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 since...um...Bill 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.