Saturday, November 26, 2011

Just a little rant

I’m tired of hearing people say that Obama is a divisive leader. Obama is not divisive. We leftists have been astounded at his willingness to work with the just-say-no-Republicans. No matter what he proposes Republicans will never support it. For instance, the health-insurance reform package was pretty much the same as (R)Bennet's Healthy Americans Act. It's also the same policy that Republican front-runner (R)Romney instituted in Massachusetts. It's bipartisan legislation, but, just because Obama proposed it, suddenly it's SOCIALISM. Obama and the Democrats caved to tons of Republican proposals to try to attract their votes during the health-insurance reform debates. We leftists lost key provisions like a public option, but not a single Republican will broke ranks to vote for the bipartisan legislation. That's divisiveness, but it's divisiveness manufactured by Republicans.

Then, Republicans decide to start playing political brinkmanship with the nation's credit rating and refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Under Bush, Boehner, McConnell, and Cantor voted to raise the debt ceiling every time--5 times. They didn't have a problem with it back then. But under Obama, it's suddenly OK to put the entire nation’s finances into trouble. And thanks to them the nation’s credit got downgraded for the first time in history. S&P released the following statement regarding their decision to downgrade:

"The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy."

Republicans used the debt ceiling to hold the entire nation hostage. And not surprisingly, the nation bore some trauma as a result of their rough-handling.

Obama is trying to work with a Republican party whose "single most important goal," according to Minority Leader McConnel, is to make sure he doesn't get reelected. Notably their most important goal is not to make life better for Americans, because they don't really care what the consequences are of their stubborn refusal to work together to solve problems. There is divisiveness in this country, but it's not Obama's divisiveness. Unless you consider it divisive that an eloquent black man got elected as President and then tried to improve things.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Haters are the best lovers.

My wife is a self-proclaimed "hater." And I think it is worthwhile to develop an argument for why anti-social types with a small circle of friends are actually better than us extroverts.

I don't believe people who claim to love everyone. At the very least this means that having their love is meaningless because they give it away so cheaply. I'd rather be loved by someone who hates most people, because possessing their love is a more exclusive privilege. Being loved by a hater is more difficult, and the most valuable things in life are difficult to obtain; therefore, loved by a hater > loved by a lover.

Furthermore, love is exclusive, and as such it is violent. Fastening on one person causes me to ignore my obligation to every other person, and ignoring my obligation to other others is a hateful act. Every moment I spend with my brother I could be spending with my wife. And every moment I spend with my wife could be spent trying to help a refugee get a job. And every moment I spend doing that could be spent visiting with lonely people who I've never even bothered to talk to, ad infinitum. We have to draw a line somewhere and cut some people out. Those inside the line are those we choose to love, those on the outside are those we don't. I would rather be loved by some who cuts the line a little closer to home so that they have more time for me. But maybe that's because I'm selfish.

But I don’t think I’m alone. Haven't you ever felt guilty for spending time with one person, because you felt that you should also be spending that same time with another? Like on Thanksgiving when you want to go to be with your wife’s family, but you also want to go to be with your side of the family. If they happen to be celebrating at the same time, in vastly different geographic areas, you have to choose. And when you choose, it feels like a betrayal. You feel guilty even though all you’re doing is trying to show love to one group. But that love comes at the expense of another. Not only do we feel guilty, but this guilt is earned, because we put one group of people above another. Extending this logic to all of humanity, we have to choose who to love, and there are millions of people equally deserving of our love. Therefore, we have to commit a violent act and choose (seemingly at random) some people over others. But that is love. It is irreducible to anything else than a choice to elevate one individual to the point of singularity and say this is the One (or one of the Ones) that I will love.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My wife is really clever. (Also, how I exercise power over her.)

So, I'm arguing with my wife, Aubry about what to watch. She wants to watch a sitcom, I want to watch cartoons. The tension is in the air for a stand-off. Before the fireworks can start, I proceed to get her sitcom going on Netflix, yielding to her preference.

Her response, to my giving her what she wanted (my gift), was brilliant.

She said, "you can't concede, and win!" Meaning don't just give in like that! Now, on first blush, her statement seems to be self-contradictory (How can one both concede and also win?). But Aubry was actually exactly correct, as I will explain.

You see, the stage was set for a confrontation. And the fight would follow a predetermined script. We would disagree. We'd stonewall for a bit. One of us would grudgingly yield. The situation was such that one of us was going to get our preference on Netflix, and the other was going to get to yield; thereby rendering the person who got their preference indebted, indefinitely. Thus, the gift of yielding to Aubry's Netflix preference, was no gift at all, since it was in fact a reciprocal exchange. (When a buyer gets a house, in exchange for a promise to pay for it later, it's not correct to say that the bank gave the buyer a gift. It is instead an exchange. Similarly, when I give Aubry her way and make her indebted to me, what I'm doing is not giving a gift. I'm just making an exchange.) We tally up our gifts and debts, and the next time we're trying to decide what to watch on Netflix, the person with the most Netflix IOU's gets to choose. (This is an example of what Derrida and Caputo call the many "cunning ruses of love" and "the gift".)

Now, as to Aubry's objection ("you can't concede, and win!"). What she was reacting to was the fact that I didn't stick to the script. I short-circuited the conflict and skipped straight to the conclusion by immediately giving-in. We knew how it would end, so that wasn't the problem. Insteand, what bothered Aubry is that she was denied the opportunity to make the gift, the initial yield that would set the recipricol exchange into motion, because I (rather than stonewalling and making arguments) skipped right to the end of the confrontation and started her show. By excluding her opportunity to act, I took the choice out of her hands. I conceded and won. I got to choose how the exchange would take place, and secured a debt from her without even giving her the opportunity to object. Not only that, but by acting so quickly and not acting petty about getting my way, I reserved the moral high-ground for myself. This in turn, made her look petty. Therefore, I cheated. I didn't play by the rules. And by conceding so early, I won.

I think I do this a lot. It is just another example of my will to power. In the face of confrontation, even conceding can be form of taking power, and, thereby, winning. You force the other into a position of indebtedness and retain moral authority over her. Perhaps this is what Jesus Christ meant when he taught that the "weak things of the world [will] shame the strong".

Built in to the act of yielding to the other is an act of assuming power over the other. I sometimes wonder, is it possible to escape this economy? Where does love fit in? Is love an economy, or is it something that exists interstitially between the feints and parry's of this ongoing spar?

il n’y a pas de hors-texte

My professor in Legislation and Regulation said something interesting today. She said, "today everyone is some kind of neo-textualist." I was initially appalled, textualism as I understand it is the most boorish, wooden, unsophisticated, type of legal interpretation.

However, even I may be willing to admit to subscribing to textualism, with one caveat: That as I understand it nothing is outside the text. Of course a textualist who recognizes that "there is no outside-text" is essentially meaningless. Because, everything is inside the text, being a textualist should allow one to use everything, words, grammar-rules, dictionaries, historical context, and perhaps most importantly personal life experience to interpret a text.

As per Derrida, meaning is a matter of différance. D
ifférance is a play on the French word for difference. So to say that meaning is a matter of difference, is first to say that a word can only mean something in relation to other words. "Medium hot," means something different than "mild," and something different than "hot," and this difference gives sense to the word. Différance also suggests that meaning is constantly differed. To define a word we use other words, whose meaning is themselves only found by reliance on other words, whose meaning is themselves only found by reliance on other words, ad infinitum. Therefore, meaning is constantly differed. Furthermore, because a word can only be understood relative to every other word; and because there is, literally, an infinite separation between a word and its meaning; there is nothing outside the text.

Therefore, anything a reader brings to bear in their interpretation of a text is legitimate because there is nothing outside the text.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Vampire Romance

I recently watched "Let Me In." The movie is a love story, and is a perfect inversion of the Twilight movies (sorry didn't read the books). Instead of hokey and sappy, the movie is dark and gritty. Instead of a girl falling for manpire, it is instead a story of boy falling for a vampgirl.

The movie is a metaphor for the obscene, dark-side of love. In the movie, a young boy falls for a young vamp girl. But, in order to maintain his love for vampgirl he must learn to accept her as a monstrous Other. (When he asks if she'll go steady with him, she replies that she can't because she's "not a girl." She's a monster.) Ultimately, to love her, he must sacrifice his duty to the human race, because for her to survive she must kill. After witnessing her murdering people, he decides that she means more to him than human life, and at the end of the movie becomes her accomplice in killing others to keep her alive.

"Love is evil" says Slavoj Zizek. And he is right. Love is loving the Other as Other. Love is accepting the monstrous Otherness that exists in one person, even though we cannot understand it, and can't approach it. Singling that one person out from the entire universe as somehow special, unique, and worthy of praise. This is a violent act. It is a sacrifice. By separating the one, from everyone else, we renounce our duty to the world, and instead commit the evil of valuing one single life, above the lives of everything else. See Derrida in The Gift of Death.

The fact that love is evil, is not a reason to renounce it. On the contrary, love is a break from the entire human order. It is a liberating, but it is also a heavy burden. The act of love elevates the one to the level of the Thing, and is sublime. Love, love, love.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bigotry and Stereotyping and Mormons

Survey results show that many people would not vote for someone based on their religious identity. Mormons, Muslims, and Atheists all had particularly poor showings.

I recently had a Facebook debate with some friends regarding whether this amounts to bigotry. Bigotry is the stubborn intolerance of another person's beliefs. Is not voting for someone, merely because of their religion, bigoted?

Almost all of my friends, who argued that it is not bigoted, relied on generalizations of religious people that are unwarranted. One of those generalizations (stereotypes?) is that religious people lack critical thinking skills (which is apparently why we believe in crazy stuff like an angel showing a kid where a golden book is buried). Considering that there are very many intelligent leader in every religious group, I think this is a faulty assumption. (Not to mention offensive.) This is not to say that all religious people are smart - there are a lot of dumb religious people too. The simple fact is that no matter what group you look at Mormons, Muslims, atheists, you're going to get a good mix of every sort of ability set. Some are going to be real dumb, and some will be smart. Knowing someone's religion doesn't tell you much of anything about that person.

Furthermore, in attempting to justify factoring religious belief into voting decisions, one of my friends went on to say that, "everything that makes up [a political candidate] is fair game." If this is true than race, sex, and ethnicity, are all legitimate reasons not to vote for someone. Which is so wrong. All of these factors (race, sex, ethnicity) are at least as essential in forming a person, and later influencing their political behavior, as religion. To say that being black in the US is exactly the same as being white, is to have some real blinders as to the difference of experience between white America and black America. For this reason, race is incredibly influential in forming a person.

In fact, the correlation between being black and being a Democrat, is much stronger than the correlation between being a Mormon and being a social conservative (which seems to be the big hook upon which my friends hung their argument). Does that mean that it's OK for someone to take someone's race into account when deciding whether or not to vote for them? No, of course not. Evaluate belief based on people's political beliefs and behavior. Don't rely on unwarranted assumptions.

Let's go a step further, ad absurdum. Blacks and latinos have higher rates of incarceration compared to whites in the good ole USA. But it would been incredibly prejudicial to allow this to inform your decision when voting for a black candidate. Relying on broad generalizations to assess an individual of a certain group is terrible reasoning. In this instance it's straight-up racist. Each person should be evaluated on an individual basis. And when voting tolerance requires that we should give individuals the benefit of the doubt; regardless of their religion, and definitively regardless of race.

Political candidates should be evaluated on only those factors that have a direct bearing to their performance in office. Religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, do not. Past performance in office (or in other leadership roles) along with stated political preferences do.

Furthermore, my friends are atheists. They were (somewhat ironically) arguing against their interests. The basic form of their argument is the same as a bigoted religious person would put forward to justify their decision not to vote for an atheist . Religious bigots will rely on stereotypes and generalizations to justify prejudicial treatment of an atheist candidate (and poll results show that atheists are in a worse position than Mormons due to unfair generalizations). Mormons, atheists, and Muslims are all marginalized groups in US politics. We should be teaming-up, not undercutting each other. I'm sure bigoted individuals would be more than happy to join atheists in bashing Mormons and Muslims, and then turn around and bash atheists and Muslims with a bunch of Mormons, and then bash atheists and Mormons with a group of Muslims. As minority religious groups we should be building bridges of tolerance and acceptance, rather than trying to excuse ourselves for relying on stereotypes.

Basically my friends were working hard to distinguish between religious-bigotry and other forms of bigotry, in order to justify not-voting for Mormons, but this is a contradictory exercise. To justify stereotyping in politics you have to say, 'anything is fair game!' Anything about a politician can influence who they are, and should therefore be used to evaluate a person. But this begs the question, race and gender are essential parts of a person? Are they fair game? We've gotten past the point where it's OK to say that race is a factor. So then my friends make the move saying that race is different or 'Most aspects of a person - race, gender, sexuality, etc. - are not fair game!' So put it together and you get, every part of a person's social identity is fair game, besides most every social identity (with the exception of religion). This move attempts to mask the contradiction, but it doesn't do a very good job. Unless they're doing some Derridean move that I don't understand. Absent that, I spit on your faulty reasoning. Ptooey!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

History is the story of the Present

History is not the past. History is the story of the now - specifically how and why it came to be. For this reason, history has no objective existence. History is a story. Stories are nothing but representations. Furthermore, there are many versions of this representation, and it will change according to the teller. Also, it cannot be said that there is one meta-story to rule them all, because we lack the power to determine which, if any, is true. We can’t even say for certain if there is an objective truth to history.

As such, history is not primarily shaped by what happened (in the past) but what is happening (in the present). History is being written write now. Furthermore, the History that we know is based on a shifting nexus of power relations. For instance, historians will talk about authoritative texts or the credibility of a source. How are these authorities (power-relations) determined? They are determined by the struggle between the dominant discourse - who get to say what is authoritative now - and the dissenters - who through struggle may supplant the dominant discourse and change that which is authoritative. This is not to say that history is wrong, but merely to say that history is made by power. Knowledge in general is not divorced from power, but is in fact a product of power (and thus ideology). Michel Foucault was particularly important to our development of this understanding. John McGowan said of Foucualt's work, "In this holistic model, 'there is no outside.' (Foucault, 1979). There is no disinterested or objective knowledge, just as there is no autonomous self."[i] Foucault wrote:

"Perhaps we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist only where power relations are suspended and that knowledge can develop only outside its injuctions, its demands and its interests... We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful), that power and knowledge directly imply one another, that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not pressupose and constitute at the same time power relations."[ii]

History is a discipline because there are rules, and for rules to mean anything someone or some group has to enforce them. Who enforces the rules? Well in the knowledge-discipline of history it is other historians. For instance, to be published, you must satisfy a journal editor and peer reviewers; to be considered interesting enough to add to the story of history (i.e. to be quoted), you must satisfy the entire community of historians; and to be considered authoritative, you have to impress even more people. Therefore, history is controlled by a complex web of relations that impact how the story comes out.

Therefore, reading histories, it's not enough to consider the political motivations of the authors - though they likely affect their conclusions. Instead, one must consider the entire field that constitutes knowledge-power, and how that affects the outcome of the story. This is likely what Michel Foucault was getting at when he said he wanted to write a "History of the Present". He wanted to write a history that recognized that power is essential to any understanding of history and cannot be divorced from its study. Furthermore, the source texts, upon which our histories are based, are products of other complex nexuses of power-relations, and therefore, need to be considered as such. The question is thus, how did they constitute themselves (as subjects and objects in a web of power relations), in order to perceive the world in such a way? And, how is it that we now constitute ourselves differently, in order to perceive the world in a different way? The story of the past is, in this way, more about how we think now, and less about what really happened then. Michael S. Roth explains it like this, “Writing a history of the present means writing a history in the present, self-consciously writing in a field of power relations and political struggle.”[iii] Reading and writing history is a political act, and should be recognized as such. Furthermore, to participate in this activity requires a great deal of introspection and self-criticism. History is an exercise in power; it shapes how we perceive, and relate to, ourselves and others. Therefore, history should be handled with great care and attention, because it is so critical to our present and future.

One final note, this discussion should also make us pause and think critically about how the story of history is shaped by the dominant discipline of positivism. Thus, it should not surprise us that the story of history is basically the story of the progress of science and rationality. There may be some validity to this, science did have a roll in opening-up new modes of thought, but a critical reader should recognize this is not the whole of the story. Science too is a product of power, and can be just as freedom killing as other disciplines of knowledge-power. Therefore, avoid scientism.

[i] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. 120-21. Print.

[ii] McGowan, John. "Postmodernism and Its Critics." Google Books. Cornell University Press. Web. 28 Aug. 2011. .

[iii] Roth, Michael S. "Foucault's 'History of the Present'" History and Theory 20.1 (1981): 32-47. EBSCO. Web. 28 Aug. 2011. .

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Rule of Law

The Rule of Law is a concept that is very important to the legal profession, because it is upon this rock that the legal establishment builds its legitimacy and prestige.

The idea of the Rule of Law is that the law, and the law alone, controls the direction, process and outcomes of the legal system. Therefore, no person, no matter how powerful or influential, is above the law. The courts do not make the law, they merely enforce the law. Based on this logic, the decisions made in courts of law are - or at least should be - impartial, objective, and immutable. Like a prophet is a mouthpiece for God's word, the legal system is a mouthpiece for The Law - and deserves to be respected and honored on this basis. Where the legal system fails to accurately uphold the law - we are told - the legitimacy of the system is questionable.

The real shtick with this line of thinking is that in order for the law to rule, regardless of the people, there needs to be some kind of objective legal rule to follow. The problem, of course, is that there is almost never a clear legal rule to follow. Every legal pronouncement is subject to interpretation. If there were simple, objective legal objects about which everyone agreed, then we wouldn't have so many legal disputes. Furthermore, through the course of these legal disputes people, largely legal professionals, end-up assigning meaning to the law - in other words, they make the law (which did not really exist beforehand). Therefore, it is not enough to say that the law determined the outcome - the law does not have a will, it cannot determine anything (Schlag, 1998) - instead, it is more accurate to say that people infuse their will into the law in order to make it speak, and thereby determine the outcome. Thus, we find behind the proverbial wizard's curtain, not A Law that Rules (Rule of Law), but fragile mortals with their hands on the levers of power.

(For a more in depth discussion about the inherent ambiguity and contingency of all language, including law, read Derrida, Foucault, and Schlag).

Now, people - especially in the legal profession - will interact and exert social pressure on one-another in a way that will tend to enforce a set off norms. These norms can easily be mistaken for the "Rule of Law." But this nexus of social pressure is always driven by people, who make the law in the very act of enforcement. Now, I happen to believe that a certain degree of social coercion and even violence is inevitable, and I would like to be able to preserve the prestige of the legal system in order to be able to use it to make a good living some day. However, I do not want to whitewash the inherent fuzziness and moral ambiguity involved in legal practice. And I certainly don't want to pretend that there is some magical, objective, form-of-law which justifies all the violence and ugliness that has been perpetuated in the name of law and order. The law as mystical objectivity does not exist, instead there is only the law as we people apply it. We have always and will always have the power to shape the law into forms that are either more or less horrible.

Acknowledging that the legal system is fueled by people, (who create and enforce norms) is particularly important for us lawyers to recognize, so that we don't become so enchanted with the Law (Schlag, 1998), that we begin to trivialize the impact of our decisions on people. We need to recognize that the violence of the system is a violence for which we are personally responsible. We cannot disavow the pain we cause others. Hopefully, this understanding will serve to somewhat mitigate the violence. But, at the very least it should prevent us from excusing ourselves. There is no Big Other (Zizek, Lacan). We are alone. When bad things happen it is not the The Law that wills those bads things, it is the people who make and enforce the law, which is all of us.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Model of Love that Places Love in Opposition to Happiness

If your love doesn't make demands of you, difficult demands, then how do you know it's real?

Love, lifelong-soul-partnering love, is best identified not by the happiness it creates, but by the pain it causes. Every short-term infatuation is fun - possibly even more fun than a serious love, because a fling doesn't make demands on your ego, but instead just strokes it slowly. True love on the other hand can be rough on one's ego and will compel one to do things.
(Slavoj Zizek in his book violence says that 'love is violent' and here I write about another aspect of that violence.) Therefore, it stands to reason that some of the most loving people are some of the most miserable.

So if you're looking for examples of great loves perhaps it shouldn't be extremely happy perfectly compatible people who love in a very convenient manner. Perhaps the greatest loves are those who seem mismatched. Who don't even seem particularly happy, but are compelled to stay together; regardless of the fact that their love may make them miserable. The most meaningful love is one that isn't perfect. The most meaningful love is one where happiness and love are actually incompatible. I choose for myself a model of love which puts love in opposition to happiness. And if you really want love, you have to accept a fair amount of pain and unhappiness.

Maybe I just resent the idealized couple whose relationship is nothing but sunshine and perkiness, but as it is I prefer couples who are not ideal. Rocky and violent love is for me much more beautiful, because that love is much more real (both in the sense of being actual and in the sense of their love being genuine with depth and meaning). I prefer love that is difficult to love that is shallow.

Friday, July 1, 2011


"Single Riders"

Aubry and I went to the amusement park, Lagoon, the other day. While waiting in line for a roller-coaster we read a sign that said "No single riders in the front and back carts".

I then told Aubry, "Good thing we're married, we can sit wherever we want."

"Your Eyes are Just For Looks"

Aubry and I were swimming the other day. The day was sunny and her blue eyes look very beautiful in the sunlight. So I looked over at her and said, "You have very pretty eyes". She strained into the glaring sun to look back at me and said, "I can't see."

In response I said, "O, I guess your eyes are just for looks?"

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ontologically, All Experience is on an Even Playing Field

Response to kmabom

First of all, thank you for your compliment and for commenting on my blog. You, likewise, seem very handy with words.

Now, for my critique, I find your blind faith in reason to be a bit naive. You yourself admit the limitations of subjectivity, but then go on to act as though we can know things through "physical evidence," without providing any reason why so called "physical evidence" is preferable to so called emotional, spiritual, intuitive and personal evidence.

All physical evidence is mediated through our faculties, meaning there is no guarantee of any fidelity to any objective reality. Furthermore, we have very good reasons to believe that we are not very good at observing reality, free of interpretation. Hence, Nietzsche's statement that "there are no facts, only interpretations." That which we observe is more a reflection on internal mental structures than on an external objective reality. Philosophers of science Kuhn and Feyerabend have shown very clearly that paradigms determines the observations (and not the other way around) - phenomenon that contradict theory are simply unobservable prior to the acquisition of a new conceptual framework from which to observe them. Hence Copernicus precedes Galileo.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that you should use Galileo as your example of someone who used "physical means to uncover a better explanation," because both ideas - that Galileo relied on physical evidence and that his explanations were better - are highly problematic.

In Against Method, Paul Freyerbend has conducted research that shows that Galileo's theory was not only radical, but was also just flat-out irrational.

None of Galileo's observations or experiments could ever be duplicated by his peers in the scientific community - i.e. the academics of his age. Records tell of Galileo bringing his instruments to dinner parties. He would claim to observe incredible things in the night sky, but no one else at all could ever see the things he was claiming to see. As reproducibility of outcomes is a central tenant of "objective" scientific research, it cannot be said with a straight face that Galileo's theory was based on reasonable "physical means". Furthermore his drawings, "maps", of the moon and mars appear to be entirely works of fiction, as they have absolutely no fidelity to the surface of the moon, as viewed today from modern telescopes (And again the people of his day never saw anything like Galileos drawings when they looked through his primitive spy-glass). Furthermore, Galileo's calculations, derived from his theory, of the movement of celestial bodies, were grossly inaccurate; On the other hand, the much more strongly developed Aristotelian theory with its mathematically sophisticated epi-cycles, was much better at predicting the movement of planets in the night sky. Thus, Galileo's theory actually confirmed much worse to physical evidence then the dominant theory of the day.

Therefore, given that, at the time, the Geo-centric Aristotelian theory produced results which were more closely aligned with observed phenomenon, it is ironic that you would stake your claim that "reason" and "physicality" should be the basis for determining beliefs on Galileo. It was only because people like Galileo pursued their theories in spite of the irrationality of said theories that these beliefs were eventually developed - through arduous series of refutations and refinements - into what we have today. Therefore, the take-away lesson from Galileo is that if one feels intuitively that something is true and right, then one should develop that belief, regardless of the irrationality and "physical" evidence to the contrary. All beliefs systems, theories, and religions should be developed into their most sophisticated manifestations. The pursuit of truth is thus multifaceted and conditional, with multiple lines of inquiry.

Finally, there's also a good argument that your insistence on "reason" as a way of revealing nature, is part of an ongoing heterosexual male narrative of dominion (domination) of nature, which is not entirely devoid of sexism. But I'm not going to develop this idea any further at this time.

Now, what you fail to recognize is that among the myriad of interpretations and "truths" out there, there is no singular "Truth" with a capital 'T'. In assuming that there is an objective knowable Truth out there which can, and should, "sort among all these" differences in an authoritative fashion, you make the same mistake of idolatry (trying to force the name of God unto something physical and therefore transitory and unsustainable) as the inquisitors of Galileo's day (and all other absolutists). (This mistake is limited to your logic, and I don't mean to trivialize the awful experience of those who live in oppressive regimes, and I'm of course not saying that you are guilty of the inquisition, merely that your guilty assuming something without basis.) All phenomenological experience exists on an even playing field - so called physical evidence is just as compelling as intuitive and "spiritual evidence" - and no more so.

I'm afraid many mormons, like me, also commonly make the same mistake of idolotry in assuming they have "the Truth". I'm hoping to somewhat disabuse some of them of their naivety with this talk. However, I share a common paradigm with the mormon community within which I was raised. Furthermore, I have had experiences which seem to support these beliefs, and therefore feel comfortable expressing this shared communal beliefs with others - such as how prayer, love of neighbor and community involvement (church) all seem to better my life. If someone feels something as a result of hearing my words, and wants to join this community of church-goers that's fine, if they don't that's fine too, I'll still try to love them, because they have their own truth to pursue. This is the proper attitude for mormon missionary work.

The Invisibility of the Other

Empathy and its negation as a basis for ethics

Empathy is an injunction to understand the other. We feel the weight of the other's gaze and in recognizing them as human (or part of us) we seek to empathize with them. This injuction however, is impossible to satisfy. We are trapped in the mirror-world of our own consciousness; wherein, everything we see is merely a reflection of that which is inside of us. Consciousness is characterized by intentionality - consciousness is what we view consciously, or with attention (intention). The eye takes in many things, (light streams into the iris from all around at all times) but we are only conscious of that which is viewed intentionally (intentional objects). Everything outside of our intention is outside of consciousness - i.e. subconscious. In order to be conscious of an object we must intend to see it; meaning that what we see is only that which we intend to see. As such, the objects we view are not external to the gaze, but rather are part of the gaze. Objects exist inside our minds rather than without - and the external world cannot be reduced to the objects that we create and place in it. Therefore, objects are mirrors of consciousness, which show only that which is inside our own mind.

The mirror-world is a necessary implication of my subjective existence. Therefore, I can never experience the 0ther as such, because I can only experience myself and my own phenomenological objects. I can never experience the other as the other experiences themselves. Which is to say I can never be 0ther - a literal impossibility as it would require me to cease being myself and become other, which would then render 0ther as part of myself and thereby make it not-0ther (because it is I). Empathy is impossible. I can never know the other, I'm trapped in my own head and can't experience the other as such.

Therefore, how can one satisfy the impossible injunction to empathy, given empathy's impossibility in the face of our subjective existence?

Jean Luc-Marion contemplates this same difficulty in his attempt to chart a philosophical path to love, through the lonely expanse of subjectivity. Here is a passage from Prolegomena to Charity in which Marion finds that it is through a renunciation of seeing the other which allows one to begin to experience the other as such (as alterity):

"Of the face offered to my gaze I envisage only what cannot be seen in it - the double void of its pupils, this void that fills the least empty gazes imaginable - because if there nothing to see there, it is from there that the other takes the initiative to see (me). Gazing on the other as such, my eyes in the black of his own, does not imply encountering another object, but experiencing the other of the object. My gaze for the first time, sees an invisible gaze that sees it. I do not accede to the other by seeing more, better, or otherwise, but by renouncing mastery over the visible so as to see objects within it, and thus letting myself be glimpsed by a gaze which sees me without my seeing it - a gaze which, invisibly and beyond my aims (invisablament), silently swallows me up and submerges me, whether I know it or not, whether or not I want it to do so. The gaze of the other, or better, alterity as gaze, is not 'hypertrophied consciousness, but consciousness that flows against the current, overturning the consciousness' (E. Levinas). Consciousness that flows against the current, indeed the counter-current of consciousness: the other does not become accessible by means of intentional consciousness, but at the price of consciousness's very intentionality. Consciousness, my consciousness, should not claim to reach the alterity of the other by diving into its own depths as intentional consciousness; for intentionality merely radicalizes the irreducible and solitary primacy of the gaze of a subject on its objects. In short, with the best intentionality in the world, consciousness can intend and see only objects, thus forbidding itself the alterity of the other. The other remains invisible to my consciousness, not despite intentionality, but because of it... Of the other, who slips away as visible object, I can only passively experience the invisibility - losing consciousness of him. The other, or my loss of consciousness. But if the very moment wherein my consciousness exteriorizes itself confirms the imperially self-enclosed primacy of my consciousness, that is, if my opening still belongs to me, as the horizon where the sun of my power never sets, is it necessary, if we are to have any hope of loving, to enter into a twilight of all consciousness, to expose ourselves in all unconsciousness to the black sun of an invisible light?" (Emphasis added by me.)

The injunction to empathize - upon which rests ethics most sure foundation and humanities brightest hope - brings us to a point where we are forced to renounce empathy for its own sake (or at least empathy as a conscious project). The other is invisible to our conscious gaze. Therefore in order to understand (or at least get a sense of) the other as such we must turn our gaze away from the other and accept the invisibility, indivisibility, and infinite contingency (or haecceity) that is the essence of the other.

I understand empathy as a dialectic - a conversation between two impossibly irreconcilable positions. We feel the injunction to understand and therefore better accommodate the other, but in so doing we nuetralize the other and render him or her as an object of our intentional gaze (the other slips away as we turn our gaze towards him or her). Therefore, we must turn our gaze, and let the other be other - impossibly unknowable and irreducible to the object(s) of our gaze. This process characterizes ethics. There is a movement towards the other, but that movement can never bridge the gap that separates us from the other (and will broaden the gap if we assume we have grasped the other - thereby creating an idol). Therefore, empathy, love and ethics are never-ending projects whose completion will always allude us. Learn to love the journey. Constant progress and constant set-back (push and pull) is the most we can hope for.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Language, Representation and Missionary Work

“Now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor 13:12)

“whether there be propheicies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge it shall vanish away…” (I Cor 13:8)

-The Apostle Paul

Language mediates reality. In trying to express the profundity of experience and phenomenon we rely on language. However language is always an imperfect substitute for raw emotion and experience – this insight is captured nicely in the common phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Indeed, a thousand words word be a rather pathetic attempt at re-creating the phenomenon readily accessible to our mind in a very simple picture. Therefore, at the level of experience, a thousand words can never actually re-present the experience involved in seeing a picture. Words are thus not only a representation – they are usually a rather poor one – like a painting of a scene captured through a glass, darkly.

Plato was among the first in written history to seriously cast doubt on language’s ability to accurately capture reality.

In Plato’s Apology, the hero Socrates tells of various confrontations with supposedly “wise men.” Socrates discovers that all the politicians, artisans and poets all presumed to know something. However, the mediating influence of language was such that the moment they proclaimed to “know” something, Socrates could immediately invert their so-called knowledge and prove that it was not. Therefore, Socrates went about demonstrating that knowledge is impossible, or at least language as knowledge is impossible, as in the proclamation, “I know”.

Socrates has an advantage over the wise man, as he explains, “I neither know nor think that I know. In this particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage…” Therefore, even though Socrates did not know any more than his interlocutors he did possess an attitude towards knowledge that they all lacked, in that he did not pretend to know anything. This ontological bent (or this way of being) was, according to Plato, the distinguishing factor that separated the hero Socrates from every other person in Athens.

Plato writes, “The truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using [his] name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” (Emphasis Added)

To reiterate, the second one tries to put something true into words; one begins to engage in representation, which is a lie (a representation is a copy, an inauthentic simulation of some supposed original). As such language can never reveal “the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). (And for this we must look somewhere else.) Furthermore, to proclaim, “I have the Truth,” is to immediately give voice to a lie. Hence, like Socrates, truth must always be defended through negation, included in our system of belief by its exclusion. However, this acknowledgement of human weakness and frailty, need not cause us to despair. Rather, saying, “I know nothing”, should help prepare the way for faith, which is essential both in that it is inevitable (because we cannot know, the most we can do is trust), and in that it defines our relationship to Deity (faith is the most basic attitude we cultivate as we trust in the Lord).

The application of this insight to missionary work is really quite simple. You will never reveal “truth” to another human being – how could you when truth cannot even be conveyed in language. Instead, the promise given to us is that, given heartfelt prayer and preparation, when we preach, despite the inherent weakness of language, truth will be revealed via the power of the Holy Spirit. “Unto what were you ordained? To preach my gospel according to the spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.” (D&C 50:13-14) When we engage in missionary work we engage in a lie (language), in the hope that truth might be revealed inside the other through the Holy Spirit. This occurs to me as rather strange, but I am reminded that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks states, “The Lord knows more than any of us, and if we are His servants, acting under His Spirit, He can deliver His message of salvation to each and every soul.” We can and should strive to rely on the spirit. For, “If ye receive not the spirit, ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14). Before acquiescing to the call to preach we should do our best to give place for the spirit. I believe words of teaching and exhortation have the potential to signal and point to divine truths (which I believe to be contingent truths with a small ‘t’). Preach with an eye not to the perfection of words but with an eye to the perfection that the words cannot access. In other words, “Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Nephi 28:31)

The other lesson I would like to draw from this analysis is a simple injunction to be humble.

The Apostle Paul, in his letters of exhortation to the Corinthians, expresses very beautifully the highest ideal in the Christian lexicon, which is Charity:

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (I Corinthians 13: 4-7)

Charity, a pure love of the other, excels and exceeds all else. The apostle Paul’s long list of what constitutes Charity makes clear the fact that Charity is irreducible to any singular, temporo-material act. Therefore, no one of the actions or mindsets listed by Pual perfectly encompasses the absolute ideal of Charity. Furthermore, no list of attributes and/or actions, no matter how long, could ever perfectly capture the divine perfection of Christ’s love – just as no words can ever perfectly re-present a picture to our mind. Therefore, just as Truth can never be mediated through language or representation, Charity can never be perfectly mediated through actions.

Psychiatry and simple deduction both point to the fact that we never fully understand the motivations for actions. The reasons for our actions are as likely an after-the-fact justification. Since we don’t have direct access to what Nietzsche called the “affects” within us we can never know for certain if it was love or else a desire for reciprocation or physiological superiority which determined our gift to the Other:

As Theologian John D. Caputo says, “Love can be a very clever way to possess, to make demands, to build up credit. Just like a good banker who happily extends credit—beware of bankers bearing gifts—so that he can some day collect on his IOUs, the lover can also at a strategic moment demand payment on all his I-Love-Us. Love is a very clever way to seduceLove follows the cunning logic of the gift: as soon as it makes itself visible, it begins to put the beloved in its debt and makes the lover look good, that is to say, to annul itself.” (John Caputo, Love Among the Deconstructibles).

I think this problem often manifests itself to LDS people by those who express frustration at being treated as a “project” rather than a person. These people may be non-members who we attempt to fellowship, or home-teachees, or acquaintances in the Elder’s quorums, whom we readily reduce to our easily understandable obligations towards them, rather than as a uniquely situated and irreducible Other. In these cases, we mormons are likely guilty of giving ourselves to missionary work for the sake of feelings of righteousness and superiority rather than the out of love and caring for the other. But how does one distinguish between these two motivations? After all, self-righteous feelings of superiority may very easily disguise themselves as a righteous concern for and love of the other. This risk is inherent in all missionary efforts, and to deny its possibility is merely to live in denial, and risk halting one’s progress, rather than come to terms with an uncomfortable reality – “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us” (John 1:18).

The pursuit of charity is an irresolvable dialectic between acting as though we could fulfill an impossible demand, and then simultaneously acknowledging that we never could and never will. In other words, in order to engage in missionary work, we must act as though we could be perfectly loving and caring, while simultaneously acknowledging that we cannot. This attitude inspires introspection. There should be a constant give and take between recognizing our lack and then pushing onward in spite of it. I believe this attitude will nourish a proper ontological bent toward the Other, whom we seek to love in our missionary efforts.

I’d like to share another passage form John D. Caputo:

"So we must love the other and respect the distance of the other, which means to love the other without trying to reappropriate the other for ourselves, without deploying love as a cunning strategy in a war we are waging with the other. We must constantly fear the strategies of love, but we must not fear to take the risk of love, which means both to make ourselves vulnerable to rejection and to risk reappropriating the other. We must love the other in ourselves and so love ourselves… But of course that is all quite impossible, a paralyzing impossibility.

Still, like it or not, that is the axiomatics of love… That aporia does not defeat but defines love. After all, when we go where we have gone many times before and where we know full well that and how it is possible to get there, that is not ‘going’ anywhere, not in any robust sense. We are really on the move, really underway, just when where we want to go is impossible, when it is impossible to take a single step forward. That is why Derrida is so fond of the verse from Angelus Silesius, ‘Go where you cannot go.’"

“Love is a passion for the impossible."

(John D. Caputo, Love Among the Deconstructibles)

Recognizing the impossible demands of perfect love we must, as John D. Caputo says, “surrender” to the impossibility of love; This does not mean to be paralyzed and frozen by indecision. Rather, despite the impossibility, move forward and take the risk inherent in love. Hopefully, this surrender to the impossible, will teach us to give ourselves more fully to faith in Christ and his grace. After all what is grace if not the possibility of the impossible?

Missionary work is a daring act, in that it is so likely to fail. It’s impossible to love others they way you should, but that shouldn’t stop you from loving others the way you should. I encourage you all to engage in attempts to love your neighbor as I believe you can find a great deal of excitement and fun in engaging in such a ridiculous (by which I mean logically improbable) project. May the Lord guide you.

Finally, I’d like to bear my testimony that sharing our understanding of the Gospel with others can brighten and deepen our own insights into Deity and Her/His love.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My reaction to Brown vs Plata

In times of hardship, it is always the powerless and disenfranchised who suffer the most. The massive economic downturn facing the nation is no exception.

A recent decision in the case of Brown vs Plata, demonstrates this fact. Lack of revenue coupled with massive rates of incarceration in California has created massive overcrowding in the prison system. (140,000 people currently occupy facilities that were built to house a maximum of 80,000.) The Supreme Court held that the overcrowding of California prisons has created conditions that are so inhumane that it amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment". Therefore California's prison policy violates "the Supreme Law of the Land" contained in the eighth amendment to the Constitution.

The reports of the living conditions hit me particularly close to home. Currently, someone very close to me is living in a prison in California. He recently had a rather intense infection. His gums became red and inflamed and became the source of a great deal of pain. He told his gaurds about the development in his mouth, but they told him that there was nothing they could do for him. He was denied treatment for over two weeks. Meanwhile, His gums continued to worsen and became extremely engorged and would bleed when he ate. Finally, the gaurds agreed to provide him with anti-biotics - but no pain medication. They also offered to pull his teeth out for him (surprisingly, my friend rejected the offer). Now, my friend is living in rather awful conditions. Yet, his prison is relatively posh compared to the overcrowded penitentiaries that the Supreme Court come down on.

Slow and inadequate health care are endemic in California's massively overcrowded prison system. Huffpost's Laura Gottesdiener reports that "From 2003 to 2004, one inmate each week died as a result of lack of treatment." Contributing to these numbers are the squalid conditions of inmates crammed together in close quarters. California authorities have created fantastic conditions for the spread of disease.

Consider the case of a severely mentally ill inmate, who was held in a cage the size of a "telephone booth". Without access to a toilet for over 24 hours, the inmate was found sitting in a pool of his own urine. The horrific stories of the treatment of these inmates is reminiscent of the dehumanizing management of "enemy combatants" at Abu Graib. But all the more alarming considering that these are US citizens. Two days ago I wrote a blog whose title read: "Are we living in the state of exception?" If you are a prisoner in a California state prison, the answer is unequivocally Yes. These prisoners are homo sacer, excluded from the realm of the living they can be mistreated and killed with impunity. (With overcrowding wardens can treat inmates as less than people - quickly resulting in sickness and deaths.) I find it frightening that this de facto condition has come to pass.

Furthermore, I was struck by the biopolitical reasoning employed in the majority opinion of the Supreme Court. The court concludes that that it is precisely because the prisoners are excess, that they are being mistreated (rendered expendable). "Overcrowding" is identified as the cause of the inhumane conditions. Therefore, the surplus of people (of life) is the cause of sickness and untimely death. Kennedy is very clear on this point; overcrowding is the problem. (Kennedy explains in his decision that if there were enough prisons to hold them, the state would be free to incarcerate as many people as they please, but the excess of people exceeds the states capacity to hold them.) This understanding of the problem serves to diffuse the culpability of the state in its willingness to provide for killings with impunity. "Overcrowding" even allows us to shift the blame on to the victims themselves; the inmates. It is after all their excessive life, that is the heart of the problem. In this way the state anathematizes a certain type of life (the lives of prisoners). Up until now the state's only solution to this excess has been systematic mistreatment and killing - the same solution utilized whenever and wherever life is found to be existing in "excess" by the state.

However, The Supreme Court was correct in ruling against the State of California. The conditions in California prisons does amount to cruel and unusual punishment. My primary criticism of the majority decision - rendered by, power broker, swing-vote Kennedy - is that it does not go nearly far enough in remedial action. Kennedy calls for 30,000 prisoners to be released from custody in order to ease crowding in the state prisons. This may seem radical, but the reality is that the Court creates a slew of loopholes that allow California to avoid taking any action to address the problem, if they determine that corrective action would be too expensive or too "unsafe". Essentially, the Supreme Court told California that what they're doing is illegal and they have to change, but if it turns out to be too difficult to treat inmates humanely, they can forego any changes. This legal exception ensures that California inmates will continue to exist as homo sacer - permanent residents of the "state of exception."

This analysis seems to already be proving true. Governor Brown's plan to remedy the problems of the state's prison system (in response to the Supreme Court's ruling) is to relocate 30,000 prisoners from state prisons to county prisons in California. This seems to be in compliance with the Supreme Court's holding. However, this plan ultimately does nothing to solve the fundamental lack of funding and resources in the failing prison system. All the plan does, in effect, is to shift the problem from one set of prisons, to another set of prisons. Thereby allowing the systematic overcrowding and inhumane conditions to prevail. (Now it seems even Brown's weak-sauce proposal won't happen due to lack of funds.)

Finally, the last thing I find particularly depressing is how small the majority was that was willing to support Kennedy's very modest proposal for remedial action. The decision was a 5-4 split decision. This means four justices felt that the horrific abuses taking place in California either did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment, or were outside the purview of the court. These four justices are either despicable or cowardly, but likely both. Dostoevsky said "the degree of civilization of in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." I say, we need to seriously reconsider our policies and priorities. We need to stop filling-up our prisons and start focusing on how to find a redeeming sense of humanity in our nation.

I believe this starts by reassessing the efficacy of "tough on crime" initiatives like the infamous "three-strikes" rule, the "War on Drugs", and extended prison sentences for minor offenders (like parole violators). But our discussion shouldn't end there. Redeeming our nation also requires us to address the route causes of crime - which have been identified by Phd criminologist Todd Clear as - social, racial and most importantly economic inequality. Until we find lasting solutions to these problem, we, the United States, are doomed to continually reinforce and perpetuate abuses of the human spirit.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Are we living in the state of exception?

I've recently finished reading Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life as well as Bruce Ackerman's The Decline and Fall of the America Republic. The two books have remarkably different rhetorical styles and very different philosophical methodologies, yet I was struck to by the parallels in the two books.

Agamben writes at a very high level of abstraction. His book deconstructs modern sovereignty which has evolved from the model of the polis to the model of the camp. In the modern concept of life we combine the ancient concepts of bios and zoe. Bios is a specific and contingent "life" which is created through its inclusion in the political order. Bios is related to the self-reflective "thinking" or virtual being which Heideggerian labeled Dasien. Zoe, on the other hand, is pure related to Schmitt's "bare life," and refers only to the biological functions of the animal human. Agamben expands on this distinction (elaborated by Michel Foucault) and points to an ancient legal artifact, homo sacer, which marked the point of indistinction between zoe and bios. Homo Sacer is the "sacred man" (sacred in the ancient sense of removed from the realm of man). A person designated homo sacer can be killed with impunity, but cannot be sacrificed. Thus homo sacer is excluded from political existence and in regard to the law is essentially a non-human. His only existence is as pure bare life, which is only defined by its capacity to be killed. However, homo sacer is also deeply political in that is included in the political order by its very exclusion. Homo Sacer is for Agamben part of the originary of sovereignty because homo sacer marks the boundary (the zone of indistinction) which separates law from lawlessness (or more precisely the state from the "virtual state of nature" which is in fact the "state of exception").

However, more and more in modern law and politics the people are becoming indistinguishable from bare life. Human rights, which are maintained to be indivisible from the biological human, are held to be the basis of sovereignty. Yet this democratic ideal breaks down at the very site where it is put to its most important test - in camps of displaced individuals who exist outside a social and legal structure - i.e. refugee camps. Refugees are modern homo sacer, they can be killed, they have no legal rights because they don't belong to any nation. They can be killed with impunity - without a record there is nothing preventing killings which often occur - but they cannot be sacrificed - that is they cannot be put-to-death through the legal system as is done with convicts and murderers. They exist as pure "bare life" defined only by its potential to be killed. The NGOs and UN Aid Agencies that barely sustain their existence are proof of their capacity to be kept alive and conversely to be killed. This is bio-power in an extreme form.

However, bio-power operates in the US, as well, and is deeply embedded in democratic sovereignty. Agamben demonstrates this point by pointing to the extent to which politics has embedded itself within medicine, in particular in medical definitions of death. Hence, "brain-dead" is now a legal definition of death. Brain death that precedes "biological" death. The heart is still beating but the human is dead, the Dasien is missing. The "brain-dead" living corpse is the purest form of Western homo sacer and bare life. The "brain dead" body is removed from the legal realm of the living (as is homo sacer) and can be killed with impunity (as when doctors begin to harvest organs) yet is still included in the realm of the living as biological life (the heart still beats - even if only with the assistance of machines) and is included only the juridical order only in its capacity to be killed - or as bare life.

Now, eventually (if not currently), all life in modern democracy is reduced to homo sacer/bare life. Politics and medicine come together in biopolitics (decisions about who can be allowed to die and who will be able to live occur in the interaction and connection between the two). Thus all the people become "bare life" which is they are determined primarily by their capacity to be killed (or ended).

Furthermore, the state of exception, or the space outside the polis (the sovereign authority and homo sacer occupy the zones of indistinction which mark the extreme borders of this space) has migrated from the borders of the social and has instead become the regular state of all existence. Emergency states have suspended law and installed martial law in many countries (as was the case in Egypt where "A state of emergency" was maintained for over four decades). When everyone exists in the "state of exception" where the law no longer applies, then everybody is homo sacer.

Finally this brings us to Ackerman's working delving into presidentialism and the growth of executive power. Agamben specifically points to the US constitution as an example of how the traditional sovereign concept of prerogative (in which the sovereign can momentarily suspend the legal system in a state of emergency) is embedded in our constitution with the creation of a unitary executive with power to protect the state in case of emergency. Ackerman details (at a lower level of abstraction than Agamben) the specific process by which US presidentialism is gradually driving the United States into a permanent "state of exception".

This process is a long and drawn out series of events that Ackerman believes will eventually lead to the end of US republicanism as we know it. However, Ackerman is not exactly an alarmist - he doesn't claim to be able to know or predict what a post-republican United State would look like, only that it wouldn't be based on a diffusion of the popular will through roughly co-equal branches of government (as is the typical understanding of US republicanism).

The United States is not the simple - largely ad hoc - institution it started as. It has ballooned into a huge bureaucratic state that could not have been predicted by the Founding generation. This was a necessary transition to changing conditions and complexities that faced a modern state. However the increased power and influence of all the agencies that make up the United States creates a problem for the republican system instituted by the constitution. Agencies are profoundly responsible for interpreting and applying law and have become the de facto face of government to the people. Furthermore, modern Presidents have used their influences over agencies to create the perception that a President can make large shifts in priorities and policies simply by virtue of being president - without any assistance from Congress or the Courts. Hence in modern politics everything done by anybody (Congress, agencies, even the courts) is immediately attributable to the President. (Hence ObamaCare and Bush Tax Cuts, etc.) The president has a great deal of symbolic power which can shape policy, but he does not possess much in the way of formal policy-making power. His oath is to "faithfully execute" the law, not to create it. However, as expectations of presidential guidance over agencies increases, presidential temptation to influence agencies direction becomes ever greater.

Presidents power to influence agencies has also gradually increased as more and more top positions within the gradually expanding bureaucracy are assigned to presidential selection with consent of congress. Presidents have huge incentive to appoint politically zealous acolytes who will push agencies towards pet-projects of the White House.

This temptation to essentially, suspend law, has lead to developments in the office of the president that point towards a permanent state of legal exception in the US.

The path into the state of exception may roughly be said to start with Reagan administration and the first issuance of the first "Executive Order". An executive order is essentially a legalistic document that mandates policy priorities for agencies. These "executive orders" are problematic in that they blend the roles of legislation and execution. Furthermore, Reagan and subsequent presidents have used the EO to great effect in undermining or occasionally outright defying congressional law-making.

A more recent development is the use of "signing statements." Signing statements are questionably constitutional, documents which the President includes when he signs a new bill into law. SSs give the presidents interpretation of legislation and give cues to agencies about how they should interpret legislation. These documents are often hastily written and lack legal rigor, but are often referred to by agencies in justifying decisions in how they choose to apply guidelines provided by Congress. Now, in order to apply legislation, it is necessary to interpret the law. Agencies interpret law constantly and there is no constitutional problem. However, the president's signing statements in interpreting law often state that specific provisions of an act are unconstitutional, and therefore should not be applied. Thereby assuming the role that has traditionally been fulfilled by the Supreme Court. This is problematic for two resons. First, the President only has 60 days to either veto or sign a bill into law. This means signing statements are often completely hastily and do not make for clear and compelling constitutional constructions. Furthermore, because the signing statements essentially pre-empt the supreme courts judicial review, it undermines the Courts ability to control constitutional interpretation (if a law is never applied, how can a challenge to its constitutionality ever percolate to the Supreme Court.) This pre-emption undermines legal continuity and severely hinders the ability of the Courts to structure the law in a consistent and comprehensive way.

With Executive Orders and Signing Statements the president essentially writes the law, interprets the law, and executes the law. Thereby, consolidating three powers (that our founders separated into three branches of government) to the President and his staff.

Finally, there is no reason to believe that the President will use these powers benignly and maintain inter-branch strength balance. John Yoo's torture memos, demonstrate how painfully extreme the opinions created by the White Staffers can be. John Yoo was recruited to the office of the Attorney General, because he was a committed conservative ideologue. Yoo's theories and legal opinons - while very written - are not moderate and do not represent a balanced approach to inter-branch authority. Yoo's positions on Executive Authority come dangerously close to Nixon's Maxim, "If the presiden does it; then it's legal". Reading Yoo's theory of executive prerogative is like a reading Agambens theory of sovereignty through a twisted fun-house mirror, in which the permanent "state of exception" is endorsed wholeheartedly rather than critiqued and resisted.

Agamben (de)constructs a theory of sovereignty in which bare life - existing in the state of exception - marks the limits of the state and is also at its center and point of origin. Our own US constitutional system clearly includes artifacts of sovereignty as bare life - the unitary executive has the power to exercise prerogative before the slow moving deliberative branches can catch up with it to stop it (ironically the sovereign power enforces the law, but is also exists in a "state of exception" outside the law). This basis of the state in bare life, is becoming more and more problematic, as the executive gradually expands. Eventually, through the processes described by Ackerman, the US will becomed engulfed in a permanent state of exception. The institutions and practices are in place for the President to suspend the law and launch the US into an era of Executive Hegemony, all that is necessary is a concatenation of events that creates the impetus for this transition - perhaps another terrorist attack or a massive double-dip recession.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Conflict in Refugee Resettlement

One time, perhaps unwisely, I criticized a fellow job developer from a different agency for what I felt was a demeaning and condescending attitude toward recent immigrant refugees. I felt that she often treated her clients like children and did not give them the proper respect owed to individuals who have overcome extremely difficult circumstances and who are remarkably capable and intelligent. Essentially, I believed that this person hindered her clients ability to develop and learn job search skills by completing tasks for them which they were perfectly capable of doing themselves.

How can our clients learn job search skills if we don't allow them to be involved in their own job search process?

The particular instantation of this problem was that this person was telling her clients not to attempt to complete their new hire paperwork. Instead she shouted to them that they were to wait for her to do it for them. Many of these clients were perfectly capable of completing the paperwork - either by themselves or with moderate assistance.
I feel the best way to learn is by doing. Therefore, even when clients ask me to fill out paperwork for them I will often turn them down and say, "I won't do it for you, but I'll sit here and help you fill it out yourself." I bring this same philosophy to applications. I expect clients to fill out applications by themselves. Not only does this teach my clients job search skills, but it also demonstrates to employers that my clients are capable of completely an application independently.

For this reason my approach in this particular instance, was to let them do their own paperwork; thereby, giving them an opportunity to learn how to complete new-hire documents (such as I-9 and a W-2 Forms). The ability to complete these rather tricky documents is essential to any self-sufficient independent job seekers. Therefore, I felt it was valuable for them to have a hand at filling them out.

This attitude toward job development that I've developed herein is not unique to me. Many members of the Refugee Resettlement team in Utah are encouraging their clients to be involved in their own job search process.

Finally, how many times have we heard the saying: "Give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime"? I felt that the person I criticized was giving her clients' fish; whereas, I was attempting to teach them how to fish. (I.e. She was giving them completed I-9's and W-2; whereas, I was teaching them how to complete this paperwork).

I won't belittle or patronize my clients by "holding their hand." However, I will support my clients and do everything within my power to help them achieve their goals. I want to help my clients be what they are. And what they are, are capable, confident, and self-sufficient individuals.