Monthly Archives: December 2015
One of the biggest tensions in both politics and culture is the balance between membership in an ethnic community and the sense of belonging it provides versus a more capacious mentality with respect to respecting democratic ideals of inclusiveness and fairness. Many current cultural and political problems trace their roots to multicultural situations and settings where social cohesion is lost as settings become more diverse. Consequently, politics is essentially about the management of differences. And one of the most difficult differences to manage is ethnic identity which offers a strong sense of belonging but is quite dumbfounded when it comes to developing intergroup cooperation and an identity sufficiently broad enough to include both sides of a conflict.
The “received” deliberative democracy literature is mostly broad and normative focusing on abstractions about how to reconcile differences in a democratic manner. But one of the underappreciated difficulties of the more theoretical approach to deliberation is that it fails to sufficiently embrace the matter of power asymmetries. These are when values and interests are deeply entrenched and inequality is part of the natural state of affairs between two groups such that one side is economically and militarily superior.
The first and most important question is how one imagines deeply divided societies or groups coming together. Ethnopolitically divided societies might live near each other and tolerate a side-by-side existence, but they can’t share trust and a sense of community. The two sides must ultimately work to transform the context, the individuals, and their cultural differences in order to create a relationship rooted more in mutuality than rank group identification. On one level, this involves transforming identities – which is theoretically possible because identities are described as social constructions which means they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reorganized. This is the transformative and epistemic sense of deliberation which believes in the gradual process of creating new relationships and shared communities. Again, the question remains as to how this transformation happens. Or, what is the mechanism or interaction pattern responsible for achieving this new state of affairs.
Rigorous and serious deliberation is an antidote to communication based on bargaining, trading off interests, and manipulations designed to achieve private goals. Deliberation is about interest and preference formation. But in the case of deliberation for divided societies power asymmetries must be accounted for. In fact, it makes little sense to ignore just the defining issue that is the root of the conflict. Differences between divided societies are usually moral and cultural in nature but it is close to impossible to arrive at moral consensus between ethnopolitically separated groups. This is where what I call “Reasonable Disagreement” (Chapter 3 in my most recent book Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict) can be helpful. Reasonable disagreement – the details of which are beyond the concerns of this posting – begins by treating the other not as an enemy but as an adversary as Iris Young argues. Reasonable disagreement is simply the assumption that there is more than one defensible way to make an argument or hold a belief. It recognizes that one group’s worldview is not necessarily or clearly superior or correct. There is simply no way to manage differences and develop cultural sensitivity between groups without their remaining gaps of meaning and understanding that simply must be tolerated.
Viewing the other side of a divided society as an “enemy” requires vanquishing him or her because the other side is typically considered wrong and worthy of annihilation (either literally or symbolically). “Adversaries”, on the other hand, are respected worthy opponents that cannot be thoroughly vanquished. Reasonable disagreement has two senses: the first is as a political value to be nurtured and developed in a democratic society. It is a foundational plank of the requirements for tolerance and diversity in liberal democratic societies. The second sense is as an epistemic value responsible for new and creative decision-making.
I think the challenges of ethnopolitically divided societies are going to be the subject of increasing research and theoretical attention in the future – and rightfully so.
In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs Nick Danforth likens the caliphate to an abstract concept such as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that has very little historical basis and is largely made up as different leaders need the concept. Danforth calls the caliphate a fantasy that has been exploited by political and military leaders in order to strengthen their claim to Islamic leadership. Westerners have confused the dream of a unifying religious power, a caliphate, with a cruder military and economic power claiming religious authority.
After Mohammed died in 632 there was no heir to his leadership and the conflict about who should succeed him began. The word caliph means succession and the caliphate is a governing body that manages political and religious affairs of state. You can begin to read more about the caliphate here.
The distinction between Shia and Sunni has its roots in the competition for leadership after Mohammed. Some believe that his son-in-law Ali should serve as leader and he was the rightful heir and they became “Shia.” Those who believe that Mohammed supporters and the people around him were eligible for leadership are the Sunni.
The caliphate is in the tradition of messianic Islam where at some point at the end of times the souls of all Muslims will join Allah. This resurrection is related to the Christian resurrection, but one difference is the restoration of the caliphate. Supposedly, an Islamic state under sharia law will be governed by a Caliph who has authority over all Muslims. The true caliphate will come after unjust kingdoms are destroyed.
But the caliphate has never been much of a governing organization and there are controversies over whether Islamic law is part of the state or not. But the notion of the caliphate has been used to exploit Muslim claims of control of their own rights and the rights of other Muslims. The caliphate is also used as justification for eliminating the borders that Europeans drew between countries and arguing for a transnational Muslim empire.
ISIS is trying to create a pan- Islamic moral order that does not recognize national boundaries. The idea of a caliphate is of course consistent with the Empire mentality of ISIS and their desire to speak with one voice. The presence of a caliphate is threatening to more secular democratic interests and for this reason the notion of a caliphate was outlawed by Ataturk. But Muslim societies are assumed to be fractionated at the moment and not held together by any common authorative source. The idea of a caliphate is pleasing to many and is viewed as a binding and coherent structure that keeps Muslims together. Osama bin Laden was attracted to the idea of a caliphate as one way to redress the humiliations and grievances heaped on Islam.
Finally, Danforth concludes that it would be a mistake to think that the idea of reviving the caliphate is anything but a power move with no basis in clear Islamic principles. The Syrians, Turks, Iraqis, Afghanis etc. are surely bound together by Islam but also represent political and cultural historical differences that would be obliterated by a pan- Islamic power organization called the caliphate. Westerners should not be duped into believing that the caliphate holds Islamic legitimacy; rather, it might slip easily into an unpleasant dominating authoritarian force.
The Republicans have lied so systematically and pervasively that they now have created a new lying monster and it is loose in the streets and no one seems to be able to capture him. It’s Frankentrump. The fact checking websites are ablaze with Trump’s lies. Of course, no one expected Frankentrump to last this long, no one thought the little monster was anything other than annoying and while he might terrorize the streets for a few days he was mostly entertainment value.
But it turns out that the monster Frankentrump has escaped from the laboratory and is staying alive by continuing to terrorize the streets with even more lies and unsubstantiated statements. In fact, Frankentrump is moving into the mainstream population. The village elders in the GOP are worried because they are losing control of him. And, he is upsetting the GOP establishment because his lies and misinformation are not being corrected properly which means this monstrosity continues to feed, grow, and is difficult to contain. How was Frankentrump created?
Frankentrump is the monster that was born of three maniacal mothers all related to the GOP. It’s common enough and facile to say that all politicians lie or that both Democrats and Republicans manipulate information but it does not mean that the two parties do it the same way or have equal skill. The Republicans are far more skilled at lying than the Democrats and they have now created this beast slouching toward the presidency.
Frankentrump’s three mothers are (a) the Republican reality bubble created by their own system of media ownership and think tanks, (b) the era of “post-truth politics,” and (c) new media. You can read more about Trump and the media here.
(a). It’s fairly common knowledge that in the last decades the GOP has successfully created think tanks, media outlets (Fox News), cable programs, talk shows, and publication opportunities all designed to perpetuate a conservative agenda. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except in the case of the GOP it has produced a toxic side effect which is that so many GOP candidates live in a bubble that is disconnected from reality. They have distorted the truth so frequently and so aggressively (e.g., Obama is a Muslim, Obama is not a citizen, veterans Swift-Boating Kerry, weapons of mass destruction, the Clintons killed Vince Foster) that they live in an increasingly insular world. Just look at this list of GOP presidential candidates – listen to how people talk about them as crazy, or scary, or embarrassing – and tell me they are not little monsters challenging conventions of evidence and reasoning.
(b). Post-truth politics is the fact that voters use crude heuristics to assess legislative proposals. This runs somewhat counter to the idealized Enlightenment view which to gather facts, draw conclusions, create policy on the basis of those conclusions, and implement. Post-truth thinkers identify with a group, adopt the position of that group, and then do nothing but seek confirmatory information. The Republicans have been particularly effective at finding heuristics. Every Democratic proposal is met with an unpleasant group identification. The proposal is socialism, or weak liberalism, or class warfare, etc. You can read more about post-truth thinking here.
(c). There is a loss of credibility and traditional media. The era when journalists were informed and asked tough questions and pointed questions designed to inform the public is slipping away. There is so much new media and user generated content that the power of the media has been drained in this sense. There are so many opportunities for expression that no one credible and respectable source can dominate the narrative. And most importantly perhaps is the strategy of simply accusing the other side of something outrageous, knowing it is false, but walking away from the accusation over time because the damage is done even though the accusation is false or constructed. Hence, Hillary Clinton is accused of negligence in Benghazi or inappropriately using a server in the State Department. These are non-issues that are blown way out of proportion and the goal is simply to make the accusation and damage the other person casting care about facts or truth to the wind.
And so the newest incarnation of this entire poison cocktail is the monster known as Frankentrump. The party elders have lit their torches and are trying to chase the monster from the village, but as of now they can’t catch him.