Monday, December 20, 2004

For the love of God--don't let him resign!!! (you're out of your #@! element, donnie!)

Calls for Rumsfeld's resignation here, here, here, here and here. I say NO FREAKING WAY!

Don't let him go! It's very important that Donald Rumsfeld stay on as the leading spokesperson of the war, the fearless leader, the wise old man, le directoria, the big tomato, the head cheese, the schoolmaster, the man with the patch, the man behind the podium, the man behind the curtain...

The chief poet of the new dawn, the general's general, the sexy old secretary, the walker of the talk, the talker of the walk, the doctor in the house, the poster-boy, the stands-on-his-feed for eight hours a day, the man with a way with words, the wordsmith, the boss, the big boss, the man on the lawn, the man in the suit, the smiling ringmaster, the guy with something to say...

Please, let him have something over the President that makes it impossible for Bush to tell him to get lost. Please, let him have proof that Bush copulates with goats, drinks beer from a straw, takes baths in grape jelly, and smacked Lynn Cheney's behind.

"What's that, Mr. President? You wanna fire me? I don't THINK SO! Now excuse me while I go explain to the press that the absense of a signature is not the signature of an absense..."

Monday, December 13, 2004

Relevant Rhetorical Criticism

I have been fortunate this last semester to lead an incredible seminar on post-September 11 institutional rhetoric and response. I am amazed at the research the participants in the seminar have done. Each day of class discussion has been full of pluralism, relevance, and critical excitement. I would like to share some previews of the students' final projects.

These students represent every end of the political spectrum...there are punk-rocker anarchists and socialist feminists, moderate republicans and democrats, and conservative, evangelical Christians. What they all hold in common is a commitment to exploring tools of rhetorical criticism to better understand and participate in political life.

One student is doing a narrative and symbol-imagery analysis of the Creative Commons Movement, an alternative licensing system that gives creators the choice of how much copyright protection they want. Since intellectual property is such a central component of contemporary power arrangements, and since traditionally the debate has been contained in a dichotomy between absolute protection and absolute commonization, this movement strikes at the very heart of the concept of "ownership" that contextualizes current bourgeois society--a society that is, in many ways, fundamentally under attack--and said attack is partially strengthened by the "spectre of free information."

Another student is taking a rather ironic route towards contemporary criticism of President Bush. Using as his starting point the derisive comparisons of Bush to a "rogue cowboy," this student is analyzing three John Wayne movies as tools for comparing Bush to a cowboy. These movies, "The Searchers," "The Cowboys," and "Stagecoach" feature Wayne in different functional "cowboy" roles: Fighting "savage" Indians, moving cattle, riding through dangerous territories, themes that offer symbolic tools to analyze just how much of a cowboy Bush really is. Themes of chaos-versus-civilization permeate both classic western movies and post-September 11 institutional rhetoric. This essay shows a great deal of promise in examining the attributions of such themes and images in politics.

Another student is analyzing David Rovics' song "Oppositional Defiant Disorder" in a framework modifying Richard Gregg's model of the ego-function of protest rhetoric. Rovics invokes a community of rebels through reappropriation of an institutional label normally designed to medicalize and theraputize dissent. Rovics reappropriates this diagnosis to create a community of proud, "sick" protesters.

Another student is applying a model based on Marx, Foucault, Gramsci and Goffman to analyze the rhetoric of the English-Only movement. This student argues that language is important to power; it reconfigures power relationships and this power bleeds into the material sphere of political life. Arguments in favor of English-Only include appeals to English as "The Language of Opportunity," and other rhetorics of empowerment, including arguments that English is the language of "responsible citizens and productive workers."

Randall Lake's landmark article on Native American protest rhetoric is the basis for one student's application of Lake's model to the rhetoric of Hamas. Are their arguments designed to convince those outside of the organization? This student doesn't think so. Instead, rhetoric might be an end in itself, or serve a self-justifactory or internal cohesion function. What happens, however, when outsiders notice this rhetoric? What happens when splits within the movement problematize the rhetoric? What happens when the rhetoric doesn't accomplish its mobilizing function?

Another student is taking on quite a task: A symbolic convergence/fantasy theme analysis of the division in the current anti-war movement. ANSWER, a Workers World Party front group that ended up very influential in the entire American anti-war movement, demanded a framework for protest that tied opposition to the Iraq war with opposition to capitalism as a whole. This allowed those outside of the movement to identify ALL participants in the movement as dirty communists...but it also forced those inside the movement who were NOT anti-capitalists to distance themselves from important avenues of organizing and protest. Successful movements create shared meanings. We create worlds of symbols together. This is an example of symbolic convergence not occurring. Like so many of the papers in this seminar, this one is not merely an application of a model, but a commentary on the effectiveness and flexibility of that model.

The tendency of media organizations and politicians to call certain areas in a war "hot zones" is the basis for another student's application of Chris Cuomo's critique of stability rhetoric, and agenda-setting theory, to current representations of the war. The idea that war is a singular event means we ignore that which is "outside the battle." Everything outside of the "hot zone" is assumed to be stable and peaceful. Clearly, such assumptions are breaking down right before our eyes and ears.

Another student is analyzing the rhetorical failings of Utilizing Gregg's ego-function theory as a starting point (but not an end point), this student argues that the site, organized by Fat Mike of NOFX, is little more than a glorified voter registration site, even though it is laden with punk symbols and an empty appeal to radicalism. The site promises the ability to confront the system, but offers no real political strategy to do so, and is myopically opposed to Bush, appealing to the imagery of "punk identity" rather than good political analysis.

Two students are applying Dana L. Cloud's model of the "affected public" to media and Presidential support for the Iraq War. Cloud's "affected public" is one that is constituted in response to crises like 9-11, abandons reason and causal analysis in favor of individualist, emotion and religious-based therapeutic imagery. One student is concentrating on the media's complacency in the essential lack of public reasons and justifications for the war, while the other student is demonstrating how Bush himself created an affected public through invoking images of absolute good and evil, as well as dehumanizing rhetoric. Cloud's alternative to an affected public, by the way, is a materially-supported Habermasian public forum, where reasons, and argument, are valued.

Another student is analyzing the "Boycott France" movement through Marsha Vanderford's frquently-cited model of social movement vilification. Although the boycott movement isn't very rational, serious, or cohesive, it still contains the fundamental elements of vilification that so many rhetorical scholars have cited Vanderford on: The creation of an adversarial force, revealed in an exclusively negative light, with diabolical motives, which are magnified during the vilification process.

If you've seen "support the troops" magnets on people's cars, you'll enjoy one student's analysis of what such magnets tell us about ourselves. This student argues that the commodification of troop support strokes our egos more than affecting any positive outcomes for the troops. He uses both commodification theory and Gregg's ego-function theory to analyze the fundamental convenience and content-free power of those magnets (many of which, by the way, are made in China).

When elite media outlets refuse to air certain ads they deem too "political," are they engaging in strategies of power maintenance? One student thinks so, and is arguing that the recent refusal by a major TV network to show a ad can be explained by Andrew King's theory of elite power maintenance.

Finally, one particularly ambitious student is taking on the entire pro-life and pro-choice dichotomy by arguing that traditional pro-life appeals to religious fundamentalism and absolute individual responsibility will ultimately fail. This student is drawing on the very small but articulate pro-life feminist movement (along with some collectivist and socialist arguments against abortion) to suggest ways to re-invent and re-orient a centrist-left anti-abortion movement. Central to this movement is the argument that abortion is essentially a form of patriarchal oppression, a sign of late capitalism's pro-death culture, and, in essence, tells women to respond to their own oppression by transferring that oppression to a weaker social entity--the unborn. I'm looking forward to the explosive responses this project might inspire from both sides of the abortion debate.

I will ask these students whether I can post their papers to a new weblog I am creating over the holiday break, a site entitled ARGUMENT NOW! With their permission, I will post the essays and works cited, and have space for commentary. Each essay will have its own unique link so that scholars and students can utilize and cite those essays relevant to them. ARGUMENT NOW will ultimately serve as a space for collecting and posting student and other work on rhetoric, argumentation and debate.

It's been a kind of guilty pleasure to participate in the seminar this semester. I have rushed to class every Tuesday and Thursday looking forward to the discussions, arguments, readings and responses these brilliant and energetic people have been generating. I am especially encouraged by the relevance of all this work. These students are learning--and teaching--critical skills that do not merely constitute academic navel-gazing. The skills gained in this type of criticism can be passed on to millions of students, teaching them how to listen to and watch political speeches, advertisements, campaigns and the half-assed institutional justifications thrown at us by a system that, by and large, underestimates the intelligence of the public.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

More on the Morality of Insurgency

Ashreaf Fahim of Middle East International points out in this article that (1) most of the Iraqi casualties since the invasion have been civilians...(2) that the Bush administration has exaggerated the extent to which the insurgency is composed of "outsiders"...(3) that U.S. soldiers in the field understand that the insurgents are Iraqis and will keep recruiting more Iraqis--even if Rumsfeld does not acknowledge this...and (4) that no one in the mainstream media is question the morality of crushing a nationalist insurgency. Obviously, in light of what I wrote on Friday, that last point converges with my own lamentation concerning the lack of any serious discussion on the ethics of the invasion, or its resistance.

Here is a relevant exerpt from the article:

"The failed strategy in Falluja is writ large across Iraq. In its engagements in Samarra, Najaf, Ramadi and elsewhere, the US has tended towards measuring success in terms of body counts. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld bragged that the US killed up to 2,500 insurgents in August alone (many of whom would have fallen in the siege of Najaf). But it is highly likely that the US is creating more enemies than it is killing. A 19-year-old private, Mario Rutigliano, understands this if Rumsfeld does not. After the US attack on the northern border town of Tall Afar in mid-September, which killed 104 Iraqis, Rutigliano told the Washington Post: “It doesn’t matter how many we kill, they’ll always keep coming back. They’ve all got cousins, brothers. They have an endless supply.”

"The upshot of this cycle of death and vengeance is that there are now 8-10,000 hard-core insurgents, 20,000 if active sympathizers are included, according to US officials quoted in the New York Times. Though former members of the Ba’thist security forces may have comprised the original core of the insurgency, its ranks are now swollen with ordinary Iraqis. Combating Iraqis who are fighting to liberate themselves from their “liberators” presents the Bush Administration with serious moral and legal quandaries and, of course, and an acute public relations dilemma.

"To traverse this minefield and salve any unease the American people might have about crushing a nationalist uprising, the Administration has sold the “foreign fighter” argument to the media. Zarqawi, the alleged leader of the Tawhid and Jihad group, has been a particular hit, with the media gratefully wielding him to personalize the amorphous Iraqi quagmire to a befuddled nation. Even a recent headline in the left-leaning Christian Science Monitor read: “Fallujans flee from US-Zarqawi fight”, suggesting a showdown between the Jordanian guerrilla leader and 5,000 Marines.

"The media has also taken the US military’s assurances that the strikes have been “precise” at face value, with occasionally surreal results. A recent CNN broadcast featured raw footage of a house in Falluja that had been flattened by an American air strike, and, as wounded children were pulled from the rubble, broadcaster Carol Lin informed viewers, without qualification, that the US had struck a “Zarqawi meeting place”."

Again, I ask: Is it moral for occupiers to crush nationalist uprisings? And is it moral for those attacked to rise up against the occupiers? I have never been one for abstract moralizing in the past. I am more comfortable with a certain kind of historical relativism than, probably, most of you are (although I find it impossible to reject ethical claims based on face-to-face encounters or appeals to doing the least amount of harm possible). I am posing these questions to the both the moralists and relativists alike among all those reading. It's time for a serious discussion about why what "we" are doing is more ethical than what "they" are doing...and, hopefully, how to construct an account of universal ethical responsibility that might both forgive conscripts and fighters on both sides, and forewarn against such bloody, hopeless, elite-engineered wars.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Iraq: the Morality of Occupation, the Morality of Resistance, and the Morality of Counter-Invasion

Dave Lindorff of Counter-Punch has written a strong piece accusing the Bush administration of having waited until after the election to begin the operation in Fallujah as well as announce a massive increase in troop deployments to Iraq. Lindorff points out that, time and again throughout the election, Bush denied that the U.S. needed more troops; Kerry (not by any means an anti-war candidate) called for more troops and, ironically, Bush made that into a liability for the Democrats. None of these arguments should make you keel over. It's obvious that the Fallujah operation was delayed until after the election, and any thinking observer knew all along that more troops would be deployed.

So what's so provocative about Lindorff's piece? His assertion, no doubt shocking to readers of all political persuasions, that the Iraqis not only have the right to defend themselves against the occupation, but also to bring the war back to the United States in the form of what our established discourse calls terrorism:
...unlike the Vietnamese, who did all their fighting in their own unhappy
country, Iraqi insurgents and their supporters can be counted on at some point
to bring the war home to America--as is their right.

This is tantamount to--identical to, really--arguing that "terrorism" against the U.S. is justified. While Lindorff lacks the nuance or intellectual-ethical rigor to distinguish between terror against innocent civilians and military targets (for even if it can be established that the U.S. is sloppy or negligent in making that distinction with Iraqi civilians, that is not an automatic justification for terror against any other set of civilians), the argument is very important in establishing the parameters of moral inquiry about this war. And I have long believed that such inquiry is the only discursive remedy (if any conversational remedy exists anymore) to the unquestioned, uninterrogated logic of warfare that has swept over all channels of establishmentarian public discourse in America.

Lindorff's assertion that Iraqi insurgents and their supporters have the right to bring the war back to America converges (without necessarily replicating) the starting point of a philosophical conversation I have hitherto only dared have with myself. I begin such an inquiry by calling on Jurgen Habermas's notion of discourse ethics * and arguing that, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the invasion, the invaders (the Bush administration) failed to procedurally justify their actions--not only to their U.S. constituency, but also to the agents most affected by the decision, the Iraqi people themselves.

Drawing upon the very Habermasian (but also, I believe, Unitarian-Universalist, and Christian) sentiment that there is not --there cannot be-- any significant moral difference between American citizens and Iraqi citizens, I simply fail to see the basis for the arguments necessary for a conscientious person to support U.S. action but not Iraqi counter-action. Likewise, I fail to see the basis for any command to close such moral inquiry on the basis of patriotism or nationalism.

I am willing to concede that life in America is much better than life was in Saddam's Iraq. I am willing to grant the possibility that Bush really believed Iraq constituted an immediate, pressing threat to U.S. security. My questions here are not pragmatic (and so I am also willing to listen to a critique of the deontological-sounding nature of my questions here) but hinge on the morality of both the U.S. invasion and Iraqi resistance. My appeal is not to some transcendent morality, but to a set of commitments and justifications derived from the maximum possible consideration of the moral agency of those affected by the decisions of more powerful political agents. In other words, part of the admittedly unfulfillable project of this inquiry is to step into the shoes of the Iraqi people, particularly those who have chosen to take up arms in (as they see it, and undoubtedly as we would see it in their situation) defense of their autonomy. I refuse to reduce that choice to psychopathology, religious fanaticism, or anything that assumes those moral agents are less intelligent, less human, than you or me.

I'd appreciate genuine engagement of these questions, or at least thoughtful criticism of the foundations from which they are constructed. I hope you readers will leave comments on my weblog reflecting such engagement.

My thought-questions, then, are as follows:

1. Given that the Iraqi people were not consulted (or alternatively, that their stated wishes were ignored) as to their preferred course of action to depose or deal with Saddam Hussein, is an appeal to the interests of the Iraqi people a viable, morally defensible justification for the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq? In other words, in the absense of cogent proof that Iraq constituted a threat to the United States or other countries, is U.S. presence there justified?

1A. If it can be established that the U.S. failed to provide positive justification for the invasion and occupation, are Iraqi insurgents morally justified in violently resisting the occupation?

1B. If the justification of U.S. invasion and occupation (and the accompanying de-justification of Iraqi resistance) rests on an appeal to "democratization," don't we return to the original question of why such an invasion and occupation could justly occur without the consent, or any demonstrable sign of desire for such actions, on the part of the Iraqi people?

2. Given that it is reasonable to assume that citizens of the U.S. would aggressively fight foreign invasion and occupation EVEN IF it could be proven that U.S. leaders constituted a threat to their own people and to the rest of the world, do the Iraqi insurgents have the moral right to defend themselves and Iraq from the U.S.-led foreign occupation? **

3. Do the Iraqi insurgents have the moral right to "invade" the United States by encouraging or facilitating acts of anti-U.S. military strategy on U.S. soil?

4. Is there a point at which these questions of moral justification can rightfully be suspended solely based on the national identity of the questioning agents? In other words, are these questions "off limits" because we (those asking them) are American citizens?

To conclude: This is not so much a moral indictment of the U.S. invasion (although that is certainly a compatable element with the analysis as a whole; but it's not necessary to establish this) as it is an inquiry into why and how we can reasonably deny that Iraqi insurgents have a legitimate right to use violence against occupying U.S. and coalition forces...and, for that matter, to use violence inside the borders of both the United States and other coalition nations. I do not condone either such current or possible violence, but I am curious as to what moral basis exists for its condemnation. Again, comments are welcome, highly encouraged, and will be treated with reciprocal seriousness and respect.


* The invocation of Habermas's discourse ethics immediately leaves me vulnerable to a very simple answer to my philosophical dilemma: Habermas clearly sees democracy as the only legitimate context for authentic determination of consent. Since Iraqis under Saddam did not possess such ability to consent, then the whole operation of calling for their participation in deliberation is futile.

However, this doesn't even come close to getting the U.S. off the hook, or more importantly, to justifying a condemnation of the Iraqi insurgency's claimed right to fight against coalition forces. First, that objection calls for a violation of the rule of consent based on the fact that consent has already been and is being violated in the status quo. In other words, because Saddam denied his constituency a voice, it's okay for us to deny them a voice. Second, the objection ignores the various conduits of communication the U.S. and the outside world did have with the Iraqi people. There was every reason to believe that, in a context of genuine consultation, a significant portion of the Iraqi people would have said no to an invasion (See:;;,12809,907780,00.html).

Third, the objection ignores the less-destructive, more creative alternatives to fullscale war, alternatives that those in power would have been obligated to discuss and seriously consider under a strict Habermasian discourse ethics. (See:;;;

Fourth and finally, the objection fails to distinguish between the initial act of deposing Saddam and the subsequent acts of "reconstructing" Iraq, where such acts involve heavy-handed coercion and have been answered by violent insurgency and rebellion.

** I believe that question #2 renders problematic those justifications which appeal to the (undeniable) brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. The question is: If Bush declared martial law, began executing and torturing American citizens, and destabilizing the region, wouldn't ordinary Americans STILL fight against outside occupiers? Or, having conceded the desirability of those invaders overthrowing Bush, wouldn't ordinary Americans rightly object to the occupation lasting any longer than necessary to overthrow Bush? Why should we assume that Iraqis ought to be less determined and nationalistic than us?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Deconstructing Capitalist Ethics: Two thought-provoking movies

Watching George W. Bush win re-election--purportedly because of "moral values"-- in spite of serious ethical flaws in his administration and amidst feasible charges of vote tampering and race- and class-based voter intimidation... Listening to friends and colleagues I once trusted and respected call each other names over political differences (and I am unable to exempt myself from such transgressions)... Reading daily of corporate fraud and corporate murder... Watching, over and over again, athletes beat up fans and each other...Reading about the Department of Justice's determination to prosecute sick, dying human beings for using medicinal marijuana; rushing to speed up the prosecutions before the victims die... And through it all, watching and listening to children, college students, and adults celebrate these horrors with a vigor one can only call blood-lust...

Well, you might say that the relationship between the twilight of capitalism and the twisted perversion of morals (and the concurrent celebrations of brutality mentioned above) has been much, much, much on my little mind. Watching my sons (two of them about to turn 13, the other one, 19 months old, learning to talk and think) grow up through all this makes the phenomena all the more urgently interesting. I want to know how we ought to expect to raise ethical, loving children in a society that cavorts sanctimoniously about moral values while in reality rewarding and lauding dishonesty, shallow popularity, and above all, shameless and endless brutality. Marx said Money was the modern "jealous God." If so, Brutality is Money's Holy Ghost.

I doubt that either "Napoleon Dynamite," or "Spellbound," were made with any of this in fact I am quite sure they were not. But both movies contain implicit --and often explicit-- messages criticizing the brutality and emptiness of winning for the sake of winning. Both movies carefully examine the pressures of competition and conformity on children, and even though the movies creator's are probably good old fashioned American capitalists, both movies --the former a work of very believable fiction, the latter an unbelievably true documentary-- have important things to say about the way capitalism reproduces itself in social relationships.


Ann and I saw Jared and Jerusha Hess's Napoleon Dynamite in a theater over Thanksgiving weekend. Much has been said about the movie's "Mormon" context (The Hesses, as well as stars Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell, are former BYU film students, and the movie takes place in Lewiston, Idaho, with a Utah-Idaho cast and crew). But this is decidedly nowhere near a Mormon inspirational film. It was a hit at Sundance, where it was immediately picked up by Fox Searchlight, and its themes are dark, universal, and subversive. Napoleon (Heder) and his older brother Kip (Ruell) live outside of Lewiston with their frequently-absent grandmother. Napoleon is a first-class geek who draws pictures of fantasy creatures and has a Dragonslayer poster in his room. Kip chats online for hours every day, finally meeting (and, in bonus footage at the end of the film, marrying) LaFawnduh, an African American woman (Shondrella Avery) in one of the most unlikely (and, again, subversive) hookups in recent screen history.

Unethical greed and brutality manifest themselves in two different ways in "Napoleon Dynamite." First, Kip falls under the spell of the brothers' Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a middle-aged loser who enlists Kip to sell tupperware-like junk door-to-door. Rico even tries to entice high school girls to buy his mysterious breast-enlargement products. Rico's shallowness and self-loathing (he longs to re-live his days as a mediocre high school football player) are directly related to his schilling of these products, and his assumption of the stupidity of the townspeople he seduces. Only Kip's encounter with urban authenticity, in the form of LaFawnduh, saves him from a life of pushing junk door-to-door punctuated by endless online chat sessions.

Second, and more powerful, is the high school Napoleon attends. It isn't so much a high school as an incessant collection of ritualized and administration-sanctioned competition, cliquishness, and brutality. Napoleon is routinely pushed against lockers, harassed by jocks, made fun of by pretty girls, and ignored by teachers.

Here also, I must add, is something that struck me as very significant in the film. Nobody would have been surprised if Napoleon would have reached a "breaking point" after the ten thousandth locker-beating, and stabbed or shot a few people. After all, we've been told that's how geeks respond to jock-induced abuse in contemporary America. Instead, Napoleon maintains his gently irritable nature, scowling and stumbling through his classes and onto the playground, playing tetherball alone, and manifesting no greater abnormality than a few harmless fantasy-lies about his "skills" in martial arts and girlfriends. It makes you feel good, then, that his patience is ultimately rewarded.

Just as Kip is saved by outsider LaFawnduh, Napoleon is saved, and the battle against brutality is propped-up, by two delightful and inspiring characters: the pretty, awkward nerdess Deb (Tina Majorino, who I really hope we see more of), who begins the movie like Rico selling crap door-to-door (in fairness, she is trying to establish a college fund, but quickly gives up on the door-to-door venture) and ends up falling hard for Napoleon; and Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student whose kindness and sincerity propels him as the symbolic force deployed by the movie against shallowness, competitiveness, and (of course) bigotry.

Pedro runs for school president against the sure-winner Summer (Haylie Duff). In the end, the students pick gentleness of spirit over shallow popularity, although their choice is sealed by Napoleon's surprise dancing skills in one of the most delightful and sincere scenes I've ever seen in a movie. To me, that dance, like Pedro's run for the presidency, Deb's idealism, and Napoleon's refusal to fight back, are all responses to ideologies of exploitation, class hierarchies, and violence. The quiet latino kid isn't supposed to beat the blonde popular girl. Napoleon isn't supposed to be able to dance better than the dance team, nor is he supposed to walk away from abuse unscathed. Deb isn't supposed to be pretty. These things happen because the Hesses and their characters insist not only on protesting the brutal and exploitative ethics of our time, but also in offering an alternative way of being, doing, and relating. See "Napoleon Dynamite" and if you have kids, take them too.


Jeffrey Blitz's documentary "Spellbound" actually came out in 2002, but Ann bought the DVD recently and we finally sat down to watch it last night. After being entranced by "Napoleon Dynamite," it's likely that we were conditioned to look for similar patterns of unhealthy competitive behavior, and we weren't disappointed. Like "Napoleon," the movie is about geeks, but in this case, they are real: the movie follows the lives and perspectives of eight young people who all qualify for the 1999 National Spelling Bee championships in Washington, DC. You couldn't ask for a more diverse group of kids--one is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, another a rich, prep-school bound girl from Connecticut, another a poor African American girl from the D.C. projects. One boy and one girl are South Asian immigrant children, although the attitudes of their parents could not be more different.

All of the kids do well at the Spelling Bee championships, and one even wins. But it is the parents who pose the most interesting dialectic between the brutal drive for success and the quiet acceptance of their children's talents. Blitz clearly has more sympathy for the latter parental philosophy, and so do I, but the former is the more instructive of the two. With few exceptions, the wealthier families are the ones who put more competitive pressure on their children. One child, Neil Kadakia, has a father who chatters endlessly about how many thousands of words he and his son have practiced that day, of all the computer equipment he has purchased to help his son win, of how many coaches (coaches!) he has hired to help his son learn the linguistic origins of various words, and how important Neil's success is to his family. Neil's mother unironically refers to their quest for Neil's spelling bee championship as a "war."

But as sickening as that portrayal was, I have to admit that I was even more disturbed by the less-blatant elitism of Connecticut preppie Emily Stagg's parents: Obviously loaded beyond belief, their daughter takes riding lessons, studies endlessly for the bee, and sits uncomfortably at the dining room table with her equally uncomfortable rich parents, pontificating and philosophizing about winning and losing. Mr. Stagg, at one point, opines that Americans are more competitive than Europeans, obviously proud that he knows enough to make such distinctions, and blissfully unaware of the life situations of the less-privileged kids portrayed in the movie...or, it seems, of less-privileged people anywhere.

In emphasizing the positive and supportive responses of the parents (including Neil's) to their kids' gradual and ungraceful eliminations from competition, Blitz is only partially successful in his obvious effort to paint a happy face on this very odd competitive subculture. Those hugs and "I'm proud of you"'s can't really answer the earlier incessant parental rhetoric about the link between this particular competition and success in the cold, cruel world that will finally suck the life out of these talented youngsters. There is, finally, subtle critique, and no solution, in this documentary. And that's a good thing. By all means, watch this movie and celebrate the success and character of these very sincere (if somewhat misled) children. But shake your head in disgust at the partially-hidden system of which the competition is only a prepatory ritual...and those disgustingly rich, smug, hypercompetitive parents.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Evolutionary Basis for Altruism?

You'll certainly be hearing more from me about this very soon...

UCLA study points to evolutionary roots of altruism, moral outrage

If you've ever been tempted to drop a friend who tended to freeload, then you have experienced a key to one of the biggest mysteries facing social scientists, suggests a study by UCLA anthropologists. "If the help and support of a community significantly affects the well-being of its members, then the threat of withdrawing that support can keep people in line and maintain social order," said Karthik Panchanathan, a UCLA graduate student whose study appears in Nature. "Our study offers an explanation of why people tend to contribute to the public good, like keeping the streets clean. Those who play by the rules and contribute to the public good will be included and outcompete freeloaders." This finding -- at least in part -- may help explain the evolutionary roots of altruism and human anger in the face of uncooperative behavior, both of which have long puzzled economists and evolutionary biologists, he said.

"If you put two dogs together, and one dog does something inappropriate, the other dog doesn't care, so long as it doesn't get hurt," Panchanathan said. "It certainly wouldn't react with moralistic outrage. Likewise, it wouldn't experience elation if it saw one dog help out another dog. But humans are very different; we're the only animals that display these traits."

The study, which uses evolutionary game theory to model human behavior in small social groups, is the first to show that cooperation in the context of the public good can be sustained when freeloaders are punished through social exclusion, said co-author Robert Boyd, a UCLA professor of anthropology and fellow associate in UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture.


Saturday, November 06, 2004

Some Sweet Music Behind the Barricades
David Rovics at the Wyoming Union, October 27, 2004

"And all the political poets/Couldn't think of what to say/So they all decided/To live life for today/I spent a few years catching up/With all my friends and lovers/Sleeping til eleven/Home beneath the covers/And I learned how to play the banjo/After the revolution"

Thanks to some friends well ahead of the curve, I started listening to David Rovics about a year ago. But until I looked at his web site, and communicated with other fans around the country, I had no idea how influential he was. Rovics is an heir to Phil Ochs, a reminder of the role that the political folk singer still plays in local discourse. Rovics's performances have run the full spectrum, from playing in front of tens of thousands of protesters in Miami, to house parties of 10-15 people, or in our case, a relatively small crowd of eager Wyoming students and activists.

Although a delayed flight into Denver made David arrive late, there were still 30-40 people waiting faithfully for him at the Union. He apologized profusely as he checked sound levels, and launched right into the hilarious (and scary) "Operation Iraqi Liberation," which, of course, forms the acronym "O.I.L." Like Ochs's more topical work, it was a funny and functional piece full of enlightening one-liners and clever plays on words, the kind of political satire that is sorely lacking in most corners of bourgeois political commentary.

What followed was a delightful, funny, sad, thoroughly envigorating and musically-skilled tour through current and past activism and critique by a charming and intelligent musician. He even covered one of Ochs's more well known tunes, "Draft Dodger Rag." I particularly enjoyed "Oppositional Defiant Disorder," a song about the DSM IV's classification of rebellion as neurosis. A couple of audience favorites were "The Alligator Song," which suggests that we can detect the effects of toxins in the environment by looking at the shrinking size of Alligator genitallia (a thesis confirmed by scientific research), and the very effective and sarcastic soon-to-be-classic "Who Would Jesus Bomb:"

"Maybe Jesus would bomb the Syrians/'Cause they're not Jews like him/Maybe Jesus would bomb the Afghans/On some kind of vengeful whim/Maybe Jesus would drive an M1 tank/And he would shoot Saddam/Tell me, who would Jesus bomb?"

Bob Dylan once accused Phil Ochs of being a journalist rather than a musician. Of course, Dylan proved what he really meant by that statement as he gradually abandoned most of his radicalism in favor of reactionary religious mysticism and trite love-story narratives. It was a shame, because Dylan's brilliant lyricism could have been combined with Ochs's political discipline to create some truly nuanced political music. For Ochs, as for Rovics, though, nuance is much less important than musical journalism: Both Ochs and Rovics take up the mantle of speaking for those struggling ordinary people in past and present who could use a helping hand, a voice and guitar, to publicize and immortalize their causes. What Dylan derisively called "journalism" is really the process of placing a human face on important social issues, a personalization of the political that does not innoculate the social with excessive individualism. A good example of this is "The Face of Victory," Rovics's deeply disturbing and angry song about an Iraq War veteran:

"A rocket launcher hit my tank/Started up a fire/Blew my legs right off of me/And now you’re looking at the face of victory.../They sent me back to Michigan/Put some plastic on my stumps/Sent me on my way/And now I roll on down the city streets/Looking at the people/While they turn their eyes away/Down at the Burren/They were talking about the government/And how it’s all a ruse/And I get a little madder/Every time I see the president/Smirking on the evening news/And I think of how they duped me/And so many more good people/And I think of the price we paid/The rich keep getting richer/And the bastards are already scheming/About the next nation they want us to invade..."

Rovics doesn't let his partisanship get the best of his humanism, though. In "The Dying Firefighter" he acknowledges the heroism of those who rushed into the WTC towers before they collapsed, and he does so in an unfiltered appeal to altruism and self-sacrifice. Similarly, in "The Death of Rachel Corrie," Rovics chooses personal lamentation over political posturing, asking only whether the Israeli bulldozer driver who killed Corrie has become what he once hated. (I must add that this song was particularly affecting and vindicating to some of us in the debate community after we had to endure the infantile and mean-spirited ridicule of Corrie's death by some folks over at Net Benefits who should certainly have known better).

Rovics's stylistic range is incredible. Unlike so many one-dimensional folkies and punks, he proves himself adept at various folk traditions, displayed in a range from the 3/4-time "Trafalgar Square" to ballads like "More Gardens Song" and "I Wanna Go Home." Similarly, he borrows from the Joe Hill tradition of creative ad hominem ("Butcher for Hire" is an attack on roving police chief John Timoney, responsible for the most efficiently reprehensible displays of police oppression in recent memory) and the Utah Phillips tradition of enlightening history lessons (before hearing "Saint Patrick Battalion" I had never known that a group of about 800 Irish-Americans had fought alongside the Mexicans to resist American Imperialism in 1847).

David Rovics closed his set with "After the Revolution" and the a cappella "Behind the Barricades," a delightful synthesis of love and activist politics--a synthesis we lovers and revolutionaries sorely need:

"As the movement grows/There will be hills and bends/But at the center of the struggle/Are your lovers and your friends/The more we hold each other up/The less we can be swayed/Here's to love and solidarity/And a kiss behind the barricades"

I left the show with a renewed fighting energy and more than enough strength to endure the debacle of an election six days later. As Rovics, and so many others, repeatedly and effectively point out, it's not about what goes on in the beltway (which will be evil no matter who is there) so much as it is about what goes on in the streets, and in our mutual interactive struggles. And I was reminded, once again, that music reflects an internal-social sentiment vital to political solidarity. You can download all of David's music for free at You should. You really, really should.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Post-Election Assessments: Time for Serious Class War?

Here is what my very good friend Trond Jacobsen posted to edebate last night:

Setting aside the tactical decisions and missteps of this particular campaign to look instead over the longer term, I believe that if the Democrats want to win, and progressives want to help them, quality of life issues for the working class should be the heart of the platform and the substance of campaigns and campaign rhetoric. Wages, benefits, protection of right to organize, heath care, overtime protection, child care, etc.

These are the issues. Social issues are important, but not as important. Civil rights are important, but not as important. Protecting the environment is important, but not as important (at least in near term). Choice is important, but not as important.

I know others disagree. Let's debate it out.

New Deal Democrats sparked a realignment by focusing (at least rhetorically and in many ways in actuality) on using the government to make a marginally more equitable though still unjust system. The reward was better than parity in Presidential elections until LBJs actions in 64/65 calved southern bigots (and others in the more recent period) from the party, and even then the Democrats had a lock on the legislative branch.

Enter the DLC and Clinton. Win two presidential campaigns - but lets be clear that at least in 1992 there is no way Clinton wins without Perot in the race -but lose control of Congress. Incumbency has always been a very powerful force and to precipitate a reversal on the scale of 1994 takes both major effort and major failure to accomplish. Having failed to recover control of either Congress or the White House with tepid incrementalism now for several elections, coupled with the apparent success of mobilizing the Christian right to vote in greater numbers by the GOP, the window of opportunity to restore power via the cautious approach has closed.

My view is that for all Kerry's many weaknesses and the mistakes of the campaign, this election is the highwater mark for this cautious approach. We had as strong a candidate as possible from the primary pool. I still thinkthat is true.We matched in money. Kerry spent roughly 50% MORE on advertising in PA, OH, and in FL than the Bush. The Dems did not get blown away by GOP dollars. We had our most successful voter mobilization effort ever. We had a huge outpouring of networking and coordination and cooperation. And we lost. Not a landslide, not even close, but a decisive loss nonetheless.

A new approach is necessary. Or more accurately, a return to an earlier approach. The bottom line is that the Dems did not carry Ohio, a state that has been absolutely hammered by/under the Bush administration. Whatever a progressive may think about the wisdom or need to support the Democrats as the lesser of two evils must now seriously reflect on that strategy. It makes some sense on paper but if the Dems continually lose and grow relatively weaker over time as a result, this approach (my approach this election) leads nowhere.

Barring a willingness to return to earlier approaches, the Dems wont win. There is no way to trump anti-gay bigotry with soft-peddled class warfare - only the strong stuff will do.

Trond E. Jacobsen

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

A Political Strategy of Necessity and Hope

My endorsement for President of the United States, my vote, goes to David Cobb of the Green Party. Cobb's platform is nearest to my ideal platform, and his acknowledgement that voters in swing states should vote Kerry, in order to unseat the worst President many of us have ever known, may not satisfy the socialist in me, but it satisfies the pragmatist in me. I share Cobb's platform, and his desire to allow the very less-than-perfect John Kerry to assume the Presidency, regardless of Kerry's cosmopolitan, internationalist warmongering, regardless of his super-rich Skull-and-Bones background. I share the desire of most people on the Left (most of whom might prefer otherwise at other times) simply to pull us back from the brink of doom, to gain a little breathing room, a little space. I know it's not much space, but for now, assuming Bush is beatable, it will have to do. Only those of you who know me personally can guess how much it pains me to say this.

Without qualification or hesitation, in a modality of full convinction, I must declare that George W. Bush is the worst President of my lifetime. Bush is not merely unlikable, incompetent, dishonest, and undiplomatic, although he is all of these things to a degree unprecedented in bourgeois politics. Bush has raised the bar on ruling class evil. Even by the standards of bourgeois politics, he is a miserable, lecherous failure, a disgrace to his corporation, a figure who has uniquely mobilized and unified his opposition to a level not seen since Reagan, and who will undoubtedly surpass Reagan in such accomplishment, due to Bush's complete failure to even attempt a rhetoric of unification or national familialism. Those of you who wish for a world of free markets, global exchange, and unlimited corporate power ought to reject Bush simply because a conservative political movement ought not embrace a bad leader--he simply makes all of you look very, very bad. On the other hand, those who long for limits on or alternatives to corporate oligarchy have already rejected Bush, and one can only hope that his across-the-board idiotic malevolence will result in his defeat.

But it's doubtful that the former interest group--those who believe in capitalism and conservatism--will ultimately grasp the importance of having a competent spokesperson, or that Bush's greatest virtue to progressives has been his utterly reliable return to the worldviews of Herbert Hoover. Blinded by the power-grab of the last four years, conservatives have forgotten what happens when one lands without a parachute. That landing very well may not occur a week from today, but occur it will. In fact, I have long wondered whether Bush and his cronies came into office assuming they only had one term in which to move the country as far to the right as possible. To this end, Bush has gutted even moderate environmental regulations and has appointed an Interior Secretary determined to drill, dig, and explode no matter what the cost, the more pristine the target, the better. Bush has overseen an unprecedented increase in unemployment and has endorsed cuts in social services that make Reagan look like Che Guevara. He has sliced and diced bipartisanship and has created an administration of unparallelled secrecy and corporate beholdence. Reagan and Bush the Elder and even Clinton flirted with, sometimes slept with, corporations; George W. Bush routinely performs fellatio on even the sleaziest players in the corporate world. And this is hardly surprising given Bush's key co-workers, including the world's leading profiteer of destruction, Wyoming's own Dick Cheney. And you'll notice I haven't even mentioned the debacle of Iraq, the war whose "justifications" I will always use, far too easily, as a foil in my lectures on deliberative democracy. A sign I saw on the news the other day put it best: "Daddy's Little War Criminal."

I am unimpressed by the apologists who acknowledge Bush's incompetence but refuse to judge his morality. Why is it that we can (and, in my opinion, ought to) condemn politicians caught in small lies but not big whoppers? We have testimony from former key administration figures that Bush knew there was likely no connection between Iraq and September 11. He could not have NOT known of the flaws in intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction. He cannot credibly claim that he did not know that many military planners and brass were warning him of the impending failure of an attempt to occupy and transform Iraq. Not as stupid as he looks or sounds, he must have known the qualitative difference between the opinions of Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz. As it happens, I am not a fan of either of these people, but like I said before, Bush is a failure even by the standards of bourgeois politics. And in the case of Iraq, that "failure," whether in the final analysis it was deliberate or incompetent, has cost the lives of over a thousand American workers in uniform, and many thousands of Iraqis--whose lives are worth just as much as yours or mine.

Rather than "fighting" the "war on terror," Bush has exacerbated terrorism--and not only, in the language of liberal internationalism, by "fracturing alliances," but by continuing to uphold a paradigm guaranteeing poverty and misery for millions worldwide. Those claiming to speak for the impoverished, those who resort to the murder of innocents, are not heroes or revolutionaries; in fact they are more accurately described as mirror-images of Bush himself, more examples of the byproducts of an alienated and deeply hierarchical world, cynics who take advantage of hatred stirred by hunger. The circle is in full motion now and will continue to turn as long as Bush's neoconservatives rule the White House--create the conditions under which terrorism can thrive, then point to that terrorism as evidence that we must continue to "stay the course." Stanley Kubric would be proud, but the rest of us should be very, very angry.

That this undeniable collection of facts probably will not result in Bush's defeat is cause for severe discombobulation among Bush haters. They see statistics like those published last week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and Knowledge Networks, showing that 72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD or a major program for developing them...or that a slightly larger percentage believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda. They hear their co-workers defend Bush's lack of articulate speech, his smirking attitude, his "cowboy" [as a Wyoming Poke I object to this comparison] attitude, because he reminds them of...them. These are the fruits of an alienated, cynical electorate, half-steeped in the belief that the greed of the powerful somehow works in their interests, half-immersed in the spurious and convoluted mythology of Apocalypse and American exceptionalism.

Because a victory for John Kerry will at best only delay the impacts of such alienation and power inequality, because Kerry is at best a more reasonable, efficient and diplomatic corporate-militarist, I cannot endorse him except in the same indirect and reluctant way that David Cobb "endorses" him. I want Kerry to beat Bush, and so should you, but none of us should feel that it's nearly enough for that to happen. We must defeat Bush AND build alternatives to the world that makes bastards like Bush possible in the first place. As Cobb puts it, in simple, nuanced language:
"John Kerry voted for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Kerry voted for the
Patriot Act. John Kerry voted for NAFTA. Kerry opposes single payer universal
health care. Kerry opposes raising the minimum wage to a living wage. I'm going
to be willing to criticize John Kerry on taking positions that progressives
cannot support, and that progressives would like to see enacted. That's the
reason so many more progressives at the grassroots level are actually joining
the Green Party. At the same time, I'm going to acknowledge the truth of the
matter that as bad as John Kerry is on all these issues, George W. Bush is
qualitatively worse. The difference between John Kerry and George W. Bush may be
nearly incremental, but it is not inconsequential."

And so I urge people in "safe" states to vote for the third party progressive candidate of their choice--mine, for now, is David Cobb. And I cautiously respect the choice of those in swing states to do the same. I will defend you from the onslaught of angry Democrats who think they own your vote even though their candidate is perhaps the least principled and most opportunistic Democrat we've seen Clinton. But the smarter thing to do if you're in a state with a close race is to hold your nose, as they say, and vote for John Kerry. For those on the Left, it's the difference between building our movement from a position of relative security, and trying to build anything at all with a boot crushing our collective throat--in this case, a faux cowboy boot worn by a bumbling, narrow-minded, pro-corporate child of privilege who has, in the past four years, created an America where I am frankly afraid to raise my children. Fuck George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Let's do whatever we can not only to send them back to their vaults, but to create a world where leaders like them don't exist. Voting for Kerry may help achieve the former, but supporting David Cobb and other progressives is vital to achieving the latter. If we're smart and persistant, we will not always have to engage in such dissonant and troubling strategies.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Soldiers' Refusal to Follow the Orders of War Criminals

Three important arguments in this article:
1. Refusal is a legitimate response to illegitimate orders in an illegitimate war.
2. No bourgeois alternatives to war: The choices are stay the course or intensify.
3. Through a series of illegal policies and reckless or sloppy planning, troops have been unnecessarily placed in harm's way throughout the conflict. I wonder if any of the planners, Generals, or politicians will ever be held accountable for that.

I'll spot you that their alternative, complete withdrawal of all outside forces, is problematic. It is a problematicity the WSWS did not itself construct. And to those who point out that things are gradually getting better, and we should stay the course, or intensify, I can only say that the costs are so incredibly disproportionate to the benefits that Bush and his staff, and every Senator and Congressperson who voted to authorize the war, ought to be taken out and publicly flogged. Whether Bush is eligible for the death penalty (either under Iraqi or U.S. law), I leave to all of you to discuss.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Jacques Derrida

"God the king does not know how to write, but that ignorance or incapacity only testifies to his sovereign independence. He has no need to write. He speaks, he says, he dictates, and his word suffices. Whether a scribe from his secretarial staff then adds the supplement of a transcription or not, that consignment is always in essence secondary." (Derrida, "Plato's Pharmacy")

I was taken aback, and saddened, to hear of the death of Jacques Derrida. Since reading him in college, I have held the unconventional view that he was a good writer--even, at times, a terribly clear one--and an enjoyable read regardless of your politics or ontology. Derrida brought fun into philosophy for me. The idea of interrogating Greek pharmacies, or using postcards as critical media, or re-interpreting age old maxims and laws as questions and riddles, testifies to how much fun it is to think about thought, speech and writing.

Derrida was one of the relatively few figures I'd grown to love in philosophy before discovering them again in rhetoric. And therein lay part of the reason for my enchantment with him. Besides being enjoyable (see my story of the class discussion on deconstruction below), Derrida instantiated a theme that Rob Tucker, then at Long Beach, brought up on the second or third day of my very first grad seminar class. The idea is this: Philosophy traditionally seeks certainty while rhetoric, from the beginning, displays a methodological respect for uncertainty. Since the object of rhetoric, persuasion, is infinitely subjective even while occasionally surrendering to a formula or principle, the study of rhetoric cannot too strongly concern itself with consistency, predictability, etc. While one side of Communication Studies devotes itself to quantitative studies and experiments, rhetoric's commitment to uncertainty is firmly established even in most of its ancient and classical manifestations.

No surprise, then, that most rhetoricians I know share a desire for and commitment to liberal (and in some cases participatory) democratic politics. Philosophy, or at least a common strain of it, is anti-uncertainty and hence, albeit subtly, anti-democratic. And no surprise that Derrida was part of our introductory survey of rhetorical theory. So we studied Gorgias...Cicero...Aristotle...a bunch of medieval guys...Campbell, Burke, Perlman, and now Derrida and Habermas. Two of my classmates and I were assigned to present a lecture on Derrida on rhetoric. Using power point (the only time I ever used it; one of us was in advertising and knew all the bells and whistles) we explained deconstruction in its simplest terms with moving pictures of cartoon words. Does "pines" refer to trees, or could it mean loneliness? How can we put the dominant meaning of something on the bottom, and center the marginalized one, even for a minute or so, to destabilize the whole foundation and remind us of the precariousness of meaning? The three of us had fun playing with meaning, and it provided me a moment of enjoyment among two fairly unenjoyable years, and I was reminded of a time, back as an undergraduate at BYU, enveloped in philosophy and the Student Review, when deconstruction and Marxism were complimentary, enjoyable political strategies.

Derrida still manages to escape what is now, for me, a comprehensive abandonment and critique of postmodern politics. He openly respected Marxism, was capable of seeing the USSR for what it really was, didn't buy into the various ways in which the abandonment of universal meaning feeds the commodification of culture. As an Algerian and a Jew he understood both colonialism and prejudice in senses so deep that arguments against oppression became enthemymatic foundations of Derrida's style and content.

Dana Cloud has eloquently pointed out that materialism isn't incompatable with the most important lessons of poststructuralism, concerning an awareness of the precariousness of form and the sense of wonder involved in theorizing. Likewise, I always felt that I would very much like to make a world for the Jacques Derridas, the Michels, Jurgens, and Emmanuels, where they would be free to create a politics of uncertainty without being hijacked by power, class divisions, and instrumental rationality. Of course, all of those thinkers would respond that in making such a world I would likely ignore the ways in which power and hierarchy diffuse themselves into language, interpersonal relations, bureaucracy, and ethics. Like the others, Derrida's sympathy for the socialist project was tempered by his suspicion of socialist (and especially Marxist) self-certainty.

75 is way too young to die. Derrida, like Levinas, struck me as friendly and deeply loving at the core of everything he wrote and said publicly. He cheerfully kicked John Searl's ass in their debate over meaning in Limited Inc. (although the clowns at Utah didn't see it that way as they fawned over the comparatively meanspirited Searl when he visited there). He painstakingly researched and composed the thick, beautiful, Joyce-like Politics of Friendship which may, in a few years be rediscovered and utilized to lay the foundations of a new ethic of care. He was friendly to the thousands of students in Southern California who would journey to see him lecture at UC Irvine. He remained friendly to everyone, it seems, in the face of some very unfriendly commentaries and dismissals. Some of you might remember when Allen Bloom and his half-talented entourage of neocons spent that week at BYU back in '90 (or was it '91?). Bloom or Stanley Rosen, I can't remember, said "Well, we should always remember Derrida was a C student." Yeah, I thought, and you guys are all crypto-fascists afraid to publicly admit your homosexuality. Derrida had a field day with his adversaries, but always respected them--a goodness I know I lack.

So I say goodbye to a friend who was always willing to be an entertaining fellow traveler, and occasionally, when I needed to be reminded not to be so sure, so dogmatic, a teacher as well. In a way, he mystified this rigid, working class student, and I embraced the confusion and learned to read a lot of it, and even write a bit. I associate his words and ideas with smiles and laughter in classrooms, and we need more of that...perhaps also in radical politics.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Cheney B+, Edwards B, and the poor are still poor... For the last week I've been reading list serve postings about whether being a good or bad "debater" matters. For some, it matters as much as whether or not Clinton could play the saxaphone, maybe even less. And here was an instance of two men, one more comfortable in a boardroom, the other more comfortable in a courtroom, meeting on common ground of equal discomfort to both. Being the better debater in this debate mattered. Being a good debater is a sign of competance, grace under pressure, and the ability to process information. Anyone who says those aren't essential qualities in a political leader is smoking their lunch.

Cheney B+, Edwards B. Not the crushing of last Thursday, but a confident, lucid, intelligent Cheney edging a not-at-his-best Edwards. Not really surprising to people in Wyoming, but maybe to others. Cheney was the better debater even without the preponderance of facts on his side. Edwards had a large job to do, to establish the continuity and continue the momentum of last week's ass-whipping by Kerry, and he didn't do as well as he should have.

The most brilliant move by Cheney occurred more than once: He surrendered his rebuttal time (not something that would ever occur in a competitive debate!) and in doing so came off as calm and in control of the debate. Overall, the Vice President appeared more comfortable and natural than I have ever seen him. He even effectively negated Edwards' overused appeal to his humble working class origins--it appears Cheney may have come from a similar background.

Edwards simply had more "awkward" moments in the debate, accidentally breaking debate rules, even interrupting Cheney. Furthermore, Edwards was at best unremarkable. He's clearly better with crowds than he is in this forum. And we didn't hear Edwards usual, very effective (albeit shallow) rhetoric of class divisions.

Not that this matters much, but I still think Edwards was ahead on the facts. The current administration enjoys the advantage of the specificity of its own policies over the (inevitable) vagueness of the challengers. But this strength is also a weakness, and Edwards did one thing right in this debate: Where Cheney humdrumly hammered Kerry's voting record (and not very specifically), Edwards effectively extended the points from last week's debate on Iraqi faulure and the administration's own "flip flops." The effectiveness of Edwards' attack on Halliburton was visible by Cheney's nonverbal reactions as well as his non-responsiveness. These are things that, for better or worse, the Democrats need to pound home if they want to win this election. The arguments Cheney didn't deal with, chose to virtually ignore, were centered around a common theme of corporate greed and economic inequality, from corporate flight to tax cuts for the rich, and including Halliburton, which represents a rare intersection of foreign policy and domestic class inequality.

Edwards' closing statement was ambitious and fairly effective. Cheney's was competant but uninspiring. Neither side performed nearly as well as Kerry did, or nearly as badly as Bush. If this were scored on a five-point-must system, it would be Cheney 3-2 over Edwards.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Kerry Overwhelms Bush in First Debate

It was a busy, fun day Thursday. I did three television interviews on the debates, and I'd love to keep doing that. I respect the political sensibilities of these local journalists, and Wyoming is a state full of political junkies and colorful political characters. But as objective as I was watching the debates (remember, I ain't voting for either of these rich gentlemen), and as non-partisan as I wanted to be, out of respect for Wyoming's independent spirit (yeah, call me sentimental), the debate was simply too one-sided to be diplomatic. I didn't say "country ass-whoopin'" on the air, but that's exactly what it was.

From every conceivable angle, John Kerry won this first debate. He was articulate, efficient, and firm in his delivery, while Bush seemed hesitant and uncomfortable from beginning to end. Kerry had both substance and style on his side. His themes of multilateralism, military strength, and honesty with the American people were better explained--with specific examples and eloquent word economy-- than Bush’s tired re-hashing of “stay the course” slogans and platitudes. It’s impossible to know if this substantive difference will turn the election (my guess is that the debates only matter to around 5-10% of likely voters by now), but Kerry won this debate line by line. Even Republican pundits acknowledged this was a bad night for Bush. Kerry was able to point out what Bush hasn’t done in the war on terror, and in this theme he matched Bush fact for fact. He was particularly effective in pointing out examples of Bush’s lack of candor with the American people. Kerry’s specificity and efficient delivery were dominant motifs in the debate. Bush always comes off as earnest and natural, but in this instance it also meant he was not “on point.” I assume the President’s handlers concluded that it was best not to over-prepare their candidate. Because of this, Bush only occasionally did a good job checking back some of Kerry’s assertions, particularly in the case of North Korea. But too often, the President focused more on Kerry’s words than on his policies. Bush’s biggest problem was that he seemed surprised when asked questions, and aghast that Kerry came into the debate with so much preparation and confidence. There is no greater weakness in a debate than showing surprise and a lack of preparation.

We saw many of the same old Bush gaffes: His circular logic about the presence of terrorism in post-invasion Iraq. His repetition of content-free phrases, in this case “It’s hard” (which he said multiple times) and “We must win” (which is obvious and really doesn’t favor either side in the debate). As many commentators pointed out, the President just looked like he didn’t want to be there.

By the end of the debate I had counted at least five arguments Bush did not respond to, including Kerry’s point about the mishandling of chance to get Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan; Bush’s failure to consult Congress on the war; Bush’s promises to work multilaterally and his subsequent failure, the issue of loose nuclear weapons; and the perception that the U.S. has nefarious long-term strategic designs on the Middle East. In contrast, Kerry could have done a better job responding to charges of inconsistency on Iraq, and Bush was able to keep up with him on the North Korea debate, but these two debaters were traveling at different speeds, and Kerry just had a lot more to say.

Stylistically, the debate was probably a tie, but given the expectations that Kerry would come off as arrogant and overbearing, even a tie is a victory for the challenger. For while Bush’s terminal stammering and hesitancy has never alienated his constituency, who’d rather elect someone who sounds like them than someone who sounds like Kerry, the real surprise of the debate was that John Kerry did not come off as arrogant or condescending in the same way that Al Gore did four years ago--although there may have been a point where his uber-confidence could be interpreted as overconfidence. There is always a risk that domination in a debate will translate, in the minds of the audience, into overkill. This is a charge that some may level against Kerry, but pursuing that charge would require that we forget Kerry’s unquestionably superior job of handling the facts, narratives, and image-management of the debate.

The best section of the debate for President Bush was certainly his concluding speech. Undoubtedly rehearsed, these concluding remarks contained energy, articulation, and content—precisely those things he was missing in the body of the debate itself.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Ellen Willis. “The Mass Psychology of Terrorism.”

The title is provocative because it is derived from Wilhelm Reich’s landmark study The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Before he lapsed into insanity in the 1950s, Reich was concerned with the interaction of sexuality and materiality--sex and economics. Hence, instead of Marx's "political economy" we have Reich's "sexual economy."

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism Reich argued that repressive sexual morality, a strong paternal/patriarchal culture, and deep class divisions combined to make fascism possible in Germany, and that in a more general sense, societies that repress sexuality (particularly among women) are more likely to go to war, treat minorities with brutality, and accept strong, charismatic, authoritarian leaders.

Writing of Reich’s theories, Paul Edwards paraphrases them this way:

“'Intellectual arguments are no match for the "most powerful emotion" on which the mass-psychological influence of religious institutions is based: sexual anxiety and sexual repression.” ( This perspective answers Aristotle’s optimistic argument in The Rhetoric that “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.” If we are trying to discover why better arguments don’t “win out” over bad ones, one way we can look is to the unconscious. And for Reich, this unconscious neurosis can be collective as well as individual—hence, “mass psychology.”

Willis agrees in the context of September 11:

Without understanding the psycho-sexual aspect of political violence and
domination-and the cultural questions with which it is intertwined-we cannot
make sense of what happened on September 11; indeed, we cannot make sense of the history of the 20th century. I don't propose that we discuss psychosexual
politics instead of the very real, and certainly 1 crucial, economic and
geopolitical issues that have shaped the Middle Eastern and ': South Asian
condition, from oil to the legacy of colonialism and the Cold War to the
ascendancy of neoliberalism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, my
claim is that the particular kind of crisis Islamic fundamentalism represents
erupts when economic and geopolitical issues converge with cultural and
psychosexual conflict.

Because insofar as radical Islam is a reaction against modernity, it is a reaction against sexual liberation—particularly the liberation of women. And I believe that, while radical Islam often takes on Marxist rhetorical trappings in order to criticize the impact of neoliberalism on traditional societies, the conclusions and strategies of radical Islam (violence against women, heterosexism, capital punishment, and anti-Semitism) would be shunned by any progressive anti-capitalists, Marxist or not.

If September 11 signaled the breakdown of liberal democratic capitalism, radical Islam is the fascism of the 21st century.

Back to Willis:

Willis takes issue with Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. Huntington simply assumes that cultures, holding different metaphysical assumptions, must inevitably clash. Willis responds:

this is not a question of 'East versus West. The struggle of democratic
secularism, religious tolerance, individual freedom, and feminism against
authoritarian patriarchal religion, culture, and morality is going on all over
the world. That includes the Islamic world, where dissidents are regularly
jailed, killed, exiled, or merely intimidated and silenced by autocratic
governments. In Iran the mullahs still have power, but young people are in open
revolt against the Islamic regime.

Instead, according to Willis, what drives each side’s clash is patriarchal sexual repression, although this is manifest in different ways:

The patriarchal religions have served to reinforce this moral system with their
conception of God as the ultimate parent; insofar as they retain social
authority or political power, their appeal to the inner force of conscience is
backed up by communal and legal sanctions.

Willis is quick to point out that religion and spirituality also offer liberation from these things…but remember that Reich was speaking of the co-influence of sexual repression and economic hierarchy. In that context, we can posit that the economically powerful classes can often inscribe their own self-serving interpretations of religion which, they will ensure, will not offer liberation—sexual or otherwise—to ordinary people.

Willis asks:

Might religiously motivated violence, in particular, combine a longing for
spiritual transcendence with guilt transmuted into self-righteous zeal and
rage rationalized as service to God?

Based on this question, Willis also addresses issues of anti-semitism (the perception of Jews as infidels “violating” sacred space), the threat of secularization, and the necessity for progressive activists to understand the links between culture (which includes sexuality) and politics (which is traditionally viewed merely as state-to-state relations). She takes the left to task for ignoring the authoritarianism of some anti-imperialist regimes (Cuba, for example)…hinting that this ignorance may be due to the left’s separation of sexuality from the rest of politics.

She concludes that culture “is a matter of life and death,” and September 11 demonstrates this. “It remains to be seen,” she writes, “whether fear of terrorism will trump the fear of facing our own psychosexual contradictions.”

Saturday, August 28, 2004

A Few Interesting Links

Too busy to write anything reflective this week, but in cleaning out my various inboxes, I thought I'd share some links...a few genuinely interesting ones, and some others that are worth a look, a laugh, a good cry, or a dramatic cringe:

Site soliciting testimony of "ordinary Americans" explaining why they won't vote for Bush.

A messy, busy anti-Bush site.

A site made by some people I sort of respect, but now full of Ann Coulter wannabees and poor thinkers:

ACLU's report on an emerging "surveillance industrial complex"

The trailer for Trey Parker and Matt Stone's scandalous "Team America."

James Hart, open racist, Republican candidate for Congress from Tennessee.

And more on James Hart.,13918,1278071,00.html

The Republicans are VERY embarassed about him.

Sunday, August 22, 2004


Stannard calls the Presidential Election in August!

I am calling the election here and now. Bush will narrowly defeat Kerry. This despite a weakened Nader and a Green Party Presidential candidate who is openly calling on people in swing states to vote for Kerry. The Democrats' attempt to out-military and out-patriot the Republicans (whatever the cogency of many of the arguments made during their convention) has already backfired. The Republicans will prove that nobody can do that to them. At their convention, they'll launch a patriotic, militaristic orgy the likes of which have never been seen. Bush will continue to turn his weaknesses into strengths. The Democrats can't present an articulate alternative, because they simply don't have one. "We're slightly less corporate and slightly less militaristic" doesn't cut it. A whole lot of people won't be allowed to vote anyway. Four more years, this time with an incumbent President Bush, will drive many progressives to demoralization and emigration. Will I be proven wrong about any of this? I sincerely hope so. But if I am, I'll publicly say "I am a idiot." (sic) Let's see what happens.

If They Could, They'd Pass Legislation to Pay Us in Toothpicks and Chicklets

The new Bush overtime regulations go into effect tomorrow, and all credible indications are that they will be a disaster for workers like my wife, Ann. Read the AFL-CIO's fact sheet and feel free to post anything which suggests they might be wrong in their interpretation. Ann and I hope they are...our bank account hopes it, Ann's back and muscles hope it, our son Andrew would hope it were he able to articulate such hopes at 16 months of age.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Notes on Class and Materiality in Debate
(lecture delivered at Wyoming Debate Cooperative, August 2, 2004, Laramie)

I'm going to assume most of you know what Marxism is, what its basic theory is. I hope that if you don't, you'll go back and re-trace some of the terms and ideas you hear in the lecture, maybe learn a little bit about Marxism and then come back and read the lecture (available online). I am happy to talk to you about those basics if you find me.

What is Marxist criticism? Before I try and explain it, let me give you a living example of it:

This is what Wesley Clark said at the Democratic convention in his very appealing speech:

“I am an American soldier. Our country has been attacked. We are at war. Our nation is at risk. And we are engaged in a life-and-death struggle against terrorists.... As we are gathered here tonight, our armed forces are in combat.”

Each of these sentences contain certain rhetorical acts of identification with something called the United States. Identification is a powerful and foundational rhetorical act, and one is justified in questioning the thing with which the speaker identifies. In 1990, as plans were being made to attack Iraq, and before I knew much about socialism, I commented to a friend in the Socialist Workers Party that I had heard someone say "We have to stop Saddam," yada yada yada. The friend replied: Next time, ask, "Who is we?"

That response is a good way to approach Marxism from the inside out. For "We have to stop Saddam" could easily mean the "we" of those of us who would never make such decisions, or it could mean those of us who are conscripts for either side of the battle, or it could mean "we Americans," those who identify with America as a nation, a kind of really big family. And it's an insidious kind of process, forgetting that you do it, never knowing or giving much thought to who "we" is. From there, when you start thinking about that, you then think about how you really don't get to make these monumental decisions, and maybe you'd do it differently, and isn't it true that all you really know about Iraq and Saddam is stuff you read in the papers or hear on radio or TV? And when you read more complex literature, journals or independent press, for example, you start to notice it's much more complicated than it is on TV. And again, it strikes you that you're being made part of a "we" that doesn't really mean you.

All of this is independent of the question of whether or not a set of rational actors, given the ability to fully consider their options and potential consequences, would choose to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

I want to talk to you about how to apply Marxist thought in academic debates. First, I'll provide a brief review of Marxist thought, then I will talk for a bit about the basic substantive debate over capitalism and its alternatives. Finally, I want to spend the majority of this presentation talking about the untapped critical potential of thinking about class and materiality in a forum where we advocate various kinds of material, collective actions.

Why is it important to talk about materiality in debate?

-Dana Cloud: Current rhetoric, and rhetorical theory, tends to believe that speech acts occur prior to materiality, that the speech act and symbol are primary. It leads us to believe that we can change social institutions by changing words or ideas. But "workers can't eat symbols."

-Debate itself has been saturated with discursive determinism. We constantly hear that the "criticism" de jure will change things. Or that we need a "mindset shift." We seldom hear that we need a change in material conditions. In fact, the more enamored we have become with idealism, or discursive determinism, the less "the plan" seems to matter. After all, our talking is the only thing that's real.

Brief Review of Marxism:

--dialectical materialism

-But our speech acts are not the only thing that's real. Speaking, writing, expression, occur on a continuum between base and superstructure. At the "base" is the physical, bodily act of speaking. At the "superstructure" are the forms of expression and the ideas conveyed. At the "base" is the rhetoric industry, the physical-economic manufacture of consent. At the "superstructure" are found all the paradigms and floating idealistic visions.

-Now, we argue a lot about how "deterministic" Marxism is, but for some reason we think it's no problem at all to say that language "determines" or constitutes reality. We take Marxism to task for being utopian while we say "the criticism equals peace."

-The fact is that Marxism is in one sense very determinist, and perhaps should unapologetically assert its hard determinism and place the burden on the other side to say why that's bad. For myself, I prefer to say that the base "contextualizes" the superstructure. "Contextualize" carries a huge determinist strain--it suggests that without a particular base, the superstructure would not be what it is. But it also breaks us away from seeing the base as some kind of control room full of buttons, to be pushed in order to manufacture different things in the superstructure.

-It is particularly curious that in debate, where we constantly make causality claims (Go to Ken D.'s lecture on this!) we would have a strong objection to Marx saying the base determines the superstructure.

-And we can never forget what "dialectical" in dialectical materialism means, and how it allows us to understand how Marx could have believed we are both free and determined. Forgive the sexist language here, but Marx wrote that "Men make their own history...but they do not make it any way they please."

-In any event, there is a correlation between production/distribution and ideas. Fishermen worship Sea Gods. And bourgeois discussions about social phenomena in the superstructure take on a similarly self-serving mythos.

--class conflict -Mainly, these discussions tend to obscure the relationship between the haves and have-nots, or more specifically, between those who profit from the labor of others (and the exploitation of nature) and those who have only their own labor power to sell.

The Capitalism Debate:

--relationship of political economy to social phenomena

-If the source or context of a social problem is found in the economic base, and if the solution (the change in the superstructure) doesn't send some kind of shock wave down the line, as it were, and affect the base, then there is a sense in which advocating shallow bourgeois reforms is like playing "Whack-a-Mole."

-Against the objection that these small reforms constitute a localized end of suffering, Marxists may even assert that such reforms delay meaningful change by obscuring the relationship between political economy and social phenomena.

--inevitable collapse

-Bourgeois authors across the board are starting to talk about the coming economic collapse again. Paul Roberts' The End of Oil is a good example.

-Marxists have been saying these things for a long time. Now it's okay to talk about resource wars again. But the base must have a particularly powerful hold over us if it can make us kill one another with such abandon. Maybe some things in the superstructure have that kind of hold, but the collapse of religion wouldn't trigger world wars, while the collapse of capitalism likely will.

-For information on why capitalism will inevitably collapse, I refer you to the myriad theorists and writers on the subject, such as James Devine, Rosa Luxembourg, John Gray, Paul Sweezy, Ellen Menkens Wood. The important thing to remember is that no "epoch" lasts forever, no form of production and distribution lasts forever. We may argue, however, about how such forms and bases change--catacalysmically or gradually.

The Relation of Identities

Dana Cloud writes that what sets Marxism apart from "identity politics" is that class is a relationship, not an identity. However, there are reasons to personally identify with class, or a class. There are reasons why your end of the relationship means something. There are poor people, even in academia, and being poor changes your relationship with other people. For me, Marxism becomes a new kind of identity movement when we are allowed to voice our experiences as poor people, as people who do not share in the pie, nor in deciding how the pie is made.


-Those poor people, we poor people are also ignored when the 1AC gets up and reads the plan. The plan contains myriad logistics. Those logistics, and the logistics of the logistics, are implemented by ordinary working people--our mothers and fathers and fellow workers.

-Their project, like all policies, all plans of action, is essentially a "project of labor." It involves setting forces into motion—material and communicative—and those forces, that matter and speech, exist only in a larger, intimately linked political-economic context.

-Whatever’s holding back the "plan" is a reflection of bourgeois labor, while the aff also omits working-class labor; they don’t address the perspective of those who administer, execute, and clean up after the plan.

-the plan will employ wage workers to keep the logistics running. That’s okay, right? Who cares about those wage workers anyway?

-There is no way to understand the effect of plan advocacy on everyday materiality and humanity when the agents of that material field are ignored and taken for granted in the construction of said advocacy.

-Ignoring class is inclusive of ignoring all other identity categories we ought to be concerned with—gender/sexuality, race/ethnicity, age, poorness, etc., because the ORIGINAL omission of class allows those with a vested interest in "business as usual" to utilize otherwise sincere policy advocacy to justify current power arrangements.

What's wrong with Marxism?

-First, what's not wrong with it, or in other words, the least effective answers:

1. Marxism ignores _______.

2. Cap good, judge!

So some potential problems with Marxism are:

-Marxism is plagued by a self-assuredness, intoxicated by its own correctness. This means the movement will never succeed.

-Or, that self-assuredness is more than a mere theoretical irritation. Emmanuel Levinas reportedly says all good ideas are threatened by their own Stalinism. That self-assuredness might mean its adherents wouldn't mind killing or re-educating you.

-Moreover, the scarcity and material chaos that will occur when capitalism collapses means that the Stalinists would get a hearing among the people, or even bypass the people.

-There are many routes to revolution and so calling for a rejection of "reforms" wouldn't make sense to a studied Marxist--she would ask whose interests were being served by those reforms. Marxists don't want people to be crushed until they revolt, to starve until they organize. We don't believe that misery ALWAYS means a better society down the road, and sometimes extreme misery brings out the absolute worst in people and not the absolute best.

-There's been a trend lately to "impact turn" criticisms. I think talking about Stalinism is very important, but given the ease with which one can win the inevitability of capitalism's collapse, and the survival question (most eloquently articulated by Meszaros), the most effective way to answer a Marxist criticism is to link turn it, and in order for that to happen, you must be aware of the relationship between your advocacy and the class struggle. The fact that affirmatives are forced to think about that relationship, of course, means that the criticism is doing its job.