Sunday, February 27, 2011

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The Things We Want

After last month's Tuscon shootings, there was a lot of talk from politicians in both parties about the need to remind ourselves that Americans want the same things, they just disagree on how to go about getting them. If we keep this in mind, the argument goes, we can ensure that our disagreements will remain civil.

In his slim treatise Ill Fares the Land, the prominent historian and public intellectual Tony Judt openly challenges this comfortable belief. I quote at length:

"It has become commonplace to assert that we all want the same thing, we just have slightly different ways of going about it.

But this is simply false. The rich do not want the same thing as the poor. Those who depend on their job for their livelihood do not want the same thing as those who live off investments and dividends. Those who do not need public services—because they can purchase private transport, education, and protection—do not seek the same thing as those who depend exclusively on the public sector. Those who benefit from war—either as defense contractors or on ideological grounds—have different objectives than those who are against war.

Societies are complex and complain conflicting interests. To assert just a way to promote one set of interests above another. This proposition used to be self-evident; today we are encouraged to dismiss it as an incendiary encouragement to class hatred."

Aside from being a prime example of Judt's characteristically refreshing bluntness, this observation is notable in the way it goes about challenging our notion of democratic discourse. He's asking us to consider how we think and why we think (i.e. what rhetorical trends shape our thoughts). And I think he's right: we've gotten away from one of the most basic ideas underpinning the modern nation-state, ideas that go back to Thomas Hobbes: we don't all want the same things. This is the condition that encourages humans to form polities in the first place. Governments are established to mediate between our conflicting desires, not to eliminate them altogether. (Don't believe me? Read Federalist No. 10).

Judt's point is that one discourse propagated by a small ruling elite—the ideologies of "small" government and "free" markets implemented by Reagan and Thatcher—has been cast as What Americans Want. This false consensus has had disastrous consequences: increasing stratification between the rich and poor; deteriorating infrastructure and other necessary public goods; a blanket suspicion of government's ability to do anything right (except wield its military might). The paradox is that by admitting that rich and poor do not want the same things, we may all be better off. We may be able to find a middle way between the  discursive binary that restricts our choice to a contest between unfettered markets and Communist totalitarianism. We may find that we all have an interest in giving the government a modicum of trust; that it is neither the cure for nor the cause of all our problems; but that, depending on the situation, it may be either. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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Return to Sender

Today would have been my grandmother's 90th birthday. A year ago at this time, we had a sense that she wouldn't last much longer. She was frail, in pain, and always tired. Trying to ease the depressing surroundings of the nursing home, I sent her a birthday card from Chicago.

The card had pink roses on the front, the best I could do from the Hyde Park grocery store's meager selection. Without being too pointed, I wanted Grandma to know that I thought of her suffering every day, that she hadn't gone forgotten. I said something like, "I've always admired your resilience and I'm praying for you daily" (I don't have the card here in Philadelphia). I remember her thanking me for it over the phone, perhaps during our last real conversation, an almost hour-long chat whose duration surprised everyone, considering how weak she was. I don't remember what we talked about other than Matt Holliday's new contract with the Cardinals.

She died in April. My dad and uncle went about disposing of her possessions. I received a Hummel from her beloved collection and, to my surprise, the birthday card. Birthday cards are usually sent into the mail and never seen again, and so it was surreal having one back so soon, as if I'd written the wrong address. But here it was in my hands again, less than two months after I'd sent it, almost like I'd loaned it to her.

Then again, she was on borrowed time then, as the phrase goes. Even that birthday, her 89th, didn't seem to be fully hers. It's an ugly, uneven number; I remember hoping then that she could hang on until 90, if only for symmetry's sake.

But she didn't, and that turned out to be for the best. Her death brought a sense of closure, an end to the suffering that was itself an end to a tough life, one that began in the Dust Bowl of South Dakota. She bore it all with a quiet resolve. Fittingly, in the months since her death, there hasn't been a gaping sadness. Instead, there have been quiet moments when her absence suddenly becomes a bit sharper—a question I'd like to ask her, a story I'd like to share, a 90th birthday card that I won't get to send.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

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The Enduring Bellow

Among the many delights to be found in the recently-published trove of Saul Bellow's letters, I don't think any better encapsulate Bellow's singular gift for heartbreaking comedy than the following three-sentence note to his son Adam:

Dear Adam,
Here are some stamps. Countries sometimes disappear and leave nothing behind but some postage stamps. But Papas and Adams go on and on.



Thursday, February 3, 2011

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Adunis, Obama, & Egypt

I'm no expert on Arab history, but I found this passage, from the Syrian-Lebanese poet and critic Adunis's "Introduction to Arab Poetics," to be interesting in light of the recent developments in Egypt:

"...'[M]odern' Arab thinkers have adapted to the shock of modernization from the West by treating modernity primarily as a technological achievement. For this reason modernity in Arab society has continued to be something imported from abroad, a modernity which adopts the new things but not the intellectual attitude and method which produced them, whereas true modernity is a way of seeing before it is production."

Adunis's insight goes a long way, I think, in explaining the tragedy of American cultural imperialism, and not only in the Arab world: the United States is extremely successful at exporting its culture (especially its culture of material consumption) and extremely clumsy at exporting its brand of republican democracy. The late 20th century saw two grand examples of this bumbling dichotomy. In Vietnam, America's leaders failed to recognize Ho Chi Minh's real appeal as a populist leader, especially when compared to the likes of the incredibly corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem. This pattern prevailed throughout the Cold War, as American presidents equated "fighting for freedom" as "fighting against communism"—even if their puppets in those fights were themselves despotic strongmen. And so, long after American troops left Vietnam, surplus American goods were coveted in Saigon, even as a certain pride lingered among the Vietnamese at having repelled the American invaders. In that adventure, we succeeded in giving the Vietnamese a taste for Marlboros, while simultaneously suggesting that we weren't all that interested in helping the Vietnamese make their own Marlboros. The lesson learned: buy the imperialist's goods, but keep him at arm's length.

The second Iraq War was launched as a war that had internalized the lessons of Vietnam. George W. Bush, with a complicit media, pointed to the real danger of WMDs and the noble goal of "making the world safe for democracy" as solid ground for invading Iraq. There was never any doubt that America would establish a democratic government after Saddam Hussein's fall; no fooling around with Diems this time. But Adunis's characterization of the emptiness of Arab modernity is a nice description of what came next: America tried to impose American-style democracy on a nation that had been living with centuries of reactionary Islamic government, not at all a solid foundation on which to plant a republic. This is not to suggest that the Arab world is "backwards"—for this is imposing Western standards of modernity on those nations—but that, as Adunis points out, insofar as the Arab world has modernized by Western standards, it has done so incompletely, and therefore dangerously. (Ultimately, Adunis argues that Arab culture must look to its poets and critics of the ninth century as a template for a renewed Arab modernity that is actually modern, not just "new," a conception of modernity far more Arab-centric and substantial than simply buying iPhones).

Now, with the uprisings in Egypt, the United States under the Obama administration has once again clumsily adapted a new method of fostering democracy abroad. This is the "organic revolution" approach, as if democracy is a tree that the United States gently waters (rather than forcefully plants). I say that we've gone about this clumsily because for weeks after a substantial portion of Egyptians made their anti-Mubarak preferences clear, the Obama administration blithely ignored Mubarak's real unpopularity before suddenly waving the banner of democracy and essentially guaranteeing that Mubarak wouldn't seek reelection.

But more than the bumbling switch from apathy to activism, what makes me uncomfortable about the whole situation is that after America's failed democractic exports of the 20th century, we in the 21st are still looking to the United States as the guardian angel of these nationalistic uprisings. If the Egyptians want democracy, then they are to be applauded, as are all who seek greater individual freedom (David Brooks rightly characterized these uprisings as quests for dignity in a recent column). But they should be allowed to do so on their own terms, without American grandfathering. As Adunis points out, American democracy as it has been exported has amounted to little more than the creation of markets founded upon shaky (or at least fundamentally non-Western) governments, a development that hardly contributes to a more stable international order. I don't think human beings yet know of systems more effective at creating stability than free markets and democratic governments, but these are effective only insofar as they develop on their own. The uprisings in Egypt are thus to be celebrated to the extent that they result in a democratic government that isn't stamped, "Made in the USA."