The American “State of Exception”

•December 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By most accounts, the Obama Administration and congressional Dems have had a strong week: repealing DADT, ratifying START, and negotiating a health settlement for 9/11 first responders.  And while these are certainly praiseworthy (though relatively modest and, one would have thought, nonpartisan), there are a plethora of constitutional usurpations that remain unchecked, and have received little attention.

While employing the language of constitutionalism in today’s political climate evokes visions of crazed tea-partiers and conspiracy theorists, what I have in mind is a bit more troubling than any faux-populist paranoia over action on health care or global climate change.  Indeed, recent occurrences speak to the expansion of the national security apparatus and the simultaneous distancing of this bureaucratic structure from anything resembling transparency or accountability.

(*note: the previous link to a series of WP articles by Dana Priest and William Arkin is worth reading in its entirety)

As I’ve previously remarked, Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception seems more on target than ever. The so-called “War on Terror” is a purportedly emergency situation that is said to warrant the suspension of democratic principles in the very name of saving democracy.  The “War” knows no spatial or temporal bounds (Pakistan? Yemen?  What’s next, Mexico? Maybe), and – as the case of Bradley Manning and the indefinite detention of Guantanamo detainees demonstrates – those deemed threats to the stability of American empire are stripped of all political qualifications.  They are no longer seen as warranting any ethical concern or protection, but still subject to the coercive, often violent, intrusion of the sovereign power into the minutest details of their lives (this is particularly apparent with respect to Manning, but potentially true for anyone who uses email, telephones or laptops to discuss matters that just might be taken by someone within the national security cabal as “threatening”).  The line between democracy and totalitarianism is becoming so blurred that it’s tough to envision a concrete solution.

What does seem clear is that whistleblowers like Manning – who are doing a great service to anyone concerned with democratic accountability – are being subject to punishment that we’d associate with oppressive regimes of the past (rather than a state that assumes itself a beacon of democracy).  For those who haven’t kept up on the case, here’s Manning’s logic for leaking the classified documents (as reported by Glenn Greenwald):

…[J]ust recall some of what Manning purportedly said about why he chose to leak, at least as reflected in the edited chat logs published by Wired:

Lamo: what’s your endgame plan, then?. . .

Manning: well, it was forwarded to [WikiLeaks] – and god knows what happens now – hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms – if not, than [sic] we’re doomed – as a species – i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens – the reaction to the video gave me immense hope; CNN’s iReport was overwhelmed; Twitter exploded – people who saw, knew there was something wrong . . . Washington Post sat on the video… David Finkel acquired a copy while embedded out here. . . . – i want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.

if i knew then, what i knew now – kind of thing, or maybe im just young, naive, and stupid . . . im hoping for the former – it cant be the latter – because if it is… were fucking screwed (as a society) – and i dont want to believe that we’re screwed.

Manning described the incident which first made him seriously question the U.S. Government: when he was instructed to work on the case of Iraqi “insurgents” who had been detained for distributing so-called “insurgent” literature which, when Manning had it translated, turned out to be nothing more than “a scholarly critique against PM Maliki”:

i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…

i had always questioned the things worked, and investigated to find the truth… but that was a point where i was a *part* of something… i was actively involved in something that i was completely against…

And Manning explained why he never considered the thought of selling this classified information to a foreign nation for substantial profit or even just secretly transmitting it to foreign powers, as he easily could have done:

Manning: i mean what if i were someone more malicious- i could’ve sold to russia or china, and made bank?

Lamo: why didn’t you?

Manning: because it’s public data

Lamo: i mean, the cables

Manning: it belongs in the public domain -information should be free – it belongs in the public domain – because another state would just take advantage of the information… try and get some edge – if its out in the open… it should be a public good.

It should, indeed, be a public good, but security concerns currently trump any concerns with democracy, justice, and….plain decency.


Why Progressives are Losing

•December 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Hint: it has as much to do with discourse as it does money:


The Real Threat

•December 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I never envisioned using this blog as a way to encourage blanket generalizations about a whole population, but there comes a time when the actions of one group become so damaging to the Nation’s vitality, that it becomes an ethical imperative to speak out.  I don’t want to be the one to say it, but someone has to.  There is a looming threat in America.  We all know them.  We walk past them every day at the grocery store, we see them in our parks, we sit next to them at our cinemas.  They are our neighbor’s, our uncles, even our fathers.  We may recognize it, but the thrust of political correctness has become so great that few will utter the Truth.  The greatest threat to America today is not terrorists, immigrants or globalists…it is middle-aged white men.

It pains me to say this, because I know many of them and, truth be told, they aren’t ALL bad.  If I was in a bind, I would probably let some of them fix my car, do my taxes, or maybe, in a real pinch, serve as my elected representative.  But they tend to be uncivilized, prone to violence, and overall, unfit for self-governance (despite often thinking of themselves as all-knowing Gods).  The worst part is that as hard as individuals try to overcome it, they are typically unable to get beyond these essential traits that comprise the middle-aged white man’s Nature.  The reality is they can’t help it: it’s a cultural thing that evolved through centuries of raping and pillaging, then reigning over whatever population stood in their way.  The danger is that this culture is spreading like the plague, infecting women, the poor, blacks, even gays.

Don’t believe me? Check out Exhibit A: The Ken Buck/Michael Bennett Race.  As I’ve previously mentioned, Buck is a nut job, woefully unfit for public office.  Yet white men favored him by over 20% against Michael Bennet – a centrist Dem in the Bill Clinton mold.  Buck’s strongest supporters were those making between fifty and one-hundred thousand.  This divide is most marked in the 40-49 age group where fully 60% of all voters supported Buck.  I would love to see the numbers for white males aged 40-49.  Partial Disclaimer: Bennet, also a middle-aged white man, recently capitulated on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%.  This occurrence demonstrates that even seemingly “good” members of this population – when in an environment filled with others of their kind – will soon deviate back to the norm.

Worse yet, this phenomenon isn’t confined to Colorado, but seems to extend nation-wide.  I give you Exhibit B: House national polls. 62% of white men voted republican, and among those making 200,000 or more, 64% voted republican.  In a troubling development that highlights the tremendous scope of the contagion, white women (particularly upper-middle class white women) are only slightly better.

Still not convinced?  Take Exhibit C: The Tea Party.  According to the NY Times, “[t]he 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45…They are wealthier and better-educated than the general public.”  To summarize, the typical Tea Partier is a Middle-aged, upper-middle class, white man with some college (typically studying business or engineering, with few forays into the liberal arts).

The question then emerges: moving beyond the obvious demographics, what’s driving the Tea Party?  Contrary to popular narratives, it’s not the economy, it’s not a commitment to an “originalist” constitution, it’s not the overt racism of years past: its ressentiment.  The Tea Party is an identity politics movement for the one group who hadn’t had it: middle-aged white men.  It finds its outlet in this combination of neoliberalism, originalism and neoracism, but truth be told the movement is inspired by the politics of “Me-tooism.”  From the primitive perspective of the middle-aged white male, (think feigned southern drawl) “women had their movement…so did blacks, Mex-eee-cans and even ho-mo-sex-uuuules, what about us?”

Think about it, the movement is framed around nationalist symbols that are unabashedly macho, expresses nostalgia for a 1950s America where concerns of color remained latent, emphasizes traditional family values (i.e. the father rules over the household), and worships the Christian God (always a “he”) who provides lessons that social life is modeled on.  But more than anything, the movement is utterly reliant upon an Other that is constantly racialized, feminized, and foreign-ized.  The movement falters without Obama. It needs him.  It’s identity is reliant upon him.  He serves as a simple proxy for all that is “un-American.”  Perhaps the Tea Party exists with a female president (say Hilary Clinton), but it doesn’t with a white man in office.

Can middle-aged white men change?  Maybe.  But it is sure to be a slow, drawn-out process.  Until then, it’s time to start a new movement that protects the real America against this threat.  Let’s not let political correctness delay us any longer: tell your middle-class, middle-aged, white brothers, cousins, and friends to stay home next election season.  Maybe we could even introduce a cultural literacy test (they would have to, say, have at least one friend of another race [and no, watching Oprah or professional sports would not suffice], or have a basic grasp of the colonization of the Southwest).  Unfortunately some good ones will be weeded out in the process, and denied their freedom. But this is only collateral damage, and it pales in comparison to what They have done to Us.

Remember, it’s for the good of the Nation.

On Self-Reliance (or Something Like That)

•November 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

For those people who still cling to the myth of self-reliance, and the even bigger myth that the “American Dream” is driven by such pretences, and who maintain that the most valuable and positive national character trait is our ability to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and collectively create wealth for ourselves and our compatriots, the following article will hopefully cause a moment of doubt.  The realization that we are not the only American republic celebrating The Feast of the Goat, and the fact that the recent election results will decrease the number of fellow revelers in this Bacchanalian orgy of spending and income accumulation should cause both Democrats and Republicans to cringe.  But it won’t.  And that’s the saddest part of this whole mess.  Our inability to see past our own noses and question the dominant motifs we have been fed for generations leads me to believe that our current crisis is only the beginning of a larger tragedy, and not the apex that our leaders would have us believe.  Maybe that’s just cynical, but I doubt it.  For many, its a difficult thing to distinguish between cynicism and realism, but much of this lies in the fact that the two are so narrowly separated.

Fear and Loathing in Fort Collins

•November 2, 2010 • 1 Comment

In thinking about today’s election, it’s worth turning to HST’s classic work of political journalism, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.  The parallels between then and now are marked.  The political figures to which progressives have hitched their wagon – McGovern and Obama – were both once underdogs deemed too far to the left, who rose to prominence rapidly…along with the hopes of the downtrodden.  Swept up in this enthusiasm, Thompson proclaims McGovern’s candidacy a “high water mark” insofar as the radical ideological shifts of the sixties seemed, if only for a fleeting moment, like they might not only continue, but actually be institutionalized in the formal power structure.  However, the wave crested, the potentially revolutionary floodwaters receded, and leftists were faced with the realities of living in the reactionary, conservative swampland in which we’ve collectively wallowed over the better part of the past forty years.

Today I find myself wondering if the 2008 election season was a similar high water mark – progressives were excited at a level that we hadn’t seen since the sixties (particularly young people!), African-Americans and racial minorities were feeling enfranchised (even if this was largely symbolic), and a platform of radical change was close to being institutionalized (with a candidate pushing for universal health-care, structural economic reforms, action on climate change, alter-globalization, etc.).

Was the symbolic victory of 2008 all we’re gonna get out of all that emotional intensity?  Even controlling all of the formal institutional power, we got half-assed healthcare and financial reforms.  Now that the House has flipped sides, do we console ourselves that in two years voters miffed at Republican obstructionism might just be angry enough to give us power back, and then, finally, Obama – not facing the politics of reelection – will act as we had hoped?  The past two years have seen revolutionary sentiments fade away yet again…this time a hell of a lot faster and after having accomplished a hell of a lot less than in the sixties.

The following is Thompson’s commentary (with my slight amendments to bring it up to date):

“Due to circumstances beyond my control, I would rather not write anything about the 2010 campaigns at this time.  On Tuesday, November 2, I will get out of bed long enough to go down to the polling place and vote for Democrats.  Afterwards, I will drive back to the house, lock the front door, get back in bed, and watch television as long as necessary.  It will probably be awhile before The Angst lifts – but whenever it happens I will get out of bed again and start writing the mean, cold-blooded bummer that I was not quite ready for today…Words are no longer important at this stage of the campaign; all the best ones were said a long time ago, and all the right ideas were bouncing around in public long before Labor Day.

That is the one grim truth of this election most likely to come back and haunt us: The options were clearly defined, and all the major candidates were publicly grilled…By mid-September both parties had staked out their own separate turfs, and if not everybody could tell you what each platform stood for specifically, almost everyone likely to vote in November understood that the Tea-Partying Republicans and the Democrats were two very different parties: not only in the context of politics, but also in their personalities, temperaments, guiding principles, and even their basic lifestyles…

There is almost a Yin/Yang clarity in the difference between the two parties, a contrast so stark that it would be hard to find any two better models in the national political arena for the legendary duality – the congenital Split Personality and polarized instincts – that almost everybody except Americans has long since taken for granted as the key to our National Character…[I]t is the Tea Party itself that represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.  This lily-white, middle class “Party,” with its Barbie doll wives, and minivans full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde.  They speak for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string warts, on nights when the moon comes too close…

At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and the head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps fifty feet down to the lawn…pauses briefly to strangle the Chow watchdog, then races of into the darkness…towards the Watergate, snarling with lust, loping through alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Thompson’s analysis of the downfall is both poetic and remarkably precise.  His imagery captures the contradictions that are “America” in a concise, powerful fashion; at once critiquing the powers that be, while revealing to us that these supposed power-brokers are merely the effects of our collective “dark side.”  While the Tea Party hasn’t claimed the White House – as Nixon did – some of its monstrous incarnations will soon be roaming the halls of Congress.



The Spectacle of the 2010 midterms

•October 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Elections season brings out the nuttiest in people – along with death and taxes, this is one of the few certainties in life (although if the Tea Party has their way, we may have to amend that statement).  Yet the midterms of 2010 set a new….a new….something.  From the shocking (Christine O’Donnell’s lack of knowledge about the 1st Amendment, Ken Buck being…well, Ken Buck) to the scary (the Queen of the WWE running for Senate), to the hilarious (the rent IS too damn high), one thing is certain: with each passing day, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle seems increasingly prescient:

“The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object…is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.”

The spectacle, in this sense, is the object in which one’s identity is actualized.  Our understandings of “reality” – always fluid and relational (something that Debord at times fails to recognize) – are increasingly mediated by images infused with political relations that subordinate the realities of social division to the forms of commodity fetishism that come to pervade societal norms and institutions and, at some level, constitute our very sense of self.

Take, for instance, a recent development:

The Fort Collins Coloradoan (a supposedly respectable, “objective” journalistic entity) just endorsed Ken Buck – a homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, global-warming denier whose foot-in-his-mouth moments have become fodder for the national media – for US Senate.  This example is instructive as it is reflective of the ways in which Tea Party strategies play upon a social environment wedded to “the spectacle.”

While I don’t think the Republican Party will make the gains that some expect, this election seems to be proving that if you say something – no matter how absurd – loud enough and often enough, you’ll pick up more media attention, and the momentum behind your ideas will grow.

The formula is simple: (1) build an image centered upon symbols that cut to the core of a conjured American identity (flags, nostalgia for 1950s “real America,” family values, Christianity, etc).  (2) Repeat these themes loud and often and juxtapose them against a plurality of oppositions that smoothly link up (communism, secularism, progressivism, Islam, etc.).  (3) The more outrageous your statements, the more attention you’ll garner.

The result is a series of images that grow into sedimented forms through their repetition and relation to social imaginaries.  We come to recognize ourselves in the objects that are constructed through this process of spectacularization: from the obvious ways that the characters on Jersey Shore and the depictions in mainstream rap videos influence suburban youth, to the to more subtle ways that supposedly timeless forms like “The Constitution” and “The Border” acquire a whole host of symbolic meanings to “Tea Partiers” and “Minutemen.”

Even as we sometimes consciously see these spectacles as subjects of mockery, these objects become woven into our social fabrics in ways that enable them to take on a sort of life of their own.  As absurd as it seems, Ken Buck has come to represent discontent, patriotism and populism for many Coloradoans, and each stand he takes against a constructed “status-quo” only reinforces his popularity.  He has found strength in The Spectacle.

The good news is that I don’t think he’ll win.  The scary news is that he’ll come damn close…and some of his lunatic cronies may soon find themselves in positions of power.

Another, less academic medium that is proving incredibly prophetic (perhaps more so than Debord):

How long will it be until we have our very own Dwayne Alazondo Mountain Dew Herbert Comacho?  Not too damn long at the pace we’re going…

It’s called ‘blowback’, silly.

•October 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

What is perhaps more upsetting than the conclusion that is reached in this piece is the fact that such reasoning is WAY more obvious to everyone in America, from “liberal” policy wonks to all the “real” Americans who infest the heartland.