On Being Both ‘Bad’ And ‘Great’

Recently, in response to Richard Seymour‘s essay on Winston Churchill in Jacobin–one whose tagline read “Churchill was no hero — he was a vile racist fanatical about violence and fiercely supportive of imperialism,” I wrote the following on my Facebook status page:

Indians have known this and said this forever. Hopefully, now that a white Englishman has said the same thing, we won’t be subjected to any more nauseating Churchill hagiography.

In response, a friend wrote:

The very idea that someone might be both terrible and great. Sounds like another century.

To which yet another friend responded:

Can we from India remember the terrible part? Or should we dilute the gaze full of genocidal hatred he fixed upon us, and remember that he was great to some other people, just not us? I think (and I admit I am entirely biased) he has blotted enough of his record via-a-vis India for us in India not to worry about his greatness.

This little exchange encapsulates quite neatly a recurring aspect of post-colonial discourse and debate–the historical evaluation of colonialists and imperialists. Here, I make note of a revisionist take on Churchill–such revisionism is not new with respect to Churchill though my embittered status makes it seem so–and express the hope that such revisionism will lead to a continuing revaluation of Churchill’s ‘legacy’ and ‘achievements,’ which thus far, have included the persistent and continual reminders of how ‘he saved the world from Nazism.’  In response, I am admonished for my blinkered view, for my insistence that Churchill’s racism and imperialism sully his ‘legacy’ and am urged to take on a more catholic and stereoscopic view. In return, a post-colonial subject–whose nationality is identified–says that as far as Indians were concerned, this dimension overpowers other aspects of his life and work. It was, you see, the dimension ‘we’ were exposed to; those other aspects of his ‘greatness’ were often experienced by others.

This debate is destined to continue and recur. It is therefore incumbent on me to make note of a fallacy that underwrites it: the insistence that the ‘greatness’ and ‘badness’ of colonial leaders–or perhaps just colonialism in general–be universally recognized and acknowledged by the very same people. It is not enough that Churchill be described as ‘great’ by some and ‘bad’ by yet others, and that in some supposedly ‘final analysis’ a complicated, variegated, synoptic of the man and his work might emerge; no, rather, it is necessary that Churchill’s ‘badness’ and ‘greatness’ both be acknowledged by the same demographic: the post-colonial subject, who otherwise stands accused of a lack of historical perspective and perhaps even ingratitude. The post-colonial subject cannot, for instance, just add his contribution assessing the colonialist as ‘bad’ to the mix; he must too, contribute a shade of gray. No unequivocal assessments or opinions for him and her.

This does not sound like an invitation to a more complex view of the world; it is merely a push back down the slope to a familiar position where the manner and form of the post-colonial subject’s action and speech is to be regulated by a set of normative criteria that diffuse its force and power–whether rhetorical or  material. Old habits die hard.

Political Disputes Are Moral Disputes

Writing for The Stone, (‘Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?‘, New York Times, 13 July 2015), Alex Rosenberg claims:

Moral disputes seem intractable….With some exceptions, political disputes are not like this. When people disagree about politics, they often agree about ends, but disagree about means to attain them. Republicans and Democrats may differ on, say, health care policy, but share goals — a healthy American population. They differ on fiscal policy but agree on the goal of economic growth for the nation….this is often a matter of degree. Political disputes can have moral aspects, too. The two sides in the debate over abortion rights…clearly don’t agree on the ends. There is an ethical disagreement at the heart of this debate. It is safe to say that the more ethical a political dispute is, the more heated and intractable it is likely to become.

These claims misunderstand political disputes and thus mischaracterize the nature and quality of the disagreements they give rise to.

Political disputes generate as much heat and light as they do because, very often, their participants do not share goals–opponents on either side of a political divide are well aware of this. I remain entirely unconvinced Republicans have a ‘healthy American population’ as a political goal, as opposed to ‘maximizing profits for the healthcare businesses – insurance, hospitals, doctors etc.’ Nothing in their actions and pronouncements suggests such an ascription would be remotely plausible. Only a commitment to shoehorn their views into some predetermined template of ‘acceptable political views’ could animate such an understanding of their political goals. Similarly, I do not think Republicans share the goal of ‘economic growth for the nation’ with me. Their concern appears far more limited, only extensible to a privileged–economically and morally–subset of the population. In these circumscribed political spaces, I find moral and metaphysical principles at work: that there exists a category of people termed ‘undeserving’, the members of which are not entitled to the benefits of the nation’s social and economic arrangements. These are not the principles that animate my political viewpoints.

A ‘political goal’ is not a simple scheme for power sharing; it speaks to a possible arrangement of social, economic, and moral goods, and the animating premises for the arguments made on its behalf rest invariably on some larger vision of how the world should be. In short, political goals are infected with normativity; they seek to conform to the ordering of some table of values their proponents have in mind. It might be that in a particular sphere of politics, some goals have to be artfully disguised in order to make their realization more plausible; this can generate the illusion of ‘agreement on goals-disagreement on means’ which Rosenberg so charitably ascribes to contemporary political conflict.

Rosenberg makes a concession to the intractability of political disputes by admitting the moral nature of some subset of them, but he has mischaracterized them sufficiently to not notice the glaringly obvious conclusion we can draw instead: political disputes are just as intractable as moral ones; the reason for this is that at heart, that’s what they are.

Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.

A Couple of Reflections Prompted by Sandy Hook

Yesterday, on Facebook, I reposted a link to a post I had written here in response to the Aurora shootings in July. You could change the title of the post slightly to reference ‘Sandy Hook’ rather than ‘Aurora’ and nothing else would need changing. This morning, still clearly unable to write anything coherent in response, I posted the following three messages on my Twitter feed and Facebook page:

Guns don’t come up with half-assed arguments against gun control. People do.

Guns aren’t scared of the NRA. People are.

Guns don’t say after every tragedy: “Lets mourn, no time to talk politics’. People do.

You get the picture; I’m still not capable of making a reasoned contribution to the ‘national debate’ on gun-related violence.

But I do want to make a couple of points about the nature of the ‘debate’, such as it is.

The first is prompted by the third quip above. For an outstanding feature of the political response to the sickeningly common and soon-to-be-mundane massacres is the loudly broadcasted call to immediately seek refuge in bromides and palliatives: the usual mix of mourning, counseling, holding hands, which is supposed to bridge political divides, apply ‘healing balms’ and bring peace to all us traumatized folks. There is never, ever, seemingly any desire evinced by our political classes to prevent the recurrence of the massacres, for they are, as noted before, inevitable. This call is then faithfully parroted by the media (always at its ghoulish worst in its coverage of these kinds of tragedies). This is what I’d much rather see the next time: ditch the candlelight vigil and tell your local politician, congressman, senator, or anyone else that matters that they don’t get your vote unless they start a ‘national conversation’ about guns. Or something else. (The broad similarity of this call to the calls that electoral disputes be settled quickly so that the nation’s citizens don’t get embroiled in something as messy as a politically tinged dispute, one that might produce a little heat and light, is unmistakable and not coincidental. As always, the most important thing is to keep citizens numb, not provoked. God forbid that a difficult issue be aired in all its complexity and that the inevitable disputes it provokes be allowed to get a decent hearing.)

The second is prompted by noticing how mental health is sought as an obfuscatory factor in this debate.  That is, a familiar slogan soon starts making the rounds in two variants: one, ‘this is a mental health issue, not a gun issue’ and second ‘people will find a way to kill people, so banning a particular weapon is unlikely to bring these massacres to a halt.’   These are particularly egregious; they amount, roughly, to saying that no actions need be taken that might make it more difficult for mentally deranged people to go on brutally effective and successful killing sprees. We can control the damage done by the insane by treating them and by making sure they cannot lay their hands on dangerous weapons. The two are not mutually exclusive.

It is truly amazing that a nation, so willing to put up with the evisceration of its civil liberties in order to guard against shadowy, poorly understood threats from elsewhere, is unwilling to countenance the most minor of inconveniences in order to guard against a clearly visible threat from within.

Respecting the President and ‘The Ideology of Kingship’

In reporting on the second presidential debate, Charles Blow writes:

There is a fine line between feistiness and testiness. Romney has never negotiated that line well in debates and last night he fell over it again. At one point he scolded the president — the president of the United States! — “you’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”

Regardless of how it may have felt in the hall and how his base may have received his abrasive behavior, to most others watching it was déclassé and indecorous. When you’re challenging a sitting president for his job, you have to respect the office, even if you don’t respect the man.

So Blow feels the need to remind us, in a tone of reverential, devotional awe: ‘the president of the united states!’  Is he hoping to make us fall on our knees? This is the president, the unitary executive, the person put in place to ensure a republic which would otherwise do just fine with a legislative branch also possesses an entity capable of making snap decisions. Why, then, the need for such excessive deference?

Blow is not alone in these constant provisions of reminders to respect and be suitably awed by the president and his office. The White House, the presidential galas, the gun salutes; these are archaic expressions of monarchical times gone by. But the president is a political leader; he has arisen from conflict; he presides over conflict. It’s acceptable to be in conflict with him and his office. The president can be disagreed with, he can be debated; he needs to explain himself and his actions like anyone else.  Disagreements with the president need not be confined to print, they can be verbal too. And when they are verbal, they can sound edgy (like most disagreements between adults are). ‘Déclassé and indecorous’? Dunno. Politics isn’t really the space for decorum.

This semester the readings for my Political Philosophy class–centered on the French, American and Haitian revolutions–include Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI. Walzer’s introductory essay includes a section on ‘The Ideology of Kingship.’ More than one student has noticed the parallels between the components of that view of kings and the powers claimed by our modern executive branch of government. They have then gone on to draw uncomfortable parallels between the ‘inviolability’ of the king that arises from such an ideology and the legal immunity claimed by modern-day presidents. (They have noticed too, that a central revolutionary claim was equality before the law, one that seems to have been forgotten in the rush to forgive and forget the war criminals of the previous administration.) The inviolability of the king spoken of in Walzer’s essay might narrowly be interpreted as a a legal one but it easily becomes one of deference too: do not disagree with the king; do not talk back; speak only when spoken to; do not interrupt the king.

Among the other revolutionary documents we have read is Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense, which includes the following line:

The nearer any government approaches to a republic, the less business there is for a king.

‘Nuff said.