The ‘But The Supreme Court’ Argument For Hillary Clinton

One ‘hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-the-lesser-evil’ argument currently making the rounds for the Hillary Clinton candidacy–ostensibly intended to address the ‘schism’ in the Democratic Party, among the ‘Left’ and ‘progressives’–goes something like this. Vote for Hillary Clinton, even if you disagree with many of her policies, do not consider her entirely trustworthy, and would much rather vote for Bernie Sanders–because she will nominate the right person, the right Justice, to the US Supreme Court. (The Senate will not confirm a nominee put up by President Obama, so this will be one of the first tasks awaiting the new President next year.) No matter what you think, you cannot allow a President Trump to nominate a right-wing ideologue to the Supreme Court, who will then roll back years of hard-won legal victories in many domains: perhaps abortion restrictions, perhaps voting rights, perhaps the power of regulatory administrative agencies to keep our work spaces safe and our drinking water clean.

It is worth noting how much this argument presumes and concedes.

First, and most importantly, the American political system is broken. There is no separation of powers; the judiciary and the executive branch are the new legislatures. The Supreme Court is now a full-blown political institution. Political change will not come about because people’s representatives will legislate their desires and demands into existence; rather, an unelected group of Yale and Harvard educated lawyers will respond directly to petitioners who seek to address some perceived injustice. Persuade the justices; do not bother with the ballot box. Unless you are voting for President.

Second, it places too much faith in the ability of the Supreme Court to drive substantive social and political change. The poster child for this sort of claim is Brown v. Board of Education, which left segregation intact; and as a vigorous debate among professional court watchers–a motley crew of legal scholars and political scientists–confirms, supporting examples can be found quite easily. Despite the expressive impact of the courts and their rulings, political change does not happen because courts direct the polity to change; rather, it occurs because citizens organize and exert pressure at and on the right places and the right actors–in a variety of political domains and institutions.

Third, it suggests–as if acknowledging the unprecedented obstruction of a sitting President by the Republicans over the last eight years–that the President is a lame-duck from the moment he or she drops his or her right hand on being sworn in. No substantive legislation can be driven by that office; the Constitution offers no escape; a recalcitrant House of Representatives and Senate cannot be forced to do perform their legal duties. The President can merely nominate a Supreme Court Justice; and that too before the final year of office (apparently the new normal now given what has transpired since Justice Scalia’s death.)

It is into this impoverished and diminished political landscape that we are steered by the ‘but the Supreme Court’ argument for Hillary Clinton. We are being asked to settle for an immensely diminished Republic.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Mountains Of The Mind

A few years ago, while visiting my brother in India, I browsed through his collection of mountaineering books (some of them purchased by me in the US and sent over to him.) In Robert MacFarlane‘s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, I found the following epigraph:

O the mind, mind has mountains  – Gerard Manley Hopkins c. 1880

It wasn’t the first time I had read Hopkins’ immortal line. And my first reaction to it, and its embedding in the poem in which it features made me question MacFarlane’s deployment of it as an epigraph to his book, and indeed, in its title.

MacFarlane’s book is, as an excellent critical review on Amazon notes, “a series of essays following the development and transitional phases of Western European conceptions of the “mountains” and exploring the mountains.” Man is fascinated by the mountains; bewitched and bewildered, we seek to climb them, hoping to find on their slopes and summits nothing less than our true selves, brought forth and revealed by adversity. Or perhaps mountains will grant us access to the key to this world’s mysteries; visions will be induced in our journeys that will pull back the curtains and reveal what lies beneath the surface and appearance of reality. Mountains have many roles to play in our projects of self-imagination and construction–in MacFarlane’s narrowly conceived Anglocentric sphere. (This last critical point is the primary focus of the review linked above.)

But what is Hopkins’ line doing, serving as an epigraph to such a book? Hopkins’ poem is about melancholia; indeed, it might be one of the most powerful and moving explorations of the mind’s travails. Here is how I read his line: our mind is capable of entertaining thoughts and feelings which contain within them chasms of despair, points at which we stare into a dark abyss, an unfathomable one, with invisible depths. These are our own private hells, glimpses of which we catch when we walk up to the edge and look. The effect on the reader–especially one who has been to the mountains–is dramatic; you are reminded of the frightening heights from which you can gaze down on seemingly endless icy and windswept slopes, the lower reaches of which are shrouded with their own mysterious darkness; and you are reminded too, of the darkest thoughts you have entertained in your most melancholic moments.

In MacFarlane’s book, the fear that mountains evoke in us is a prominent feature of man’s fascination with mountains (this suggests too, the interplay between terror and beauty that Rilke wrote about in the Duino Elegies.) But melancholia does not feature in MacFarlane’s analysis. MacFarlane seems to quote the line as saying that our fascination with mountains stems from the fact that our mind itself contains mountains, that some part of our primeval sense responds to them. This is not what Hopkins was writing about. He uses mountains as an image to convey the depths visible from their heights, as a symbol of how far we may fall in our melancholia. Fear is present for Hopkins but in a wholly different manner; we dread the depths to which we may sink in our ruminations. That is not the kind of fear MacFarlane addresses; it is related only peripherally.

Robespierre On The Iraq War

In 1792, Revolutionary France debated, and prepared for, war. It was surrounded by monarchies who cared little for this upstart viper in the nest; and conversely, a sworn “enemy of the ancien regime” could not but both despise and fear what lay just beyond its borders: precisely the same entity in kind as was being combated at home. War often seemed inevitable in those days, and it would come, soon enough, on April 20th, when France declared war on Austria. But Revolutionary France, true to its spirit, devoted considerable time and energy to debating the decision to continue politics by such means.

Some, like the war’s most “categorical…passionate [and] persuasive” proponent, Jacques Pierre Brissot, “imagined war rallying the country behind the Revolution and forcing the duplicitous King [Louis XVI] either to support the war and the Revolution or reveal his counterrevolutionary intentions.” But just as important, was the “crusading” aspect of the war:

War would carry liberation to the oppressed peoples of Europe, groaning still under the despotism France had thrown off. [Jordan, pp. 84]

The most passionate opponent of the war was Maximilien Robespierre. His denunciation of war plans had many dimensions to it. They remain remarkably prescient and insightful.

First, Robespierre noted that “during a war the people forget the issues that most essentially concern their civil and political rights and fix their attention only on external affairs.” Because war is conducted by the “executive authority” and the military, during war, the people direct “all their interest and all their hopes to the generals and the ministers of the executive authority.” Such slavish devotion to those in power–especially since in conducting the war, Revolutionary France would have been “fighting under the aegis of the Bourbon Monarchy”–results in a characteristically eloquent denunciation: War is “the familiar coffin of all free peoples.”

But it was the “crusading” and “utopian” aspect of the war that seemingly most troubled Robespierre, for in it he could detect an internal incoherence. The vision of lands and peoples invaded by Revolutionary France welcoming their conquerors struck him as risible:

The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for a people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced. [It is] in the nature of things that the progress of reason is slow [and] no one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.

Robespierre did not waver from this conviction. A year after France had entered that period of its history which would be characterized by almost incessant outbreaks and declarations of war, Robespierre wrote that “One can encourage freedom never create it by an invading force.”

The historical illiteracy of those who declared war on Iraq is oft-commented on; here is yet more evidence for that claim.

Note: This post is cribbed from David P. Jordan‘s The Revolutionary Life of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 82-86; all quotes and citations originate there.)

The Acknowledgments Section As Venue For Disgruntlement

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre  (University of Chicago Press, 1985) David P. Jordan writes in the ‘Acknowledgments’ section:

With the exception of the Humanities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose fellowship gave me the leisure to rethink and rewrite, no fund or foundation, agency or institution, whether public or private local or national, thought a book on Robespierre worthy of support. [pp xi-xii; citation added]

Shortly after I had defended my doctoral dissertation, I got down to the pleasant–even if at times irritatingly bureaucratic–process of depositing a copy with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library. The official deposited copy of the dissertation required the usual accouterments: a title page, a page for the signatures of the dissertation committee, an abstract page, an optional page for a dedication, and lastly, the acknowledgements. The first four of these were easily composed–I dedicated my dissertation to my parents–but the fifth one, the acknowledgements, took a little work.

In part, this was because I did not want to be ungracious and not make note of those who had tendered me considerable assistance in my long and tortuous journey through the dissertation. I thanked the usual suspects–my dissertation adviser, various members of the faculty, many friends, and of course, family. I restricted myself to a page–I continue to think multi-page acknowledgments are a tad self-indulgent–and did not try to hard to be witty or too effusive in the thanks I expressed.

And then, I thought of sneaking in a snarky line that went as follows:

Many thanks to the City University of New York which taught me how to make do with very little.

I was still disgruntled by the lack of adequate financial support through my graduate studies: fellowships and assistantships had been hard to come by; occasional tuition remissions had somewhat sweetened the deal, but I had often had to pay full resident tuition for a semester; and like many other CUNY graduate students, I had found myself teaching too many classes as an underpaid adjunct over the years. I was disgruntled too, by the poor infrastructure that my cohort contended with: inadequate library and computing resources were foremost among these. (During the last two years of my dissertation, I taught at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and so had access to the Bobst Library and NYU’s computing facilities; these made my life much easier.)

In the end, I decided against it; my dissertation was over and done with, and I wanted to move on. A parting shot like the one above would have made felt like I still harbored resentments, unresolved business of a kind. More to the point, the Graduate Center, by generously allowing to me enroll as a non-matriculate student eight years previously, had taken a chance on me, and kickstarted my academic career. For that, I was still grateful.

I deleted the line, and deposited the dissertation.

Note #1: An academic colleague who finished his dissertation around the time I did dedicated his dissertation to his three-year old son as follows:

Dedicated to ‘T’ without whom this dissertation would have been finished much earlier.

Fair enough.

Chelsea Manning’s Bad Luck With The American Polity

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower(Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar writes:

If any lesson can be drawn from the Manning affair, it’s that leaks can make a great difference if there is organized political muscle to put them to good use. Information on its own is futile; as useless as those other false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry, all of which have their uses, but are insufficient to stop wars and end torture. This is not to denigrate the achievements of the person who have us this magnificent gift of knowledge about world affairs. If the disclosures have not changed US statecraft–yet–the fault lies not in the cables, but in the pathetic lack of political organization among those individuals who don’t “have a position” in Halliburton stock–the 99% if you will.

There are two theses presented here by Madar: a) information is sterile unless coupled with political organization and action, and b) international law and the ‘human rights industry’ are ‘insufficient to stop wars and end torture’–they are ‘false hopes.’ (The former claim may be understood as a variant of Marcuse‘s praxis + theory axiom of politics.)

The seeming inefficacy of Chelsea Manning‘s leaks of a veritable treasure trove of revelations about the conduct of US foreign policy and warfare now becomes explicable; those seeds fell on infertile ground. Manning’s leaks were fed to a polity that is at heart conformist and accepting of authority, and whose most suffering faction–the staggering 99%–is disorganized, apathetic in large sectors, and all too easily resigned to a fate characterized by endless wars and a Nietzschean endless recurrence of the same cast of political characters and ideologies ruling the roost. ‘On its own’ information has no political valence; it is only when it serves as the premise of a political argument that it acquires traction.  At the risk of invoking the wrath of those who dislike military metaphors, perhaps we can think of information as ammunition; indispensable, yet insufficient without the right sorts of blunderbusses. (That pair of ‘false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry’ are similarly indicted: both, on their own, decoupled from the capacity to enforce and from organized political muscle, are reduced to platitudes, mouthed in predictable time and fashion by the usual suspects. No enforcement authority backs them up; and the political realism of the postivisitic conception of both law and rights appears ever plausible.)

America got lucky with Chelsea Manning; but the luck only went in one direction. Manning didn’t get lucky with her nation; she was feeding information to a polity that didn’t know what to do with it (and which instead, called her a ‘traitor’ and imprisoned and tortured her.) The reception to the Panama Papers, which despite the initial furore, and even the odd resignation or two, is best described as equal parts yawn and shrug, provides further confirmation for this claim. Artful dodging of local jurisdictions to enable ‘fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions’ is old hat; and there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

Back to rearranging chairs on deck.

Chase Madar On American ‘Anti-Authority Posturing’

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar quotes Ray McGovern, ‘a retired CIA analyst’ and admirer of Chelsea Manning, as saying that “he who isn’t angry [in the face of injustice and evil] has an ‘unreasoned patience [and] sows the seed of vice….Bradley Manning had the strength to be angry….But in America today we have far too much passive acceptance of injustice. We need more righteous anger.” Madar then goes on to make note of a curious feature of the American ‘character:’

We Americans can pride ourselves all we want on our anti-authority posturing, but a 2006 poll from the International Social Survey Programme of national attitudes towards individualism and authority tells a very different story.

In 2006, the ISSP asked the question “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” At 45 percent, Americans were the least likely out of nine nationalities to say that people should at least on occasion follow their consciences — far fewer than, for example, the Swedes (70 percent) and the French (78 percent). Similarly, in 2003, Americans turned out to be the most likely to embrace the statement “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.” [from: Claude Fischer, “Sweet Land of…Conformity? Americans Aren’t the Individuals We Think We Are,” Boston Globe, June 6 2010.)

This ‘curious feature’ is worth revisiting now as America hurtles toward its electoral encounter with Trumpism–and perhaps Clintonism–this November. One candidate promises to be authoritarian, to ride roughshod over the rights and civil liberties of fellow Americans, to eviscerate the US Constitution, to commit war crimes (like killing the noncombatant families of ‘terrorists’), all to ‘make America great again’–and he is cheered on by a squad that only grows louder. Another bids us be complacent, to reckon that America is already great and only needs tinkering around the edges, some incrementalist change perhaps–not the kind promised by raving old white-haired men who threaten to make college free and deliver universal single-payer health insurance. The former seems to have shut down the consciences of those who would support him, even if he is patently in the wrong; indeed, for him to be wrong is the new right. The latter appeals to the ‘unreasoned patience’ that induces ‘passive acceptance of injustice.’

Bizarrely enough then, even though Trump and Clinton appear radically dissimilar candidates, their successes in the primaries of the 2016 election season seems to find their groundings in their common resonance with the attitudes Madar points out above.  Both candidates seemingly rely and thrive on a keen understanding of this acceptance of authority by Americans (it is the authority of Clinton’s technocratic credentials and ‘experience’ after all that most effectively shushes the passion and energy of Sanders supporters, describing it as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘destructive.)

Chelsea Manning was perhaps trying to save a country that isn’t angry enough, or angry at the right things, to be saved by him.

Brooklyn College And CUNY Owe Reparations To Student Activists

Yesterday, I made note of my attendance at a disciplinary hearing conducted by Brooklyn College and the City University of New York; the ‘defendants’ were two students accused of violating the Henderson Rules because of their participation in a ‘mic check’ at the February 16th Faculty Council meeting. Yesterday, I received news from the students’ counsel–the folks at Palestine Legal–that the students had been acquitted of three of the four charges. The one violation was of Henderson rule #2, and for that they received the lightest penalty: ‘admonition.’ A formal written ‘judgment’ will be issued next week. And this farce will come to a long-awaited close. But CUNY and Brooklyn College should not be let off the hook.

During my testimony, I was asked if the students had caused any ‘damage’ or ‘harm’ by their actions and speech. I emphatically denied that they had. Now, let us tabulate the damages and harms caused by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s administration. This is a charge-sheet the college and the university administrations need to answer to:

  1. The students protesters were immediately, without trial, condemned in a public communique issued by the college president and the provost. It accused them of making “hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments to members of our community.” As I affirmed, no such comments had been made. Anti-Zionism is a political position; it is not hate speech. And nothing remotely anti-Semitic was uttered by the students. More to the point, the two students on the stand had not even chanted ‘anti-Zionist’ slogans. This condemnation by the college administration resulted in hate speech and abuse being directed at one of the students, a Muslim-American woman, one of our best and brightest, literally a poster child for the college because she appears on posters all over campus advertising our Study Abroad programs. The stress and fear this provoked in her can only be imagined; when she brought her concerns to the college administration, little was done to help her other than making note of the incident and asking to be informed if anything else happened again.
  2. The student protest occurred in February; the hearing was conducted yesterday, three months later, a week before graduation. Three months of stress and tension, and uncertainty about their academic fate for the students–because expulsion was on the cards. Three months of embroilment in a ridiculous charade that in the words of the Brooklyn College president Karen Gould, was supposed to teach the students that ‘actions have consequences.’ Yes, great wisdom was imparted to the students: that speaking up for causes near and dear to you, engaging in political activism, thinking critically–especially if you are a student of color, as both these students are–will provoke retaliation from insecure college administrations, unsure of the worth of their academic mission.
  3. Considerable CUNY resources were marshaled to prosecute the students: CUNY’s legal department was at hand yesterday, an external ‘judge’ had to be brought in from another college to chair the meeting, and at least a dozen faculty members spoke either against the students–for shame!–for for them. We could have spent yesterday reading, writing, attending to scholarship; instead, we had to spend hours waiting in sequestration chambers. I’m glad to have spent that time for a good cause, but it infuriates me that it was ever required.

The true ‘damage’ and ‘harm’ to CUNY and its community has been done by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s punitive and mean-spirited action against the students. Acquittals don’t address this damage; reparations are due.