It is the week to think about it. The Democratic Convention, this week, like the Republican before it, will be utterly so. (Well, we’ll allow a small exception for Elvis’s performance on Wednesday night.) At the Democratic Convention 100 years ago, in 1912, Woodrow Wilson gained the nomination for the presidency on the 46th ballot. Ah, those were the days. That was drama. That was the unpredictable. Today – a four-night staged extravaganza only a little less scripted than a Disney show.

The ironic surprise about conventionality is that it arises and persists, takes root like crab grass, where we most need its opposite. The major party conventions are one example of this phenomenon. The conventions are a theatrical not only of political presentation and the pursuit of victory, but a joint production stage managed by the nation’s mass news media. Citizens self-delusive enough to watch, in fanciful recollection of a more genuine past, receive the reward of professional journalists analyzing and even praising for their rhetorical effectiveness convention speeches that are rotten with lies: speeches that supposedly have done what they needed to do even though most voters will not have heard them and most who have will have recognized them for the exceptionally denatured artifacts that they are.

That is front and center, downstage at the footlights, as it were, of American civic life.

Conventional thinking diminishes policy discussion, too. The categorically altered ability of non-state actors to engage in violence against states has been a challenge to understanding the nature of war – certainly dramatically – since 9/11. Still, many people willfully deny this altered paradigm for political purposes that may not even always be conscious. The changing nature of war does not have to dictate any policy choice, but it does challenge some arguments more than do existing concepts. How much easier, then, even for people who conceive themselves, generally, enemies of convention to cling to it. If war is the same as it ever was – and are not things always the same as they ever were? – then, clearly, terror threats, however serious and fearsome, cannot be conceived as war, and the response to them cannot be warlike.

The commitments of ideology, of any intellectual predisposition, can direct us toward or away from customary thinking, but not necessarily clear thinking. This is always the danger of predisposition, be it merely personal,  even emotional, or ideological. The use of drone “warfare” upsets many today, should concern all. Some conceive this development to be a kind of paradigm shift in the nature of state violence. Interestingly – I might even say ironically – these are many of the same people who choose not to recognize any altered paradigm in the nature of terror violence today.

The ability to wage drone attacks, the individualized nature of the drone attack, is an extraordinary development, as much as is the technology, for the profoundly unsetting focus it brings to the essential purpose of war. There is that wonderfully practical and ignoble line of General Patton from the eponymous film by Franklin J. Schaffner. Patton says to his troops,

I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.

Unlike much of what the real Patton said, the film speech clarifies the fodder any solider essentially is in war, and it does not shy from the personal nature of war. On the battlefield, one soldier, one human being, will kill another. Drones are intended, from long distances, to do just that, kill one or several people, though often more will die alongside them. Is this worse than the WWII and Vietnam era carpet bombing of B-17s, B-29s, and B-52s from high altitudes that killed thousands and tens of thousands at a time? A new element in the advent of the drone is the combination of both extremes in the killing of the enemy: the individual targeting of ground combat with the detached distancing of aerial bombing. Something about that development is harrowing, and no deep consideration has been yet engaged on its implications, but does it alter in any way, on its own terms, the evaluation of any policy that utilizes drone attack from what that evaluation would be were the attack by high altitude bomber or combat troop rifle shot?

Breaking the conventional mold of thought is harder when there is an idée fixe, and when that idea is transferred into a new realm. Americans, and the citizens of liberal democracies, in general, oppose censorship. They understand that there are exceptions, like the almost proverbial “yelling fire in crowded theater” – but when was the last time you know of that anybody did that? So that routinely acknowledged restriction on free speech rights remains a mostly unconsidered exception. Its limitation on free speech remains, then, quite theoretical in a way the following, if you will even entertain it, is not.

In India, where religious division and hatred is especially intense, there are too often uprisings in violent hatred, often stoked by rumor. Indian authorities have responded by clamping down on Facebook and Twitter. Some parties are suspicious, as some parties should always be, of ulterior political motives in enacting any restriction at any time. But what of these circumstances, as the Atlantic article describes them?

Then, last week, two sets of equally dangerous rumors spread across India: that Muslims throughout the country were about to attack northeastern migrants, and, in apparent response, that Bodo in their home-state of Assam were planning a pre-emptive strike on the area’s Muslims.

That the two rumors appear to have been almost certainly unfounded is beside the point: they were mutually reinforcing. The more that people heard about them, the truer they became. Muslims, fearing their fellow believers in Assam were in mortal peril, staged a large protest in Mumbai. Northeastern migrants in the area, afraid the re-opening communal tensions could put them at risk, fled. Hearing about this back in Assam, some northeasterners perceived it as proof of coming Muslim violence, and, apparently enraged, attacked the region’s Muslims. It’s not hard to see how things spiraled out of control from there. By the end of the weekend, northeastern migrants were streaming onto trains to head home to Assam, and Muslims in Assam were fleeing en masse to refugee camps.

Is this not a crowded theater, with far greater numbers and far greater potential for uncontained catastrophe?

When the idée fixe becomes thoroughly, systematically ideologized, it can become trapped in convention, enclosed by its own effort at theoretical coherence – even when the ideology itself is conceived as a critique of the power of enclosed ideologies: the hegemony of convention.

Take these lines from Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself, which I cite in my current commentary at the Algemeiner.

When a universal precept cannot, for social reasons, be appropriated or when – indeed, for social reasons – it must be refused, the universal precept itself becomes a site of contest, a theme and an object of democratic debate. That is to say, it loses its status as precondition of democratic debate; if it did operate there as a precondition, as a sine qua non of participation, it would impose its violence as a form of exclusionary violence.

This is a dense, jargony expression of essential poststructuralist relativism, or as I clarify:

That is to say, when a universal value is judged inappropriate to a local, i.e. not a universal, social context, and is thus rejected, it is no longer a universal value.

The self-negating nature of this precept, in itself, has been noted for years. That has no effect on those, like Butler, who continue to articulate it. First, of course, what at the start is identified as a “universal precept” must by the end be acknowledged, according to the internal logic of the new precept, as never having been universal to begin. That is the self-negation. Even more problematic for the theory, and the ideology by which the precept is advanced, is that it substitutes for the original universal its own unreflective self-negating universal: it is a universal precept that all precepts are relative to particular conditions. Including that one? In which case…. All generalizations are false.

What is outstanding in the ill-considered practical application of this paradox is that a critical tradition of theorizing intended to expose hegemonic power structures – including, particularly, those of existing systems of thought and the language that articulates them – has from the start trapped itself in the conventions of its own thinking. In contemporary far left thought, a paradigm was empirically derived and formulated, of the powerful and powerless, of oppressor and oppressed, and of the hegemonic structures that establish the power of the former over the latter. Despite the claim of so many who both theorize and act out of this tradition that theirs is a post-structural ideology specifically opposing the oppressive power of the absolute, and championing the liberating uprising of the local and contingent, those acting from this tradition are completely unresponsive to historical particularity. As with Israel-Palestine, rather than analyze local history and particular conditions, they impose upon every geopolitical circumstance the standard, universalized principles that have become the defining nature of their ideology.



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