Saturday, January 15, 2011

Equality, Not Civility

In the wake of the horrifying shooting in Arizona, there seems to be a wide mainstream consensus that we need to "clean up our political discourse" and try to be more "civil". Civility could be the word of the week.

Terrible though the shooting was, it would be naive to think that it caused any serious shifts in the ways that our system functions. Obama and the Democrats, who've favored narratives about "coming together", "bipartisanship", and "reaching across the aisles" for many months, have now found the perfect opportunity to trumpet their favored ideological maneuver. Make no mistake- when this awful event happened, somewhere there was a meeting called about how Obama should respond to the event, what "narratives" he should lean on, how he should sell himself, etc. Nothing he says on Television is random. It's all manicured and fitted to the political strategies agreed upon in the Administration.

Likewise, the Republicans responded in a similar fashion. They thought long and hard about what they should say in mass media outlets, and crafted their rhetoric accordingly. The interpretation of this horrific event is political.

To be clear- my beef is not that such moves were political. I'm not decrying the "politicizing" of putatively apolitical phenomena. My point is that such moves cannot but be political- the only questions is: which politics? In other words- who are the interested parties involved? what are the relations of power among them? what is their narrative about how their present power is legitimate? in light of this what do they aim to accomplish? and so forth.

Now, when someone tells you that something is apolitical, look out. That is a classic way of trying to cover up latent conflicts and unequal social relations while silencing the grievances of the oppressed. Let us not forget why the feminist slogan "the personal is political" was so important: it confidently rejected the patronizing dismissal of patriarchal definitions of what politics is and isn't, and declared that a large (hitherto unscrutinized) sphere of modern life was worth thinking about politically. The point was that "personal" relationships, the family and gendered divisions of labor were part of a political system, they were part of unequal power relations that were institutionalized at home, in workplaces, churches, etc.. As such, the feminist claim was that they weren't merely "individual problems", problems with particular women "not being able to cope", or whatever. They were social and political problems that required collective solutions. In this way, feminists began to undermine the dismissive patriarchal refrain that such "private" issues were not political, that they did not deserve to be discussed publicly, etc. Light was thus thrown upon previously hidden domination and hierarchy.

Something similar is going on right now. We're being asked to forget about everything political and embrace a putatively apolitical injunction to be "civil". But what is civility? Why is it supposedly important?

If we take the mainstream media at its word, civility is merely a way of talking. The injunction to be civil, then, means don't talk in a "mean" way towards others. Given the apolitical character of this injunction, it could very well be interpreted to mean: "Sure, be a racist in private if you like, but just talk in a friendly way when in public". "Tolerance" is another buzzword here: but what is it we are supposed to tolerate? Universal tolerance is itself an incoherent idea: surely endorsing it means you can't tolerate intolerance. After all, those pedaling the virtues of tolerance and civility have some target in mind when they pedal it, that is, there is some element of our discourse that they see as intolerable. For my part, I agree with them that the violent, racist fantasies and metaphors commonly used among the Right are intolerable. I agree that our society should not take lightly the fact that the xenophobic, racist Right believes that Obama isn't "American", and I'm given chills by the fact that gun sales jumped up 50% upon Obama's election victory in 2008. As Gary Younge notes:
Polls last year revealed that a majority of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim and a socialist who "wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government" while two-thirds of Republicans either believe or are not sure that the president is "a racist who hates white people", and more than half believe or are not sure that "he was not born in the US" and that he "wants the terrorists to win".
Or, as Richard Seymour has put it:
Palin is often quite explicit when she wants an enemy of the 'real America', the pristine white America of lore, to be assassinated. So is Pat Robertson, you may recall. Assassination is as American as the hackneyed patriotic schtick that often seems to motivate it. This isn't about the gallows humour of the Republican right which consists precisely of knowing, wink-wink in-jokes (gun-sight imagery, 'Reload', and so on) about the barbarism that already exists, and which they have done so much to cultivate. It's about what the jokes advert to. The problem is not whether and how to domesticate political language, as some have wrongly assumed, but how to fight back against the political forces that are fomenting this bilious filth.
The rise of this hard-right, racist and nationalist political tendency in the US is a social/political phenomenon that must be taken seriously. It is not a matter of the words used in our political culture. And neither is it a matter of excessive "polarization" that a vague call for unity could mitigate. This is an institutionalized, well-funded political movement that is built on racism, prejudice, "gun rights" and "angry white man" furor. The problem with this movement isn't that it isn't sufficiently "civil" in how it expresses itself. The problem with it is that it exists at all. The problem is that it is built upon racism and hatred all the way down. If we lack the public language to articulate this fact politically, we leave racism and far-right hatred unchecked and unchallenged.

Imagine you are a Muslim-American, or that you are an undocumented immigrant, drawing the fierce ire and hatred of these violent Tea-Bagger-type groups. How would you feel if you were told that the problem was simply that you weren't civil enough towards such right-wing elements, that you should seek to tolerate such hate? How would you feel if you were told to tolerate and embrace the quasi-fascist Minutemen vigilantes and the politicians who back them? Surely such tolerance would most certainly fall under the heading of Marcuse's felicitous phrase: "repressive tolerance".

I want no part of this. I believe in full equality and solidarity, not civility. I don't want more civil and friendly oppressors, I want for there not to be oppressors lording over us at all. I don't want a more friendly ruling class that speaks in more compassionate tongues, I want for there to be no ruling class above us at all. What I (and the socialist Left) stand for is a robust notion of equality. The kind of equality that resists anyone placing their boot on someone else's neck. The kind of equality that brushes against the grain of the most unequal society on the planet. The kind of equality that stands opposed to all forms of domination, oppression, exploitation and intimidation. The kind of equality that is only possible when power is distributed widely and equitably, when the groundwork is laid for relations of reciprocity and respect (as against the competitive, atomized, antagonistic social relations encouraged under capitalism). I'm talking about the kind of equality based on the belief that an injury to one is an injury to all. When we say "no human being is illegal" and stand uncompromisingly with every single person "sin papeles", we do so on the basis of a strong belief in the value of equality. When socialists say "another world is possible", this is what they're talking about. None of this has the least bit to do with bourgeois civility. I'll be civil once we have genuine equality. But as long as some subordinate others to their arbitrary will, whether its through racist oppression, sexism, neo-colonial ventures, international financial institutions, or class domination, I don't think there's a good reason to mince words when describing such phenomena for what they are. If you stand for reciprocity and solidarity- you can't be silent or neutral. You have to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves and demand that they be liberated.

As Harold Pinter once put it:
There exists today widespread propaganda which asserts that socialism is dead. But if to be a socialist is to be a person convinced that the words "the common good" and "social justice" actually mean something; if to be a socialist is to be outraged at the contempt in which millions and millions of people are held by those in power, by "market forces," by international financial institutions; if to be a socialist is to be a person determined to do everything in his or her power to alleviate these unforgivably degraded lives, then socialism can never be dead because these aspirations will never die.

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