Self-Defeating Centrism

During his eight years in office, Obama deported a record number of immigrants, which is traditionally a Republican thing to do. He can’t openly take credit for it, because it would alienate his base — and if he tried, Republican voters literally would not believe it. Part of that is the right-wing echo chamber, but part of it is also that people reasonably expect the liberal party to do liberal things.

Obamacare is another great example: it IS the market-based alternative to socialized medicine, which is traditionally a Republican thing. But he can only sell it to his base as a necessary compromise (despite the fact that it passed solely with Democratic votes), and meanwhile Republican voters still think it’s socialized medicine — because, again, they expect the liberal party to do liberal things. In this example, we have the added twist that they assume anything the liberal party does is liberal, hence the health care debate is now skewed sharply to the right as a Republican policy becomes the far left edge of possible options.

We can see the same dynamic with gun control. Democrats basically decided to give up on this issue and haven’t pushed any serious gun control measures in a long time, other than symbolic gestures after particularly horrifying mass shootings. But the gun lobby refuses to take yes for an answer: they still rile up their base with images of Obama or Hillary sending in the jackbooted thugs to take all the guns. Yet again, we’re dealing with the self-enclosed fantasy world of the right, but also with the fact that people reasonably assume that both sides of a controversial and important issue will be represented in the political system.

In these and so many other cases, centrism is a clear political loser — you turn off your own supporters and gain nothing. If you were designing a political strategy with the goal of long-term defeat, I don’t think you could do better than actual existing Democrats.

An interview on Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[The following is the English transcript of an interview that will appear in Portuguese translation in a special issue of the IHU Online Review on Agamben, published by Instituto Humanitas Unisinos in Porto Allegre, Brazil. The questions were provided by Prof. Márcia R. Junges.]

  1. From the perspective of Giorgio Agamben in The Kingdom and the Glory, could you explain what Trinitarian oikonomia is?
  2. Giorgio Agamben takes a unique approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than focus on the various debates that led up to the formation of Trinitarian orthodoxy, he traces the fate of one particular key term: oikonomia, which is the Greek term for “economy.” Oikonomia originally referred to the management of the household but spread to other improvisational forms of management—managing the emotions of the audience in a political speech, for instance, or managing conflicts within a multi-cultural empire. Agamben argues that when Christian theologians, including “heretics,” used this language, they were drawing on the same general concept. God has to “manage” his relationship with creation, which means first of all “managing” God’s relationship to God—the inner life of God, meaning the Trinity, has its own “economy,” which allows God to manage the “economy of salvation.”

  3. What is the novelty of this perception and its contribution to the debate of political theology and economic theology?
  4. Agamben is not the first to draw political consequences from the Trinity. Read the rest of this entry »

The bankruptcy of hypocrisy critiques

I thought that Trump’s seizure of the presidency would put an end to hypocrisy critiques, but liberals are still reaching for the same tired “point and laugh” gotchas. One that came across my Facebook feed today points out that conservatives think that flag-burning shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment, but that they should have the right to take assault rifles to McDonald’s under the Second Amendment. See, the contradiction — and try to stifle your smug laughter — is that they think one constitutional right should be restricted, but another shouldn’t! How can they even live and function with such cognitive dissonance going on?!

In reality, I can construe those two positions as mutually consistent. American national identity is the guarantor of all constitutional rights, and therefore there must be a limit to acceptable critique or protest, to avoid undermining the very right to critique and protest. Particularly potent symbols of national identity — in particular the flag — should be held as sacrosanct for that reason. Prooposing otherwise would be, in this viewpoint, the true contradiction. Similarly, America is a nation founded on individual empowerment. There is no contradiction between a strong social bond and an armed populace — indeed, they go together because an armed populace is best positioned to fight for the individual rights that make America America.

If that construal seems incoherent or artificial, I encourage you to read Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides, which uses exactly the same rhetorical moves. This is all straight out of the standard toolbox of democratic patriotism, from time immemorial. It is not an ideology I embrace, but it is one that makes sense on its own terms, and it is one that is obviously very compelling for a strong plurality of our fellow-citizens.

Part of its power is its respect for emotions and symbolism, for something other than cold logic. A right isn’t an abstract formula, it’s something embedded in how you live every day — the kinds of symbolic identities you embrace and revere and the ways you perform your own self-reliance as part of that symbolic identity. From this perspective, the liberal “gotcha” point feels empty and meaningless. Worse, the hypocrisy-policing pose always implicitly assumes that the target is trying and failing to embrace empty liberal formalism. If they don’t draw the “correct” conclusion — in this case, that some old sheet of paper should be obeyed when it tells us people should be able to desecrate our sacred symbols but ignored when it says we should be able to have means of self-defense — they must be stupid. Isn’t it funny how stupid they are? You almost wonder why they keep winning so many elections.

I submit that assuming everyone is trying to be a good liberal but is too stupid to pull it off is a losing strategy. Of course, I’m probably being hypocritical because I keep trying and failing to persuade people of this. Or something. I don’t know. I kind of hate everything right now.

Roundtable in Australian Humanities Review: “What is the Western canon good for?”

Monique Rooney arranged a roundtable in the most recent issue of Australian Humanities Review around an essay of mine entitled “What is the Western canon good for?” Nina Power and other luminaries have graciously provided responses.

The Funny Games Presidency

Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games portrays a bourgeois family that is gradually destroyed by two anonymous men with an appetite for cruelty. In the face of these destructive nihilists, all the victims’ instincts — negotiation, compromise, and submission — serve only to prolong their suffering. The invaders have no long-term goal, hence there is no “getting it over with” or “meeting their demands.” They cannot be paid off or otherwise satisfied. All they want is dominance and control for its own sake.

We are now entering into the Funny Games presidency. There have been many attempts to make sense of Trump’s beliefs and strategies, and in the thinkpiece literature, he seems to alternate between being an undefeatable genius and an incompetent child. The truth, in my view, is that he is something like a genius in one very narrow field: asserting dominance. The baseline condition for that dominance is that Trump should be the center of attention, with everyone reacting to him.

As long as people are responding to him, he has control over the situation — and as long as he has control over the situation, there is no way out, because he has no other end goal. He cannot be bought off or satisfied and made to go away. As soon as he recognizes that you want something, that gives him leverage over you, and since he is a total nihilist, there is no reciprocal leverage over him. He will only give to you in the context of maintaining his dominance and control. Hence his tendency to tell his followers “what they want to hear,” which always turns out to be Trump’s brazen lies. What is most shocking in this context is how casual those lies most often are. If we review the infamous speech where he proclaimed that all Mexican immigrants are rapists, he does not particularly emphasize that remark. It’s as though he’s “just throwing it out there,” almost like he’s brainstorming.

Trump uses language as a weapon. His utterances are all tactical moves to maintain initiative and destroy his opponents. Hence his tendency, on display last night, to simply throw an accusation back at the accuser. Trump won the election under dubious circumstances, so he hallucinates a situation where Hillary won the popular vote under dubious circumstances. Trump is one of the most corrupt men alive, so he coins the nickname Crooked Hillary. We could multiply examples. The goal is not counterargument — I don’t know if he expects people to take his words literally, or indeed if he’s even thinking consciously to that extent — but to make argument impossible, to take away that weapon from his opponent. If there is no truth, then everything returns to his home territory of aggression and dominance.

He seems to know how to control himself — for instance, to use flattery as he did in his NYT meeting, or to let his opponent twist in the wind, as he did after the Comey revelations. He knows how to string people along and give them false hope. But he cannot sustain those behaviors because they are not where he lives. They are indirect means to dominance, and he prefers to achieve that goal more directly.

How does one deal with Trump? If we stick with the Funny Games example, it seems that the only solution is not to let him into your house in the first place. Once that initial bridge is crossed, he may come to control reality to such an extent that even extreme action proves ineffective.

On taking the Electoral College literally

A lot of stupid things have been said about the Electoral College since it apparently handed Trump the presidency. Much of it is in the vein of Federalist Papers fan-fiction, as in an article that is so stupid that I refuse to link it, which argues that the Electoral College was designed to save us from demagogues like Trump — ignoring the fact that it’s only because of the Electoral College that we’re even in this situation to begin with. In discussions I’ve had on Facebook, there is also a lot of talk of how the popular vote is not a good rallying cry because the campaigns would have behaved differently under a non-EC regime. And of course, there’s also the fact that the popular vote has no binding legal significance.

All these discussions seem to me to elide the distinction between legality and legitimacy. On the Federalist Papers fan-fiction side, we see the position that since the EC is legal, it must be legitimate — i.e., it must have a positive purpose (saving us from demagogues, for instance), despite its negative effects (actually giving us two demagogues within our lifetimes). And the reluctance to use the popular vote mismatch as a rallying cry makes a similar mistake from the opposite direction: since there is no such thing as abstract legitimacy apart from legal reality, we had best accept our fate.

I refuse to accept the EC result as legitimate, in this case or in the 2000 case. George W. Bush never should have been president, full stop. The fact that he was ultimately elected to a second term does not validate the injustice that he took office in the first place — giving him a position that made it much easier for him to mislead and manipulate the American people into giving him power again after he illegitimately seized it. The popular vote is flawed due to the EC regime, but it obviously has greater democratic legitimacy from any perspective. Gore should have been inaugurated in 2000, and Clinton should be inaugurated now. I utterly refuse to concede on that “should.”

Of course, there seems to be very little chance that the current EC result will be overturned. Even if Stein’s recount efforts — for which she is being mocked and derided by fatalistic, defeatist Democrats — wind up changing some state results, hitting the trifecta seems unlikely. And of course, relying on partisan Republicans to “do the right thing” is a fool’s errand in the best of circumstances. And while we’re being “realistic,” it’s probably not politically feasible to amend the Constitution to remove the Electoral College — due to absurd constraints that are themselves illegitimate in my view. The Founders themselves ignored the provisions for replacing the Articles of Confederation when designing the current Constitution; some day, we need to have the courage to do the same.

What should happen in the meantime, then? Admittedly, this is not actionable — I am not an Elector and am in no position to influence any of them — but it’s interesting to play out the possibilities. The most intellectually satisfying way to think of it, in my view, is the way that some Electors reportedly are viewing their activities: if they take the Constitution at its word and act like independent agents exercising their own discretion, then that in itself will delegitimate the Electoral College, regardless of whether the overall result is changed.

What allows the EC to function is the fact that convention (and often state law) has tended to treat it as a purely mechanistic affair. The winner of each states just “gets” the EC votes of that state. The actual vote of the EC usually does not garner significant media coverage, as most citizens seem content with the idea that the news media plays the de facto role of announcing who won. But it remains the case that there are 538 nameable individuals who in fact select the president. They are chosen for their promise to behave in a machine-like way in ratifying the official EC result, backed by a lifetime of partisan loyalty, which reinforces the impression of a purely impersonal mechanism, but they are living, breathing human agents who are in fact selecting the president.

If this fact became vividly undeniable, then the EC would suddenly be intolerable. Actualizing the EC as “originally intended” would immediately delegitimate it — which shows that it is de facto illegitimate right now. Taking it literally breaks the spell. From a Schmittian perspective, breaking that spell is indeed a risky move, and I don’t pretend to know what would happen if, for instance, the Electoral College did choose Hillary Clinton. Maybe it wouldn’t be worth it. Maybe it would break a much bigger spell. But the fact is that the Electoral College is a ticking timebomb, a standing affront to all common sense democratic instincts. All that allows it to keep happening is a constant charade that it isn’t happening — that it’s an impersonal mechanism, that it fulfills some valuable function, that it isn’t 538 individual flesh-and-blood human beings who have the privilege of choosing the president every four years.

Scott Erik Kaufman

I was very saddened to learn of the death of Scott Erik Kaufman. It is shocking to lose such a giant among bloggers at such a young age. Everyone who participated in the often tumultuous debates in the early days of academic blogging will remember him as a tireless and generous interlocutor, the kind of person who will stridently disagree with you throughout a 30-comment exchange and then try to recruit you as a co-blogger. More broadly, he blazed a trail from academia to online writing that others have followed, though not with the same energy and flair.

My personal favorite post of his is DISADVENTURE!, a parody of a text-based adventure game where the player must write a dissertation — and characteristically, I now see that there are actually seven further installments. I invite others to share their favorite posts and memories.