Democracy

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“Democratic Vistas” — Walt Whitman

“Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman

Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium, not of good only, but of all. We try often, though we fall back often. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes, fills these arenas, and fully satisfies, out of the action in them, irrespective of success. Whatever we do not attain, we at any rate attain the experiences of the fight, the hardening of the strong campaign, and throb with currents of attempt at least. Time is ample. Let the victors come after us. Not for nothing does evil play its part among us. Judging from the main portions of the history of theworld, so far, justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls, and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of the protean forms, no voice can at any time say, They are not. The clouds break a little, and the sun shines out-but soon and certain the lowering darkness falls again, as if to last forever. Yet is there an immortal courage and prophecy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances, capitulate. Vive, the attack–the perennial assault! Vive, the unpopular cause–the spirit that audacious]y aims–the never-abandoned efforts, pursued the same amid opposing proofs and precedents.

Once, before the war (alas! I dare not say how many times the mood has come!) I, too, was filled with doubt and gloom. A foreigner, an acute and good man, had impressively said to me, that day-putting in form, indeed, my own observations: “I have traveled much in the United States, and watched their politicians, and listened to the speeches of the candidates, and read the journals, and gone into the public-houses, and heard the unguarded talk of men. And I have found your vaunted America honeycombed from top to toe with infidelism, even to itself and its own program. I have marked the brazen hell-faces of secession and slavery gazing defiantly from all the windows and doorways. I have everywhere found, primarily, thieves and scalliwags arranging the nominations to offices, and sometimes filling the offices themselves. I have found the north just as full of bad stuff as the south. Of the holders of public office in the Nation or the States or their municipalities, I have found that not one in a hundred has been chosen by any spontaneous selection of the outsiders, the people, but all have been nominated and put through by little or large caucuses of the politicians, and have got in by corrupt rings and electioneering, not capacity or desert. I have noticed how the millions of sturdy farmers and mechanics are thus the helpless supple-jacks of comparatively few politicians. And I have noticed, more and more, the alarming spectacle of parties usurping the government, and openly and shamelessly wielding it for party purposes. Continue reading ““Democratic Vistas” — Walt Whitman”

“Maybe there’s something wrong with our notion of paradise” — Slavoj Žižek

In an essay published today at the LRB, Slavoj Žižek addresses the current, disparate waves of protest around the globe and explores the

difference between a reformist and a revolutionary period: in a reformist period, global revolution remains a dream which, if it does anything, merely lends weight to attempts to change things locally; in a revolutionary period, it becomes clear that nothing will improve without radical global change.

Žižek continues:

Where do we stand today with respect to this difference? Are the problems and protests of the last few years signs of an approaching global crisis, or are they just minor obstacles that can be dealt with by means of local interventions? The most remarkable thing about the eruptions is that they are taking place not only, or even primarily, at the weak points in the system, but in places which were until now perceived as success stories. We know why people are protesting in Greece or Spain; but why is there trouble in such prosperous or fast-developing countries as Turkey, Sweden or Brazil? With hindsight, we might see the Khomeini revolution of 1979 as the original ‘trouble in paradise’, given that it happened in a country that was on the fast-track of pro-Western modernisation, and the West’s staunchest ally in the region. Maybe there’s something wrong with our notion of paradise.

If the examples in the above paragraph seem too concrete for a Žižekian riff, don’t worry. Our philosopher addresses what he takes to be the ideological underpinnings of protest:

It is also important to recognise that the protesters aren’t pursuing any identifiable ‘real’ goal. The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism, ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism, ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy, or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular. What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands. The struggle to understand the protests is not just an epistemological one, with journalists and theorists trying to explain their true content; it is also an ontological struggle over the thing itself, which is taking place within the protests themselves. Is this just a struggle against corrupt city administration? Is it a struggle against authoritarian Islamist rule? Is it a struggle against the privatisation of public space? The question is open, and how it is answered will depend on the result of an ongoing political process.

And an answer, perhaps, to some of these questions:

Only a politics that fully takes into account the complexity of overdetermination deserves to be called a strategy. When we join a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans – for democracy, against corruption etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal, we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom, our humiliation, corruption, poor prospects) persists in a new guise, so that we are forced to recognise that there was a flaw in the goal itself. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom, or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. In short, what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education.

Michel Houellebecq on Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Democracy

(Click the CC button for English subtitles).

“Americans Are in a Way Crazy” — David Foster Wallace

Chapter 19 David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (or, §19, if you prefer the book’s conceit) begins with this paragraph—

‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don’t understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business, because that’s my area.’

‘What do we do to stop the decline?’

I plan to write more about this later — Tea Party, Real America, all that slang — but I’m tapped out right now. Back to school, syllabi to stick in the toaster oven, too much red tonight, all that jazz.

“Just Asking” — David Foster Wallace’s 9/11 Thought Experiment

Here’s David Foster Wallace’s “Just Asking,” from the November, 2007 issue of The Atlantic

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

FOOTNOTES:
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)


I Voted Early in Florida and It Was Easy

I voted last Thursday. It was easy. I had to go pick up my daughter from daycare, and an early voting location happened to be right on the way. I left half an hour early just in case, and then drove the 1.1 miles to the Murray Hill Library. I returned three audio books (I know you’re dying to know: Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist, Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder, and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and then stood in a line five-people deep where I waited all of 120 seconds before entering the voting area. There, I handed over my driver license and voter registration card, confirmed my address, and waited about 45 seconds for my ballot. The woman in front of me was living at an address different from the one on her ID, but she was able to vote anyway. Easy. I overheard the process involved (she had to fill out some form) while I waited about a minute to go to a booth. Then I went to the booth and voted for Obama (I didn’t even look wistfully at Nader’s name, I swear!). I voted on some other stuff too, but the only other thing I cared about quite a bit was Florida’s proposed Amendment 2, another American Taliban scheme to define marriage. I voted “no,” of course. The whole process, including driving, took less than 20 minutes (I should mention that I had my sample ballot with me, which is a time saver of course).

Some folks I know personally have worried about early voting–will their vote be counted?–and after debacles in 2000 and 2004, who can blame them for these anxieties? However, Florida voters can go to the Florida Division of Elections website to check the early voting and absentee ballot reports. I went there, clicked on my county’s updated report, downloaded a .txt file and found my name, as well as my wife’s, and the respective times we voted. Done. I know–and have a record–that my vote will be counted. Simple. Now, go vote–you never know what surprise might pop up on November 4th.

“Some Principles of Democracy and Deconstruction—American or Otherwise” by A. S. Kimball

“Some Principles of Democracy and Deconstruction—American or Otherwise” by Sam Kimball.

1. Democracy and deconstruction name the namelessness of a we, the people in relation to this people’s unimaginable possibilities of collective self-identification to come.

2. For this reason democracy and deconstruction locate the we in a future that transcends any possible transcendence of time, and therefore that remains utterly contingent and extinguishable, able to be obliterated in an apocalypse of the name.

3. Democracy and deconstruction attempt to respond to a demand—untraceable to any face or mind, to any consciousness—for absolute justice.

4. To this end, and because “we are all heir, at least, to persons or events marked, in an essential, interior, ineffaceable fashion, by crimes against humanity” (Derrida, Of Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 29), democracy and deconstruction demand of the citizen to come an attitude of radical forgiveness and hospitality.

5. To this same end, and for similar reasons, democracy and deconstruction also entail a radical affirmation—that is, they are ways of saying “Yes?” or “Who’s there?” in the absence of any determinate voicing.

6. This means that democracy and deconstruction respond to a call that comes from an unimaginable and indeterminate future.

7. For all these reasons as well as the fact that “all nation-states are born and found themselves in violence” (Of Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 57), democracy and deconstruction are provisional names for an historically unrealized ideal.

8. Thus, democracy and deconstruction require an incessant work of critique.

9. Democracy and deconstruction are ways of working toward forms of community that must necessarily exceed, transgress, transcend, and therefore remark all political borders, most especially those that define the sovereignty of the nation-state.

10. The spirit of the spirit of democracy and deconstruction has no single emotional marker, cannot be contained within or encompassed by any single emotional apprehension, is not identifiable as an affective state.

11. Democracy and deconstruction are inseparable from the fictionalizing, virtualizing power of literature.