Monday, October 17, 2011

Opportunity, Opportunism, and the New Democratic Spirit

To some, my essay at the SSRC forum on "9/11 after a decade" seemed overly pessimistic. This piece may provide another perspective. "Opportunity, Opportunism, and the New Democratic Spirit" was written in the week after President Obama's election in 2008 (with one change at the time of his inauguration). In 2008, I could not find anyone to publish it, or to take on the short book for which it was meant as a precis (I have to believe that my agent is now less than happy about this missed opportunity). You will see that it identifies clearly two facts, two social-historical developments, that since then have been played out much further and have become part of global common sense across the range from activist to pundit: the so-called Arab Spring (which in fact is one, albeit very significant, instance of the larger process I identify here) and the fact that what is happening in the United States, including the election of Obama himself, is part of that same global transformation. Some notables, for example from the occupation of Wall Street, have begun to make this connection in recent weeks; it was obvious to me as I was writing Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen.


As Barack Obama presides, will America undergo a resurgence or slip into final decline? Either way, future generations may see this extraordinary President in an unexpected light, as a tame moderate overcome by a world-wide tsunami of transformation.

For the force that carries Obama to the White House and draws millions to the Washington Mall is not of his making. Nor is it under his control. It is a new democratic spirit, and it is growing here and there around the globe.

This wakening impulse moves the hands that pelt George W. Bush with shoes in Baghdad, that set Athens ablaze, that affix signatures to Charter 08 in China. It inspires songs like "Corruption e do so" in Sierra Leone or "Yes we can" in the United States. It drives student marchers through the Parisian streets and demonstrations in Budapest. With this force the 21st century begins in earnest.

It does not yet have a name. Are we seeing an 18th century revolt against despotism? A 19th century revolution against capitalism? A 20th century rejection of consumerism? These movements are dead.

All we can say for now is that the new democratic spirit emerges today as a reaction against an astonishingly pervasive fact of the last forty years: the globalization of opportunism.

This is a specific form of corruption. It has economic and political and ethical features, but it is more than the sum of these parts. The global epidemic of opportunism must be understood everywhere as a plague upon the Citizen. It is a civic disorder and it is calling forth a democratic cure.

Of course, America plays a special and ambiguous role in this global process. Within living memory our nation purveyed a dream everyone could understand. At home and abroad, America was seen as "the land of opportunity." The open-endedness of our economic, political, and ethical life incited admiration and envy.

Since the Reagan era, however, the picture has been changing. Abroad and at home, people bound to everyday life are increasingly revolted by America's unmeasured appetites and actions. The land of opportunity has come to represent an opportunism that each day surpasses yesterday's limits with impunity.

Whether we are the cause, the effect, or the paradigm, the whole world is more and more twisted this way. And while despotism, capitalism, and consumerism thrived on unchecked powers, there is something new in the way that corruption that has worked itself into every facet of life.

This corruption is at once systemic and personal. It is not essentially immoral. Nor is it typically illegal. Rather, it cuts away at the foundations of the rule of law itself. It is an offense against the oldest maxim of human communities: nemo judex in propia causa, or no one should be judge in his own case. What it corrupts is the civic way of life.

The globalization of opportunism is not the result of some central or obscure power pulling our strings. Opportunism -- as bribe or bent-rule, as family favor or averted eye, as skim, kick-back, free-riding, or "whatever it takes" -- reproduces itself in each local person, place, and institution. It is an infectious frame-of-mind and way-of-doing.

And everywhere it has the same intolerable effects. Doors closed, hopes dashed or detoured. One step forward and two steps back. Everything to one and nothing to the other. The honest buried alive under work, debt, and risk.

You can recognize this corruption in America as it runs from pay-to-play to usurious interest rates, from the insidious "you can afford your mortgage" to the fictitious "weapons of mass destruction," from the nepotism of education and career to the bailout of bankers, from closed-door energy policy to disavowal of environmental destruction. Even Madoff would be nothing if one thing. But he is the apotheosis of a system.

Thus we can find ourselves in the unequivocally global language of Charter 08, published in Chinese last year, where major features of the phenomenon are laid bare:

"...endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people."

Today's corruption is long-brewed. It cannot be reformed in a single season. Its great paradox, therefore, is that precisely this durability starkly prejudices the short-run. Speed and grab are of its essence.

We say seize the day to our children, but opportunism's obsession with the short-run is above all else an assault on the young. For however much young people see only today their lives are the most back-loaded. Systemic and globalized opportunism makes the space of youth's vital now suffocatingly small. The earnest endeavor of youth becomes a bridge to nowhere.

History shows that the energy for profound transformation comes from the young. Today, the social forces behind that fact are greater than ever. Those riding high on the bandwagon of opportunism are partly to blame. More devastating, though, has been a generation of "role-models" -- teachers, parents, doctors, lawyers, politicians, celebrities of all stripes -- who even when they had nothing to gain stood by in silence.

Opportunity loves equality. But opportunism is not egalitarian. And there is no clear-cut line that divides between them. That is why what appears as an economic or social or ethical problem can only have a civic solution. And this explains the coming democratic wave. Nothing could be simpler.

The new democratic spirit is a reflex of judgement, an objection to absurd excess, an urgent need to re-draw the lines. It may be powered by "hope" but the foremost motto of the 21st century will be...enough!

For now, the new democratic spirit is just a rising voice. It is shimmering across the web and resounding in the streets. Blog, text, and twitter congeal it here and there. But what will it say? Who will hear its message? Will it become a dialogue? Or remain relegated to the brutal language of the scream?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Change in Another Decade of Civic War

This link connects to a new essay on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 published in a forum of the Social Science Research Council. You can read the whole piece at their site.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Not Everyone Was Irresponsible [original from February 22, 2009]

Citizen Barack Obama has spoken with bold clarity: "We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime" which is "due to an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington, D.C."

Everyone knows that economic collapse is looming. But the crisis is more fundamental than that. A "culture of 'anything goes'" has cut deeply into the ethos of democracy.

Opportunists conducted a war against opportunity. They made a mockery of America's greatest gift. This corruption must be repaired. Without that, no projects of recovery, however well-conceived, can succeed.

The diseases of generalized corruption are long-brewed. It takes a new generation to revive civic spirit. Yet the recovery must begin today. How?

Consider the formula of our disorder. During the last eight years, Americans suffered a relentless assault on common sense; this corrosive fact was multiplied by our fears; it was squared by our pathetic assignment of authority to celebrity and arrogance; the little remainder of wisdom was divided by obsessive official secrecy; the product was a shortage of means and moment for the exercise of judgment, that primary capacity of the citizen.

Leaders play a small but pivotal role in the cultivation of citizen judgment. Exactly on this point the Bush administration was a catastrophe. And, as day follows night, it was exactly on this point that candidate Obama breathed new hope into millions of exasperated Americans. He provided the example of judgment and cause for action.

Now President Obama has called upon us "to trade old habits for a new spirit of responsibility."

Will this mean the prosecution of public servants who lied us into war and created secret torture chambers? Or the private powers that bilked homeowners and consumers, destroying the financial structure and credibility of the United States? Such legal action is difficult to imagine; the Pentagon still claims the Guantanamo passes Geneva Convention tests and bankers are treated like royalty in the chambers of congress.

Elsewhere, when law and order have broken down, public acts seeking "truth and reconciliation" have pushed whole nations towards a new beginning. However, this sort of ennobling confessional drama, now brought to the table by Senator Leahy, also seems unlikely in America today, where we still live under the myth of the Nixon pardon (“it was good for the country”).

Whether or not the "new spirit of responsibility" can get a grip on the scoundrels, we should remember that the "old habits" also worked their effects on an altogether different class of persons.

Upright and decent citizens were punished during the Bush years just as the opportunists advanced unimpeded. It is about them that some effective truth can be spoken, and a small but inspiring reconciliation found.

President Obama can take steps to prove that responsibility matters. The nomination of Eric Shinseki for Secretary of Veterans Affairs was an example. A person who argued against the strategic error of under-staffing the invasion of Iraq thus returned to the military establishment.

This appointment has a subtle symbolic value. It says we had better respect those who, loving truth and the Constitution, tried to save us from monumental folly. While it mattered then that they failed, it matters today that many such citizens are still forgotten. Good people now on the job or taking up a new post, eyes and ears open, judgment tuned, will heed this message.

It is significant, too, that General Shinseki was an insider, and that while objecting to the means he supported the invasion of Iraq. How many people with less clout and cushioning suffered retaliation for speaking truth to power?

Consider the extraordinary case of John Brady Kiesling. Just weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kiesling wrote to his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, tendering his resignation after twenty years in the Foreign Service of the United States. He protested that

"...the policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."

Just as no one expected Shinseki to rejoin the Joint Chiefs, it may be too late to recall Kiesling and others like him to the nation's service.

But, Mr. President, there may be a quick and effective way to instill the new spirit of public purpose you claim to bring us.

Recall that it is always costly to tell the truth, to take responsibility, to tend to the common good. Call forth and proclaim the unsung civic heroes who stood in the path of neo-conservative militarism; find and extol those who said "no!" to the greed and opportunism that has brought our economy to its knees.

Show by your solemn recognition that if I am the sort of citizen you want me to be, I will not be cast aside. Let the prescient and courageous be vindicated by the respect of their country. Invest new meaning in citizenship. Let the President take the lead. Then, those with democracy in mind and heart can do anything.

The Bachmann Code [originally from November 12, 2008]

This election season Michelle Bachmann, member of congress from Minnesota, seconded Sarah Palin’s claim that Barack Obama “pals around with terrorists.” She then suggested that liberals in congress should be investigated to uncover their “anti-American” views.

Some dismissed Bachmann as an outlier. Campaign donations flowed copiously to her opponent. And although she regained her seat, she declared herself “extremely grateful that we have an African-American who has won this year.”

Pundits and professors tell us that the “culture wars” are over and that the “conservative intellectual tradition” that brought Reagan and his acolytes to power “is already dead.” So, were Bachmann’s comments simply out of step with the new America of President Obama?

Let us be cautious in drawing this conclusion. History does not stop and start one day at a time. Common practices and beliefs are always more durable than they appear to those who claim to give them up. And even when beliefs are forgotten, the language which formed them and was in turn informed by them persists. And language is not “just talk.” The habits and reflexes associated with dead beliefs can remain embodied in the ways we talk to one another, which is to say the way things get done in politics.

Words like Bachmann’s therefore merit closer attention. She brought to light something that is still very much alive but which has been hidden behind commonplace distortions concerning our history, our present, and our future. We would do well to begin the new era by straightening these out.

After World War II our country entered a phase of history we call “the Cold War.” But who in America directly confronted the Soviet Union? Rather, “the Cold War” was for most of us a pervasive presence in our domestic political life. It became the common ground for a face-off between factions within the United States. Everyday citizens lived it as a conflict “between the passions and paradoxes of one and same identity.” In that crucial sense “the Cold War” continues today.

Foreign enemies do not stand as right measure of this history. Nor does a Communist ideal that had lost its domestic appeal already in the 1930s. The yardstick for the citizen is something different. What matters is our civic life, which is to say the circumstances and judgments of each one of us who tries to make democracy work as a way of living together every day.

This “Cold War” at home featured the experience of a whole nation living in the shadow of “nuclear terror.” Our prospects darkened late in the summer of 1949. Americans were aghast to learn that the Soviets had tested an A-Bomb. We lost the sense of invulnerability sustained by a brief monopoly of “the basic power of the universe.”

Since the fifties, the terror associated with the ultimate weapon has occasionally waned; think of the détente in the 1970s and the Clinton years. But each time it has also been dramatically reignited, as when President Reagan proclaimed the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 or the prospect of nuclear terrorism exploded again onto the scene on September 11th, 2001. Every day for decades unused nuclear weapons fired the imagination, cranking up fears that motivated all sorts of political projects.

Although fueled by “nuclear terror,” the primary vehicle for “Cold War” domestic politics was something else. It was a sometimes whispered and sometimes screaming belief that the “American way of life” was under attack. If from abroad we were threatened with destruction, from within came the menace of subversion.

The fact is that the bomb was never used again after Nagasaki and the fact is that this subversion never amounted to much. These facts did not impede the cultural system of “the Cold War.” Americans developed it into a finely articulated vocabulary and architecture for domestic political conflict.

We typically think of the factions in this conflict as conservative and liberal, “red” and “blue.” Today, however, these terms are sterile. They no longer serve as accurate measures of the civic way of life. They cannot guide us to the true position of the citizen in the 21st century.

“The Cold War” was built around a more fundamental divide. This opposition depends on your response to the essentially plural condition of humankind and the astonishing variety of human lives, needs, and desires. One may fear plurality or embrace it. Some have sought over and over again to suppress diversity, others have aimed to nourish it.

Let us, with Jefferson, call the first sort monocrats. They are attracted to and amplify that tendency of power to overwhelm opposition, to promote its one true way, to deny the responsibilities of interdependence.

On the other side, across a treacherous chasm, reside those dedicated to democracy, democracy as only America has seen it and dreamed it. In our version, democracy must seek to advance the full flowering of human potentials and proliferating variety which that entails. For plurality is the natural environment and source of energy for citizens who must live together every day, even though we are each and every one of us different and bound to pursue our own unique lives.

Under pressure of emergencies real or fictitious, the “Cold War” favored the consolidating and unchecked power of monocracy. Monocrats, pretending to revive tradition, pushed forward far-reaching programs of cultural transformation. Around issues like family, religion, education, individualism, law, and war, they sought to establish single-minded beliefs — one type of family, one true religion, one view of history, winners and losers responsible only to themselves, judges scripted by an imaginary “original intent,” unilateral uses of force — despite the variety of experience and interests naturally arising in our unprecedented nation of immigrants. With each inevitable resurgence of diversity, the monocrats branded it as a threat to, rather than the realization of, the American way of life.

This is what we need to understand. For how long have powerful voices amongst us denied the inherent plurality of America? For how many years have we come to expect conversion and consensus in civic life instead of an on-going negotiation of difference and civil cohabitation?

Imagine that “the Cold War” ended in 1989. Is it remotely plausible that the reflexes and habits of two generations could be wiped out in just the subsequent one?

Measured by the everyday life of the citizen, however, what happened in 1989 was not the end of “the Cold War.” It was, rather, a moment when that common phrase, tied as it was to the existence of a vanishing Soviet Union, lost its utility. The facts it stood for continued.

Just one year later James Davidson Hunter gave us a new name for those facts. Like the proverbial inventor of the wheel he discovered something that had already for decades been right before our eyes. And so the struggle between monocrats and the democratic spirit continued under two names: we called it more aptly what it had always been, a “culture war,” and we hid its continuity and persistence by declaring everywhere “the end of the Cold War.”

“Continuity” and “persistence” are not quite the right words. For pivoting in this way “the Cold War” began, in the eyes of its most effective proponents, to assume its purest form. “There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me,” wrote the godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol in 1993. “So far from having ended, my Cold War has increased in intensity, as sector after sector has been ruthlessly corrupted by liberal ethos. Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over, the real Cold War has begun. We are far less prepared for this Cold War, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case with our victorious war against a global communist threat.”

If Irving Kristol seems of another time, remember that just months ago it was his son who guided John McCain to Sarah Palin.

In the same way that cries of “the Cold War is over” disguised its continuation, it was masked as another phase emerged after September 11th, 2001. Characters ingrained with self-righteousness and carrying the baggage of long-standing political conflict boarded the fleet wagon of emergency. The monocrats held sway, and, because we citizens, without much thinking about it, so much share with them the interpretive frame of the Cold-War-as-Culture-War, the powerful in the time of George W. Bush accumulated more power with impunity.

When reminded that democracy thrives with skepticism, objection, resistance, and the demand that the powerful not only show their cards but also risk losing with every hand, the monocrats threw back that familiar old charge: “anti-American.” In other words, they drew attention away from issues and redoubled the inherently uncontestable claims of “security” and “survival.” They raised the stakes; they “went all in”; they declared themselves the party of “whatever it takes.”

That is how the “Cold War” persists as a system of domestic political culture. That is the “Cold War” that originally did and still does implicate the American citizen. This implication has for years and will for years to come constitute the reflexes and habits of vast numbers of Americans. It explains some of the strange conduct in the presidential election of 2008.

Michele Bachmann appealed to the still-present common sense of “the Cold War.” And she is not alone. Sarah Palin and numerous others have been sending the same signals. Together they put in the insidious form of plain talk what John McCain would only insinuate. As the Republican candidate hammered over and over on a fabricated image of President Obama “spreading the wealth,” the word “anti-American,” although it never came out of his mouth, was returned to what it meant after World War Two and for Joseph McCarthy and through the Sixties and in the time of Reagan: it is a synonym for “socialism” and ethical impurity. It is a way of turning public goods like schools and highways and Medicaid and, yes, even that costly collective enterprise called the U.S. Army, each of which are in their own way realizations of the American dream, into their opposite.

The early “Cold War” came with its “nuclear terror.” Associating this fear with a supposed “threat to the American way of life” proved an effective if perverse instrument of governance. Today, the “terrorist” is, in the symbolic system of everyday life, the equivalent of that Soviet A-bomb which, in 1949, turned the tables on the American monopoly of nuclear weapons.

This why the trio of terms — anti-American, socialist, and terrorist — could be leveled against candidate Obama with some effect. It constitutes one charge with a long history propelled by the same “Cold War” types of fear and justified by monocratic self-interest.

The election was a solid repudiation of President Bush. Crude propagandists and demogogues who paved the way for the unchecked accumulation of power by Bush and his associates are now being disavowed by conservative intellectuals. They may seem to be abandoning the ship they launched but they are in fact being thrown overboard. Anne Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and their whole crowd are the true progeny not just of Joe McCarthy, but of Barry Goldwater; not just of the far-reaching networks of conservatives that joined forces to elect Ronald Reagan and to return Reaganism to office in 2000, but of William Buckley’s National Review and Irving Kristol’s The Public Interest.

Michelle Bachmann spoke in a familiar code. If you want the key, ask Anne Coulter, or dozens of others like her. Their message prompts us, with the insidious comfort of “mom” and “apple pie” and “Joe the plumber,” to reenter that big muddy and devastating stream of American history where everyday political conflict is pushed over into accusations of treason.

The uncanny thing is that the Bachmann code no longer stands for something outside itself. It is a knee-jerking Cold War reflex of neo-conservative presuppositions and stereotypes. These remain effective in national politics because many of them are still shared by liberals. Simply handing control of the government from one party to the other will not counteract this. If we do not finally come to grips with underlying beliefs, even new and improved public policies will have an effect as short-lived as the irrational ones they replace.

There is hope. To break this spell, to see a real advance in the experiment of democracy, we must identify clearly what is really eating at the heart of America. Of all the opportunities open to President Obama none has deeper significance than this. He had better find a way to resist all the easy gains and rhetorical levers of monocracy used with astonishing effect by the last administration. He had better find a way to invigorate citizens as he did voters. Then, perhaps, America can once and for all put the Cold War to rest.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Remembering 9/11 (originally published on Pressblog of the University of Chicago Press)

When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked seven years ago today, the probability that the United States would not respond with vigor and violence was exactly zero. Whatever ethics may suggest for you or me, a nation that turns the other cheek is bound for suicide.

Events like 9/11 are murderous because people are killed; they are unjust because innocents suffer. But what we seek to commemorate today was a tragedy, and that is something quite different.

The clue to this difference is that American response became in just one torturous hour a necessity rather than a choice. Once we were forced to act, the matter was wrested from our hands, not so much by the attackers as by the facts of who we are and how we fit into and depend upon circumstances of long making and global significance.

It should be clear now (as it was clear to some then) that a variety of responses were possible on that day and in the days that followed. Once the fuse of necessity was lit, we could have carried it elsewhere, we could have borne that necessity, made use of it, in a thousand other ways. Only the freedom to extricate ourselves from action, the only absolute and mortifying freedom, was not allowed us. What makes for tragedy, then, is not an inexorable fate but a maze of bad choices with no peaceable exit.

Some have said that America’s image of itself changed on 9/11, and, as if a great mirror had broken, they might well say too that we’ve had seven years of very bad luck. But again, tragedy is as much a matter of blindness as of chance. Broken or intact a people had better see itself in the course of history. Tragedy, that maze, makes us desperate to do just that.

It is despair, literally the failure of hope, that builds memorials. The dead can do nothing for themselves. We living honor them with a gift of life and so console ourselves. Each name pronounced today in lower Manhattan will pulse out from speakers and into those on the verge of forgetting. Giving this small collective pulse to the murdered and the grieving is our consolation.

Memorials emit an attractive force that pulls people together. This is why, today, Barack Obama and John McCain are in New York, why they stand together, why they hold hands and declare neutrality from party and faction. “On 9/11,” they declare with one voice, “we were united as one American family” and today “we will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity...”

On hearing this, those who really love America and her democratic experiment may well imagine an anxious James Madison spinning in his grave. Lend yourself the vitality of clear thought by recalling his most famous words, from the tenth of the Federalist papers he wrote with Hamilton and Jay. For while we cannot but offer of ourselves to the dead, there is also danger in the memorial way of doing it. The pretense that every citizen can or should have the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests is itself a kind of death, or a yet more insidious sort of national suicide.

As much as memorialization fills a function, satisfies a deep need, it also has this pathological effect on the body politic: it stops the pulse of political life. The memorial carries us from historical time — where we live everyday with tensions, conflicts, disagreements, and negotiation, and for just that reason develop as individuals and as a nation — into the realm of national fantasy, a dream-world always the same. With its magnetic unifying force the memorial makes citizens into an object for government rather than its motive power.

You may want to say that we must remember. Or that forgetting the past one repeats it. And you would be right. Memory is necessary for human life. So is learning from experience. The heat of the past keeps us on the move; ignorance of what really happened with our warmaking in Vietnam or the Soviets’ aggression in Afghanistan has given us terrifying repetition in Iraq.

But were you to add that through memorials memory is transformed from something individual into a collective matter the facts would prove you wrong. Memory needs no such conversion. However much it occurs in brain circuits and cells, memory flows from one person to the next, feeding, breathing, it inhabits the world. Like language — which is both owned by you with your every word and independent from what you say — memory is always already social.

Thus, memorializing, we act in this perverse way: we pretend to make something perfectly individual into something collective even though it is already part and parcel of our lives together. As the memorial is cathartic, it is also a construct. It makes history into the past, our past.

This process covers over another one. The memorial also inflects the community in some way. The direction is typically unnamed because obscurity accelerates the process. Obama and McCain however speak it today unequivocally. “On 9/11 we were united as one American family.” That is, we let slip the essential discipline of civic life, of life amongst strangers and neighbors and immigrants and competitors and companions, which is not and cannot be anything like a family. That discipline is the acceptance of differences and conflict and a constant practice of negotiation from the position of the Citizen.

The pretense of bipartisanship is no way to see ourselves in the course of history, as actors on its great stage. It is not simply that this posture is false. The problem is that it constitutes a idol, a fetish object, the instrument of fanatics and monocrats.

Remember this first: democracy is a form of politics, a certain way of navigating the fact that we must live together every day with incessant conflicts and do it primarily by speaking to one another. Democracy cannot tolerate idols. Unity is a form of antipolitics.

Obama and McCain are right in this one way. Nothing has been more powerfully antipolitical in recent American history than those words, so often repeated, and repeated again today: “September 11th.”

The strange fact of long standing in America is that antipolitics is not the opposite of politics, but rather a way of conducting it. The Bush administration has excelled in using antipolitical symbols to neutralize their opposition and as vehicles to advance their own supremely partisan agenda. Nothing has served this purpose more than 9/11.

Thus, however deep the need to mourn, to commiserate, to remember, be attentive to this unintended effect: linking memorialization to bipartisanship is a political act; each time we applaud it, or stand silent as our leaders enact our dream-wish, the symbol of 9/11 ripens for further political opportunism. It becomes a free ride for every sort of project and an impediment to the attribution of responsibility.

For a candidate seeking to continue the methods and policies of George W. Bush this is an incomparable gift from the American people. A candidate who buys into the myth of bipartisanship as he seeks to reverse the outrages against democracy of the last seven years is in for a rude awakening.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Responsibility and Presidential Power

Our Constitution establishes the rule of law. Yet there is no denying that necessities will sometimes overtake us. If a system of balanced powers attempts to incorporate all necessity into law it will surely fail. It may subvert what it aims to preserve. It is therefore absurd to imagine that the President will never go beyond the law. This paradox -- how to contain lawless power within the law -- runs to the depths of the American constitutional system.

Cicero's famous maxim salus populi suprema lex esto -- the safety of the people is the supreme law -- is no answer. More than a stretched metaphor, this doctrine is false. We must always defend the public good, but law and necessity are opposites. Law is the product of human Will, necessity is the enemy of our liberty. The two must never be equated.

In fact, when George W. Bush called us to a `war on terror,' he submitted America to the rule of iron necessity and made himself its agent. He pushed the question of law -- as essential as it may be -- into the background. Since the secret program of domestic surveillance by the NSA was exposed, however, the President has urgently and often repeated two claims: the spying is necessary and it is legal. This double-edged proposition leads us astray. George W. Bush seeks to hide his actions behind the undecidable and suffocating paradox of Presidential power.

The earliest records of Congress show that our Founders had this paradox clearly in mind. They were also nearly unanimous in recognizing the best way to live through it. Only a fool or a dangerous man, they believed, would try to stretch the law to encompass the necessary. A righteous President will respond to crisis with whatever means are available. On these rare occasions he might be expected to break the law to save the nation.

This bad solution is the best one. But it is only tolerable if the political process continues swiftly after the crisis has peaked, and does not accede to continuing menace. The Constitution must transcend events and actors of the moment.

What comes next makes the difference between democracy and dictatorship. Only that next step can de facto set a firmer limit on the use of power beyond law. This is something law by itself cannot accomplish.

The Founders were perspicacious where we are myopic. They insisted that a President who acts from necessity beyond law must in short order show his cards. Entrusted with great power he must accept the risks that come with it. Personal risk should always be a factor in the actions of the powerful. This will not inhibit leaders from stepping forward. No person of character -- which is to say, no one fit to be the American President -- will thereby fail to do what is necessary for the safety of the country. Indeed, risk informs and steadies the judgment of capable leaders.

The risk to the President is that his use of power -- his judgment that everything in some terrible moment requires him to transgress the law -- will be judged and found wanting. For the rule of law means that no man is a judge in his own case. Every power must be accountable, every power checked. The only alternative is despotism.

That is why the President, out of respect, indeed love, for the Constitution, must prove in times of crisis that he has no will to be a despot. He must take the initiative. High stakes leave no room for ambiguity and quibbling. Pure necessity is the only language we may accept beyond law. Adopt it and no other. Go before the deliberative body of the People. Name the act, explain it, lay bare the precise circumstance and motive. If the necessity was authentic, and the President's reasoning right, he will be absolved from momentary transgression. An act of Congress may indemnify him. An act of Congress may even raise him as a hero. Then let the next election, and beyond it history, decide if the judgment will stand. Let all the branches of government take their real share of approbation or blame, of glory or shame.

For George W. Bush to claim the cover of law now, after all that has transpired since September 11, is to obscure the overriding question: How shall we, as a nation, live with the paradox of presidential power? This is a political question.

Opponents of the secret domestic surveillance program have fallen into the trap set by this President's mixed message. They argue about right instead of power. They stand by, even nourish with the President, the sources of an unchecked power Jefferson so aptly called "monocratic."

Mr. President, the Founders also knew that the Constitution presupposes a specifically political and democratic kind of virtue. It cries out for a rejection of this false discourse and a settling of accounts. "Lawyering up" corrupts your true case. Claim on your own behalf that the Constitution grants you no authority to infringe our rights but does offer the President the privilege to seek enhanced powers with the agreement of the other branches of government. This is the true meaning of the Supreme Court's decision in Youngstown Sheet & Tube, which slapped down President Truman for usurping the power of Congress without their complicity.

Mr. President, you say you have told us what you can. But you demean the law by using it as a screen to cover the necessity you exalt but do not specify. Dare instead to proudly declare your best reasons for tracking down your fellow citizens like conspirators or `enemy combatants.' Let the People judge if you were right to overstep the law. Suffer the consequences if you were wrong.

Written from Princeton, N.J., January 20, 2006

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Come Out Fighting

On National Public Radio, a blue host bleats "Your side a cost of national unity." Her red guest fires back without hesitation: "We’re preserving important values." He turns back the question — "Do you mean to say that if we had voted with the other side on homosexual marriage we would have national unity?" — to draw his own conclusion — "No, of course we’ve got a divide..."

This divide is where politics should be. It has opened into an abyss. The blue side tries to ignore the political divide altogether. The other side welcomes the abyss.

The legions of George W. Bush won the election because in general Americans have forgotten what politics is. More than any policy of the President, law of the Congress, or ruling of the Supreme Court, this heralds the end of democracy. America desperately needs to revitalize politics. This means we have to learn to take conflict seriously.

It is obvious that Democrats have failed to do so. Especially after 9/11, all they can muster is a few rounds in the ring. Then, it’s a handshake and home for dinner. And "healing."

But how can it be said that the hard-driving trickster cadres of Karl Rove don’t take conflict seriously? It has to do with their total obsession with themselves.

The President’s team mobilized so-called "value voters." These are people who may negotiate over where to put the new traffic light or how to rebuild the dilapidated school, but are unwavering on questions like homosexual marriage or abortion. Why?

Some will say rigidity sets in when it is time to "preserve important values." That is exactly wrong. In local conflicts the stakes are palpable. Resistance comes from neighbors. If conflict goes too far, all projects in the city are blocked now. That is soon intolerable.

When it comes to general questions, however, the risks of taking a position are small. Distance and abstraction slow compromise. Beliefs which never meet the obstacle of reality are smug. The unchallenged self-righteous see no need to negotiate because they don’t have to. Conflict without stakes becomes a game. It, perversely, intensifies. But this kind of conflict is increasingly sterile.

Politics is what makes conflict productive. When we forget this, the canny few herd the many like sheep. Grazing the pasture of morals and emotion we are drawn away from our interests. We become preoccupied with immobilizing and insoluble problems like impurity and insecurity. Public debate fails and the civic good slips from sight.

Today, we are witnesses to this kind of shift. All parties have become complicit in the anti-politics politics of the wolves. The defeated praise consensus and point to "the need for unity." The winner says to his adversaries "I will need your support, and I will work to earn it." A myopic press tell us these two statements are the same.

They are not. The call to come together and the call to change sides are as different as red and blue. When John Kerry speaks of "the danger of division" he speaks from a position of weakness. The consuls of George W. Bush brim with glee. The dangers of division derive from the wolves, not from the sheep.

An important part of politics is to make life costly for the wolves. Fanaticism burns unchecked in a political climate where values stand apart from everyday interdependence. More dangerous than the single-issue voter is the "whatever it takes" posture towards conciliation.

Shall we stand suspended in "national unity" to witness the final destruction of a decent and honest America?

Should we be grateful to the congressional cowards who did not oppose the gratuitous invasion of Iraq?

Should our children honor those who burden their future with ruinous tax cuts for the rich?

"Healing" that gives free rein to fanatics is a dangerous disease. America needs to channel its conflicts into politics. We must do so between elections. We cannot simply wish conflict away. Only concerted resistance will make the wolves think twice, or even once.

The two words which have burst onto our screens since election day — "values" and "unity" — speak volumes. Of course, politics emerges from our beliefs about what is good. And it sometimes arrives at a momentary consensus. But such things stand outside the special kind of human relationship which takes its name from the ancient Greek word for city (polis).

Politics begins with the fact that we must live together everyday. Inevitably, this will lead to problems, and problems will escalate into conflict. No matter how rowdy it gets, politics constitutes conflict into a structured field. This is an indispensable benefit for everyone in the city. It is the public good that makes us citizens.

We enter the field of politics by choosing speech over violence. When love or friendship settle an issue we have taken another path. Look around and you will see that this is exceptional. Even within the most tight-knit community the essential plurality of human beings time and again brings politics back to the center of our lives. We do politics when we cannot see eye-to-eye but must live together anyway. It is not a matter of agreement but of constantly shifting balances.

The democracy we adore is not a moral doctrine or a type of love. Democracy is a species of politics. No better way has been found to realize our distinctively human capacity to engage in conflict with words. A nation that cannot sustain political forms for conflict cannot be a democracy. That is where we are headed. Unless the sheep speak up.

Written from Princeton, N.J., November 8, 2004

Friday, October 01, 2004

Bush Alone

Finally, we see President Bush without his handlers. He stands, as if alone, on the debater's stage, without script, without buffers. His own policies are enlisted like troops to attack him. He has no defense against the failures of his own judgment.

Here we see a President thoroughly dependent on his "team." They formulate his policy. They communicate his intentions. Without their assistance even the basic question of his office - responsibility - seems unreal to him. One might think Americans would readily recall such a leader.

But George W. Bush will not be sent home to Crawford because he depends on others. He inherited the famous "teflon" from President Reagan. His dyslexicon has had an impenetrable charm. A crucial part of his managed message has been that he has good managers, as if to say "trust him because he trusts them." He achieved weirdly pastoral heights at the Republican convention. This, moored by or mired in the mud slung by Dick Cheney, seemed to be pushing him towards the finish line.

Then came the first debate. A force appeared on stage that is more powerful than the artifice of any candidate. It is more significant than George W. Bush's inability to stand on his own two feet. And it could swing the election out of his reach.

That force is politics. Not the jabbering of parties, but the basic fact identified by Aristotle and still with us today. Human beings who must live together can address problems with violence or speech. The political option is speech, and its democratic form is dialogue.

Dialogue is a natural extension of speech. It opens different perspectives and brings us towards truth. It also makes self-expression consistent with equality and dignity. What the first debate showed us, however, was something even more basic about the connection between dialogue and leadership.

The purpose of human speech is to be heard. Hearing, one reacts and speaks again. In this back and forth, everything depends on the kind of "fittingness" - much broader than civility - that Cicero called decorum. Say something without decorum and you will not be heard. You won't get the desired reaction.

There is no fixed rule-book of decorum. It is a sensibility one learns in dialogue itself. While it is important to learn about others, the key to democracy is that as each person seeks decorum in dialogue they must make adjustments. An unstated negotiation goes on within speech to make speech effective. Our world together grows together as we talk.

If getting elected is the measure, it will be difficult to judge before November 2 whether the artful staging of George W. Bush's campaign - with every word prepared in advance, and every chance for real interaction avoided - has been effective.

Yet, it may be, as the Founders might have said, "God's nature," the political nature of human beings, that removes George W. Bush from the White House. For, managers or not, he has been sequestered from dialogue at every level and every turn. He has no conferences with the press. Only avid supporters may attend his stops on the campaign trail. By all reports, he brooks no objection even within his inner circle.

While our President presents himself as a man of unshakeable principles, the truth is that without dialogue one's character withers. The common sense of the people advances while the leader lags behind. One's capacity for speech - which means not just the arrangement of one word after another, but a suppleness of character that allows for learning and adjustment to new facts - is arrested. The exorcism of dialogue from President Bush's daily life has had a devastating effect on who he is and how Americans see him.

Presidential power is sermonic: it is a relation established in words between the leader and the people. Effect depends on decorum. Decorum, in turn, arises within an on-going relationship between the President and the people.

After almost four years of holding himself apart from dialogue, of engaging in the spectacle of leadership without leading, here is what we saw on that debater's platform: George W. Bush was out of place. We are no longer familiar with his capacities or incapacities. Of course he looked weak compared to John Kerry. But he looked pathetic compared to his image of himself. The American common sense of decorum has advanced in the national dialogue without George W. Bush's participation. He has now shown himself to be unfit for the presidency.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

French Lessons

We yearn mightily to learn from the past, but often history does not oblige us. As sure as we can be of superior American firepower, we cannot know where, in the next years or decades, the Iraqi crisis will take us. Still, one must sometimes act from uncertainty. It is, at such times, especially important not to act from ignorance.

The so-called "lessons of history" are modest. They concern nothing but homely facts about our human nature. In burgeoning countries on this shrinking planet, we must live together every day. The world will not end tomorrow. It is better to act together than alone. It is better to speak than to fight. These truths are often disappointed. But they must not be ignored. Democracy is never built on such ignorance. It is America’s current disgrace to try.

The Foreign Minister of France, Dominique de Villepin, offered us a corrective lesson on February 14th. Americans should pay attention. The force of the French position is not just the eloquence with which it was stated. Nor is it just a respect for these truths. It is what brought forth applause at the United Nations and, the next day, millions into streets around the world. It is the desire to exhaust the political option before recourse to war.

The French are not angels. Perhaps they, too, want control of Iraqi oil. Perhaps they just want to stick it to us. It does not matter. Just as the motives — good or bad — of the Bush administration will not determine where history takes us.

What counts is that de Villepin found words which at once express the particular interests of France and appeal to the common sense of the world. The political option corresponds to the kind of world democrats want. What counts is that the Bush administration has been unable to find such words. The reason is simple. Pure ambition cannot be disguised as the common good.

Only in public debate do such differences come to life. It is a sometimes unwieldy but still formidable machine. In the forum of the United Nations, the need to negotiate is a demand for reasons. It is a force without arms. France is winning the argument because everyone knows — indeed, everyone admits — that it would be better to talk than to fight. Better not to act alone. Thus, unwavering "unilateralism" leaves the Bush administration with nothing to say to those whose future it aims to control. For this war concerns the whole world.

The American President has said that if the United Nations does not follow his program, it will "fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant, debating society." The opposite is true. The Bush administration made a cynical bet. They sought U.N. support while believing it unnecessary. In so doing, they made it necessary. Their hubris made de Villepin’s words ring out. Nothing shows more clearly the power of the U.N. than George W. Bush’s losing bet. This will be true even — especially — if America goes it alone.

Perhaps you think de Villepin’s speech was just words. Think again. Every power of every State comes down to the human energies which execute it: someone must build the buildings, collect the taxes, teach the children, carry the guns. These energies are directed more by beliefs than by commands. Governments stand on opinion. This, finally, is the winning force of France’s position. It is spoken in words that even Americans can believe. If only we have the courage to do so.

Amended English version of "Lezioni Francesi," Written from Paris, February 27, 2003

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Lezioni Francesi

Anche se desideriamo imparare dal passato, spesso la storia non ci fa questa cortesia. Per quanto possiamo essere sicuri che il potere armato dell’America sia schiacciante, non possiamo sapere dove la crisi irachena ci porterà nei prossimi anni o decenni. Malgrado queste incertezze, debbiamo a volte agire comunque. In tali momenti è però importante non agire sulla base dell’ignoranza.

Le cosiddette "lezioni di storia" non ammontano tutto sommato a molto. Alcuni fatti semplici e familiari. Riguardano la natura umana. Il pianeta si restringe, i paesi sono traboccanti di gente, ma non è cambiato l’antico fatto che dobbiamo vivere insieme ogni giorno. Il nostro mondo non finirà domani. E meglio agire insieme che da soli. Meglio parlare che combattere. Spesso non siamo all’altezza nemmeno di queste modeste verità. Ciononostante esse non debbono essere omesse. La democrazia non è mai fondata su tale ignoranza. Tuttavia l’attuale disgrazia degli Stati Uniti è proprio di dimenticare questo.

Il giorno di San Valentino, il ministro degli esteri francese Dominique de Villepin ha reso omaggio alla possibilità di sostituire la violenza con la politica. Chiamiamo questa l’opzione politica. Si è trattato di una lezione correttiva e importante. Dovremmo - noi, popoli e governanti, Americani e Italiani - fare attenzione. In che cosa è consistita la forza della posizione francese ? Non solo l’eloquenza con la quale è stata esposta. Neanche la sua armonia con i prinicipi fondamentali. Piuttosto c’è stata qualche cosa che ha suscitato l’applauso nella grande aula delle Nazioni Uniti e, il giorno dopo, dei milioni sulle strade del mondo intero. La forza dietro il discorso di de Villepin è un desiderio naturale di percorrere l’opzione politica prima di ricorrere alla guerra.

Questo desiderio non ha niente a che fare con la virtù. Poniamo che i francesi non siano angeli. Forse anche loro hanno sete di petrolio - anche se credere che gli Stati Uniti cerchino di controllare il petrolio iracheno sia sottovalutare il perfido fanatismo del governo Bush. Forse - come dicono sempre più spesso negli Stati Uniti - i francesi sono gelosi, vigliacchi, rompiscatole. Non importa. Non c’entra. Esattemente come le motivazioni, giuste o sbagliate, buone o cattive, del governo Bush non determineranno per nulla dove la storia ci porterà.

Cosa importa allora ? Il fatto che de Villepin abbia trovato parole non ambivalenti ma bivalenti. Allo stesso tempo, è riuscito a esprimere degli interessi particolari francesi e a fare appello al sensus communis del mondo. L’opzione politica corrisponde al tipo di vita che desiderano le genti democratiche.

Inoltre importa il fatto che il governo Bush non sia arrivato a trovare tali parole. La ragione è semplice. Il lupo dell’ambizione pura non può essere travestito sotto il mantello del bene comune.

Non è purtroppo una favola. La storia non ha una morale. Se imparassimo da questa situazione, sarebbe attraverso le nostre proprie parole ed azioni. La democrazia ha bisogno sempre di un pubblico per smascherare i trucchi. E’ nella dialettica del dibattito che la differenza fra due discorsi viene svelata. Il dibattito pubblico è un macchinario profondamente umano. Di tanto in tanto è poco maneggevole. Ma, per quanto possa sembrar strano, questa debolezza non è l’essenziale. Nel foro delle Nazioni Unite, il dibattito impone la necessità di trattare; le trattative impongono la necessità di giustificarsi. Il dibattito pubblico diviene perciò una forza senza armi. La Francia ha la parte vincente perche dà giustificazioni inconfutate e irrefiutabili. Tutti sanno - a ben vedere, tutti ammettono - che sarebbe meglio parlare che combattere. Meglio non agire da soli. Il suo incrollabile "unilateralismo" ha lasciato il governo Bush senza niente da dire a coloro i quali il futuro pretende dicontrollare. Questa guerra riguarda tutto il mondo.

Il Presidente Bush ha detto che non si lascerà far dominare dalle voce dei milioni; tuttavia ha risposto chiaramente al discorso dei francesi. Ha detto che se le Nazioni Unite non marciano al ritmo della sua canzone, questa istituzione sperimentale "scomparirà dalla storia come una club di discussione inefficacie e buona a nulla."

Ma, la verità è, ovviamente, il contrario. Il governo Bush ha fatto una scommessa cinica. Ha cercato il sostegno delle Nazioni Unite mentre credeva che non fosse necessario averlo. Facendo cosi, l’ha reso necessario. La sua prepotenza ha amplificato la voce di de Villepin. Nulla avrebbe potuto mostrare più chiaramente il potere delle Nazioni Unite che la scommessa perdente di George W. Bush. Questo sarà vero anche se - soppratutto se - l’America decidesse di andare avanti da sola.

Forse crederete che il discorso di de Villepin e il dibattito alle Nazioni Unite siano stati poco più che un insieme di parole, vento. Ed in generale, l’uso della parola contro la violenza è un segno di debolezza. Ricredetevi. Tutti i poteri di ogni stato, in ultima analisi, consistono nelle energie di coloro che li eseguono: qualcuno deve costruire edifici, raccogliere le tasse, insegnare ai bambini, portare le armi. Queste energie sono dirette piuttosto dalla convinzione che dagli ordini imposti dai governanti. Come ha detto David Hume, i governi si fondono su questa forma d’opinione. Aggungiamo che questa opinione si fonda sull’uso della parola in pubblico. E’ questa, infine, la forza vincente della posizione della Francia: usare dei termini, delle parole in cui anche altri possano rispecchiarsi, sulla base delle quali possano agire. Ci volevano milioni d’italiani e americani il 15 febbraio pronti ad accettare coraggiosamente questa sfida. Prima o poi, George W. Bush dovrà ascoltare. Le vere consequenze di questa guerra dipenderanno dal momento in cui questo avverrà.

Scritto da Parigi per la rivista "Il Ponte" [non e uscita], 24 febbraio 2003