Monday, November 08, 2004

Open letter to Suzanne Stein

(In response to posts and comments 11/5-11-7 over at Minor American)

Dear Suzanne,

Thanks for your note – there’s a lot to think about here, and I don’t want to simply dismiss the substance of your critique in the course of disagreeing with it. But disagree I must. To the extent that the emphasis on “stupidity” devolves into the publicly-stated belief that “those people in the flyover states are just ignorant rednecks,” then yes, you’re absolutely right that, leaving aside even the ugly class assumptions of such a claim, it’s on the face of it a politically suicidal position to take. To the extent that I lapsed into that in a moment of ill-considered rage, what you’ve written is a necessary corrective and a reminder of some more serious work to be done.

What I want to disagree with, though, is the implication that there’s something necessarily wrong with the assertion, which I think I was making, that working-class conservative voters who turned out for four more years of Bush made a politically disastrous and yes, stupid, decision. Frankly, I find the contention that we might live among “the people,” the better to understand them and help them to understand us, far more redolent of the Rousseau-esque excesses of a certain paternal liberalism than the outright acknowledgement that what we have on our hands is the need to organize an opposition for what promises to be a long struggle. This stems in large part from having grown up as one of “those people,” albeit one who voted and organized left. I take what David Perry (?) says in Maggie's comment box very seriously: there’s a wide range of diverse political opinion and a much more various array of forces within the red states than most of the current analysis is finding room for. And within that diversity, especially in a place like my hometown of Tampa, which usually swings rightward in electoral politics but has a large enough progressive/left/liberal set of organizations to make themselves felt, those who occupy that sizeable minority feel themselves acutely beset.

The invocation of bodily threat by Maggie and others is very much to the point. This came home to me early on, in the aftermath of an incident of racist and homo-hating violence (I’ll join Pamela here in distinguishing between the “pure phobes” and the haters) in the punk scene I grew up in, a scene which had until then felt to many of us like one of the nearest approximations on our native terrain to a progressively organized, grassroots public sphere. When a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads beat to death a young, gay Puerto Rican man outside the Cuban Club one night, that changed for me, and I suspect for a lot of other people as well. The point made to us in that act of violence was that “openness,” tolerance or whatever other name it might trade under, was an insufficient principle on which to organize a democratic (small-d) public in the face of actual struggle. The hard right in this country has understood the weakness of classic liberalism in this regard for several generations, and has organized accordingly – for cultural, political, and at times physical conflict, not for discourse. So the position I find myself in, following this election, is rooted in a place I found myself about a year after the Cuban Club murder, when I learned that a younger friend, in part responding to long-term unemployment in his family, the violence attendant on Tampa’s insane pattern of school “integration,” etc., and looking for a place to belong (which, in itself, is not at all a stupid motive), had joined a Christian Identity-type skinhead gang. (Admittedly, it’s an extreme example, and the analogy to the current situation is somewhat loose and permits of nuances not possible in the situation I’m narrating here. I’ll get to those in a moment). My response at the time was to take as seriously as possible the choice he had made, not to cast it as the result of insufficient education, lack of exposure to progressive alternatives, all the usual array of compensatory fantasies we progressives tend to indulge in when confronted with rightwing social violence. Taking his choice seriously meant telling him in no uncertain terms that what he had done was wrong, destructive, and stupid, and that, if followed through, it would mean the beginning of a real struggle between him and me. To invoke conviviality here, as you do, gets at the crux of this, though in a way perhaps different than what I think you were pointing at: what was at issue with my erstwhile friend was his explicit agreement with acts of violence against the possibility of our living-with-(one)-another, of occupying a commons.

Now, of course, I’m not claiming that everyone, or even a majority of those, who voted for Bush shares this willingness to sign up for a pogrom. Actually, I’m not even saying that this was entirely the case with the particular person I’m mentioning: in the face of a clearly-stated demand to be prepared for acts of direct violence, his commitment faltered and he entered a period of intense self-criticism and re-evaluation. What I am saying, though, is that the mark of my respect for him, as for those red-staters who were my neighbors, and who are still the neighbors of the great majority of my family and “home community,” was precisely my willingness to treat him like an adult whose political, or more broadly public, decisions would have adult consequences. And this is the response of those I know who actually live in the places we’re talking about at present: my siblings, faced with a continuing “jobless recovery” and attendant privatized healthcare (read: upward redistribution of wealth) are in fear of losing their jobs and with them their health insurance; my grandmother is facing the prospect of having her Social Security dangerously toyed with in order to make some hare-brained political point about “ownership” (read: upward redistribution of wealth); and my youngest brother, the Kerry-voting Marine, sees the recommitment of the electorate, witting or unwitting, to the war and the stop-loss programs that go with it, as possibly consigning him to another stint in an Iraq he’s already decided we have no business being in. Up against outcomes like this, their response is akin to what you might expect if your neighbor lit a fire to make a symbolic point and ended up burning down your house: “Hey, that was a really stupid thing to do.”

It’s here, I think, that I see the most serious problems with any sort of “red-state resettlement” program. Put bluntly, because these people are adults, and aren’t idiots, despite having made a bad decision, they can smell carpet-bagging a mile off. If you’re actually committed to the modes of social life in small-town, rural communities in the South, Midwest and West, and feel that you can add to that some organizational energy in the service of progressive movements already active on the ground there, then by all means, go ahead and move. But if what’s operative in this decision is some sense that, simply by putting ourselves in front of the Other, we can help that Other to see the “real us,” I think you’re in for a severe disappointment. Ask my Florida friends who had tires slashed, windows broken, received anonymous hate mail, etc., during the presidential campaign.

The other, mostly undiscussed side of this issue, rests in the way this “moral values” theme has been both overreported and underanalyzed. Overreported, because as it turns out, perceptions of who would better handle terrorism, the Iraq war, and even the economy had at least as much, and in many places far more, to do with the Republicans being able to drain away slivers of the Democratic base while energetically mobilizing their own to a level unseen in recent elections. Underanalyzed (and this goes hand in hand with the above), because the stock response on the part of agonized centrist Democrats has been, “How do we craft an appeal to these people?” Left at that level of abstraction, it’s an unanswerable question – either you give up any final pretense to represent the claims of civil and human rights and “steal some Republican thunder,” or you don’t, and resign yourself to symbolic opposition. It’s a pretty unappealing binary.

What’s being left out, of course, is any delving into those “moral values.” To what extent is that phrase hardwired to anti-gay, anti-reproductive choice, anti-free speech policies, and to what extent might it permit a bit more wiggle room? (Finally, I get to the nuance I promised above): the answer, as far as I can tell, is some of both. To the extent that it’s the former – and that it is, for at least a small but well-organized segment of rightwing Christians, seems fairly indisputable to me – everything I’ve said about the necessity for struggle holds for me. I simply refuse to lend any more support to a party that makes further accommodation with social violence, whether exclusionary or “targeted,” against the citizens it’s supposed to represent. (I’d take this as extending to non-citizens as well, and to Iraqis in particular). To the extent that it’s the latter, though, I think the possibility of room for maneuver rests in the link between those nearly-blank signifiers in American electoral politics, “moral values” and “character.” We’ve all heard Democrats and progressives doing their best to explain, in the wake of last week’s defeat, that “our values are moral values too.” This is where a less-oppositional, more open and collaborative process of political and cultural coalition-building might take hold. For this argument to hold any water, though, what’s needed is some attention to the linkage between “values” and “character.” Put simply, a slim majority of the electorate perceive Bush as a man who says what he means, means what he says, and acts likewise. Their caricature of Kerry is that he’s a man without a stance. The remarkable thing is that this perception turns out to be fairly decisive even for a large minority of voters who strongly disagree with a lot of what Bush means, says, and does. And the problem on the Democrats’ side, ever since Kerry locked up the nomination, is that the caricature has some pretty firm roots in reality.

Take, for example, his relative inability to make a “values” issue out of pre-emptive wars of choice, despite the discomfort of large swathes of voters with the bill of goods they were sold in the Iraq war. The immediate difficulty the campaign ran into, and which it never really overcame, was Sen. Kerry’s vote for the use-of-force authorization. While his vacillations around this issue were never quite as abject as the Rove machine painted them, they were pretty damn weak. The rationale he finally settled on – after much issue-clouding delay – was that his vote was intended to “back up” the sanctions and inspections regime with a real threat of consequences, and that he was misled by the administration into thinking that they would act in good faith, using the vote as a bargaining chip. It’s a pretty shoddy rationale: there was already a good deal of clarity at the time of the vote that the resolution, as worded, essentially gave Bush carte blanche when it came to launching the invasion. And it was widely known that the administration was stuffed to the gills with PNAC neo-cons who had never hedged around their commitment to the military overthrow of the Baathist regime. The first explanation a lot of people came up with (not only Bush voters, but people like myself who put time, money and energy into the Kerry campaign despite some very serious misgivings about him as a candidate) for why Kerry voted as he did, only to later re-position himself as the leader of a party opposed to the war, was that he actually supported the resolution as worded, but later saw how Dean polled in the primaries and realized he needed to capture some of that momentum. This is not a moral stance, but rank opportunism. The other, and perhaps worse possibility, is that Kerry didn’t stand behind his vote at the time, but carried it out in the name of political expediency, bowing to the momentum the neo-cons had amassed in order to save some Democratic face, a kind of party discipline. This would mean that, in hindsight, the Senator had been willing to gamble with tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, thousands of American lives, and billions of dollars, for the sake of short-term political advantage. Not a pretty picture, and it pretty much militates against any attempt to take a moral anti-war stance later in the campaign.

“Character,” if it’s short-hand for anything other than folksy millionaire faux-populism (and there was certainly a lot of that, on both sides, though Bush was far more successful with it), stands for the ability to take a stand. Only thus does one make of the political a matter of “values,” and of lived social commitments. We could go through similar demonstrations of why this particular candidate failed on the terrain of moral economy and the morality of civil and human rights, but I think the picture is clear enough. What’s truly stunning is that a candidate perceived even by many of his own supporters as something of a non-entity for these and other reasons, came as close as he did. One productive line of inquiry in the wake of the election might be, not “why did ‘their values’ beat ‘our values,’” but “why do we keep letting this ineffectual center – in the person of Terry McAuliffe, certainly, but really throughout the party organization – keep its stranglehold on Democratic political campaigns, forcing us to lose elections to eminently beatable Republicans?” (I know, I know, calls for McAuliffe’s head are so four years ago…)

I want to return to those “lived social commitments,” though, because it’s there that things get considerably trickier. If we restrict ourselves, despite all the caveats above, to the church-centered version of the moral values argument, what emerges as a particular strength of the right is the extent to which there are already-existing modes of social organization in the communities where they’re drawing votes. These organizations – churches and attendant “family councils” and the like – are not organized primarily as political institutions, despite the extent to which they have been directly politicized in recent years. What they address at root is the lived experience of belonging, and the sets of social, ethical, spiritual and material needs attendant on that belonging. Once you have a material set of institutions like this, producing identifications on a day-to-day basis, you have a public sphere (albeit centered on a particularly restrictive, exclusionary sense of “public” for the most part) in which the work of political organizing can take hold. This organizing is less a matter of persuasive argument or appeals to communicative rationality, than it is a matter of a direct appeal to the fact of belonging as such. As
Alan Sondheim
points out, there is a shift here from the epistemological to the ontological. Or, as Barrett Watten writes, “All analysis flies in the face of a simple, stupid identification.” (Since I’ve invoked the “s” word again, I should emphasize that I see a reciprocal, and far less effective stupidity operating on much of the left: our stubborn belief in our own self-image as the good-natured persuaders, issuers of appeals to our fellow human beings’ better reason. Simply put, without the material, institutional basis with which to make these appeals operative in lived social experience – which is not a function of communication, but a function of production, the production of public space, itself often a function of a durable kind of “being there” – we’re guilty of a far worse kind of stupidity: not stupidity as the “decision” of faith prior to fact, but the boneheaded, continuing insistence on the counter-factual even after the facts are in).

The left used to have a set of such institutions at its disposal in the form of trade unions and associated public-sphere groupings. And while the decline of skilled labor as part of a globalizing shift toward deskilling and flexible accumulation bears some of the fault for these institutions’ ebb in political life, so too does the willful ignorance of most Democrats (and even most Greens) of the real bases where labor organization is still being carried out, in the service sector and in low-wage, contingent employment. This might be one place to start on the question: “How do we build our own set of institutions, our own politicized public, that can address the real experience of real people?” Progressive religious institutions, largely asleep at the wheel during recent U.S. political history, though with notable exceptions in the sanctuary movement of the 80’s, the Jubilee Justice organizations of the 90’s, etc., might be another place to look. And I’m not writing off what you’ve sketched here, either. As I said, though, it’s a matter of aligning that impulse with what’s actually happening on the ground in the places you’re looking at. The more it feels like Left Coast intellectuals coming to the Great Plains on an anthropological field trip, the more justified resentment such an initiative is going to face.

In the short-term “meanwhile,” though, we’re faced with a particular form of aggression on the part of the victors that I think does warrant some judicious uses of direct opposition. This is, after all, an administration that has interpreted a 2.5% margin as “political capital” to be spent. As Watten also points out, this calculus only makes sense where all value is understood as realizable exchange value – public policy is a function of marginal returns. Actually, I think the stance taken by Bush in this statement is somewhat worse than even Watten spells out: no sane, functional capitalist in the world would interpret a 2.5% ROI as a license to go on a spending spree.

And that last bit brings me, in a roundabout way, to a final consideration. Bush’s recklessness with his political capital is a pretty close parallel to the whole nation’s fiscal recklessness, in both public and private sectors. The recent vote to raise the debt ceiling, the continuing upward spiral of debt-funded U.S. consumer spending that is the only thing currently managing an ongoing crisis of overproduction, the likelihood of a saturation-point being reached in the ability of other nations’ central banks to invest in that increasingly bad debt, and the growing productive capacity of China and other economic regions – all point to the likelihood of a real, honest-to-god financial crisis. It’s important to stress this, I think, because were such a thing to come to pass (and it’s not just my pet lefty economists saying this, by the way), all the marks by which we’re aligning our sense of the political map would shift with extreme rapidity. And with the right in power, this shift is unlikely to come in the form of an opening-up of hitherto unexplored political possibilities. I see it far more as an occasion for something much more closely resembling fascism pure and simple. So by all means, dialogue and collaborate in the present, but keep the options for struggle open.

In those attempts to “communicate,” I think it’s imperative that we work toward something other than a projected return to Clinton-era financial hegemony. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Bush’s militarism is a response to the crisis of Clinton’s financialism: Donald Rumsfeld is the evil twin of Robert Rubin. “If we can’t maintain control of the financial markets, we can position ourselves militarily at a choke point for the productive apparatus – the Persian Gulf oil supply”: I think that’s the unspoken reasoning behind the war, and it doesn’t bode well if a financial collapse does ensue. You don’t encounter a lot of economic empires maintained through sheer military force, but you do see quite a few that managed to wreak a lot of havoc on their way out. Reaction at home and proliferating armed conflict abroad are very real possibilities of this period, and I think it behooves us to know what we could be up against. This is where my sketches of organizational possibilities reach a limit, though, because I haven’t got the faintest idea how to sell a broad cross-section of Americans on the idea that within their lifetimes they’ll probably experience a fairly precipitous fall from “the top of the world,” even though I’m pretty well convinced that being prepared for this eventuality is a central necessity in imagining a democratic politics that has a horizon of more than the next twenty or thirty years.

Yours in struggle,
Taylor

3 Comments:

Blogger very said...

“How do we build our own set of institutions, our own politicized public, that can address the real experience of real people?”





dear taylor,


thank you for your responsivity. we have so many things to talk about.

While your moment of ill-considered rage comes down on the side of “them’s stupid”, it is like me for mine to situate itself on the gooey side of the equation, ‘let’s gaze deep into each other’s human eyes.’ However, while what I’ve begun to discuss on maggie’s blog and what I’ve noted to you privately is still underformulated, I have to assure you it’s as far from “rousseau-esque paternalist liberalism” or carpetbagging pollyanna as could be, nor am I advocating a kind of stand-less friendship circle where we ignore the need to strategize and organize. I understand from your message that so much of what I’ve begun to allude to as possibility is still so open as to invite exactly those accusations, so I thank you for giving me the impetus to clarify my thoughts here.

Your letter so acutely and lucidly lays out for us again exactly what the problems are, what are the useful charges against the current power structure, and delineates again the need for change and “opposition”. You’ve also clearly demonstrated the nearly frozen place (devoid of wiggle room) in which we find ourselves so frustrated in our attempts to answer the question “where do we go from here?” We all agree we’ve got to “fight” and to “struggle”; but we also all need to identify what the “good fight” looks like; for me it needs to change firstly at the molecular level. As I wrote to Maggie, what she (and you) are talking about is a regime change; what I am addressing is a physio-neurological change in the body of “the people”---that’s you and me and the mythical “them”---and this discussion of moving to the [‘mythical’, or ‘theoretical’, which is not to say nonfunctional] ‘midwest’ has everything to do with bodily perspective and exchange, and is much more useful and growthful for the actual left than it could be for the mythical right. Yes, it’s a kind of metaphysic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t address the real experiences and needs of real people. Stay with me a minute.

As you’ve pointed out, the problem on the left or in the [mythical] Democratic party is an unwillingness to face up to the reality of a Republican coalition based on values, which is I must add, married to a willingness to put their bodies on the line for what they believe in. When I suggest it might be necessary for “us” (that’s the “us” clustered in cities where we can’t see ‘them’ and they can’t see “us”) to move, I am talking about a physical movement that places the body yes at times or often in a place where there is real threat of physical harm. Do I think we all need to take up residence as missionaries in the ‘small town’? no of course not, necessarily; but I do think motion both in our own location and to location nearby is of necessity, and more importantly the manner of our motility---as you say, your Tampa left-progressive minority feels embattled—what can we do to co-alight? to resurge? without a willingness to speak to with among, to pass through, those we think are our ‘enemy’, while speaking to with among alongside our ‘friend’ how do we expect to ‘win’? WHAT are our options for what you call judicious opposition (well, I agree with you of course, what do you propose exactly?) Or, why would we want to place ourselves inside a lonely, fragmented, isolatory, [read ‘ineffective’] opposition? I do repeat: ‘noncompliance [aka ‘oppostional prosodics’] necessarily BUILDS that with which it contends.’ This is one place I identify as desperately wanting nanotechnological overhaul. This is of course what poetry is for.

And leads me to what I identify in your letter as the soft needy spot we together can address. You’ve hit right on it when you identify that our biggest problem is the lack of social congregations on the left which are not overtly or primarily organized as political apparatus. This is extremely important, and I want to point out that I was never unaware for a moment in writing to you or into Maggie’s blog that I have been addressing specifically and entirely poets [and not even as citizens per se], one loosening congregation wherein is one place we can begin to tighten up the Act. The assumption that grass roots always means politics is another part of our problem; isn’t it possible to inflect a socio-prosodic organizing congregational tool sans the “politic” but where one is willing to put one’s body into its nonviolent offense as a purest form of fight or struggle, even if violence is the threat. And thus from there, etc.

Exactly the kind of organization you’re wishing for in your letter, is the sort I’m proposing. At the level of the local language: this means ours.

Let me step again away from poets specifically and agree with you that of course the problem isn’t simply about fundamentalist christian born-again bible readers on the right, and let me assert that it’s at least in part about the majority of especially the minority (progressive) left’s unwillingness to admit there might be a metaphysic (prosodic) ideology that can carry the politic, call it kindness, call it tolerance, call it conviviality, call it love---those are also ‘values’ and the progressives and the academy and the “democratic party” could choose to get over them(our)selves and break down into the irrationality of the spiritual, even if it’s a ‘fake’ as everyone says the rove-bush architecture of moral-values campaign strategizing is.

You’re right, absolutely, that argument [‘discourse’ ‘friendly pleading’] doesn’t work; that’s in part because we’ve grown ourselves a literacy problem in this country where 4/5ths of us don’t speak or understand the language. That’s why the body and its demonstrative (not protest-ant) stance [and location] becomes of the utmost importance.

When I began talking last year with brandon brown about a ‘midwest’ think-tank or school, or breathing location—what was in mind for me was that bodily perspective change which operates on the spirit. A naught- and also ought-theoretical movement towards the middle—and I am not talking about middle-of-the-course political capitulation. I had the idea that from Salinas, Kansas, one could see clear to each coast, all the way north to Alaska and into all points south, and that the geography and topography change, via the movement itself, which is that of bringing together and moving apart, no matter from whence one starts, to and fro those points N-S-E-W could effect on our bodies the shake-up necessary to begin to re-sort our physiologies as rewiring mechanisms whose bold “conviviality” has more hopeful (now there’s a dirty word) possibility in the long, long run, especially if it not only faces the real, but carries the metaphoric, gun. [stance]

As to whether or not we’re gazing at each other as lucid adults who make ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ choices---of course 53percent of the electorate might use exactly your language to talk about your vote for Kerry. What sounds so simplistic is actually of urgency: “They” are as firm in “their” stance as “we” are. If Kerry’d been elected they’d be just as pissed off that you burned their house down. While it may be, and I believe it is, quite true that you understand the negative consequences of another Bush term more fully than most voters (on either side of the ticket), the stance [in the body] of moral, intellectual, and political superiority many of us take on the “left” is the one least likely to gather us any bodies.

and of course, none of what we’re discussing together is an either-or solutionary. Its an and-and possibility that with continued effort towards congregationality will take us a little closer to the goal.

this letter too too bereft of necessary nuance and breadth, but another start.

also yours in struggle.
and with care and admiration,
suzanne

4:44 PM  
Blogger very said...

hello all,

i thought it might also be useful to include the original, private message i sent to taylor with an invitation for conversation, as in his letter above he is responding to it as well as my posts at minor american.

see below

xxoo




On Nov 6, 2004, at 11:43 PM, Suzanne Stein wrote:

> hi taylor,
>
> you were the person i most wanted to talk with tonight, but we had to
> leave right away and there wasn't a chance.
>
> last night at spt when we were standing around waiting for the time
> when we could comfortably stop socializing and take the relief of our
> seats, i was so surprised and also distressed to hear you also talking
> about, you know, "the idiots who voted for bush"---i recognize
> everyone's fury grown out of a sense of impotence and futility and
> that fury's neccessity but have been taken aback at the velocity with
> which the language of our state is taking place in our mouths, the
> local virulence of the us-and-them talk, the demarcating of whole
> geographies of the country as "the enemy"---and was hoping at least
> with other poets to find minds willing to absorb at once the
> opposition and be thinking immediately for another another another
> practice towards solution----my despair over the election is nothing
> compared to what i feel hearing a kind of divisive absolutism about
> the stupidity of the average bush voter. it isn't that i can agree
> with those who would make that vote, but i certainly and
> overwhelmingly understand now what i ignored before: my own complicity
> in forcing the divide---
>
> a rather long invitation to conversation, and in the form of a minor
> tirade---but I've been thinking for about the last year the necessity
> of making some kind of---school, location, etc, place, prosodic think
> tank, in the geographic center of the contiguous u.s. [that's salinas,
> kansas], now it seems an inescapable necessity, even given the
> mythology of midwest or south or whatever as 'bush country',
> 'jesusland' whatever we're calling it----to address, from prosody,
> what is largely a literacy problem...
>
> i've admired your politic a long time, and want very much to hear from
> you about what possibility of real change you see while we insist from
> the coasts that nobody who voted for bush knows how to think. many
> more thoughts in this direction, in my feeble way, at maggie's blog.
>
> would love to talk with you, yours is the mind i'd most like to hear
> from right now---I have never forgotten and have thought about
> continually that right after 9/11 you said to me and some others
> standing near that all work in the time of war is war production. i've
> been sorting out what you could have meant by that since. and perhaps
> you've been writing your recent thoughts into some other blog
> environment, i don't often look or keep track, so let me know
>
> etc.
>
> s
>

12:57 PM  
Blogger Anne Boyer said...

Months too late, a poet raised in Salina, Kansas comes to say: the official middle of nowhere is not Salinas, but SALINA. Salinas is Steinback -- Salina, not even quite Cather.

Salina -- among three rivers -- home of the Jackson's Land Institute & assorted sustainable ag (and society) thinkers, with a share of artists and lefties, yet none the less Bush.

Alas.

6:10 AM  

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