Laughter from the Body Politic

 

Politics is stupid. It is ridiculous. Absurd. Frustrating. For most of us even at its best, politics is simply boring, at its worst exceptionally depressing.
It is a stark condemnation of the activity, that when our politicians manage to display some semblance of principle or compassion in the face of tragedy, we laud them for overcoming politics.

In the face of such overwhelming disdain, it is easy to see why we turn our dry and dreary governance into fuel for our entertainment. It is simply easier to treat these passionless debates and baffling legislation as parts of a vast national sport, with added pride, pomp and circumstance.

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Trump on Election Night looking slightly queasy at his victory.

The current commander-in-chief of the largest military force in human history (pictured above in the moment of his triumph) is the purest distillation of politics as entertainment.
The former reality-star turned chief executive is hardly in the Oval Office on merit. He is catastrophically ignorant and profoundly unsuitable in morals and temperament to the lower rungs of public service. And yet, he won (with some Slavic aid no doubt) the presidency of the most important country in the world.
Now, once Trump secured the Republican nomination there are a host of practical and pragmatic reasons why he was voted for. They’ve all been dissected  and analyzed to saturation so I shall not discuss them here.
However, the reason Trump was elevated to a position where it was even possible for him to win the nomination is quite simple.

Donald Trump is entertaining.

That is by no means an endorsement of his particular colour of demagoguery, which remains odious and shallower than a common sieve. But it is a recrimination of the political class in America. Lacking charm or wit, they find themselves outplayed by the sort of creature who finds grade-school nicknames to be a dignified weapon in his rhetorical repertoire. And thus they lose. So it goes.

This is not to suggest that left is not guilty of elevating the unworthy to positions of reverence.
Take for example the role of comedy in left of centre discourse.

Over the last two decades, we have all seen the growth of political satire as a main stream of political conversation. Led by Jon Stewart, driven by a defiant irritation against the inadequacies of the Bush administration, The Daily Show ushered in a Golden Age of political comedy, in which many of its alumni reign supreme.
Unfortunately, the left’s warm embrace of easy political comedy and the vindication that a punch-line provides, comes at a cost.
Conservatism in its best forms, requires elitism. The conservative intellectual must be capable and willing to defending the past in both the broad and the specific. This manifests itself in a love of the ‘finer things’, of the bourgeois and the snobby, of Shakespeare, opera and golf (in  rapidly descending order). When conservatism allies itself to populism, as it has in America with Fox News and the petty demagogues of talk radio, it diminishes; shrinking until it exists only to provide an intellectual defense of indefensible politics.

Similarly, when progressives ally with what is an escape into cynicism, sarcasm and outrage, they abandon the very real necessity for the left to be explicitly constructive. Democracy and liberty are fundamentally radical ideas and their ideals remain under construction. To be so distressed by political opposition that we escape its pressures through what is, at the end of the day entertainment, leaves a vacuum ripe for the exploitation of the reactionary and the regressive.

Émile Durkheim

The early French sociologist Émile Durkheim first developed a complex theory of society as an organism, with various institutions acting as organs, fulfilling functions required for living. This was developed further by later writers but the fundamental metaphor is an interesting one to apply to any society.
Obviously in a liberal democracy the heart is the Constitution and the rule of law. In America perhaps the heart is shared with The Declaration of Independence (whose weighty signing was celebrated this week).
The mind may be freedom of thought, or when institutionalized, a free press.
Where does the comedy go though? It does not perform any essential function that is easily detectable. It is in essence no difference than any other art, it exists primarily for us to enjoy.

Free expression is often described as a requirement of a free society. While this sentiment is admirable and understandable I think it may be slightly off base. It is certainly true that any free society must allow free expression and thought, but it is not that expression that forms a free society.
Speech and expression are most important in precisely those in which they are not free. In which they come far too high a price. It is that violently expensive speech that moves masses and topples kings. It is that speech that requires of the speakers a commitment to hanging together, lest they find themselves hanging separately.

To return to the body politic, it seems that free speech has no place among the organs of a free society. It is instead of the breathing, the breath itself of liberty, instead of the heartbeat, the pulse of emancipation.
It is a sign of freedom, and thus we see in the birth of free peoples the loud exhalation in exaltation of dissidents and revolutionaries. In Czechoslovakia. In Georgia. In the Middle East and North Africa.
These breaths of freedom may be stifled by the iron hand or the jackboot, but without them no change is possible.

So when we claim that our cynicism and sarcasm is a suitable response to the transgressions and shortcomings of our politics, that it’s free speech at its finest. I simply ask that we remember those to whom the only path to liberty is through painfully sincere and costly speech.

 

 

 

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The Catharsis of Protest

Those of us whose intuitions incline towards liberalism and an understated support for democracy have plenty of reasons to protest, with our societies injustices and institutionalised ignorances growing longer by the headline. Thus, it is difficult to criticize those who do take to the streets in protest. They are, after all, demonstrating as their conscience decrees. However, in our present politics, when the need for civil disobedience and dissidence is paramount; it is more important than ever to understand that not all protests are created equal. Many recent protest movements have been afflicted in varying degrees by the same illness. Often identified by a hashtag, these ‘grassroots’ movements and marches are perennially reactive.
#Black Lives Matter #Occupy Wall Street #Notinmyname and so on.

Occupy Wall Street

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These protests are each fundamentally moral. They are conceived in opposition to racism, to theft and to lynching. These are not crimes of perspective, but of principle. They burn against the very fabric of a free society and so it cannot be wrong to speak out against them.
But in each of these cases, the protests that grew against these crimes were practically futile. Where they have had an effect, they have catalyzed a nebulous ‘awareness’ of the problems we face. Often, they have simply forced otherwise static politicians to offer a conciliatory speech and carry on with their political agenda. This is because despite the scale of the issues at hand, these movements do not understand the nature of effective political protest.

There are two types of political protest. The first is descriptive protest. The movements named above are all largely in this category. Descriptive protest is often a response to a particularly abhorrent example of injustice. The pictures of Junaid Khan were one such example. The videos of Philando Castille and Eric Garner are another.
These images and sounds act as fuel, enraging our moral senses and rousing our consciences to protest, to marches and speeches. In the aggregate however, they do not offer or demand anything material from the State. They restrict themselves to sloganeering and hash-tagging their way through civil discourse. “We are the 99%” is not so much a call to action as it is a claim of solidarity, “Not in my name” is not so much as call to action as it is a demand to be indemnified against the crimes of your fellow citizens. The descriptive protest may also be noted for its emphasis on outrage and ridicule of opposition. For instance, those whose response to Black Lives Matter was “All Lives Matter” were very rarely met with reasoned argument or persuasion. Instead they were met with condemnation and indelible labels of racism.

The second type of political protest is prescriptive protest. The examples of prescriptive protest movements are rather more resonant through our history. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was largely prescriptive. The LGBT Rights movement in the 21st century was similarly prescriptive. Prescriptive protests are often carried by the same energy of moral outrage; the injustice faced by Rosa Parks and black students spurred the United States towards desegregation, just as the Stonewall Riots led to the inception of the modern LGBT rights movement. Prescriptive protests are identified by their willingness to make use of the same injustices, but pragmatically and in service of specific political goals such as the desegregation of schools or the decriminalisation of sodomy. While this can manifest itself cynically it also produces the most direct results.
They also choose to prioritize persuasion over condemnation. Martin Luther King’s dream of his children living in a nation “where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” is notable for its lack of vitriol towards white America. Similarly, Frederick Douglas’ writing shows that despite what would be absolutely justified hatred of America, the autodidact freed slave retains admiration for the ‘great principles’ of the Declaration of Independence and hope for his captor nations more perfect union.

All protest is in the pursuit of catharsis. The ideal protest will result in a form of national or social catharsis; a popular realisation of the injustices of tradition and orthodoxy. There is no example of completely successful protest, but the examples of prescriptive protest above are as close as I can find. Although far from complete, the progress made in American race relations since the 50’s and in LGBT rights throughout the world in the last 40 years is unprecedented. This is because these movements embraced social catharsis. We need to understand the difference, historically and practically, between these styles of protest. They are by no means mutually exclusive, and often bleed into each other, using the same symbols and rhetoric to bend the moral arc of history towards justice.
But when one form of protest overtakes the other, as it has in many contemporary protest movements, we find ourselves in a civil discourse that is profoundly self-involved.


Political protest cannot exist in isolation, and it cannot succeed without the support of the institutions of democracy, but these institutions also require the support of protest, civil disobedience and dissidence that does not deal in cynicism or derision, but in honest civic engagement in the democratic project. A project that is both universal and profoundly parochial. If we are ever to reach the point that James Baldwin described in The Fire Next Time where we achieve our countries we must ask of ourselves and our peers these uncomfortable questions (among others).
What purpose should protest serve, if not to convince your fellow citizens of injustice? Can a moral minority ever hope to convict the immoral majority through condemnation and derision? What hope is there for a nation to achieve its potential if its liberals and dissidents, who are the drivers of social progress, view all patriotism as vulgar and crass. When protest is more in service of moral absolution than political solution? In short, we must take care to ensure that we do not substitute our own personal moral catharsis from speaking out, from standing up; for the social catharsis we need to create among our peers.

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Protest and civic engagement may seem futile, especially to those of us privileged to look down from our internet towers. It may at times seem impossible to persuade our foes and even undesirable to make the attempt.  Perhaps it is.
But to butcher Robert Browning;
Ah, but that a peoples reach should exceed their grasp, Or what’s a country for? 

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The Revolutions Will Not Be Improvised

Journalists, pundits and the casual observer all had something in common in the wake of the US bombing of the Al-Shayrat airfield in Syria. Especially in the first few hours, before ideology and orthodoxy could set in, none of us knew what to make of it.
Many of Trumps more odiously vocal supporters are outraged. Leading figures of the Alt-Right were quick to condemn the attack and Trump as “just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet.”

They view this as a betrayal of the American isolationism Trump paid lip-service to throughout his presidential campaign.
Many establishment Republicans have praised Trumps actions. Even leading figures in Democratic party initially responded with guarded praise, tempered by the lack of Congressional approval and the hypocrisy of an administration that shuts its doors to victims of the Syrian conflict but uses their suffering to justify military action.

Public response has been predictably incensed. Hysterical declarations of the Third World War were issued, conspiracies that posit that the chemical weapons used in Syria were part of a ‘false-flag’ operation now run rampant through the veins of the internet. In short, we all responded as expected. Except for Trump, whose opposition to American to intervention in Syria has in the last 36 hours been painstakingly documented.

Many have called Trump hypocritical for his yielding to the interventionist foreign policy that Obama had rejected. The truth seems far more dangerous. We have no reason to believe that Trump was disingenuous in his opposition all these years. The volume and consistency of this opposition indicates a genuine, if occasionally incoherent, sentiment.
Indeed, the Trump campaign did push the narrative that voting for Hillary Clinton would be a vote for a war hawk, who would lead America back into the quagmires of the Middle East.
Unfortunately this is not hypocrisy. The Trump administration was, until the use of chemical weapons, making overtures towards re-legitimizing al-Assad.
It seems the crucial factor in this foreign policy reversal is in the videos of Syrian victims of chemical warfare. His description of the attacks was uncharacteristically lucid.

Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

A noble sentiment. One that does seem to require that those opposed to Trump acknowledge that he is not an evil man. Not yet at any rate. He is pompous, narcissistic, vulgar and profoundly ignorant. His psyche seems the closest to a tinpot dictator America has ventured in a very long time. But, despite his rancid proximity to evil, he is no Vladimir Putin. Not yet.

The majority of the positions Trump has adopted thus far have been more or less boilerplate Republican. Under any other president this would have been unfortunate for those Americans whose welfare, subsidies, abortion rights and childcare will be cut, but have little effect on the liberal world order. That Trump seems to have made a major foreign policy decision on impulse should concern us all. Assad using chemical weapons is an arbitrary line to draw, when joint Russo-Syrian forces are routinely bombing schools and hospitals. This new American interventionism of Trumps is propelled purely by public relations and the visceral reactions we all share in seeing children gassed to death. Under any other president, Republican or Democrat, this action would be nearly unanimously praised.

American Ideals
One of the darkest aspects of the Obama years is in his refusal to hold al-Assad to account, even after the now infamous ‘red-line’ on chemical weapons was crossed.
He had the power to limit civilian deaths and de-escalate the Syrian Civil War and in a fit of presidential pique he chose not to, largely because doing so would heavily alienate the Democratic base. In a profile by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic Obama claimed to be “very proud of this moment”, when he chose to break with the “Washington playbook”.

Obama is frequently described in the press and on television as thoughtful and dignified. He seems in this instance to pride himself on his independence from conventional wisdom.
However, his decision to leave Syrians to the mercy of their tyrant reflects a growing and perhaps even dominant strain of thought among citizens of Western democracies.

This is that they have no business involving themselves in ‘regional conflicts’. Those who argue  for the necessity of intervention in a purely pragmatic sense; to curb Russian or Chinese or Iranian impulses are accused of war-mongering, as was done to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. More worryingly, those who make the far more principled case for Jeffersonian democracy; the intentional expansion of human rights and democratic forms of government, are labelled Western Imperialists.
This line of thinking is best represented in the points and person of Noam Chomsky. It carries with it an antipathy to Western military force that largely stems from the Vietnam War. More often that not it requires citation of the incompetence with which the Iraq war was handled and how that incompetence ‘created ISIS’. Those who paid attention will be quick to point out that Iraq was a significantly more stable country when Barack Obama was inaugurated and that it was not until the US withdrew its forces in 2011 that Jihadists regained their ground. The withdrawal of American troops at its core boils down to a shortfall of popular support and a poverty of political will.

Most citizens of liberal democracies will defend the value of liberty and democratic institutions. If asked in a non-committal sense if they would prefer if the Middle East was more democratic you would be hard pressed to find a mainstream voice arguing against it. The burden of tyranny on the peoples of the Middle East are clear even from our current, detached distance. This much is evident in the short-lived hope many of us felt in the initial stages of the Arab Spring in 2011. Finally these dictators would be overthrown by their peoples. We all know how that ended.
Fundamentally we want people to be free from tyranny. We would just prefer if they managed to make themselves free without bothering us.
This is a dangerously immoral position to hold and it is one that is profoundly ignorant of historical reality.

Our culture and sketchy educations have painted a poor picture of revolution. We think of the success of the Enlightenment and American revolution as having sprung forth, from the hearts and minds of ‘the people’, like Athena from Zeus. In truth, they were complex interactions between pragmatic political actors, some of whom happened to support revolutions. The American revolution, frequently idealized as the archetypal revolution, was largely motivated by the growing abolitionist sentiment in Great Britain. Coupled with tax raises, this moved the Thirteen Colonies to armed rebellion. And rebellion it would have remained were it not for the support of the French Monarchy, who supplied the Colonists with guns and ships and prevented British domination of the American coasts.
If we require a point of contrast; the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, was similiarly motivated by high taxes. It was put down by George Washington himself. This was a local rebellion without the support of a major power, and it was readily crushed.
Revolutions succeed, rebellions fail.

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For decades however, popular culture and media has portrayed the fight for freedom as won by a small group of ‘rag-tag’ rebels. Luke Skywalker in his dinky X-Wing in Star Wars, the high school kids in Red Dawn. All it takes is resistance and rebellion. Grit and righteous determination light the path.
This view, though it makes for some very good films, has very poorly effected our collective understanding of revolutions. They are not spontaneous uprisings, certainly not the successful ones.  Revolutions require sponsors, and allies. The nature of dictatorship and tyranny is inherently totalitarian. In a closed system where the tyrant has the guns, no people’s revolt will ever be successful. For the people of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, North Korea, China and countless others, they cannot free themselves, however much they may wish to.

Earlier I referred to Jeffersonian democracy as the antidote to the poisonously amoral isolationism of Chomsky and Trump supporters alike.
If we are to defend and uphold liberal democratic ideals at home, we have no excuse beyond necessity to abandon them abroad. If you believe that Western intervention into the Middle East is doomed to failure on practical grounds that is your right and you may indeed be right. But if you claim to oppose that intervention on moral grounds, on ‘principled’  opposition to ‘Western Imperialism’, whatever that fluffy phrase means, you are not viewing the costs of tyranny and dictatorship with a clear mind. Jefferson wrote of an ‘Empire of Liberty’, one committed to the freedoms of thought, speech and association required in free societies. Whatever its faults, and they are many, the application of this Empire of Liberty has never approached the cruelty and malice of the Communist and fascist empires it opposed through the 20th century. It is a grave injustice to those who hope for liberty to even compare it to the theocratic empires that it faces today.

As free societies we failed those brave men and women who stood for their freedom in the Arab Spring. We routinely abandon homosexuals, atheists, women and all freethinkers to the molestation of theocrats and dictators.
There is never a better time to acknowledge our failure and our cowardice. Thankfully the people f these nations are resilient. If we choose to we can, and I believe should, defend and support their rebellious, their dissidents and protesters. And when the revolutions come, if they come, we must ensure that they will not be improvised.

The resemblance of the centre to a mushroom cloud is a large part of what drew me to this.

Beneath Good & Evil

As I write this, more than a quarter of the way around the world, Donald Trump’s presidency is penetrating the history books. There are no ways I can think of to condemn Trump that have not already been tried, no criticisms that have not been made manifold.

If we may cautiously poke whatever bright side exists on this rather tarnished moment in human history, it is in the return by necessity of a critical media. Shameful though it is that many publications and outlets deserted their posts in the warm glow of the election of first black president, the election of Trump seems to have brought at least some journalists back from their stupor.
That said, this also means a rise in pieces such as this one. There is a tendency among writers to portray political tumult as a clash between opposing forces. Inevitably the force with which the author sympathises is the light and its opponent the darkness. The twilight between them is the battlefield, the election campaign and so on.

Our arts are filled with this sort of imagery. It is easy and evocative. It appeals to our most primal instincts. We all know to be afraid of the dark. In its simplicity is its power.
But on this one instance I think it’s necessary to sheath Occam’s Razor for a moment and contemplate a seemingly more complex shorthand for good and evil.

There is a danger to our constant references to villainy of the dark. It separates ‘us’ from evil. There is now a good distance between us and evil; the twilight an effective barrier. When we denounce our foes as members of this shadow we condemn ourselves to the misapprehension of the righteous. We ignore the real origin of evil.
That is not to suggest that there no such thing as genuine darkness. In human terms that darkness is best described as a variety of nihilism(s). The absence of and opposition to the very idea of principle is impossible to combat without, well, combat. We see symptoms of this in those  madmen who shoot into crowds in the US to whom political purpose cannot be attached. We see this in the ignorant jihadist, who doesn’t know why he kills, or for whom, only that he will be rewarded as a martyr. These darkness’ can only ever be fought and fought until its elimination.
To claim that the current surge of popular faith in authority, strength and rage is symptomatic of the same darkness is misguided at best and clearly false as an observation. At worst it blinds us to a very elementary truth. Good and evil are not binary. Darkness is not evil. Light is not good. To stretch a metaphor perhaps too far, if darkness is the domain of the madman then it must be us who occupy the fire. Us. Those who act with some (however misguided) moral purpose.

It is not often discussed how readily and drastically we romanticize humanity. Virtues are ‘human’ and the worst vice ‘inhuman’. Surely it would be a far more sensible claim that both are equally human. Doing so should not be taken as an endorsement of wrongdoing.
If we are to recognize the humanity of evil, then we must also recognize where darkness fails to explain evil. What we think of as evil today: Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China and perhaps Trump’s America, are not forces of darkness but of flame.
Like those revolutionaries and radicals currently in retreat around the world who pursue a variety of Utopias, Trump supporters are very easily spotted by their passion, their now palpable anger at the direction of recent history.

Perhaps then the danger is not in the darkness. Perhaps our future concern ought to be directed at the fire. Because the right (or in fact, wrong) demagogue can seize upon an unattended flame and burn all of our works to the ground. Everything must then be in moderation. Passion and fury are compelling fuels for justice and liberty and all the forces of good. But they can, at the drop of a pretense, fuel every goods opposite.
This acknowledgement is difficult. It requires that we stop demonizing our opposition and attempt to recognize our common humanity. Flawed primates that we are, we are certainly not the best candidates for a civil society, nor will the process of forming one be a peaceful or altogether calm affair. But we cannot abandon it now. We must keep the fires burning so that we may someday learn to control them.