Friday, December 18, 2009

Four Wrong Turns: Four Moral theories and Four Visions of "the Bad Life"

A moral theory tries to tell us what is valuable in life and how we should treat one another. Each moral theory is a project for articulating "the good life," whatever that may be. But the flip side of positive instruction is a negative warning. Each moral theory also threatens a wrong turn - a vision of the bad life - the hell on earth that we could create through either embracing the wrong moral theory or failing to embrace a moral theory all together.

For the first three "hells," I'm not going to re-invent the wheel. If the reader evaluates me on originiality they might judge this post a failure. But I hope to provide a keenly observed, accesible and easily understood articulation of the moral projects of smarter men than myself.

#4, my Facebook dystopia, is more my own invention.




Liberalism is centered around the idea that we can draw a line between our public and private lives. In our private lives we can be religous, irrational, passionate. Behind the walls of our home we can experiment with sexuality and religous devotion in any way we seek.

However, once we step into the public realm, the courthouse and the schoolyard and the town hall meeting, we are expected to check our private baggage at the door. If we are to make an argument in the public sphere, we have to house it in a vocabulary that is public, that other people can accept without having to accept our private religous or moral doctrines.

Because rationality and reason are the only public currency, religon would start to erode over time as citizens began to, inevitably, take their public lessons home with them. As John Tomasi argues, the demand that we use reason would lead us to pull up our moral anchors one by one, until we were completely unanchored. Soon we would find ourselves floating aimlessly in the moral ocean, blown whatever direction by whichever wind carried the day.

This is the sense in which I am conservative and not liberal. The same sense in which friendship is conservative. Where modern liberalism asks us to divorce ourselves from our particularisms, friendship asks us to embrace the familiar shores we've come to love. Rather to stick with the imperfect friends we have than pull up our anchors and sail off into the unknown in search of better ones.

Rationality. Reason. They can only take us so far. Political liberalism purports to be an agnostic, neutral grid that can manage the diversity of a society with different moral views (atheist, Islamic, Christian, ecologist, etc)... But at what point does that neutral grid become its own moral theory. Will the agnostic neutral grid eventually turn all our private moral convictions into mere hobbies?

When the demands of the public sphere bleed over into our private lives, our lives become empty, uncomfortable, petty, calculating, and unheroic.

Richard Breiner compares this vision of the bad life to a room without furniture. He offers this image to illustrate:

DYSTOPIAS #2 and #3


You own yourself. This fundamental argument is at the center of libertarian thought. You have a right to be treated as an end in and of yourself. It is wrong for society to treat you merely as the means to some other end.

To bring an illustration to this point about deserving to be treated like an end and not a means to someone else's end, imagine you are on a lifeboat with ten other people. It would certainly be noble of you to offer your body to the other 9 as food. But could the other 9 justifiably take your body as food by force. Could they kill you and eat you and argue that it was in the name of the greater good?

A liberterian argues that this is an apt metaphor for being taxed under the table to pay for the social welfare of others.

Let's say that the government decides it can take 25% of your earning at the end of the year. We are used to this idea.

But what if you decided to work 25% less every year, could the government coerce you into working more? Is there any moral difference between the government taking 25% of the profits of your labor and the governement forcing you to labor for an extra X number of hours??? What is slavery other than being forced to work for nothing? For those hours for which the wages went to the governement, were you not working for nothing? To be sure you are not a total slave, but are you a partial slave?

In this vision of the bad life, the government either forces you to work, or steals the fruits of your labor from you. There is no hope of working hard and getting ahead. You do not own yourself. The government owns you. And the government will gladly cut you up into little pieces and distribute you to the masses if that will make the public happier as a whole.

As Grover Nordquist said, "I don't want to get rid of government, I just want to starve it down to the size where I can drown it in the bathtub if need be." The liberterians fear a nanny state. The nanny state would decide what was best for you and if you disagree, you get spanked.


What do we get when we abandon social welfare as the end of government? Would a world without taxes be anymore satisfying?

A world where income inequality was enormous and insurmountable. There would be no equality of opportunity. The luck of the draw you experienced at birth would govern your entire life.... The state that is weak enough to be drowned in the bathtub would also be too weak to keep citizens from cheating and harming one another. In cases of racism and prejudice, the state's "hands off" attitude would doom those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to staying on the bottom forever.

Without a robust and effective government, there is not meaningful social mobility. Without meaningful social mobility, there is not hope.

It would be terrible to live in a world where the governement was so weak it could not provide the basic institutions that give every citizen a glimmer of hope in reaching their potential. Liberterians claim they want to give people the ability to improve their condition through work, but in a pure liberterian future, many children would be doomed from birth to a life of poverty and squalor.

The flip side of the libertarians vision of hell is the fact that their utopia might itself be rather hellish. Imagine the anarchy of a purely capitalist state. The police would only protect the interests of the wealthy. There would be an apartheid society based on inherited wealth, with ostentatious displays of wealth and wretched examples of miserable poverty.

Morally, a libertarian utopia would have citizens not connected to each other with the moral ligaments of a dedication to the common good.

This "bad life" is a lawless, anarchic wild west. We live without hope for the future unless we were born with wealth and natural talent. We live in fear of our neighbors unless we are wealthy enough or strong enough.

Where the liberterians fear the nanny state, critics fear the nightwatchman state. This state is too weak to help us overcome the collective action problems which we cannot solve for ourselves. All the public goods we enjoy, roads, streetlights, highways, public schools, police, firefighting, have been privatized.

There is no spirit of the common good to animate our policy deliberations.

We have gained a bankrupt freedom. Not the freedom for every citizen to actualize their potential, but the freedom for the rich to be as selfish as possible.



Is Facebook making ours a morally bankrupt generation? Are people more concerned with crafting their online personas than they are with actual actions and communication? Are we all retreating into ourselves, barricading ourselves up in fortresses of virtual identity.

Facebook and its clones inspire a moral landscape based on surfaces. Each person is nothing but a list of aquaintances and preferences, a collection of images. The very concept of friendship loses all meaning as it is institutionalized into nothing more than an arbirtary line of code linking two virtual profiles.

Facebook is merely the medium for this dystopia, which is a larger confluence of modern evils. Privacy becomes an artifact of a bygone era, as strangers are given access to our most intimate thoughts and experiences.

To illustrate this, I must quote Tyler Cowen's review of the film CLOVERFIELD: "The characters are supposed to be vacuous and annoying... the opening scene is supposed to be obnoxious and superficial. The heroism is supposed to be thin... Most of all this is a movie about how the young'uns have no tools for moral discourse and that all they can do is utter banalities and take endless pictures of each other and record their lives for no apparent purpose."

Is Facebook really optional anymore? Can we avoid the dominance of Facebook anymore than we can avoid Universitites and Corporations?

Is the world of social-networking taking a heavy toll on us? Does it make our identities shallower? Does it rob us of the moral vocabulary to talk to each other about matters of substance?

The medium is the message. The message is the medium. When I first started Facebook it was a channel for my group of friends to post pictures of us fucked up on drugs and having meaningless sex with one another. Facebook not only exhibits but encourages this tendency towards fleeting, intoxicated closeness. Why build sustainable friendships and memorable experiences if we don't need to. Who needs memories when someone will post pictures?

Do grade school kids have facebook now? I'm sure Middle Schoolers do... What does it tell children about who they are as people? Random collections of images and adjectives and codes: erasable and revisable. A Facebook future is not so much immoral as it is ammoral.

I fear for the republic.

Douthat on Post-9/11 Movies

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


"Would you like to donate your change to breast cancer?"

This is what they ask me.
The teenagers. The not so teenaged. The middle aged and beyond.

Retail experiences are strange. At turns arduous and exhilirating: goods given, services rendered, tolls taxed.
They are apt metaphors for our larger experiences in a pocket of the world that is a hub of industrialization and consumption. Like our larger experience as political actors, we are guided by scripts and roles and our tacit roles divide us against one another in the service of the script: either salesman or consumer, enforcer or obeyer. The liberties and privileges the script protects are defined by a the items on the shelf and the money in your pocket.

Retail experiences are bad strange. It reminds me of a dystopian, nightmare future sometimes. That is why I go to the Wal-Mart and shudder. As the Brazils, Russias, Indias, and Chinas emerge in the global economy, and robotics prove that the paradigm that holds laissez-faire conceptions against social welfare spending is going to have to shift or be shifted by massive, violent instability.

To put that another way: unemployment could conceivably rise above 50% and stay there.The jobs that did exist for the great masses of Americans will only grow worse and worse, with more and more fucking Red Wall-Mart vests and less manufacturing jobs. One day a majority of people could find themselves cut out of the production process.

The robot thing sounds crazy. Don't take that as a throw-away line. It has already started to happen and it is crazy not to think that the trend of machines replacing human labor, that began in the industrial revolution, isn't only going to accelerate in the 21st century.

Prison planet.

Retail experiences are funny strange.

They ask me: "Would you like to donate your change to breast cancer?"

I tell them no. Because I am against breast cancer.

But it gets me wondering: why breast cancer?

Of all the things that the retail people, who only have ever given a fuck about getting as much of my cash as possible, or my name and email address, or to tie me to them with cards and memberships and BS.

Of all the things that the salespersons could be required to ask me by the powers that govern them. Breast cancer.

It's obviously noncontroversial.
The store doesnt want you to associate your Pepsi and Doritos with city slickers, crack addiction,or AIDS, or the infrastructure needs of the community.

Breast cancer is an awesome cause. Please dont take this the wrong way. Breast cancer isn't benign or funny. It is monsterous and blind. Women of all races and ages and social classes fight it. But the reason the stores are willing to devote their salespeople to collecting your change for that cause, is that it is good for sales.

It should be obvious. Buisnesses only care about doing good insofar as it causes them to do well. The philanthropy of corporations is much needed, but it is also disingenuous, cynical and kind of scary. The classic is the proverbial company that spends $500,000 dollars on a charitable cause and $10,000,000 telling their customers about it. They want you to associate that store with a warm and fuzzy feeling that, "us humans ultimately have each others backs."

Who knows. Maybe that conviction will make you save less and spend more...

People who have been touched by that cause will feel almost charitably, if not merely warmly, towards that buisness.

I realize this is all sounding like half-baked Marxism. But maybe Marxism isn't dead but ahead of its time. It is the kind of prophetic vision that loses its power without a sense of urgency. If you were as brilliant as Marx, it would be easy to overstate your insight, having experienced the fantastic passions that motivated him to discover some of the truths he did.

In the coming centuries, society will deliver a bill to our current system of production for which this system will be unable to collect the sum from its constituent pieces. Giant problems are emerging that know no borders. Capitalism and sovereignty cannot coordinate the collective sacrifices of the economic interests that threaten stability in the 21st century and beyond.

I fear a day society turns to the propertied, moneyed interests for help. The emmergent truth will be that corporate charity was nothing but theater performed in the interest of profit.

There is no dine and dash on global warming, unless you own a spacecraft I don't know about.

"Bush 2012."
That's what we call this thing. Change is funny like that.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Modernity Unmasked: walking prisons, public genitals and being seen

What does it mean to be modern? What is this modern world we find ourselves in? What does the future hold?

What do we make of seeing a woman in a burka walking down the street of a metropolitan area? The Muslim bee-keeper suit which keeps women from being seen. Those who preach tolerance might tell us that the burka is not a walking prison but a choice. Though many women are forced to conceal themselves by their brothers and fathers, others conceivably choose to wear the get-up.

Some would argue that the burka is no different than the necktie, an article of clothing which bears a meaning for the wearer and the public. This, ostensibly, is protected by the 1st ammendment. Clothing as a means of self expression.

But what if I were to walk naked into the Capitol Building? Could I claim that my certain arrest was a sign of intolerance? Doesn't society need to manage moral diversity by setting some cultural norms with the force of law? Does not the same logic that keeps my cock in my pants, justify laws against burkas?

Modernity? There is the argument that Islamic fundamentalists are just as modern as us, by virtue of living in the twenty-first century. They worship one Ancient text (the Koran) and we follow another (the Declarations of Independence and the Constitution).

But where their text is a superstition - a story - our text is a good faith attempt at reason. Is modernity another word for a technocratic age governed by science and reason? Or are we just updating our delusions, trading our tattered old dogmas in for newer ones.

How are WE modern in a way THEY are not? Only insofar as modernity involves an obsession with evidence.

Where the premodern are satisfied by the claims of authority, myth and superstition, the modern demand evidence. The modern is characterized by a hunger for visibilty. The modern human says "show me!"

The Ku Klux Klan triggered many communities in the US to pass laws that said you could not wear a mask while protesting or otherwise making political demands.

Despite the enormous risks, Iraqi translators working in are military are told not to wear a mask while they work, because we belive that this is inconsistent with the ideal of creating an open society.

Somewhere in the character of democracy is a demand that we take off our masks and allow ourselves to be seen. Modernity asks us to remove our veils, to emerge as individuals from behind traditional group identities. Modernity asks that we liberate ourselves from the cages of religon and family tradition. As suggested by theorists like Jon Laramore, if we can broaden our moral personalities enough to take on some differentiation between our roles as private and public actors, then we can find some way to compartmentalize our different loyalties. Christianity, unitl recently, has been marked by its ability to coexist with republican virtues by its tendency to accept boundaries between the personal and the political. If we fail in doing this, and we fail at persuading our fellow citizens to tolerate our differences, then as John Rawls suggested, the state has legitimate means to keep your privates our of the public. Don't walk by the playground naked or in your burka, at least not in my neighborhood. Cover up your private parts and show us your public parts!

Perhaps I am offering up an ideal of modernity, when in reality there are multiple modernities. Honestly, anyone wearing a burka in 2010 is just as modern as I am. But theirs is part of a troubling new strain of modernity. A backlash to globalization and the visual-reason based modernity I mentioned earlier, this parallel modernity involves fragmented, factional identities. The tribal and the superstitious take on a legitimacy more powerful than that offered by sight and science.

This is a disturbing trend. As a democratic citizen of America and the world, I implore you, take off your masks, look critically on your parent's superstitions. Show your face.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fire and ice: a theory of human modes of self invention

a theory of humans, propelled, paralyzed or somewhere in between by their power to invent themselves, both publicly and within the walls of their minds...


Coolness is so disputed, such a subjective label, that its does not have a single meaning. Often, its usage is most revealing as to the mindset of the person using the word as opposed to the person, place or process that it is applied to.

Coolness literally means some thing warmer than cold but not quite room temperature. It is associated with self-control and composure - a'la "don't lose your cool." The cool girl or guy is such a well oiled machine that they don't overheat a bit when the going gets tough. Perhaps the cool person is almost a little dead. Their embarassing qualities are ice cold corpse organs within them, moderated or muffled by the warm, remaining qualities, within the cool body they share.

Uncool people have hot and cold blood too, they just can't find a balance between the two. I am often hot blooded, boisterous, passionate and reckless. If not, I am cold, apathetic and detached from the sincerity and warmth of the warm.

The warm are those individuals who have found a balance between hot and cold blood, but unlike the cool, they err on the side of warmness. They are the understanding and caring individuals who have lots of hot blooded plans but a cold blooded skepticism and temperamental conservatism that keep them from being too assertive like a hot-blooded individual. A warm person is passionate, sincere and tries to use faith to navigate the world, but often takes the path of least resistance or greatest profit.

The continuum I am putting forward:


The Cold are apathetic, perhaps nihilistic, maybe even sadistic in petty everyday ways, unfeeling, cold. Detached, little affection. They don't have a lot of friends and that is a choice only insofar as being cold is a choice (it often isnt). The cold dont feel sympathy. They can watch other suffering and not sympathize.
The cold white guy sees a black guy suffering and says, "who cares, I'm white!"
The cold white guy sees a white woman suffering and says, "who cares, I'm a man!"
The cold white guy sees a white guy suffering and says, "who cares, I'm not him."


THE COOL are associated with composure and self control. They have barely civilized their cold, soulless selves, but not enough to assert any certain identity or chase a destiny not determined by the opinions of others.
The cool are often highly wanted and desired because [1] their is a possibility of winning the affections if only temporarily, but [2] they are "hard to get." The cool do not commit to their emotions. They are reluctant to take the risk of claiming a particular identity. They are not passionate and if they are it is about something that others will surely look upon with approval. They don't want to pursue their passions if it means breaking a sweat or looking like a nerd.

Cool is often an expression of admiration or approval, but should it be? One might think we should embrace warmer figures, whose passions determined their paths.
Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.
Coolness might be a coping mechanism for a world that burns the fearless.


The warm are essentially the nerds of this new menu of human temperaments. They are hot blooded, but in a controlled way.
What is a nerd? It is someone who cares deeply about something, but in a compartmentalized way. Where the hot blooded's passions overflow and engulf the kitchen in their smoke, the Warm's passions simmer on the backburner. Nerds have hobbies. Nerds are hot blooded people who have tamed their passions into miniature pass times they can take out, play with, and then put away when society asks it of them. The warm are the way they are because of distaste for the cold. They know the ache of engagement and the risks that go along with hotness, but they are willing to comit to identities and pursue knowledge and purchase books, because their aversion to what they see as the numb, toxic, distant emptiness of the cold.


The hot blooded people are passionate. They commit to their belifs and identities. They assert themselves without shame or restraint.
The Hot's way of inventing themselves is totally unleashed, and that charges Hot people with danger and potential.

So what are you? What does the world need more of? Are they all just coping in their own ways? What choices do we have as individuals and as a society?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Violence and Political Identity: our wounded attachments

Political science is the study of “who gets what, when and how?” War is the continuation of political intercourse beyond nonviolent means. War is the absence of restraint. For my purposes in this paper, war is defined as organized violence with a purpose. Organized violence can be a state’s means for enforcing policy, or it can be a means of defiance for an individual or a group. Organized violence embodies the assumption of political identity through the physical assertion of political demands. Political violence can also function to secure a specific distributive outcome, or it can be performed as a symbol. MK and other liberation armies performed acts of violence and sabotage that functioned more powerfully on a symbolic level than as practical blows against the operations of the apartheid state.
It has been said that “an army is a nation within a nation.” They act as the nucleus of a political community, organizing, mobilizing and transforming political identities. Militaries and irregular forces function as vehicles for preexisting political identities, but they are more than hollow vessels, as these groups can transform the political identities of their members and those outside the group. This effect is especially pronounced in situations of minority rule where society’s inequalities are enforced along lines of violence. In colonial settings, violence implies a political structure and an orientation towards that structure. When this orientation is shared by a group and they organize in order to perform violence, they become fused together under a political identity. Their experiences within these organizations can come to transform they way that they think about themselves and others in relation to the political system. The role of the military in the maintenance of political identities is also accelerated under conditions of conscription, as the military’s role as an agent of socialization is intensified.
In few places is the significance of violence in a political system more apparent than under white minority rule. Political theorist Frantz Fanon grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique, at the time a French colony. He served, with resentment, in the French army, and then in a liberation army during the Algerian revolution.
First published in 1961, Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth, considered violenceas a means of liberation and a catharsis to subjugation. Fanon presented the violence of colonial as a process in the cognitive imprisonment of indigenous peoples under colonial rule. Fanon writes that ”the colonial world is a world divided into compartments… the colonial world is cut in two. The dividing lines, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesman of the settler and his rule of oppression.” Fanon envisioned violence as a structure which not only organized distributory outcomes, but shaped the consciousness violence’s victims and perpetrators.
Colonial societies being shaped by subjugation and violence, Fanon argued that liberation was best achieved through violent resistance. As Karl Marx wrote in Capital, “violence is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one.” Fanon wrote that “the colonized man finds his freedom in violence.” He argued that in committing violence against an agent of European colonization, the colonized man would figuratively kill two birds with one stone – at once destroying the colonizer and the colonized in that the act of violence transformed the colonized into a new person. Political violence is presented here as the means for the colonized man to find himself, stepping out of the shell of his colonized self and emerging as a new person with a new consciousness and a new political identity.

Wolf by the Ears

The chattel slavery of black Americans was an embarrassment to the commitment to liberty and equality embodied in the American Revolution. There is nothing more deeply embedded in the American ideology than the notion that ours is a free country. Slavery developed out of the earlier practice of indentured servitude, and at the dawn of the revolution, the peculiar institution had already been established, racialized and imbued with an unfortunate momentum which the founders found largely insurmountable. Many of the founders acknowledged that slavery was immoral and dangerous, but they failed to embrace immediate abolition as an alternative because they did not see it as practical.
The conception of slavery as necessary evil was a means for late-18th and early-19th century Americans to digest their fear of emancipation within the context of their republican, egalitarian ideals. The formulation, which attempted to resolve the contradiction between unfree labor and republican values, proved to be untenable. Incapable of containing its contradictory components, the necessary-evil consensus would come unglued, splitting between a conception of slavery as a positive good in the South, and a Northern condemnation of slavery as corrupt and degrading.
Before the 1820s, the necessary-evil theory came closer to describing the national consensus on slavery than any other position articulated before the Civil War. The consensus became decentered because of its internal contradictions. Figuratively, it proved itself a most uncomfortable fence on which to sit. To use a Biblical parallel, those that held slavery to be a necessary evil were trying to serve two masters: God and Mammon – their highest principles and the things of the world.
The necessary evil formulation allowed early Americans to digest their fear of emancipation within the paradigm of liberal, egalitarian values. In time this consensus would erode, as its proponents would be forced to confront either slavery’s inherent evil, or its supposed necessity.


Doc. #1: Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes. Monticello April 22nd 1820

" I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle that would not cost me a second thought, if… gradually, with due sacrifices, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation the other. "

In this letter, Jefferson remarks on the injustice of slavery. He seems hesitant to even refer to slaves as “property,” recognizing the corrupt nature of such thinking. Jefferson voices his own sincere wish that slavery would cease to be. He claims that he would “sacrifice more [than anyone] to relieve us” of the institution, but implies that the momentum of slavery was larger than any action he could take to end it. His “wolf by the ears” analogy illustrates the supposed horrors of emancipation he fears unleashing on the country. He is torn between his moral disagreement with slavery, and the practical matter of “self-preservation.” He understands that unfree labor is immoral and dangerous, but fears that immediate emancipation would unleash poverty, crime and economic disruption.

Doc. #2: “Mark Antony.” Boston Independent Chronicle, January 10th, 1788

" The friends to liberty and humanity, may look forward with satisfaction to the period, when slavery shall not exist in the United States; while the enlightened patriot will approve of the system, which renders its abolition gradual. "

In this letter from a Northern newspaper editorial, the author uses the pen name of “Mark Antony.” This letter was written in the immediate aftermath of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and responds to another editorial by an author who bemoaned the tacit blessing given to slavery in the Constitution. The author acknowledges that the revolutionary paradigm oriented towards liberty and human equality is inconsistent with the institution of slavery. However, he notes that an “enlightened” patriot will go beyond his base American ideology and acknowledge the practical realities of emancipation. Because of pragmatic concerns, slavery’s abolition should be gradual and not immediate.

Doc. #3: Letter from John C. Wynkoop to Peter Van Schaack. Kingston, New York, February 23rd, 1792

" My head is too crammed with political, moral and electioneering stuff, that I can neither write grammatically nor intelligibly… My friend Mr. Jay… proposed as the illustrious opponent to Gov. Clinton at the next election, will, I fear, not have many votes from the Dutch Inhabitants in this Country. A great majority of these pose many slaves, and as Mr. Jay is the President of the society for the abolition of slavery, they will probably vote against him for that reason… The justice and propriety of his sentiments… affects the Freedom and Course of Happiness of thousands of our fellow Creatures, differing from ourselves only in complexion, have no Weight in the minds of men, many of whom are rich in property of this Kind… You will therefore in your calculation of electioneering success, set down this Country against you… "

In this letter, a Northerner discusses his friend’s plans to challenge the incumbent governor of New York, George Clinton. The author agrees with his friend’s abolitionist position on the slavery issue, but feels that taking such a stand will make his friend a sure electoral loser. He is torn between his “moral” thoughts and those related to the practical realities of “electioneering.” He endorses his friend’s belief that blacks and whites “[differ] only in complexion,” but since this sentiment holds “no weight in the minds of [the majority] of men,” he argues that it is a political stance doomed to failure.

Doc. #4: Letter from George Washington to Robert Morris. Mount Vernon, April 12th, 1786

"…When slaves who are happy and contented with their masters, are tampered with and seduced to leave them; when masters are taken unawares by these practices; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other, and when it happens to fall on a man, whose purse will not measure with that of the Society, and he loses his property for want of means to defend it; it is oppression in the latter case, and not humanity in any; because it introduces more evils than it can cure. "

In this letter, General George Washington has just finished explicating the immorality of slavery as an institution. After having thoroughly condemned the practice as dangerous and evil, he considers the problematic nature of immediate emancipation. He describes the chaos that would occur in terms of both masters being rudely stripped of their “property,” and of slaves “happy and contented with their masters” who are suddenly uprooted. Washington acknowledges that slavery is evil, but worries that immediate emancipation might “[introduce] more evils than it can cure.” He feared the economic disruption that might accompany immediate emancipation more than he valued the immediate realization of republican values.

Doc. #5: John C. Calhoun, "Speech on His Slavery Resolutions in Reply to James F. Simmons," Floor of United States Senate. February 6th, 1837.

" Let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the races in the slaveholding states is an evil-far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. We now believe it [slavery] a great blessing to both of the races-the European and African… The proposition to which I allude has become an axiom in the minds of a vast majority on both sides of the Atlantic, and is repeated daily from tongue to tongue as an established and incontrovertible truth; it is that "All men are born free and equal" ... It is utterly untrue. "

John Calhoun was a House Representative, Senator and eventually Vice-President of the United States. In the Senate, he represented the state of South Carolina. Other Americans formulated slavery as a necessary evil, but Calhoun rejected this line of thinking as well as the liberal, egalitarian foundation on which it was based. Calhoun conceived of slavery as a positive-good, one that offered benefits to blacks and whites, slaves and free men. Based on white supremacy and paternalism, Calhoun reasoned that slavery offered white people the benefits of slave labor, while blacks could be cared for and civilized under the direction of white masters. To him slavery was not a necessary evil but, instead, “a great blessing to both of the races- the European and the African.” Calhoun rejected the liberal, egalitarian ideology as being “utterly untrue.” Though Calhoun’s thinking is offensive within the context of a liberal, republican paradigm, his thinking possessed an internal consistency that the necessary-evil theorists lacked.

Doc. #6: Campbell, John. Negro-mania: Being an Examination of the Falsely Assumed Equality of the Various Races of Men. Philadelphia, 1851.

" Let us now carefully scan the flimsy arguments offered to our notice by the advocates of negro equality. The first argument is “that the negroes never have had an opportunity to develop themselves because the white man has always oppressed them.” They forget that the latter proportion refutes the former. If the white man has always oppressed the negro, it goes to establish the fact claimed by me that the white man is mentally superior, because, if the white man has been always powerful enough to debar the negro from improving his intellect, it establishes the complete force of my views. "

This excerpt comes from a book by the white supremacist John Campbell. He, like John Calhoun, debates takes issue with the liberal, revolutionary principle of universal human equality. He points to the black man’s state of slavery as self-evincing proof of the black man’s inferiority. This book was published in 1851, a time in which abolition was becoming increasingly charged as a moral issue. Campbell attempts to deflate the calls for immediate emancipation by showing that slavery is not evil at all since blacks are not the equals of whites.

Doc. #7: William Lloyd Garrison. “On the Constitution and the Union.” The Liberator, December 29, 1832. 207.

" People of New-England, and of the free States! is it true that slavery is no concern of yours? Have you no right even to protest against it, or to seek its removal? Are you not the main pillars of its support? How long do you mean to be answerable to God and the world, for spilling the blood of the poor innocents? Be not afraid to look the monster Slavery boldly in the face. He is your implacable foe—the vampyre who is sucking your life-blood—the ravager of a large portion of your country, and the enemy of God and man. Never hope to be a uited, or happy, or prosperous people while he exists. He has an appetite like the grave—a spirit as malignant as that of the bottomless pit—and an influence as dreadful as the corruption of death. Awake to your danger! the struggle is a mighty one—it cannot be avoided—it should not be, if it could. "

William Lloyd Garrison was a preacher and one of the main advocates for immediate abolition. In this excerpt from an early edition of his abolitionist publication, he argues that slavery is not necessary, and that, in fact, its downfall is inevitable. Abolition “cannot be avoided,” Garrison argues, and that even if it could, “it should not be.” Garrison charged the slavery issue with a moral energy which had not previously carried. Garrison states that the enormous evil of slavery outweighs whatever minor inconveniences might accompany abolition. For Garrison, slavery is “a monster,” a “vampire” and an “enemy of God.” This shows that while some Americans moved away from the necessary-evil conception of slavery by viewing it as a positive-good, others, particularly in the North, were beginning to view it as a definitive evil. They were unwilling to compromise their commitments to human equality and freedom with the supposed property rights of slaveholders.

Doc. #8: William Lloyd Garrison. “Truisms.” The Liberator. January 8, 1831, p. 5

"1. All men are born equal, and entitled to protection, excepting those whose skins are black and hair woolly; or, to prevent mistake, excepting Africans, and their descendants……
4. The color of the skin determines whether a man has a soul or not. If white, he has an immortal essence; if black, he is altogether beastly…
11. None but fanatics or idiots desire immediate abolition. If the slaves were liberated at once, our throats would be cut, and our houses pillaged and burnt! …….
15. A white man, who kills a tyrant, is a hero, and deserves a monument. If a slave kills his master, he is a murderer, and deserves to be burnt.
16. The slaves are kept in bondage for their own good. Liberty is a curse to the free people of color—their condition is worse than that of the slaves! "

In another excerpt from William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, the author sarcastically skewers the arguments against immediate emancipation. Everything Garrison writes here is meant to point out the internal contradiction of the necessary-evil argument. He writes “all men are born equal, and entitled to protection, excepting those whose skins are black and hair woolly.” Here, he points out the inconsistency between slavery and a nation based on freedom and equality. Garrison points out the corrupt paternalism of the necessary-evil formulation, writing that “slaves are kept in bondage for their own good. Liberty is a curse to the free people of color.” “A white man who kills a tyrant,” Garrison sarcastically posits, “is a hero, and deserves a monument. [Yet] if a slave kills his master, he is a murderer, and deserves to be burnt.” Garrison points out the hypocrisy of a nation born in an act of rebellion against the supposed tyranny of being governed by an alien power, yet imposes white tyranny on black slaves

Thomas Jefferson and many of his contemporaries recognized that slavery was the most dangerous and intractable problem our infant nation faced. He wrote that “slave owners are despots and slaves their enemies .” Slavery was recognized as dangerous and immoral, particularly in the North where early 19th century thinkers argued that it inhibited economic development, undermined the virtue of all Americans, and imperiled national security. However, these people were not able to move from their distaste for slavery to a call for immediate emancipation because of respect for the property rights of slaveholders and contempt for black people’s capacity for citizenship.
As of 1790, of the 3.9 million Americans, 700,000 of them (or 15%) were enslaved . The thought of emancipating all these blacks meant not only a massive loss of property, it also presented the prospect of widespread poverty and crime.
The conception of slavery as necessary evil was a means for late-18th and early-19th century Americans to balance their fear of emancipation with their republican, egalitarian ideals. The formulation, which attempted to resolve the contradiction between unfree labor and republican values, proved to be untenable. Incapable of containing its contradictory components, the necessary-evil consensus would come unglued, splitting between a conception of slavery as a positive good in the South, and a Northern condemnation of slavery as corrupt and degrading. The necessary evil formulation allowed early Americans to digest their fear of emancipation within the paradigm of liberal, egalitarian values. In time this consensus would erode, as its proponents would be forced to confront either slavery’s inherent evil, or its supposed necessity.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Invisible Man

Coming Starting on page 158 of *The Portable Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part, Nietzsche writes:


[. . .] My brothers in war, I love you thoroughly; I am and I was of your kind. And I am also your best enemy. So let me tell you the truth!
I know of the hatred and envy of your hearts. You are not great enough not to know hatred and envy. Be great enough, then, not to be ashamed of them. [. . .]
You should have eyes that always seek an enemy—your enemy. And some of you hate at first sight. Your enemy you shall seek, your war you shall wage—for your thoughts. And if your thought be vanquished, then your honesty should still find cause for triumph in that. You should love peace as a means to new wars—and the short peace more than the long. To you I do not recommend work, but struggle. To you I do not recommend peace, but victory. Let your work be a struggle. Let your peace be a victory! [. . .]
You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause. War and courage have accomplished more great things than love of the neighbor. [1] Not your pity but your courage has so far saved the unfortunate.
"What is good?" you ask. To be brave is good. [2] [. . .]
Recalcitrance—that is the nobility of slaves. Your nobility should be obedience. Your very commanding should be an obeying. [3] To a good warrior "thou shalt" sounds more agreeable than "I will." And everything you like you should first let yourself be commanded to do.
Your love of life shall be love of your highest hope; and your highest hope shall be the highest thought of life. [4] Your highest thought, however, you should receive as a command from me—and it is: man is something that shall be overcome. [5]
Thus live your life of obedience and war. What matters long life? What warrior wants to be spared? [6] I do not spare you; I love you thoroughly, my brothers in war!
Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dogs in Cars

I have a preoccupation. A little motif in my life that makes me stop and smile almost daily if not more so. Dogs in cars. I see them when I go running. I see them in parking lots. While driving, they'll stare out the back windows of cars in front of me.

Why do I love them so much? These dogs in cars? Why do I find them so damned funny and satisfying? Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I feel they make an apt metaphor for the modern human.

Modern humans find ourselves in a complicated world, at the mercy of larger processes we cannot begin to unravel, and surrounded by amazing possibilities we are incapable of unlocking.. Like the dogs in cars, modern humans are trapped in compartments of plastic, steel and glass, taken down roads we did not ask to travel, to destinations we did not choose. It's not a terrible existence. In some respects, it is a fantastic, humbling privilege - but I see a reflection of myself in these car windows.

The look on these dog's faces: either grinning obliviously ear to ear or outwardly unamused and displeased, I see it on cops on the block, the guy bagging groceries or the girl wearing headphones on the bus.

We're all dogs in cars. Patiently waiting for someone to return, put the key in this strange machine and take us home.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

the Reluctant Settler and the Turbulent Frontier

Afghanistan: a just war, or just another war?

"You bleed green, I bleed red."

Obama's war. That is the the truth and the lie that frames our newfound interest in the American project in Afghanistan. Our political menu is being realligned in the foreign policy realm by a mixture of persistent critics, recent turncoats and Republicans who would criticize Obama if he cut himself shaving. That is to say nothing of the actual situation on the ground, which is deteriorating in real ways, as the clear illegitimacy of the Karzai government tarnishes our project in the eyes of Afghanis and the world writ large. Foreign relations, they say, is a two sided game: actors must model their moves for both foreign and domestic audiences.

It's not just Obama's war. This war belong to every American with a spine and an interest in our good name and the blood and treasure already spent on this project.

A liberal friend of mine has expressed his impatience with the project in Afghanistan.

"We should just go home, man." He tells me. "Who cares about those Afghanis? They obviously don't want democracy and you like can't force democracy at the barrel of a gun bro... Don't you know anything?"

Now my friend might have a point. If he wants to conduct his political theory as if he were God, then YES! I suppose it would also be fantastic if summer were 4 months longer and ice cream made you run faster and look better naked, but none of these things are. His attempts at theory cannot facilitate an examination of how an individual should be in light of how the world is. He admits that he was for the Afghanistan project at the time. All red-blooded Americans supported a targetted strike against al-Queda, Usama bin Laden and the Taliban government that enabled him.

Now he'd found he doesn't have the stomach for the conflict.

I must admit that a formative experience in the trajectory of my thinking on foreign policy was the surge in Iraq. At the time, in 2005, the war effort was going to hell in a handbasket. I wanted out. Where others would base their arguements on what was best for the Iraqis, I didn't. I was clear that I wanted out of Iraq to protect American lives and treasure. I was fully aware that there would be a bloodbath there if we left.

But we stayed. Sober, courageous minds and the momentum of a military occupation won out. I was sure that this was folly. But sure enough the surge worked. Those brave enough rushed in where the supposedly rational were rushing out. And a difference was made. That corner was finally turned. The situation as it stands now shows that the surge was a better decison not just for Iraqis but for Americans too.

Now what lesson is there to take away from this. We've made a covenant with the Afghanis. He who is so quick to inject responsibility and humility into our foreign policy cannot grasp that by invading, we entered into a covenant. We hold their lives in our hands: every man and woman who sided with us against the Taliban, every person who has embraced our liberal idea that everyone should be able to pursue their own vision of whats valuable in life.

We've chosen the arena, drawn the lines and started the timer and now we want out? Such an epiphany would have had more currency before we set this project into motion.

What does it mean to be liberal? Liberal in the sense that all Americans are liberal. Is liberalism a spineless philosophy? Is it politics as holy war between secularism and fundamentalism? Is it an uneasy piece between different visions of whats valuable in life?

Those who want to pack up and go home in Afghanistan want a spineless sort of liberalism for themselves but don't believe in in enough to take any leap of faith in its potential for traction in Afghanistan. Our defeatist friend (Brian) lives through a liberalism that is calculating, bland, petty and unheroic. We slap this articulation of liberalism down. We spit on its body and dance on its grave.

For we hold up a liberalism that is heroic. It is not heroic in the romantic conservative sense, but in a more nuanced, chaotic liberal sort of way. This is liberalism not as a road map but as a flash light. It doesn't tell you exactly where we are going and how to get there, but it offers you a tool to navigate a confusing and dangerous world. With a little courage and ingenuity we can use it too.

I present you liberalism as impatience with arguments based in fear and self-preservation. Liberalism as faith in our ability to take our individualistic ideal and spread it like apple seeds on a wild frontier.

In the Afghanistan project we are the new pilgrims of liberalism. Instead of bringing bibles, we bring guns and ammo and food and money, and cranes and planes and the promise, or the threat, of making Afghanistan into California.

My defeatist friend told me: "You would have been one of the people who advocated Manifest Destiny."

Well my friend is a Washingtonian. He obviously can abstractly critisize American expansionism but feels no need to retreat Eastward. Perhaps he has resigned to the reality on the ground. He is not trying to reverse or disavow the newfound possibilities and problems that have followed from the combination of Western civilization and Washington State.

No one likes a reluctant settler. Sitting on the back of the covered wagon, feeling a slight sense of remorse, and feeling almost sorta kinda unhappy, as he plows Westward into the night.

From Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"Fair is foul and foul is fair.... What's done cannot be undone... Blood will have blood."

From Colin Powell on the Iraq War:
"You break it, you buy it."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

on Morality and Marines

"I had rather lived a day as a lion than a hundred years as a dog." -Major Zembiec aka "The Lion of Fallujah"

The nation that draws a line of demarcation between their thinkers and fighters risks having the fighting done by fools and the thinking done by cowards... -- Sir WF Butler

"We'd promise you sleep deprivation, mental torment, and muscles so sore you'll puke, but we don't like to sugar-coat things."
-USMC Recruiting Poster

"History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats" --B. C. Forbes

"A Marine is someone you don't need to push but rather, hold back." -- LBJ

MY THOUGHTS: Military service is ultimately a moral commitment. Duty is animated by morality. Both involve our struggle to live ourlives and know ourselves through the eyes and expectations of our communities. It involves we-intentions. Marine's being trained will often by instructed that "Marines always...." or "Marines don't do that." Here we see the moral enjoiner: to step outside of our bottomless appetites and commit to stepping outside of ourselves and looking for that overlapping part of our being that we share with our brothers and sisters. How do you get a man to step out into gunfire in the exectution of a mission? If courage is the trait of willingly confronting danger in the pursuit of mission accomplishment, if courage is not the abesence of fear but the mastery of it, then courage is bred from unselfishness. Our identites are not set in stone, they are malleable and we can come to construct our perception of our own identities differently over time. This tells us that unselfishness breeds courage. The courageous man is he whom will risk his own well-being because he has assumed the burden of duty: he lives in the overlapping, shared part of himself that fuses him with his country and Corps: knowing that his own well-being is actually inseperable from that of his community.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoughts on war

Thomas Paine:

"If there must be trouble let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

"The living give us crowds. The dead give us communities." Joseph Bottum

"World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” - EINSTIEN

Missing White Chick of the Week

Where have you gone Nancy Grace? You used to have a 24 hour news channel devoted to chasing the "Tot Mom," now it feels like if I want some good fear-porn I have to wade through Glen Beck's Da-Vinci-Code-esque conspiracy theories.

The media shapes our perceptions of who we are and who they are. Music, sitcoms and especially news shape our perceptions of who we are and what they want to do to us. We construct ourselves through the media, but we also come to know and fear the Otherlings through grainy mugshots.

There is an enduring theme that runs through the choices the media makes as to what constitutes news. A serial killer is the sexiest thing ever, but only if he's one of those middle aged white men leaving elaborate clues like peanut butter smeared playing cards at the scenes of his crimes, a'la TV's Dexter. A serial killer defending drug selling turf in the inner city, or American interests around the world...? If it bleeds, it doesn't necessarily lead. The new maxim: If she's white, and she's in fright, that shit'll be on tv tonight.

A serial killer story only sells Ipods and car insurance advertising rights if he's operating outside of an institutional, structural context. Ironically, this is the type of killing we could do the most to reform. But killing as the outcome of market transactions and serious, complicated policy trade-offs? How can they be coming to get us in our sleep, if we're all complicit in the big crime?

So there is virtual reality that none of us can truly step outside of. Private Jessica Lynch is center stage while 100,000 dead Iraqis find namelessness in numbers. Natalie Holloway's dissapearance is big news, while the daily dead Otherling pulled out of a dumpster in Newark isn't tabloid fodder because she (or he) is one of society's undesirables. From welfare queens to poverty pimps, the war on poverty has been poisoned by racism. The media and our glorious White wing have created an undeserving, uncontrollable underclass.

Oh, those poor "missing white chicks" of the week". They didn't deserve any of this.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cheney 2012?

Brian said...
Communist wannabe, history major Brian writes:

Are you insane? Don't you know that every single member of the Bush Administration as well as their families are guilty of the most heinous crimes since Hitler? Despite what you might think about what the American people "deserve," many of us are both wholesome and quite secular. I hope you are impaled by spears dipped in pig shit you bastard.
September 23, 2009 7:09 PM

The Black Republican says...

I saw you dancing on the fountain on election night 2008 Brian. Who do you think made that moment possible? Do you think Obama would have followed Gore, if Gore had won in 2000. I'm merely asserting that Cheney offers the purest dose of what the American people want. Cheney was probably as Godless as you or I, he just views politics as a game of self-interest. I'll take my coffee black, my whiskey straight and my politics minus the gooey-sentiment and hollow words of the Changeling.

Stamp fail

This stamp is just wrong. Am I sick or is it the stamp?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The good life

Liberalism contains a contradiction.

On one hand it is based on tolerance and individual freedom: it tries to create a structure in which individuals can go out and pursue their own vision of "the good life."

While at the same time, liberalism itself is a subjective version of the good life.

As Michael Sandel points out, if moral relativism is the arguement that animates liberalisms commitment to diversity, are not toleration and freedom values that are subject to the same scrutiny of moral relativism?

The focusing point for this arguement might be the debate about whether people should be allowed to wear their Muslim burkas and scarves in a public school. Liberalism is torn between the messiness of diversity and the attempt to create universal, secular institutions in which individuals can live and pursue their own visions of the good life.

Liberalism, in the broadest sense of the word, the sense in which all Americans are liberal in their belief in inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness/property. Liberalism is hard to grapple with. It a tool to make sense of an increasingly confusing world.

In America, can people truly go out and seek their own version of the good life? What could be done to further that? Is their a tension between diversity and toleration?

Toqueville said: "Americans are born equal, instead of becoming so." "In the beggining, all the world was America."

Do you ever feel like there is a trade off? You can pursue your own vision of happiness, but your neighbors are strangers. The liberal public square is either a hushed, secular non-temple or a babbling chaos of strangers speaking different languages.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Appocalypse When?

The first thing you should know about this blog is that Cheney2012 was taken.

Cheney was once asked for comment on the fact that a great percentage of Americans wanted withdrawal from Iraq, and disagreed with the Iraq War. Cheney's response? "So..." As in "So, what is your point exactly?"

At the time I clucked my thick tongue, feeling severely put off that, what? in retrospect the Executive Branch wasn't taking their cues from whatever Gallup Poll the 24 hour news channels had latched onto?

For all his faults, that Dick Cheney understood something about the way our democratic republic was intended to operate. There are elections, and the representatives are supposed to govern somewhere in the space between the demands of their conscience and those of the next election cycle.

Cheney, hate him or love him, he believed something about the centrality of American inerests. I wish I had better choices, but 8 years of Bush brought us Obama. Unfortunately, it looks like we're going to need another 8 years of Bush to get the Change We Can Really Believe In.

How do you manufacture a majority for radical reform? Radical: as in starting at the roots of problems and not just pruning the leaves. We need actors who will assert America's power, while exposing our contradictions. Maybe I'm disillusioned, but I think we need to just take our medicine and vote in the leaders we deserve.

In the Jim Carrey movie "The Yes Man," he is riding on the back of a moped, with a woman driver, terrified for his life.

"Do you want me to slow down?" The woman asks, noticing how tight he is holding on.
"No," Carrey says, "If anything speed up, I don't want to be kept alive artificially."