On the de-politicization of voting

Historically, I have been a pretty avid voter. This particular election, I feel an urgency to keep Illinois from getting a finance-asshole Republican governor, but there’s only so much damage he could do as the legislature will remain Democratic basically regardless of what happens. Most of the time, my reason for voting is that I live in an urban area and can easily walk to my polling place and I have a job that allows me great flexibility — hence I figure, “Why not?”

I don’t have a big theory as to why voting is necessary for everyone. I sympathize with those who choose not to do so on principle, and I also sympathize (moreso) with people who think it’s worth the effort to try to influence election outcomes because even a marginal, incremental change for the better is still better.

The one group I definitely don’t understand are those who say: no matter who you’re voting for, make sure you vote! I’m going to be honest — I would prefer that Republicans stay home. Unlike actual Republicans, I don’t favor laws that make it more difficult for my political opponents to vote, but I certainly am not in the business of encouraging people to vote against my own political preferences.

It’s this strangely de-politicized view of voting that seems to me most dangerous and insidious. The de-politicized vote, the aesthetics of voting-for-voting’s-sake, has no content other than a gesture of legitimation for the system as it now stands. The content-free demand for people to make their voice heard on election day strips their voice of any determinate content, turning it into a sheer acclamation of the actual-existing order.

Voter ID laws and evil genius

Voter ID laws are a truly evil thing, an attempt to disenfranchise the poor and racial minorities. They are also an act of evil genius, politically speaking. To the majority of middle-class voters, it sounds totally reasonable — who doesn’t have an ID, after all? It could even sound crazy that people didn’t have to present ID before! Even though there’s no evidence that in-person voter fraud has ever been even a minor problem, putting the policy forward as a way to prevent fraud makes it sound like the proponents are trying to protect elections rather than undermine democratic representation. It takes a lot of explanation to get to the point where you understand the real intent of the law, and the very fact that the plan is so devious is enough to make a significant number of people dismiss it as a real possibility. And if it gets struck down in court, it gives you a chance to demagogue against liberal judicial activism. In short: brilliant.

By contrast, the signature policies of Democrats are seemingly designed from the ground up to alienate people. Let’s legally compel people to give their money to health insurers they don’t trust! Let’s give financiers the chance to gamble on carbon emissions! Let’s have a stimulus so small that it will only barely work and will discredit the very idea of government support for the economy! I know that the most dialectical and knowing way to interpret such things is to say that Obama’s apparent failures all advance his more deep-seated goals — but isn’t that actually a version of the much-derided “eleven-dimensional chess” theory? Isn’t it possible, even if we concede that the Democrats are not a very liberal party on the grand scheme, that they also suck at this?

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An American religion

Though numbers have declined in recent years, millions of Americans still regularly participate in the high holy days of this religion. Traveling to their local house of worship, they partake in the sacrament that affirms their existence within a shadowy realm that is wholly separated from their material existence. Different sects of this religion distinguish themselves through their interpretation of a sacred text. One of Americans’ favorite pasttimes is to argue with their neighbor over which sect they belong to, referencing “proof texts” from their sacred document, or by recalling the lives of various holy men (women have only recently been included in this religion). However, despite their percieved differences, the day to day lives of members of different sects is completely indistinguishable to outsiders. Americans call this religion “voting.”

A defense of Contemporaneanism

For adherents of the ground-breaking philosophical school of Contemporaneanism, it’s been a wild ride. Side-stepping traditional academic institutions, we stepped directly into the public sphere by using online technologies like blog posts and Twitter links to blog posts. The results have been astounding: in the last couple minutes alone, Contemporaneanism has gone from zero adherents to one. That rate of growth puts us on pace to take over every academic field within thirty minutes. And not unexpectedly, the powers that be in the Ivory Tower are nervous.

Some people are still asking themselves, “What is Contemporaneanism?” Questions like that always make me impatient. If too many people ask, I start to wonder if there’s a coordinated campaign to discredit Contemporaneanism. I certainly wouldn’t put such a thing past the adherents of Pastism (a blanket term I literally just coined to cover all previous philosophers insofar as they reject the main tenets of Contemporaneanism). With their comfortable tenured bon-bons, they have the most to lose when Contemporaneanism completely changes the intellectual landscape. Sure, they cover up their systematic persecution with specious claims like “We’ve never even heard of Contemporaneanism” — but we see right through that. They’re running scared.

We continually remind ourselves that radical new schools of thought always face opposition. What if Plato, Kant, and someone you’ve never heard of whom I’m putting forth as a self-evident part of the philosophical canon just gave up the first time someone asked them what they were talking about? And really, are we even properly a “school” at all? Isn’t Contemporaneanism more of a sensibility, a shared set of concerns, than a “movement” — at least a “movement” in the sense that we could be held responsible for some determinate positions and arguments? What’s striking to me is the radical diversity of Contemporaneanism. And you know what? It’s not my job to point out examples of the many people who adhere to Contemporaneanism (in such a way that it doesn’t constitute a determinate “movement” that can be criticized). If you don’t keep up with the most important and exciting developments in your field, that’s on you.

God. Can’t someone start a philosophical movement without having to constantly argue with people?!

Should the spirit of protest occasion a crowd, far be it from me to be its exorcist.

Unsurprising to the nice round number of zero, Adam made it known this week he is wary of protests. His post indicating as much is one-half cheek and the other half teeth. As it happens, his (& a good many of your) reservations squeakily hinged on the fact that protests too rarely work. We Leftist-intellectuals are a busy lot, after all, and good time management requires that we cut out the ineffectual fat from our schedules, to make way for retweeting memes and attending committee meetings. I popped up in the comments of Adam’s post, a resident, tolerated troll, objecting in my own opaque way. I thought I might elaborate with a short post. Read the rest of this entry »

Big Other of public opinion, hear our prayer

Protests don’t work. Whatever their efficacy was in past eras, it is spent. We all witnessed the largest coordinated protests in world history in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the Iraq War not only happened but is still happening, under the watch of a president whose grass-roots support stemmed largely from his uncanny luck in not yet being in the Senate when the vote to authorize the Iraq War took place.

Today, there is a massive, coordinated protest march, complete with a hashtag and corporate sponsors. I don’t see the value of this aside from its role as a ritual observance. I don’t begrudge anyone their liturgy, to be sure. But I keep the Sabbath by staying at home. At least when I sweep my floors and clean the bathroom on Sunday morning, I produce some kind of tangible positive result. To each his own!

If the standard is making a difference on climate change, I’m failing just as much as the protest marchers. The fact that “at least I know it” doesn’t make any difference either way — not only in terms of effectiveness, but also in terms of distinguishing me from the marchers themselves, many of whom probably know that they won’t make a difference. We’re all in on the joke. The protest is incorporated into our public liturgy, our civil religion.

If we get all the right permits and don’t get in the way too much, hopefully the police won’t brutalize us while we exercise our sacred right to protest — though for some, the police brutality is part of the sacramental effect. Line up and get arrested! The strategy of martyrdom worked once, in an entirely different political and media landscape and in coordination with a disciplined political strategy that is absolutely and completely lacking in the present day… so it’ll work again!

If we suffer enough, they’ll relent. Except they never do. We live in a world where there are crowdfunding campaigns to support an incompetent and abusive police officer who murdered a teenager in cold blood. We live in a world where the rhetoric of non-violence has been irrevocably weaponized to delegitimate the oppressed and normalize the callous violence of the powerful. Line up and get arrested!

Is writing this post better than going to the protests? No. Is there something salutary or helpful about holding the correct cynical opinions? No. Am I doing anyone any good by writing this? Well, everyone needs to vent every once in a while. Some keep the Sabbath going to the protest — I keep it, blogging at home.

That the politicians in Washington will put the politics aside and seek the public good, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That our elected representatives will embrace common-sense solutions to minimize the damage of global warming without hurting economic growth, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That an informed electorate, replete with marketable skills, will show up at the polls in November and vote the right way, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That we can somehow figure out a way to keep this shitshow running a little bit longer, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

Let us pray: public opinion, you have blessed us with the means to express ourselves while interacting with our favorite brands. Aid and guide us, your loyal working families, as we seek smart solutions that enhance shareholder value in this, the greatest country on earth. Amen.

Why I dismiss “evolutionary” explanations out of hand

During a Twitter discussion about the widely-cited study showing that men profess to be most attracted to 20- and 21-year olds well into their fifties while women prefer men approximately their own age throughout their lives, the inevitable happened: someone trotted out the “evolutionary” “fact” that of course men prefer younger women, given that they’re at their reproductive peak. Weirdly, though, my interlocutor’s own stated range for this peak was 14-24, and yet most men I know would find the idea of having sex with a 14-year-old repulsive. He also didn’t have any explanation for why women would prefer men their own age, rather than always prefering the presumably more resource-rich older men at all ages. And never mind the fact that stereotypically rail-thin “hot” physiques for women actively militate against reproduction. No, no — it was evolution that did it! It’s not changeable! We must bravely and grimly accept the cruel biological reality that coincidentally supports an ugly and much-contested aspect of existing power structures.

This exchange led me to declare a universal policy of rejecting out of hand any “evolutionary” explanation for contemporary behavior and social structures. This claim has been much misunderstood, as though I was denying any influence of biology at all. I don’t deny such an influence, but I do deny that we can know where social construction ends and the supposedly “hard-wired” biological impulse begins. We know from every day experience that even the most urgent biological impulses can be put off more or less indefinitely. In the battle between social norms and the need to urinate, for instance, social norms win essentially every time for healthy adults. All the evidence of human history seems to indicate that we evolved to be hugely pliable to social construction.

Obviously I’d be willing to accept an evolutionary explanation for a purely involuntary human response such as the gag reflex or the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. But any feature of human society that is the subject of considerable debate and struggle — that’s on us. And here we can count debates not only over sex and reproduction, but over eating habits. Saying we evolved to eat meat doesn’t answer anything. If we can call that into question and debate it, we’re responsible for deciding, individually and collectively, how to proceed.

The attempt to reduce some actual-existing position within that debate to a sheer biological fact is always a more or less transparent and conscious attempt to shut down that debate or at least tilt it in favor of one particular outcome. As Schmitt says (and I often remind us), the claim to be taking a non-political position is actually a particularly forceful political move.

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