The Undiscovered Country: Actually running for office

There’s a lot of common advice that amounts to political due diligence: know who your representatives and other elected officials are, hold them accountable by contacting them about important matters, support more progressive candidates wherever possible, vote tactically…. There’s one possibility that comes up so seldom that I wonder if it’s even thinkable for people: run for office yourself. That would be an extremely concrete way to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

No matter how much political pressure we put on these politicians, there’s no replacement for actually being the person with decision-making power. And particularly for academics, it’s clear that no one is going to stand up for us and our values except, you know, one of us. But academics especially seem uncomfortable with the idea of actually wielding institutional power.

Part of it is surely the sense that it’s hopeless, but that may stem from an excessive focus on the federal level. Yes, we can’t jump straight to being a US senator. But the Republicans have shown over the past decade how amazingly powerful state and municipal offices can be. They are not expensive offices to campaign for — indeed, many are uncontested. Republican gerrymandering has done a lot of damage, but so has the Democrats’ failure to even show up to the fight.

I suspect it’s not just fatalism, though. For academics especially, but also for many with convictions to the left of the Democratic party, there is a serious distrust of the political structure as such, a gut-level rejection of the idea of becoming part of it. And there is also the fact that doing this seriously would mean disrupting one’s life — something that is equally unappealing whether you are thinking of interrupting the trajectory toward full academic privileges or whether you already enjoy them.

Obviously this is not something that I’m doing or planning to do in the near future. I write this post not to pass judgment, but to ask why the option of actually seeking political office seems to be so radically absent from the common political wisdom of “how to make a difference,” especially in lefty academic circles. So: what do you think?

On the punch

Yesterday, a dapper Nazi was punched while giving an interview about how the white race has an inborn right to domination. (I am not naming him in an effort to shield myself from the attention of his ilk; I imagine his identity is easily ascertainable via Google, if you don’t already know what I’m talking about.) I, and many in my social media circles, exulted in this event — someone advocating outright Nazism was humiliated and silenced. It was a cathartic moment in the midst of terrifying events.

And of course, the nice liberals won’t let us have this. Continue reading “On the punch”

The Electoral College will kill us all

I remember back the last time the Electoral College delivered us an incompetent overreaching fool — one of our watchwords in those years was that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And so, on November 9, Obama should have said, “We all know the Electoral College is nonsense, and so I am going to begin the transition process with President-Elect Clinton.” I’d rather the bit about the Electoral College be a dead letter than the emoluments clause, for example.

Is it a dangerous precedent? Not as dangerous as the precedent that the person who loses the election takes office and we all act like it’s God’s fucking will.

For Our Sins

I have a chapter in a new book out now: Afxentis Afxentiou, Robin Dunford and Michael Neu (eds), Exploring Complicity: Concepts, Cases and Critiques (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). My chapter is called ‘For Our Sins: Christianity, Complicity and the Racialized Construction of Innocence’. The whole book is worth a read, but you can also get hold of my chapter here.

They make a desert, and call it an ontology of peace: Some reflections on Milbank

While engaging with the classical Greek sources and particularly with Nicole Loraux’s work last semester in class, I found myself increasingly sounding like John Milbank. In very broad and abstract terms, the question that guided my path through the texts we were studying was whether conflict or peace is ontologically primary — exactly the duality that Milbank sets up between agonistic ontology and the ontology of peace. Furthermore, I found that his narrative where Plato and Augustine are attempting to set up an ontology of peace to counter the prevailing agonistic ontology is basically right, as is his insistence that the key strategy for creating that ontological peace is an ontological hierarchy. Continue reading “They make a desert, and call it an ontology of peace: Some reflections on Milbank”

A way out: On anger

Today someone made me angry, and I made that person angry in turn. I happen to think my anger was more justified, but my interlocutor’s was apparently more intense — after a certain point, I was inclined to mend bridges and they pointedly refused to even respond to me and then walked out of the room. And that makes me distrust myself, on a gut level. I feel exhausted.

When I walked into my class immediately after this incident, I asked if I could be open and honest and told them that something had made me very angry, which I couldn’t talk about, and which had nothing to do with them. It was initially mysterious to me that I felt the need to do this, that I was so sure it was right and necessary to do. My affect can be a little inscrutable, even to people who know me as well as these students do at this point, so I probably had plausible deniability in any case.

But as I pondered over this issue on the train, scrolling through Facebook endlessly because I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I saw that I had to let them know because no one ever told me that when I was growing up. Continue reading “A way out: On anger”

Politics as Weather

Wake up, check the weather, and dress appropriately. People do it everyday. Sure, some climates, like that in the UK, are unpredictable and change throughout the day. That 20% of rain means it’ll probably rain at some point and that’s what the expandable umbrella tucked in the bottom of a bag is for. There is no way the weather will pass without affecting those who live under its regime, so the rain will soak some, the sun will burn others, pollen will enflame the nasal passages, and so on. There is not much one can do, in the end, to escape the weather.

For some time this is how I have related to politics. It’s probably a bit too pastoral an image for some and it certainly is not heroic. But it does capture something of the reality.  I get online in the mornings, no longer muttering fuck after months of intense therapy to confront and accept my anxiety, and I read the posts of those who know. Everyone appears to know what’s probably going to happen, or why it happened, or what we should to stop it. It would be interesting if it wasn’t so pathetic. Knowing is important; knowing is power. I think of this scene in that (admittedly rather poor) documentary about Negri where he looks at a picture of his younger self behind bars in some Italian dock (as if placing defendants in a cage isn’t prejudicial). He says that, speaking of his merit, he never lost the intelligence (a word he settles on after rejecting the word “hope”) to understand everything that was happening to him, despite the contradictions. That intelligence is not on display on social media chatter about the state of politics. My own understanding is perhaps idiosyncratic, but I have no less faith in my intelligence for knowledge than any of the intelligent people I follow. The energy to speculate may be lacking. Frankly it feels like it might make me ever stupider if I expended it.

So, I treat it like the weather. My anger hasn’t gone away, but it’s anger at the storm blowing out of paradise. And how do you fight a storm? You weather it, learn to escape it, to find places of refuge, to shelter others from its violence with your own body. But the time to affect the climate for good, to change the weather, is long past.


Obama’s last, best gift

In recent days, some people have been joking that Obama should resign a few days before the end of his term so that Biden can say he was president. In some iterations, this is a way of subtley screwing over Trump, who has already received gifts addressed to the “45th president” and a brief Biden interregnum would make him 46th.

I of course support this plan, but I think it could be taken a step further: Biden should also resign the day before Trump’s inauguration. This would make Paul Ryan President, and since it is not permitted to hold two government offices at once, he would have to resign his House seat. Presumably he could win again in a special election, and he could technically be elected Speaker again even without being a member of the House, but reopening the question of who should be Speaker could throw things into chaos.

There’s a certain poetry to it, insofar as one of the highlights of Biden’s vice-presidential career was screwing with Paul Ryan in the debate. I also like the idea of potentially derailing, or at least complicating, Ryan’s career by giving him what is so clearly his ultimate goal: “You’re an ambitious young man, clearly you want to be president — well, here you go!”

Critique of Judgment

Presumably we have all seen The Social Network, or at least heard of the primal scene of Facebook that it stages. One night, a bored Mark Zuckerberg uses his ability to type really fast to set up a website to judge the hotness of the women of Harvard. It proves so popular that it threatens to bring down Harvard’s entire computer network. Here was the kernel of Facebook, with a foretaste of its worldwide success.

While it has evolved into something far more complex than its “hot or not” roots, Facebook is still a technology for passing judgment. The zero-level gesture of engagement with Facebook is to click “like,” a positive judgment that was recently diversified to allow one to express a range of judgments corresponding to the range of emotions we learn to name in kindergarten. People have found many other uses for it as well — it is, after all, a flexible discursive medium — but the core functionality remains that of passing judgment. It is the easiest thing to do on Facebook, almost effortless.

Continue reading “Critique of Judgment”

Varieties of atheistic experience

There are three varieties of atheism. Only one of them is actually interesting.

  1. “Matter of course” atheism — this is the position that belief in God is clearly superfluous, both for explaining the natural world and for developing a coherent moral code. It’s not a matter of deep conviction, hence not very interesting in itself.
  2. “Smarter than you” atheism — this is the worst kind, represented by the New Atheists. It goes beyond “matter of course” atheism by supposing that atheism can be a positive doctrine that must combat benighted religious doctrines. It always threatens to veer toward racism, because when they notice societies where atheism has failed to make major inroads, they start to wonder if there’s something… intrinsically wrong with them, you know, as a group.
  3. Protest atheism — this is the only kind worth discussing, because it calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world. Interestingly, from my perspective, it continues along the path laid out by monotheism itself, which is grounded in a demand for a divine principle of justice. Protest atheism holds onto that demand while pointing out how monotheism itself failed to deliver on its own promise.

“Smarter than you” atheism sometimes incorporates elements of protest atheism in the form of a moral or political critique of the effects of religion. But that aspect is grounded in the basic assumption that religious beliefs are false and therefore holding them makes you stupid — meaning, as a corollary, that you do stupid and destructive things. By contrast, the smart atheist, free of the blinders of religion, has arrived at the best and truest way of life: secular liberal capitalism. So the end result of being really smart, unlike those religious freaks, is conformism, leaving us to wonder whether all the harsh rhetoric and college dormroom “gotchas” were worth it in the end.

Protest atheism, for its part, always threatens to collapse into “smarter than you” atheism when suffering and injustice become steps in a disproof of theistic beliefs rather than representing a genuine and heartfelt outrage. Even so, protest atheism at least preserves the sense that the world is not as it should be — and unlike the impoverished social critique of “smarter than you” atheism, it does not scapegoat some particular group or belief system (“If only we could get rid of those idiot religious people, we could have our utopia of reason!”). This scapegoating instinct is another element in the elective affinity between “smarter than you” atheism and racism.