Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Utopian Community and the Critique of Liberalism

The social failures of utopian communities, whether based on religious stricture, as in the case of Warren Jeffs' polygamist sect, or on the liberal universalism and enlightenment, as in the case of Auroville, seem to end in similar sorts of failures. In both Auroville and the Texas polygamists' ranch, there were accusations of child abuse and neglect, abuse of power, and general dysfunction.

The "mother" who runs Auroville concieved it as "a universal town where people from around the world could live together in harmony and unity, without having to worry about food and shelter." Setting aside for a moment the implicit scientific utopianism of the second part of the claim, the social utopianism of the first perfectly encapsulates the overtly stated goals that underpin much of modern Western society. And, as both David Theo Goldberg and Carl Schmitt would predict (from vastly different perspectives), this universalism leads quite directly to an oppression that must be actively disavowed - according to the BBC article, local Tamils have great difficulty becoming members of the exclusive (universalist) club at Auroville, a contradiction that would seem difficult to maintain. Is this an instance of the need for supposedly universalist humanism to covertly exclude some as "non-human" in order to sustain its enterprise?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Contemplating the Rhetorical Uses of "History" as a judge.

The use of “history” as an abstract replacement for God or moral law is pretty noticeable these days - as in George Bush's “History will judge our actions.” I saw an episode of Battlestar Galactica the other day that used the same phraseology, and maybe since the show usually puts me in a thoughtful mood, it jumped out at me. What's the warrant underlying such a statement? What, really, are the moral groundings and the ensuing moral consequences of a stance that leaves some sort of ultimate judgment to History? What exactly is the nature of that judgment? What, ultimately, are the consequences of making an abstracted History the compass for our actions, or the justification of them?

In what ways does History have the capacity to serve as a stand-in for these monumental constructions of ethics – or even for the more recent administrative ethic of efficiency and good management?

What are the consequences of History’s judgment? Are they parallel with those of Heaven, Hell, Evil or Waste?
If the sort of judgment implied in these statements is a moral one, then the stakes are in part the memories held of us by future human beings. The punishment of such a proclamation ostensibly would be that our grandchildren would, if they decide to, remember us as fools, criminals, sinners.

There's a bit of a conundrum here – if History is our judge, then we are claiming that it takes the role of an ethic. But we must imagine that those figures that we imagine in the future (and who are in turn remembering us in the past) have some different ethic, some absolute ethic, some way to judge the rightness of a decision using capacities that we have not yet developed.

In this sense, the invocation of history as a judge of our actions has much in common with the logic of cryogenics - we don't have the power of judgment now that would be required to judge these actions, but in the future, our more advanced successors will have that power.

Of course, much of this speculation would be irrelevant if we interpret the statement in a second possible way. When we say “History will be our judge,” maybe we are not referring to the people who will judge us on new and better ethical grounds, but to some objective set of outcomes that will be clearly decipherable as vindicating our action. In the Bush case, once you do a little reading, it's clear that this second goal is what's in effect, since it's still believed by at least a few that the democratization of Iraq will have long-term positive consequences in the region, such as destabilizing state sponsors of terrorism.

But really, this is only a further deferral of the problem already presented, as it nonetheless assumes that our descendants will have the ability to experience their own surroundings in some sense in relation to an imagined alternative outcome. It also presents a curious problem of regression - if we are deferring the judgment of our actions to some hypothetical future point at which their consequences will become clear, must we not in turn defer the judgment of those consequences until their consequences become clear? This is the problem of all logic that tries to justify current suffering in the name of future outcomes.

Another implication of these sorts of claims is that WE DON'T KNOW what the outcome will be. In what way does this statement position us relative to our ignorance of our actions’ consequences? I have a colleague who, as far as I can tell following on Derrida, makes quite strong claims about the ultimate undecidability of the consequences of actions. But he often seems to me to be making the mistake of taking this as supporting an ethical undermining of all supposedly 'progressive action, making of it nothing more than self-delusion. I, on the other hand, feel that confronting and overcoming this vacuum of knowledge of the future - acting despite our ignorance - is fundamental to being human, or for that matter alive.

The problem with the appeal to history, just as with my friend's deconstructionist ethics, is the inevitable ethical abdication – the refusal to stake a claim on any element of one’s judgment. If we can only appeal to history as an ethical standard, rather than to some piece of our own understanding, expectations, even hopes, we are distanced from the consequences of our own actions. We take less responsibility for them insofar as we defer judgment.

The core aspect of these statements is exactly that deferral of judgment. Strip away some strong layers of implication, and you'll notice that there is often no overt claim that History will find us to be right - only that history will judge us. In other words, this is a slightly fancier way of throwing up our hands and saying "Meh."

One final series of questions - what are the cultural circumstances that allow history to take on this moral role? For something so frequently used by Bush, and evangelical Christian, it's striking how much that statement smacks of Enlightenment. If History is judging us, who's not judging us? You guessed it - God. And whether you are more convinced by my reading of the History here being invoked as "future enlightened ethicists" or "objective administrative outcomes," the progressivism, humanism, and technologism here are obvious.

So, does "history" have good or bad implications for decision making? I would say both - positive, by my lights, exactly to the degree that it implies a pragmatic, outcome-oriented decision-making process. But the far more powerful implication also seems to be far more ethically dangerous - the idea that the wisdom of our present decisions will be truly unknowable until some uncertain time in the future. This may be the true ontological nature of human experience - of, in fact, all existence - but it does not have an ethical consequence. The truly ethical act is to traverse the terror of that ultimate, cosmic uncertainty, and act with the best knowledge you have, and stake one's own ethical status on that what is possible within our narrow human capabilities.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hillary Clinton purged Indiana voter rolls of blacks and students . . . probably.

Edit: This story has been shown to be a serious misinterpretation of the evidence - I didn't realize how little respect Black Box Voter had in the blog community when I first read it. I leave it up here because some of what I wrote still holds water, and as an object lesson in the risks of flying off the handle.

Huge numbers of voters purged from the rolls in Indiana.
Especially heavily hit was Porter county/Valparaiso, where MORE THAN HALF of all voters were removed from the rolls - and which also happens to be a college town. Almost as bad was Gary, where about a third of the current total of registered voters were purged - and which also happens to be one of the most densely black cities in America.

Removing huge numbers of college students and black people from the voter rolls before the Democratic primary - who might that benefit? Things that make you go hmm.

The post above just contains raw numbers, without any irresponsible speculation - so let me inject some. If this story gets some legs, I'm betting that a minimum of vetting on this purge will turn up yet more evidence that despite any policies we might like, what Hillory Clinton and her coterie really bring to the table is exactly the same political playbook as Bush. And have you guys seen the clips of her from yesterday? Her gas-tax holiday has been universally mocked and debunked, including by, apparently, every economist who has been asked about it. Stephanopolous (amazingly) actually pressed her on this a few days ago, and her response was that she wouldn't "throw her lot in with the economists. Sound familiar? Part of the whole anti-elitist thing she's apparently glommed onto lately. Here's video of the whole shameful, embarrassing thing.

I'm not one of those "I'll vote for McCain" loonies, but this whole scenario just gets more and more depressing. Hillary herself remained at least a pretty damn inspiring historical figure until she realized (it seems) that she had to turn completely to the dark side if she had any hope of killing . . . well, hope. All of the intuitive antipathy I've felt towards her from the start of this is being completely borne out by hard evidence of just how bad she really is.