Saturday, July 31, 2004


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.

Now, you might have people you love over there in Iraq or Afghanistan, and you certainly aren't against them--you don't wish harm on them. You want them to come back safely. In fact, once you start to realize that "we" aren't making the decisions together on how and when to fight, or who goes to fight and for how long, your concern for those people grows. It grows even as others accuse you of being against those people. And then it hits you: Somebody on the other side probably feels just as scared, frustrated and disaffected--in the case of a citizen of Saddam's Iraq, probably much more so--and it hits you that the ones you love and the ones they love are shooting at each other over disagreements and bad behavior none of you--none of us--had anything to do with. So who is "we?"

Is it a noble thing to stop Saddam? Sure. Would we reach a consensus on that? Sure. Maybe we'd even elect leaders, just like we do now, but maybe in a world where we have a hell of a lot more input. Where we not only could deliberate on such questions but also talk about how such situations start in the first place. Now, I attend the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laramie, and our minister, Joe, is one of the wisest men I have ever met. And he's tough on you, and can talk sense into you. I think if he sat down with two world leaders who wanted to kill each other, they'd leave that room feeling sheepish and repentant. But the world isn't run in such a way that encourages people like Joe to talk to world leaders. Why? Isn't Joe "we?"

Now maybe "we" need to be governed by elected officials who can make all those decisions for us. That's cool, you'll notice few Marxists denying that people are good at different things and that smarts is smarts. It's really an irrelevant argument, because long ago, like back in 1776, "we" decided that the process of rulemaking mattered as much, if not more, than the rules themselves. Think about what Jefferson or Madison would say if Washington had committed troops to Tripoli using the argument that Tripoli was raising a legion of fire-breathing dragons and had to be stopped or they'd fly over here and burn us all to a crisp? Even if there was some other legitimate cause, like the Lybian leaders were killing and torturing their own people, Jefferson and Madison would probably invoke the spirit of procedural justice--for them, the Constitution--to object to the manner in which support was drummed up for the invasion. And in any event, everything we know about Washington indicates he wouldn't lie (or err on the side of suspect intelligence) to shove off a bunch of men and ships to the other side of the world. Obviously, what the founders of the USA wanted was accountability through checks and balances. In all fairness, they may not have been willing to consult "the people," and certainly gave the appropriate officials the power to declare war, and other officials the power to engage it. But one reading of their Constitution and their other writings is certainly a world where such decisions are transparent and involve genuine public deliberation, and a world free of legalized corporate bribery of these decisionmakers of whom the founders expected so much.

The examples and stories I've used here not only explain the sentiment (not the mechanics) of Marxist criticism, but also the "link of omission" and counterfactual critical theory that is Habermasian criticism. Some may not believe the two are complimentary, but I do. One explains why those concerned with procedural democracy find the current system unjust and unworkable. The other explains why it is so, and what prevents us from changing it. In both cases, "we" begin with the question "Who is we?"

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


I pulled up roots in the back yard
while you cleaned the small card table
I chopped down overgrown thistle
while you chopped fresh tomatos
I pounded a path of chicken wire
while you planted wildflowers
and we tried to make something grow grow grow
on these 7000 foot towers

Monday, July 26, 2004

The Giving of Reasons
Comments at the 4th annual Wyoming Forensics Institute, Pre-Tournament Assembly, July 21, 2004, Laramie:

Like many of you, I stand in absolute awe and admiration for the minds and the hearts of the people you have been listening to tonight.  I stand in awe of what they do, and of what we all do.  And it's funny--what we do seems so very esoteric, so very unique, to other people.  But we are engaged in the study of something as fundamental to the human condition as eating, building, art.  Our subject is not merely communication, but the giving and receiving of reasons. 

I drove to DIA a few days ago to pick up Brian Norcross, one of UW's coaches.  Of course, when you leave camps like ours, you realize there's a world out there, and you find yourself in possession of unexpected tools to assess it.

So I was listening to the news on the radio and here's what I heard: Three brand new Habitat for Humanity homes were burned to the ground on the same night, before the new families could move in.  Who would do that, I thought, and why?  Then I heard that a nun, in full habbit, had been mugged.  She had been carrying $80.  I heard an update on the parents in Riverton who are alleged to have beaten their 15-month old child to death.  My son, Andrew, is 15 months old and I can't fathom this at all.  In fact, all these acts seemed not only evil to me, but alien.  Otherly.  Without reason. 

Of course they were without reason, and were so by their very nature.  Oh, I don't mean they were without explanation.  There are explanations for criminal, pathological and violent behavior.  I don't think American policymakers spend nearly enough time seeking those explanations.  What I mean is, by their very nature, those acts were without that gesture of justification that emerges in contexts of respect and the valuing of other people.  Because that's what giving reasons means.  Not just saying something about your claim, or your act, but being committed to making sense and bringing your good will to other people.

I'm one of those in debate that thinks the line-by-line, structural methodology of the activity actually makes it more conducive to ethical behavior than the unstructured alternatives offered in the "real" world.  I believe what we do could teach millions of people how to better give and receive reasons, and in doing so, help people better understand and accept one another.  At the same time, I believe the exploration and enactment of new formats of debate also provides both ethical and intellectual relevance to projects designed to improve the world.  The most beautiful debates I have seen, the very few best ones, exemplified everything from music to drama and dialogue to multiple languages to near-incomprehensibly fast debate and demanding levels of intricacy, to slow, methodical debate.  What makes them all good is that the debaters give reasons...not merely provide warrants, but speak to the souls of their audiences.

There is a difference between the inability to give reasons and the refusal to do so.  The hungry person in front of you begging for food may lack the capacity to give reasons; you ought to still feed that person.  But when administrations, governments, organizations, fail to give reasons, that isn't due to some physiological problem. 

In a world of fairness, in a world of creativity and intellectual excitement, reasons flow like water.  Everyone is happy to give them, compelled to give them.  Other people receive them gratefully, giving back some of their own.  Like water, people's reasons flow and blend together, or separate into complimentary streams moving in the same direction. 

In a world of mutual suspicion, paranoia, and scarcity of goods (either naturally or by design), reasons are commodities to be hoarded, disguised, hidden, refused.  Anyone might be a threat to you.  Your giving of reasons also risks your having to change, and you can't do that without pain--revolutionary pain. 

In a world where all people are acknowledged to have equal and genuine value, the giving of reasons is the giving of gifts.  In a world of extreme hierarchy, some people are entitled to reasons and not others.  Some people's reasons are entitled to be half-assed, while others are required not only to be perfectly constructed, but constructed in subordination to the needs of others. 

The failure of public institutions to provide public reasons ALWAYS hurts others, ALWAYS signals a decrease in the quality of political life, and often results in unnecessary suffering, and the infliction of pain on innocent people for the sake of comfort and convenience among those refusing to reason.  

I have to believe that we, speakers and debaters, are part of whatever alternative must emerge to fight this absurd, unjust system.  Regardless of our styles, our preferred arguments, or our paradigms, we are all capable of in some way cutting against this enforced scarcity of reasons. 

As you compete with each other tomorrow and on Friday, and as you leave here to go back to your regions and speak, strategize and win, try to remember this view of reason-giving and reason-receiving.  Toss your arguments to one another like precious jewels rather than throwing them like cutting stones.  Catch each other's arguments and open them and watch them grow, placing them next to yours, even as you ask for ballots and wins.  Demand and beg for the giving and receiving of reasons in every forum and place you find yourselves. 

Remember, also, the words of Emmanuel Levinas: "All generous thought is threatened by its own Stalinism."  As you give and receive reasons, suspend your self-certainty and give equal weight the attempted justifications of others--not equal argumentative weight, but equal ethical weight.  For, as Jurgen Habermas says, it is in that process, that giving and receiving of points and counterpoints in communication, that we find that commonality that unites us all even underneath our radical, violent differences. 

We have been incredibly lucky to discover and share reasoning together for the past two weeks.  You should all be incredibly proud of yourselves and thankful for each other.  I am thankful for each and every one of you. 

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Idiot of the Week:

The film incites terrorism??? Sounds like this guy has serious intellectual defects...and may be committing libel!

DECORAH, Iowa (AP) - The president of a company that owns movie theaters in Iowa and Nebraska is refusing to show director Michael Moore's ``Fahrenheit 9/11.''

R.L. Fridley, owner of Des Moines-based Fridley Theatres, says the controversial documentary incites terrorism.

Fridley said in an e-mail message to company managers that the company does not ``play political propaganda films from either the right or the left.''

``Our country is in a war against an enemy who would destroy our way of life, our culture and kill our people,'' Fridley wrote. ``These barbarians have shown through (the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001) and the recent beheadings that they will stop at nothing. I believe this film emboldens them and divides our country even more.''

``Fahrenheit 9/11'' won best picture at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and has grossed millions of dollars at the box office. Moore won an Academy Award for an earlier work, ``Bowling for Columbine.''

Critics accuse the film of being an unfair and inaccurate portrayal about President Bush's policies before and after Sept. 11, 2001.

Read for yourself

Redline Rants, a republican blog, has posted a transcript of the first 43 minutes of Fahrenheit 911, with promises of more to come.

Although some of the subsequent commentary is absurdly stupid (one reader opines that Moore "should be brought up on treason charges"), the availability of a transcript may aid the numerous not-so-stupid debates going on. The host is also soliciting corrections to make the transcript more accurate. The project itself seems sincere.

Laramie July 4 Activities

For those in Laramie reading my journal, you already know that Washington Park will be the center of July 4 activity in town tomorrow. Here's Leslie from Stand Up for Peace--they'll have a booth there tomorrow, sounds like it will be fun for the kiddies...

Stand Up for Peace will have a booth in Washington Park on July 4. We'll be on the northwest end of the park so, please, stop by and see us. We'll be helping the young ones make "pinwheels for peace" and will be having a raffle for 1) "The Peace Book," 2) a bag of buttons & other goodies, and 3) an XL SUFP t-shirt. Plus, of course, we'll have lots of free literature and our excellent selection of buttons, patches, and bumperstickers for sale.
If you have some time to spare and would like to help with the booth, come by and give us a hand!!!

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Victory for Utah Miners!

This week's front page story from The Militant--doubly happy for me because I'm from Utah (even lived in Price for three years) AND because it's a victory, however small, in the middle of the belly of the beast!!!

You can read more articles here providing the background of this inspiring struggle.

‘On toward victory in union election in August,’ Utah miners say

HUNTINGTON, Utah—In a major breakthrough for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) organizing battle at the Co-Op mine here, the union received a draft settlement from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that orders C.W. Mining Co. to reinstate all of the 75 miners who were illegally fired last September. With most of the Co-Op strikers back to work before mid-July, the chances increase that the UMWA will win the NLRB-mandated union election that will be held sometime in August, workers report.
On June 21, two bosses from the Co-Op mine hand delivered letters to the striking miners giving them an unconditional offer to return to work. The letter stated that workers must let the company know by July 6 if they are returning to their jobs and that they must report to work no later than July 12.

“It’s a victory: we won the right to go back to work,” said striker Domingo Olivas. “All the work we’ve done up to this point puts us in a good position to win the UMWA inside the mine. We hope the miners who are already working inside will be with us.”

“Rather than reporting separately, we will all march together to the mine on July 6 and let the Co-Op bosses know we are coming back united,” said Bill Estrada, one of the strike leaders. “We are inviting all strike supporters to Huntington to march with us that day and celebrate. Fifteen retired UMWA members were the first to tell us they will be there. We look forward to doing everything possible to win the union election in August.”

On Sept. 22, 2003, 75 coal miners were fired from their jobs at the Co-Op mine, owned by C.W. Mining. They were fired because they had contacted the UMWA about getting a union organized at the mine. The miners were being paid between $5.15 and $7.00 an hour with no benefits.

A company union has existed at the mine for many years. Workers have submitted evidence that the officers of this “union” are bosses and are related to the Kingstons, the wealthy family that owns the mine.

The strikers report that the settlement agreement from the NLRB clearly states that any type of intimidation or harassment of pro-union miners by the Co-Op management is illegal. The document states that the agreement must be visibly posted at the mine for 60 days.

This is important because this is what led to the wholesale firings last September, workers say. Prior to that date, the miners had been talking to UMWA organizers about how to get a real union organized at the mine. Bosses began harassing and suspending the miners for this activity. They had cornered miners alone underground and questioned them about “the meetings they were having with the UMWA.”

The bosses also tried to disrupt a meeting the strikers had organized outside the mine, and had threatened workers, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico, with sending the immigration police after them. When they learned of the company threats, the strikers changed the time and location of that meeting. When the miners returned to Huntington after their gathering, they say they saw the bosses standing in front of the old location waiting for the meeting to begin.

The settlement explicitly prohibits any of these practices, workers say. It states that the employers must refrain even from watching the workers, or from giving them the impression they are being watched, while participating in union activities.

On Sept. 23, 2003, the UMWA filed charges with the NLRB stating that all 75 miners were fired illegally for union activity. The national labor board upheld the charge in its ruling.

The NLRB made the decision nine months into the workers’ strike, which has continued to win broader support in the labor movement throughout the country.

The miners also reported that the draft settlement includes a back pay order, the exact details of which are being negotiated and may be settled in court. The settlement reportedly states that employees have the right to pursue any legal claims they may have against the company because of loss of wages or other benefits.

Strikers said that as soon as they received the news, they began contacting all the miners who were fired. Many of the miners had taken jobs in other cities and are in the process of driving very long distances back to Huntington by July 6. A striker who went to Idaho and has been working in the potato fields for several months, for example, informed the strike leadership committee he plans to be back.

Other strikers have gotten jobs at other mines in the Utah area, and a number have indicated they will return to Co-Op.

The NLRB has set a hearing for July 20-22 in Price, Utah, to determine who will be eligible to vote and the time and place of the union election.

After the strikers and their supporters march to the mine office on July 6, everyone plans to meet at the town hall in Huntington for food, refreshments, and a celebration.

For more information, contact the UMWA office in Price at (435) 637-2037 or (435) 650-2019. Solidarity messages to be read at the rally can be faxed to the UMWA at (435) 637-9456.

"It's a very nuanced strategy"

Just as I was contemplating how troubled I am by the rude and omni-brutal tone of every current American political conversation (including the various ones taking place on our side), I had a pleasant experience reading this:

Mainly, I am happy the word "nuanced" is associated with a political movement, and I am intrigued by the forthrightness necessary to assert such heresy on cable news...

GP Presidential nominee David Cobb, on Nader and political strategy, answering the decidedly un-nuanced questions of CNN's Judy Woodfruff:
COBB: Well, I have nothing but absolute respect and admiration for Ralph Nader. As I've said many times, I'm a lawyer because of Atticus Finch and Ralph Nader.
Ralph Nader and I both absolutely agree on the need to break out of this corporate-controlled politics and the corporate-controlled nature of both the Democratic and the Republican Parties.
But, Judy, Ralph and I have a disagreement on the best way to do that. In this election cycle Ralph is running an independent campaign. It's his right to do that. And I think it's shameful that all the shenanigans are taking place to prevent Ralph Nader from being on the ballot as an independent. But myself and the Green Party are committed to building an independent political force to challenge the Democrats and the Republicans because there has to be an opposition party that will continue after the November election no matter who wins.
You know, Judy, what I've said is, I want to run a strong, aggressive and smart campaign that will both grow the Green Party and culminate with George W. Bush out of the White House. It's a very nuanced strategy. But it's one that I think is in the best interest of the country and it's in the best interest of the Green Party.
And the truth of the matter is, that John Kerry voted for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Kerry voted for the Patriot Act. John Kerry voted for NAFTA. John Kerry opposes single payer universal health care. John 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. I trust the voters to hear the truth, and make up their own minds.

And on his own class identity:
I grew up in grinding poverty in San Leon, Texas. I've washed dishes. I've been a construction worker. I'm a genuine working class person who lived the American dream. You know, Greens are ordinary people trying to do something extraordinary which is to build a genuine movement that will take our country back from the corporate hooligans who have literally hijacked it.

Read the entire piece, and see if you feel that same kind of...well, refreshed feeling. Of clarity, honesty, humility. Traits that may not score you points with the sparts (or at a bar for that matter), but which, in fact, are appeals to a universal civility and respect unseen in the fallout from the Nader-GP debacle. Even Nader's patient re-explanations of his relationship to the two-party system seem like so much double-talk in comparison.

Woodruff's questions betrayed her desire to stay on scandal. But David, Ralph is mad! He's mad at you, David!

But David Cobb strikes me as a smart, down-to-earth, honest activist. It must be impossible not to have enemies in the Green Party, and surely people's competing representations will come to the surface. More troubling, many among the left will get sucked into their own unique brand of personal attacks and waste valuable energy that could be spent building new parties AND defeating the worst president since Hoover. At the risk of sounding like the suede denim secret police, we ought to try and emulate Cobb's civility, at least to each other, and maybe even to our adversaries, since it's always nicer to beat them with a smile on your face.

Debate Season Never Really Ends, Say Experts

Come next week, I may not be posting with the frenzy I've had as of late. About 85 high school students from ten states will attend the Wyoming Forensics Institute, sharpening their skills in team debate, lincoln-douglas (1-on-1) debate, and other competitive speech events. A week after they leave, over 150 college students and instructors will convene on Laramie for the fifth annual Wyoming Debate Cooperative, a non-profit collective for competitive debaters in NDT/CEDA and NPDA debate. These projects are busier and longer than anything we do during the regular school year. I imagine blogging will be a refreshing, but rare distraction.