored with Edward Kazarian on this blog here (and reproduced on the NewAPPS site) entitled "Please do NOT revise your tone."  My concern was then, as it remains still today, that instituting or policing norms of civility/collegiality is far more likely to protect objectionable behavior/speech by those who already possess the power to avoid sanction and, more importantly, is likely to further disempower those in vulnerable professional positions by effectively providing a back-door manner of sanctioning what may be their otherwise legitimately critical behaviors/speech.  I'm particularly sympathetic to the recent piece "Civility is for Suckers" in Salon by David Palumbo-Liu (Stanford) who retraces the case-history of civility and free speech and concludes, rightly in my view, that "civility is in the eye of the powerful."

It should go without saying, I hope, that no one is "pro-incivility" or "pro-uncollegiality," no one is anti-civility or anti-collegiality.  It's a gross, but increasingly common, mischaracterization of critics of civility norms in these debates, myself included, to suggest as much.  The fact that such characterizations persist and continue to be repeated and/or insinuated is evidence of our terrible habit-- in American public discourse, in academia and worst of all in my discipline of Philosophy-- to permit complex and complicated thought to be framed in reductively Manichean terms.  The debate surrounding the moral/political permissibility of abortion serves as a telling analogue, I think.  Despite the fact that these debates figure one side as "pro-life," careful thinkers understand (or ought to understand) that no one is "anti-life," just as no one is "pro-abortion."  To adequately appreciate the nuance, not to mention the substantive content, of the "pro-life" opposition's side requires first allowing for the possibility that there is an oppositional discourse and an oppositional frame-- in this instance, the discourse and frame of "choice"-- at work.

One can punch and fight, then strike the flint of ire, at straw men all day long.  Nary a victory will be won.  One may stir up a mighty cloud of straw and a brief, blazing, phenomenal but fugacious fire... but nothing of any substance will have been burned.

To wit, it's worth considering the real substance of certain (material, political, social and professional) conditions that ground reservations expressed by critics of civility codes/norms. What are the possible conditions under which a reasonable person, who is otherwise and in principle committed to civility and collegiality, might oppose codes that would effectively enforce those norms?  Under what conditions might a reasonable person be justified in his or her suspicion that such codes of civility/collegiality enforcement-- instead of securing a space for reciprocal engagement and respect among conversants, instead of determining the limits of minimally-decent interpersonal relations, instead of fostering the sorts of habits that are most conducive to a culture of free and open intellectual exchange-- rather, in effect, make it impossible to be (or to be taken to be) civil or collegial?

If it is impossible for you to imagine such conditions, below is a (non-exhaustive) list of examples.  I suspect that many of these would hold as true in other academic disciplines, but I've compiled the following with particular attention to the way that civility/collegiality is used and abused as a way of enforcing norms in my own discipline of professional Philosophy:
  1. You are a woman. Statistically, if you are a woman who has managed to land a steady job in professional Philosophy, you are already in the minority.  If you represent more than 1/5 of your department, you are an exception.  There is a long, historical and ideological prejudice on the part of Philosophers, somewhat ameliorated (but not significantly diminished) in the last half-century, that figures the discipline of Philosophy as antithetical to the "nature" and/or "capacities" of women.  As a consequence, women's voices, especially when they are critical, are often taken to be hostile, aggressive, antagonistic, irrational or (in a pejorative sense) emotional.  Should you find yourself in such conditions, it is more than likely that anything you say that might be critical, oppositional, non-representative of the majority view, or in almost any other way fault-finding will be viewed as lacking collegiality or civility.

  2. You are non-White.  See above in re the statistical rarity of non-White professional philosophers. Also see point (1) above in re the manner in which non-white philosophers' critical views are viewed as hostile, aggressive, antagonistic, irrational or emotionally-motivated.  If you are Black, add to that the extra disadvantage of your allegedly "aggressive" criticism being construed as potentially violent.  If you are Latino/a, add to that the extra disadvantage of your allegedly "aggressive/emotional" criticism being construed as overly-simplistic and/or too attached to particular political agendas.  If you are Asian, add to that the extra disadvantage that whatever you say will be exoticized and summarily dismissed as not worthy of the serious attention of Western philosophers.  Again, see (1) above in re why you might be suspicious that anything you say is likely to run up against your colleagues' views of what counts as civil/collegial behavior.

  3. You are non-tenured.  Whatever your sex, gender-identity, race, religion, ability or disability,  nationality, class or sexual orientation, your only secure option when it comes to being viewed by your colleagues as civil or collegial is to limit the entirety of your professional activities to nodding  (not to mention voting) affirmatively, assuming the position, and saying something more or less to the effect of "yes, thank you sir, may I have another?" It really doesn't matter, in your case, what any potential codes of civility/collegiality require in fact.  You will fall afoul of them if it is necessary to your senior colleagues to demonstrate as much; you will be the exemplar of them if it is useful to your senior colleagues to demonstrate as much.  You can't win on your own merits.  

  4. You are disabled.  I don't like the term "disabled," which even I can see is as ableist as the term "non-White" is racist, but (alas!) this is unfortunately what our as-yet-unrefined language permits at the moment. I was rightfully called out on my own inattentiveness to the use of ableist language (here) recently, which gave me pause to re-read many ofmy own posts with a new sensitivity and also to make a conscientious effort to write with a new sensitivity, so I am much more aware of the sorts of default prejudices that many of us operate with when it comes to pointing out the many and varied ableist nuances of our everyday language.  For just the most recent example of the kind of backlash that results from daring to criticize bad habits such as mine, see Jon Cogburn's post not only in defense of, but also in praise of ableist language. No wonder that critics of ableist speech would be worried about being viewed as incivil or uncollegial.

  5. You are queer. I use "queer" in part to refer broadly to those persons who identify as one or more of the identities encapsulated in the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual, questioning/queer, intersexed, ally and asexual) designation.  But I emphasize "queer" here for ideological reasons, namely, that the way "queer" and "queering" functions, conceptually, is almost always in ways that will inevitably be judged to be contrary to norms or codes of civility and collegiality.  Queer speech, queer behavior, queer thought and philosophy, queer acts and performative enactments are meant to disturb, unsettle, oppose, antagonize and call into question the deepest of our assumed normative codes.  That is their purpose and, in my view, their virtue.  If you are queer, or queering, such codes will always find you in violation.

  6. You hold an unorthodox, unpopular or contentious political view (either vis-á-vis your immediate departmental colleagues or vis-á-vis the more general academic and/or civic public).  Not much more to say here except see: Steven Salaita.

  7. You belong to one of the groups noted in 1-5 above and also advocate a dissenting view.  God (or whatever) help you if you fall in this unfortunate #7 category, which most of you/us who occupy one or more of the categories articulated in 1-5 almost certainly do.  And God (or whatever) help you if your find yourself in the wretchedly grim situation of having your livelihood determined by virtue of your civility and/or collegiality, because you will most certainly lose.  This is the category in which the dangers of civility/collegiality codes is the most obvious and, as a consequence, the most objectionable.  Would that it were the case that this was a rare or insignificant category of persons.  It is neither.
As I said above, I am sure the this list is non-exhaustive, though I do believe it is tellingly representative.  The point is, of course, that one need not be anti-civility or anti-collegiality to oppose the institution of enforceable codes/norms of such on the basis of an enormous amount of evidence demonstrating the grossly asymmetrical manner in which divergent expectations of civility/collegiality are enacted.

When it comes down to it, I find it hard to imagine any articulation of a civility or collegiality "code" that does not amount to, in substance, "be nice or leave."  That is to say, normalizing civility, because it has been and continues to be little more than a manner of policing critique, ends up being in effect a way to enforce silence among the least-advantaged and, as a consequence, constitutes the very worst misunderstanding of collegiality.  

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Witch-Hunting in the Digital Age

Much to my own embarrassment, I've neglected to post here on the Steven Salaita controversy thus far, an affair with far-reaching implications not only for how we determine what constitutes both the civic and academic limits to the "right to free speech," but also for a number of hiring-and-firing practices that are customary within the Academy but verboten (if not also illegal) under almost any other employment conditions.

The facts of the Salaita case are, minimally, as follows:  Steven Salaita, tenured Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, was offered a position at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (henceforth, UIUC), which he accepted.  As is customary in academia, Salaita's new position came "with tenure" (after already having been thoroughly vetted for and awarded tenure at Virginia Tech) and, as is also customary in academia, Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech at the end of the last school year in advance of taking up his position at UIUC in the fall.  In the interim, however, and as a consequence of a number of tweets that Dr. Salaita posted over the summer in response to the increasingly violent Israeli-Gaza conflict, UIUC withdrew its offer of employment to Dr. Salaita (who is Palestinian and whose tweets were critical of Israeli state policy).  only two weeks before the he was to take up his new position at UIUC  According to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise's official statement, the offer was rescinded because Dr. Salaita's tweets constituted a violation of UIUC principles, i.e., Salaita's tweets "demean[ed] and abuse[ed]" those whose views disagreed with his and, consequently, that they also constituted sufficient evidence that Salaita would be unable to discharge his duty to "allow new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed inside and outside of the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner."

As is the case with many, if not most, of our contemporary political conflicts, the nuance and complexity necessary to adequately comment upon them cannot be articulated exhaustively in 140 characters or less, which is (for better or worse) the limit imposed by the forum that is Twitter. The tweets by Salaita that have garnered the most attention/criticism, largely (if not entirely) a consequence of the limits of the fora in which they were expressed, perhaps lack the nuance and complexity that a longer consideration would provide.  Nevertheless, with regard to what ought be considered (by any self-respecting academic) a fair reading of Salaita's more so-called "inflammatory" tweets, most of which have been promulgated completely out-of-context, please see Phan Nguyen's excellent analysis of them here.

For my part, I want to state my unequivocal support for Salaita, for his civic and academic right to express the political positions he did, in the fora that he did and in the manner that he did.  Of course, that is a merely formal endorsement, so let me also for the record that I also support the content of Salaita's positions, namely, that the current Israeli state policy vis-á-vis Gaza (and Palestinians, more broadly) is morally objectionable and ought to be opposed/criticized by people of good conscience.

That said, the motivation for my post today is not primarily demonstrating the merits or demerits of Salaita's case for reinstatement, a case which (if you're interested in doing so) you can follow on Corey Robin's excellent (and exhaustive) blog.  Rather, I'm interested calling attention to what I see as an implicit technophobic prejudice or, more importantly, a technophobic ignorance that I 've seen evidenced in the Salaita controversy.

Twitter--like Facebook, like the blogosphere and like every other digital space of similar ilk-- is a forum of/for "public"speech. It is distinct from and remains irreducible to the academic space, though it obviously influences and is influenced by what goes on in academia.  What we must remember, if we care at all about free speech, is that all public spaces are, constitutionally and by definition, mutually contaminating, but also that each of them have different (more or less official) rules of engagement, different reaches and consequences, different ways of determining acceptable or unacceptable participation. The rules and values of one domain are rarely translatable to another domain without some significant loss. To the extent that one does not understand fully the (more or less official) governing "rules"of one domain-- in this case, Twitter-- one ought not presume that speech-acts in that domain are justifiably condemnable according to the rules of another domain (in this case, academia). To employ an entirely common and mundane example, I could not justifiably expect that reporting the offensive-to-me speech of one of my colleagues, even if it their statements were structurally analogous to Salaita's tweets, which I overheard in a bar or in my church or on my daily jog or in any other public space, would or should be an actionable (i.e., fireable) offense.

To wit, I am especially sympathetic with Feisal Mohamed's argument in his most recent post at the Chronicle of HIgher Education that the opposition to Dr.Salaita and the support of what is, in effect, his firing from UIUC constitutes nothing short of a witch hunt.


One might wish that witch-hunts were as ridiculously comical as Monty Python depicts them, but one would be, regrettably, wrong.

Why do witches burn?  Because they're made of wood.
If she weighs the same as a duck, then she must be made of wood.
She weighs the same as a duck.
Ergo, she is a witch.

Poor, poor Salaita if this counts as a both a sound and valid argument.  And, if it does, a pox upon all our houses,

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Ferguson Lesson: Another Way To "Take Up Arms"

As someone who has spent the better part of her career researching, analyzing and teaching not only about the structure and nature of oppressive power regimes, but also better and worse ways to resist or transform such regimes, I've nevertheless been unable to settle in my own mind, to my own satisfaction, my position with regard to the moral or political value of revolutionary violence.  I can say that my core moral intuitions (for whatever those are worth) definitely incline me toward favoring nonviolence as a principled ethical commitment... though, over the years, I have found those intuitive inclinations fading in both intensity and persuasiveness.  As a philosopher, a citizen and a moral agent, I continue to be deeply unsettled by my own ambivalence on this matter.

First, a preliminary autobiographical anecdote: I spent a year between undergraduate and gradate school in the nonprofit sector, as the Director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.  (That was back in 2000, when the Gandhi Institute was still housed at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, which is now my academic home, evidencing the kind of bizarro turn-of-fate that can only be credited to some particularly clever-- or ironically humorous-- supernatural bureaucrat.)  I went to the Gandhi Institute initially because nonviolence was an all-but-unquestioned moral virtue for me at the time.  But, after a few years in graduate school and consistently since, the many and varied until-then-unposed questions about the moral or political legitimacy of violence pressed their way to the fore of my mind.  In roughly chronological order, I'd say that the combination of (1) my first real engagement with Frantz Fanon's argument in "Concerning Violence" (from his Wretched of the Earth), the arguments by Marx (and Marxists) in various texts advocating more or less violent revolution, and Noam Chomsky's considerations of the same, (2) my extensive research into human rights violations, transitional justice and transitional democracies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, which collectively constituted the subject of my dissertation, (3) the radically dramatic shift in what counts as properly-speaking "political" and/or "revolutionary" violence in the post-9/11 world and (4) my own experiences, from near and afar, with the increasing number of (threatened, proto-, aborted, defeated and/or more-or-less successful) revolutions taking place in my adult lifetime (e.g., OWS, the Arab Spring and, much closer to home and far less violent, the current and ongoing academic revolution surrounding the Salaita case), all worked together to contribute to my rethinking the merits and demerits of violence as a way of resisting/combatting/correcting oppressive, exclusionary or otherwise unjust power regimes.

[I remain, for the record, unsettled in my own mind vis-á-vis revolutionary violence.]

More to the point of this post, though, I offer a second autobiographical anecdote:  I had the very good fortune of engaging a serendipitous conversation, just a few days ago, in which I overheard something spilling from my own mouth that I had not, prior to that moment of articulation, made thetic to myself.  Some academic friends and I were discussing the recent events in Ferguson when one of my (for lack of a better descriptor) more "radical" colleagues conjectured (and this is roughly a direct quote): "In the face of unjust, militarized police violence like [what was happening in Ferguson], the only effective response is for the opposition to take up arms."

To which, I replied:  "But that is exactly what the people protesting on the streets in Ferguson did!  They quite literally took up their arms!"

Of course I knew that what I meant by "taking up arms" was not the same as what my interlocutor meant by "taking up arms"; it wasn't even in the same ballpark, really.  But, only as I said it aloud, I realized that there was something like a long-forgotten moral truth to what I was saying (and meaning) from which I had been long distracted but about which I remained deeply convicted.  At the risk of personally anecdotal-izing my surprise insight too much, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that I was raised in the city that houses the National Civil Rights Museum, in the very same location (the Lorraine Motel) where Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, so the "philosophy" of nonviolence has never, ever, not been a part of my formative experience as a moral agent.  I am, for the most part, a product of the cushy, consumerist, mostly-peaceful and -profitable Clinton years,which means that my formative years were concurrent with what was, for the most part nonviolent and nonrevolutionary, the end of the (so-called) Cold War, the end of apartheid, the progressives' victory in U.S. domestic Culture Wars and the global adoption (by force or volition) by most states of fundamentally democratic principles.  One of the first and most influential (non-Philosophy) books I read when I began graduate school was Jack DuVall's A Force More Powerful (also now a film, a game and an internet resource archive), which chronicled the literally world-changing influence of nonviolent protest/progressive movements and argued for not only the morally and politically coercive "force" of nonviolence resistance, but its practical and effective force as well.  And, again for whatever it's worth, throughout that time-- and perhaps largely as a product of that time-- I have never been able to shake my moral-intuitional aversion to violence as an preferred means for negotiating or resolving conflict.  Even still, in my lifetime, I had not yet been party to a home-grown experience of the (morally superior) force of nonviolence so effectively deployed as it had been in the chronicles of 20th C. history by which I had been formed and with which I was so familiar.  To wit, my intuitional commitment to nonviolence remained, even and despite myself, merely theoretical.

Yet, take a moment to think on (as I often did) the accomplishments of nonviolent force in the 20th Century for a moment:  the 1919 March 1st Movement in Korea and the Egyptian Revolution of the same year, the nonviolent movements of the First and Second (and continuing) Intifadas in Palestine, the Irish non-cooperation movement of 1920, the  Occupation of the Ruhr, the Danish Resistance Movement of 1940-43, the Norwegian Resistance Movement of 1940-45, the extended Defiance Campaign during the South African apartheid years, the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in the mid-to-late-20th Century United States, a number of the worldwide protests of 1968, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Solidarity Movement in Poland in 1980, the Peoples Power Revolution in the Philippines 1986, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China , the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution, the 1990 Monday Demonstrations in East Germany, the Mass Action for Peace by the women of Liberia in 2003, Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2005, the Egyptian Revolution and the Syrian Uprising and the Bahraini Uprising of 2011, Yo Soy 132 in Mexico begun only 2 years ago and continuing still,  None of them were completely or "purely" nonviolent protests/movements but, in every case, without exception, none of them could have achieved any of the gains they achieved without the force of nonviolence.

I had not seen anything of that ilk, I thought, in my lifetime, in my country... until Ferguson.  That is, until I saw unarmed, peaceful protesters take up their literal arms in an incredibly powerful display of powerlessness, defenselessness and vulnerability, in the face of an overwhelmingly violently "armed" (in fact, militarized) police force and demand little more than what counts as a minimally decent response to aggression: DON'T SHOOT.

There are many lessons to be learned from Ferguson, to be sure.  I just want to remind us that one (among many) of those lessons, one that I think was powerfully demonstrated in Ferguson's "Hands Up. Don't Shoot." strategy, is that there are other, non-obvious and nonviolent, ways to forcefully "take up arms" against unjust and oppressive regimes. Raising one's hand against violent aggressors, making manifest one's vulnerability and powerlessness and,in the act of doing so, implicitly or explicitly forcing one's antagonists to not only show their aggression as aggression, but also to justify their aggression as just is, in the very best (i.e., non-pathological) sense of the term, passively aggressive. I remain, as I said at the beginning of this post, unresolved in my own mind with regard to when it is advisable, prudential or, most importantly, moral to choose violent force over nonviolent force, but the actions of the nonviolent protesters in Ferguson have given me pause to reconsider not only the incredible risk and difficulty of opting for nonviolent force but also the fundamentally philosophical basis of conceptually figuring nonviolence as (in the words of DuVall) a "force more powerful."

As I've discussed at length on this blog before in re my work on "Weak Humanism" (read here or listen to me talk about "Weak Humanism" here), I worry our default commitments to both classical and neo-liberal conceptual apparatuses have effectively(and regrettably) blinded us, to our own detriment, to the manner in which we are primarily joined together not by our strengths or positive capacities -- even less so by our capacity to evidence or prove our strengths by force or violence-- but rather by our vulnerability, mortality and mutability, capriciousness, imperfection, helplessness (or, rather, our fundamental need for help) and weakness.

That is to say, what makes distinguishes us as the curious animal we human beings are is not only our weakness-- a characteristic that attends all finite and mortal organisms-- but also our capacity to reflectively take account of ourselves as finite, mortal and interdependent organisms, to make that fact thetic to ourselves, and to formulate for ourselves (moral/political) laws that aim to protect the most vulnerable among us, for the sake of all of us.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ferguson Syllabus for Philosophers

Many of you have probably seen the excellent "Ferguson Syllabus" created by Sociologists for Justice, which has been circulated widely over the last several days and which provides a collection of research articles used to inform the arguments and positions represented in their Statement on Ferguson.  I strongly encourage you to keep circulating that document, and to use Sociologists' for Justice suggested hashtag #socforjustice when you do.

If you work in academia but outside of a Sociology Department, as I do, I suspect you've thought to yourself how helpful it would be if a corresponding syllabus were produced and circulated for your own discipline, as I have.  (Would that it were the case that professional Philosophers could agree on something like a"Statement on Ferguson," but I'm not holding my breath for that!)  Below, I've attempted to BEGIN the construction of a "Ferguson Syllabus" for the discipline of Philosophy.  The list of materials I have here is, of course, non-exhaustive and incomplete, so I welcome any amendments or additions from readers who specialize in Philosophy, Political Theory, Critical Race Studies and the like.

Just leave your suggestions in the comments section to this post, and I will do my best to amend this draft version of a "Ferguson Syllabus for Philosophers" in a timely manner.  I've listed only books here-- no articles-- because an emphasis on primary material is the prevailing custom in the (somewhat limited) area of Philosophy in which I work.  But I've also included a separate list of anthologies that include many, if not most, of the seminal philosophical works in race theory and (broadly speaking) Enlightenment/democratic theory.  As anyone who has ever attempted to construct a "new" syllabus knows, crowdsourcing via social media--or just regular old flesh-and-blood social networks-- is a tremendous help when one finds oneself up against the daunting challenge of teaching new material (or teaching familiar material in new ways). I invite you all to help in this endeavor.

Following the lead of Sociologists for Justice, I will ask that you use the hashtag #philosophersforjustice when you share this syllabus on Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

Primary Readings (Monographs):
Primary Readings (Anthologies/Collections):
The texts above aim to familiarize students with the primary source material sufficient to understand the advent and history of the concept of "race," its development, maturation and mutation since the Enlightenment, its displacement by and yet continuing influence on "theory" (broadly speaking) and theoretically-oriented academic disciplines (like Philosophy) specifically, its critique and reformulation by and/or in the interest of people of color, and its deep and abiding connection with political, social, carceral and institutional power-regimes and empowered groups.

Supplementary Readings:
(The following texts are collected from readers' suggestions  in the comments selection below.  I will continue to update this section as more titles are submitted.)
One last solicitation: I'd like to especially encourage my friends and colleagues in History, Modern Languages and Literatures, Political Science and Economics/Political Economy departments to consider drafting their own versions of a "Ferguson Syllabus," in part because it serves my own interdisciplinary interests but in larger part because it serves academia.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Democracy Must Always Be Severe

"Democracy must always be severe. Without either desire or dread of paradox, we may go even further. Democracy must always be unpopular. It is a religion, and the essence of a religion is that it constrains. Like every other religion, it asks men to do what they cannot do; to think steadily about the important things. Like every other religion, it asks men to consider the dark, fugitive, erratic realities, to ignore the gigantic, glaring and overpowering trivialites. It rests upon the fact that the things which men have in common, such as a soul and a stomach, such as the love of children or the fear of death, are to infinity more important than the things in which they differ, such as a landed estate or an ear for music, the capacity to found an empire or to make a bow. And it has, like any other religion, to deal with the immense primary difficulty that the unimportant things are by far the most graphic and arresting, that millions see how a man founds an empire, and only a few how he faces death, and that a man may make several thousand bows in a year and go on improving in them, while in the art of being born he is only allowed one somewhat private experiment. In politics, in philosophy, in everything, it is sufficiently obvious that the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal. And the thing which is most undiscoverable in all human affairs, the thing which is most elusive, most secret, most hopelessly sealed from our sight is, and always must be, the thing which is most common to us all. Every little variety we have we gossip and boast of eagerly; it is upon uniformity that we preserve the silence of terrified conspirators. There are only two things that are absolutely common to all of us, more common than bread or sunlight, death and birth. And it is considered morbid to talk about the one and indecent to talk about the other. It is the nature of man to talk, so to speak, largely and eagerly about every new feather he sticks in his hair, but to conceal like a deformity the fact that he has a head. This is the secret of the permanent austerity of the democratic idea, of its eternal failure and its eternal recurrence, of the fact that it can never be popular and can never be killed. It withers into nothingness in the light of a naked spirituality those special badges and uniforms which we all love so much, since they mark us out as kings or schoolmasters, or gentlemen or philanthropists. It declares with a brutal benignity that all men are brothers just at the very moment that every one feels himself to be the good grandfather of every one else. To our human nature it commonly seems quite a pitiful exchange to cease from being poets or vestrymen, and be put off with being the images of the everlasting. That is the secret, as I say, of the austerity of republicanism, of its continual historic association with the stoical philosophy, of its continual defeat at the hands of heated mobs. It strikes men down from the high places of their human fads and callings, and lays them all level upon a dull plane of the divine."

--G.K. Chesterton, The Fortnight Review, Vol. LXXIV., July to December, 1903.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Somehow Philosophy Got Left Behind"

There's a really great essay by Eugene Sun Park entitled "Why I Left Academia: Philosophy's Homogeneity Needs Rethinking"  that appeared yesterday on HIPPO Reads.  Stop whatever you're doing and go read it now.

I've posted a fair bit of material on this blog addressing the racial and gender disparity in professional Philosophy, which remains truly embarrassing, but Park's first-person narrative of his experience is a telling account. After stipulating that Western academia has long been guilty of excluding women and minorities both from the Academy and from the canon, Park (citing Hollinger) concedes that much progress has been made in the last half-century to correct these errors and to broaden the humanities... BUT (Park notes in a transitional sentence that speaks more truth than its syntactical position suggests) "somehow Philosophy got left behind."  Unlike other disciplines in the humanities, Philosophy remains woefully "behind" when it comes to the inclusion of women and minorities not only in its professional representation, but also in "publications, citations and overall disciplinary influence."

Park asked himself, as I suspect all women and/or people of color do at some point in their philosophical careers: why did Philosophy get left behind?  And the answer he discovers, as I suspect all women and/or people of color also discover, is that Philosophy didn't "get" left behind.  It chose to stay behind.

From Park's essay:
The lack of women and minorities in philosophy may be an anomaly in the academy, especially among the humanities, but it is not an accident. Philosophers have made, and continue to make, decisions that impact the demographics of the discipline. Until they acknowledge their own complicity in the problem, philosophers will continue to scratch their heads about the lack of diversity in their field. It’s not that women and minorities are (inexplicably) less interested in the “problems of philosophy”—it’s that women and minorities have not had their fair say in defining what the problems of philosophy are, or what counts as philosophy in the first place.
It's all of our (philosophers') loss that a conscientious and critical thinker like Park left the Academy. As someone who has yet to muster the courage to do so, despite overwhelming evidence that I should, I'm both envious of his resolve and deeply disheartened by its necessity.

Last point, in the interest of full disclosure: one of my areas of expertise is Critical Race Theory and I regularly teach courses in that subject area.  In part due to my training and my interests, but more so due to my location (Memphis, TN), I've been guilty of teaching the philosophy of race almost exclusively within the black/white paradigm, a problem that I've off-handedly acknowledged to my students on many occasions, but never corrected.  To wit, I want to thank Eugene Sun Park for motivating me, via his essay, to make a more concerted effort to address the many and varied "non-Western" influences on Philosophy.

We all can and should do better.

ADDENDUM: I created the image at the top of this post quickly and on-the-fly by combining the symbol for Philosophy (the Greek phi) and the international symbol for male, superimposing both of them in white against a black background mostly for aesthetic reasons.  As I look at it now, though, it seems an even more appropriate image for professional Philosophy: mostly white, mostly male, doubly accentuating whiteness and masculinity where they overlap, and impossible to read except against a background of color.  So, feel free to use my image in the future to represent professional Philosophy.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

American Apartheid

For they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory.
--Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

America has always been and remains an apartheid state.  The latter part of that sad but increasingly undeniable fact was made apparent last night in Ferguson, Missouri to a group of peaceful protesters amidst tanks, deafening LRADs, a haze of tear gas and a firestorm of rubber (and real) bullets.  The other tragic fact made apparent in Ferguson last night is that America is only ever a hair's-breadth away from a police state... if we understand by "police" not a regulated body of law-enforcement peacekeepers empowered to serve and protect the citizenry, but rather a heavily-armed, extra-constitutional, militarized cadre of domestic soldiers who provoke and terrorize with impunity.  Much of the time, we are able to forget or ignore these unfortunate truths about contemporary America-- and by "we" I mean our elected officials, our bureaucrats and financiers, and a lot of self-delusionally "post-racial," though really white, people-- but the mean truth of gross inequality, both de facto and de jure, remains ever-present in spite of our disavowals, simmering steadily just below the allegedly free and fair democratic veneer of our polis.

Greg Howard, journalist and parrhesiates, said it about as plainly as it can be said this past Tuesday in his article for Deadspin:  America is not for black people. The truth of "American apartheid" should make us all ashamed, saddened, angry, deeply troubled as moral and political agents.  And, what is more, it should frighten us all.

We can of course, manufacture a nominally significant difference between the contemporary United States and mid- to late-20th century South Africa (the only "official" apartheid state in world history), but to do so these days would require an masters-level facility for intellectual and conceptual contortion.  Statistically, the United States is a racially divided (and divisive) country.  That is about as close to a brute fact as one can say about a nation of 317 million.  Race divides us socially, politically, economically, educationally, religiously, existentially and, perhaps most tragically, it divides us with respect to the likelihood of our falling into carceral custody, of our achieving average life-expectancy and of our generating for ourselves something approximating a minimally decent life.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on truth commissions and, as a consequence, I consider myself an expert on apartheid. So, let me state unequivocally and for the record: I am thoroughly convinced that to name our current state "American apartheid" is not only long overdue but also descriptively accurate: legally, morally, politically and philosophically.  When black mothers and fathers have good reason to raise their children to fear being assaulted, arrested or killed without provocation, when peacefully-gathered black protesters are forced to hold signs that say "Hands up. Don't shoot." in order to exercise their Constitutional right to free assembly, when black neighborhoods are regularly subject to martial law and only irregularly (if at all) served and protected by police, when the least reported fact in the wake of an unarmed black teenager's shooting by police is that he was unarmed and killed, when the journalists who try to report more are summarily harassed and arrested, and when neither the police, locally elected representatives nor the President feels the need to intervene or explain ... we have entered into an entirely new domain of injustice.

In international law, apartheid is classified as a "crime against humanity," as that term was prescribed by the Rome Statute and by the United Nations General Assembly.  The technical definition of the crime of apartheid is: "inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them."  By that definition, there has only ever been one historical instance of the crime of apartheid -- South Africa between the years of 1948-1990-- and, because of apartheid's classification as a crime against humanity, there has been extraordinary resistance to ascribing that term to any other state since.  (Former President Jimmy Carter used the word "apartheid" to describe the Palestinian state in 2007 and suffered a vicious international backlash for doing so.) There are, of course, legitimate and complex reasons to insist on what philosophers call a "hard" meaning or sense of the term apartheid, as opposed to a "soft" meaning or sense, not the least among which are (1) "race" and "racial groups" are almost impossible to designate without controversy, (2) "systematic oppression" can be executed de facto without being executed de jure, making it difficult to hold states or heads of states accountable for not-strictly-legal or -political, but rather social, practices, and (3) it is nearly impossible to satisfy the burden of proof when it comes to establishing the intention (i.e., "for the purpose of...") with which inhuman acts are committed.  To wit, "apartheid" has remained so far in history a singularly site-specific crime.

That goes for not only the thing apartheid, but also the word "apartheid," originally an Afrikaans term meaning something like "the essence of being apart" or "apart-hood."   There is no equivalent in any other language for the word "apartheid"; it is an utterly idiomatic term or, as Jacques Derrida once described it, a "unique appellation," not only untranslated but untranslatable.  Of course, what the word "apartheid" really names is as common and as not-new as the New World:  it names racism (political racism, to be more exact), an invention and a product of the European Enlightenment and its concommitant projects of exploitation, expropriation, colonization, subjugation and domination.  But because, today,  we need to disavow the ubiquity and banality of our racism-- especially those of us in the post-racial global North and West, even more especially in the United States-- we desperately hold the word apartheid in reserve like a loaded gun, waved threateningly but never fired, deployed to frighten but never to correct.

As long as we treat the word apartheid as if it were the last word of racism and not as the most appropriate adjective for a still-too-common state of affairs that it is, nations like ours will continue to reconcile, with a theo-political sleight of hand, their dually racist-but-not-"criminally"-racist natures in something like a hypostatic union. And it will remain the case that in these free and democratic United States, a black man will be extrajudically killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes.

Frantz Fanon's prescience with regard to those he (rightly) called the "wretched of the earth," which I quoted as the epigraph to this post, ought give us pause to think much more carefully and critically about what happened last night in Ferguson.  Humanity was threatened and humanity was, temporarily and provisionally, defended. Whatever happens henceforth in Ferguson will be but one more battle in this protracted war.  As all wars go, the weapons employed will only get more deadly, never less so, and we ought not be surprised to see those whose primary interest is to secure the victory of humanity sharpening theirs. It would be best if we could call off their attackers before anyone else dies.  Short of that, we ought get straight to the work of sharpening.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The CIA Report Is The Purloined Letter and Obama Is The Prefect: My Break-Up Letter to President Obama

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some 
things that were wrong.  We did a whole lot of things 
that were right, but we tortured some folks.
-- President Barack Obama, Press Conference (Aug 1, 2014)

"That is another of your odd notions," said the Prefect, 
who had a fashion of calling everything "odd" that was
beyond his comprehension, and thus lived in an absolute 
legion of "oddities."
-- Edgar Allen Poe, "The Purloined Letter" (1845)

I don't suspect that President Barack Obama reads most of his mail. I am 100% certain that whoever reads his mail would certainly not pass this letter on to him.  That said, I am confident that there are millions of Americans who have, as I've often described my situation to Ideas Man PhD, had their political (and real) hearts broken by President Obama over and over again.  This is my "I quit you" letter to our Commander-in-Chief, who is not up for re-election, of course, but it's gotta be said.

Dear President Obama,

In your press conference last Friday addressing the U.S. Senate's decision to declassify the CIA's "Torture Report," which details so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved by the Bush Administration post-9/11, you finally lent state authority to a truth that has been evident for at least a decade: the United States sanctioned and practiced torture as a matter of official anti-terrorism state policy.  That this horrible truth is true should come as a surprise to no one.  We saw the photos from Abu Ghraib released in 2004, we knew about the "torture memos" as early as 2009, we've spent the last dozen years as an electorate officially and unofficially debating the moral permissibility of torture, what "counts" as torture, how we might mitigate and/or disavow our responsibility for torture, even being entertained by the fantastical/fictional playing out of all our ambivalence on the matter.  Torture has been the pink noise of American life since 9/11, producing a sound that could be heard, but is designed such that its power rolls off at higher frequencies, masks aural distractions, soothes and at the same time becomes lost in other noises.

But that sound was always there. You should have heard it long ago.  And unlike the sound of actual torture, it should have been and should have remained deafening to you for every second that you have occupied the Oval Office.  You could have always heard it if you had made the effort to listen, to not be distracted, to not allow yourself to be lulled into sleep by its tranquilizing and insidious diversion.

I voted for you in 2008 and again (more reluctantly) in 2012.  The first time was an easy decision, as I had had my fill of the Bush Administration's love-affair with the security state, its neglect of the poor and working classes, its rampant disregard for the rule of law, its coddling of big business, its war on women, its disavowal of the United Nations and its indefensible ignorance with regard to foreign policy. The second time I voted for you was more difficult and was, in fact, the choice of a lesser evil.  Your first administration did not deliver the promised "change I could believe in."  You balked on women's and LGBTQ rights repeatedly, you did not close Guantanamo Bay (which was your very first Executive Directive when you took office), you not only continued but doubled-down on some of the worst Bush-era war practices (see: drones), and you slid right into the Bush-shaped hole in big business' bed with the pathological ease of an jilted lover.  So, when I heard your unassuming, plain-speak admission last Friday that "we tortured some folks," which (as far as I can tell) you said without any irony whatsoever, you lost me completely.

I was reminded, while watching your press conference this past Friday, of Edgar Allen Poe's famous short-story "The Purloined Letter," in which a Prefect enlists the aid of Detective Dupin to help him locate a salacious letter, allegedly stolen by Minister D, implicating an unnamed female.  As I'm sure you are aware, it turns out that the thief, Minister D, hid the letter in plain sight in his residence, a fact that Dupin discovers after deducing that Minister D would have surely anticipated that the Prefect would expect him to hide it cleverly and, thus, that the Prefect would have never looked to find the letter right under his nose.  Since you are a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, I'll spare you the many important (and, in this case, all too relevant) philosophical/psychoanalytic interpretations of Poe's story and get straight to the metaphorical point.

The CIA Torture Report is the purloined letter.  And you are the Prefect.

I'm leaving aside for the moment the incredible bad taste of your "folksy" reference to the countless and unnamed poor, unfortunate souls who were tortured at the hands of U.S. state-sanctioned agents. Instead, I just want to call you out on your unpardonable and indefensibly culpable pretension of ignorance. I've written a great deal about torture on this blog before, in almost every case in the service of debunking the lies that the U.S. has told and continues to tell about its complicity in that absolutely inexcusable practice over the last thirteen years, but never have I found myself so utterly disgusted by such a willing and willingly naive reluctance on the part of a Head of State to pretend that a gross wrong-- in fact, by definition, a gross violation of human rights-- has been committed with the full knowledge and sanction of his State.

Shame on you, President Obama.  Shame on us all.

The Prefect in Poe's story, as you know, tries to figure Dupin's acuity and discernment as an "oddity," revealing instead (as he inadvertently does) that Dupin has accomplished nothing more extraordinary than to see what has always and ever been right there before him. None of us, least of all you, President Obama, live amidst a legion of oddities. To think so is to demonstrate your own blindness, not the cleverness of your evaders.

Leigh M. Johnson

(This post also cross-posted at NewAPPSblog)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Join, or Die: Neoliberalism, Epistemontology, Social Harmony and the (Invisible) Invisible Hand

There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm.  Case in point:  Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance.  I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether.  I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation."  Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.

James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis." It presumes, first, that everything that can be known is known best on the model of market-logic. But, as James (and Foucault) note, the coherency of that epistemological presumption includes (and often veils) another, almost indistinguishable, ontological presumption: namely, that everything that is is a market. Of course, such "epistemontologies" end up being massive feedback loops, philosophically speaking; they produce and reproduce the very phenomena that they claim to be simply discovering and analyzing. (Fwiw, I think there are some strains of psychoanalytic theory that suffer the same fate.) The fact that neoliberalism, as an ideology, is first and foremost an epistemontology of this sort provides James a way of explaining why most of the historical manifestations of it (she includes "big data, post-identity politics, globalization, creative destruction, resilience, sustainability, privatization, biopolitics, relational aesthetics") are consistently understood through algorithms. Neoliberals, believing that all that is is a market, are ever in search of better predictive mathematical formulas for understanding how the agents of that market will freely and rationally determine their interests and direct the market... and/yet/but, by virtue of those same algorithmic analyses, neoliberals also end up manipulating the market, its agents, and whatever remains of what we take to be the "freedom" involved in "free choice."

One of the most interesting parts of James' essay, to my mind, is her (excellent, but all too brief!) explanation of the prominence neoliberal ideology affords to algorithms. Neoliberal economic analyses, to quote James, "find the signal in the noise" of phenomena and human behavior by combining two sets of ideological commitments: (1) a commitment to particular epsitemontological presumptions (the world/reality is a market, agents in the world are intentionally rational, agents' behaviors are systematic/non-random/predictable and, thus, can be known/understood) and (2) a commitment to algorithmic analysis, constant mathematical modeling, which is itself necessitated by the presumptions of (1). James teases out the implications with a musical metaphor: one way to understand harmony is as a consequence of "phase convergence" (when wave forms with different frequencies fall into sync); if we understand individuals as distinct wave forms with different frequencies, as neoliberalism does, then we can allow for the possibility of "social harmony" without needing to collapse the distinct wave forms into one another or erase their difference in frequency. Metaphorically, neoliberalism can understand social harmony as something that "naturally" occurs in phases-- asynchronous things will, over time, fall in and out of sync with each other-- without sacrificing neoliberalism's commitment to the idiosyncratic, free, rational intentionality of individual agents. Thus, "achieving" social harmony, if that is a legitimate project at all, ought not be a project of regulating individuals so that they operate more in sync with one another, but rather staying out of their way. (Don't tread on me!) Of course, the great irony evident in neoliberals' ubiquitous efforts at data-collection-- their constant, relentless and mostly covert encroachment into our "private" lives-- is that such efforts are justified on the basis of safeguarding our individual freedom to engage in the market according to our own interests, as those interests are freely determined by us.

Never mind that what an uncritical surrender to algorithmic analyses actually does-- little by little, Google search by Google search, Facebook like by Facebook like, Amazon purchase by Amazon purchase-- is eventually come to determine not only our interests, but also our "freely, intentionally rational" selections among them.

To the extent that there's anything really missing in James' argument-- and, to be fair, hers is a very short piece that does not pretend to offer a full analysis-- I think it's an under-emphasis on another presumption of neoliberal epistemontology: the market (which we ought remember, for neoliberals, is all that is the case) is ever guided by an Invisible Hand.  James' focus on algorithms and mathematical modeling is immensely valuable for understanding many of the epistemological commitments and strategies of neoliberal epistemontology, but I'd just like to unpack the implications of the ontological (or, really, onto-theological) commitments of the neoliberal "reality-as-market" worldview briefly here.

Perhaps the single most important proposition in modern capitalist economic theory, inherited from Adam Smith, is that competitive markets do a good job of allocating resources, that such markets channel individuals' self-interest toward the collective good as if directed by an "invisible hand."  (I won't detail the manner in which such a proposition qualifies as "onto-theological" here, partly because there simply isn't room to do so, but mostly because I think it is self-evident.) There is, of course, a long and varied history of philosophical and/or religious commitments to the world-as-purposive or the world-as-Good or the world-as-intelligently-designed.  Despite their differences in detail, and despite their sometimes outright antagonisms, what they share in common is a certain, fundamentally ontological, inflection that posits all that is the case as aiming-to-be or destined-to-be orderly, rational, if not also just and morally good.

One of the problems with neoliberalism's particular ("invisible hand") iteration of onto-theological prejudice-- and this is something that James' account of the neoliberal "algorithmic modelling" fetish made more clear to me-- is that it effectively blinds itself to the manner in which it not only does, but must, conflate the Hand-that-Guides with the hand(s)-that-are-guided.  When synchronicity or harmony is absent, when dissonance is resonant, when the aleatory interrupts or real human freedom (s'il y en a) insists-- that is to say, when the Invisible Hand is not only non-apparent but also non-existent-- neoliberalism's epistemonto(theo)logical commitments force neoliberals to, quite literally, phish or cut bait.  And what is phishing, after all, but the manufacturing of an Invisible Hand?

What are drones, for that matter?

So, perhaps (but not really) pace James, I'm not convinced that neoliberalism is as passive with regard to "social harmony" as her analysis might suggest.  (For the record, I don't think she meant to suggest that neoliberalism is passive and I'm confident that she doesn't think that.)  Neoliberals aren't simply playing around with predictive algorithms and waiting for a harmonic or synchronous phase convergence--that is NOT James' thesis, for the record-- but rather, I suspect, neoliberals' epistemontological commitments put them squarely in the seat of the remote-operator of a drone we might call "Invisible Hand."  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the "Invisible Hand" drone is a deadly effective weapon that basically works like this: defund or deregulate, make sure things don't work, wait for people to get angry, then privatize.  That's the formula Noam Chomsky detailed in his brilliant essay "The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat To Freedom and Survival", in which he also sagely reminded us that the only occurrence of the phrase "invisible hand" in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations appears in a passage that critiques what we now call neoliberalism.

To wit, all this has inclined me to think that the customary use of the Gadsden flag ("Don't tread on me!") to represent neoliberalism is perhaps not as appropriate as opting instead for the Franklin woodcut ("Join, or Die") that I used at the top of this post.  "Join, or Die" seems to be far more indicative of the neoliberal imperative, shouted into the panopticon of our modern world and echoed off every wall by banks, political parties, corporations, families, nation-states, social groups and social media. I think it's consistent with James' Foucaultian-inspired insights to say that the post-9/11 neoliberal project determines even more than what Foucault conjectured contemporary notions of nation-state "sovereignty" determine.  The sovereign nation-state determined "[who] to make live and [who] to let die," but neoliberal entities-- hardly ever nation-states anymore-- determine who to make live and who to make die.  Because "living" is utterly unrecognizable except as an algorithmic variable by big neoliberal data, there is no "living" that is not "joining."

And there is no not-joining without dying.

Friday, July 11, 2014

AMERICA! F*CK YEAH!... or, Dinesh D'Souza and the Chocolate Factory

It is indeed difficult to imagine the world without America, which is what the one-sheet movie poster for Dinesh D'Souza's America dares us to imagine. After all, America is every bit as much a symbol, an aspiration and an idea as it is a nation-state. However, it is not difficult to imagine the world without D'Souza's "America" or its cinematic rendering, a film that is part costume drama, part morality tale, part manifesto, too much revisionist history and a whole lot of  downright D'Souzian fantasy.  Those already suspect of D'Souza's worldview (not to mention his political cronyism and/or personal moral fortitude) will likely view this movie, if they view it at all, as right-wing propaganda, at which they will snort before promptly dismissing it. Those inclined more favorably toward D'Souza's worldview, on the other hand, are likely to crank up the Team America theme song ("America! F*ck Yeah!"), wave a flag and pat each other on the back for their patriotism, happy to have at last been able to steal one free breath in the suffocating liberal environment that they call Obamastan.  I saw the film last night in a theater filled with the latter group--I surmise as much from the audience's enthusiastic applause when the credits rolled--and after I righted my head from the "wait, whaa?" side-cocked position in which it had been stuck for the last 103 minutes, I genuinely didn't know how to react.  Should I be offended? disgusted? disheartened? afraid?


First things first: D'Souza's film amounts to little more than an almost two-hour long and very well-produced negative campaign ad. D'Souza doesn't back any specific potential Presidential candidates in America (though Sen. Rand Paul gets a hefty amount of screen-time), but he does devote a significant part of the film to a fairly vicious and thoroughly-duplicitous preemptive strike against (likely Democratic Presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton.  If D'Souza were a PAC, he'd almost certainly be guilty of running afoul (again) of the Federal Election Campaign Act with this film. As it is, he's mostly guilty of running a little too close to Sergei Eisenstein.

After sleeping on it for a night, I woke up today thinking that D'Souza's film, more so than being merely propagandist and revisionist (which it most certainly and deeply disturbingly is), was also vaguely reminiscent of the Roald Dahl children's story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The protagonist in Dahl's novel is the boy Charlie, of course, but the most interesting character is and has always been the mysterious and eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka.  Now, to be fair, there is more than a little bit of Charlie in Dinesh D'Souza, and to the extent that is true, it is as difficult to object to D'Souza's fantastical indulgences and hyperbolic glorifications of America as it is to object to a child's belief in Santa Claus. Dahl's Charlie, impoverished and hungry but good-hearted, longed above all for a glimpse inside the Shangri-la that was Wonka's chocolate factory, and Charlie believed with equal parts idealism and desperation that (in Dahl's words) "there was one thing that the grown-ups also knew, and it was this: that however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance is there.  The chance had to be there."  D'Souza, an immigrant who against all odds got his Golden Ticket to America and who existentially confirmed that, yes, in fact, the chance IS there, is undoubtedly one of the very best people to tell the story of America's promise.

Alas, if only D'Souza had told the whole story, told the story right (and not Right), told the story of American exceptionalism qualified by the always and ever against-all-odds exception that he is, and not figured himself as the rule that he so desperately wants himself and his adopted country to be.  If only he hadn't so obviously cherry-picked his interviewees (Chomsky, Zinn, Alinksky et al) as targets and then also cherry-picked  their utterly non-representative detractors as anecdotal stories. If only he hadn't invested so much energy and passion in divesting the disenfranchised of their efforts at combating disenfranchisement.  If only he hadn't used his 103 minutes of beautifully-produced film to effectively delegitimatize the entire history of progressive American race, gender and class initiatives, debunking them without either any demonstration of first understanding them or their historical/cultural context.  If only D'Souza had just stuck to being Dahl's "Charlie," the down-and-out kid who got lucky.  If only he wasn't, as I suspect he is, more Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregarde or Mike Teavee than he is Charlie.

In fact, I suspect, given his ideological and financial influence at this point, D'Souza is far more akin to Willy Wonka than any of the starry-eyed children longing for a Wonka's golden ticket in Dahl's story.  Self-sequestered in his self-made, self-absolving, ridiculously profitable and quietly fantastical Chocolate Factory, Dahl's Willy Wonka existed in a manufactured world of sugar and sweetness that was maintained only by virtue of a healthy infusion of paranoia, neurosis and distorted reality. Dahl really was a genius at making our otherwise-unreflective allegiance to childhood fantasies questionable, if not also wholly objectionable, and that genius is no more evident than in his rendering of the character of Willy Wonka.  One of my favorite lines from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always been, purely for its cringe-inducing candor and probity, this one by Wonka:
Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all if it hasn't been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn't poached eggs unless it's been stolen in the dead of the night.
Read the above line as a child: it's funny. Read it as an adult: it's downright terrifying. The conflation of "whipped" and whipped, of "poached" and poached-- a difference so easy to elide, so subtle, so slight, so attenuated and yet so extraordinarily, profoundly and critically important-- constitutes the difference that makes a difference.  (Not least of all to the Oompa-loompas, amirite?!) For what it's worth, that difference is the long and short of what America misses, if not also intentionally conceals.  D'Souza is to "America" what Willy Wonka is to his Chocolate Factory: so thoroughly convinced of the sweetness of its productions that he's been blinded to the whipping and poaching that that production requires.

And that delusion of D'Souza/Wonka is what you get in America. Here's hoping you have the stomach to stand it, because it's really enough to give you a very-"American" version of diabetes.