Monthly Archives: May 2016
Soaring Oratory in the British Parliament
The soaring oratory of Tony Benn in defense of airstrikes against Syria harks back to the days when such speech making mattered. References for the material below and another perspective appears here.
So there will be another war. Last night, the House of Commons decided, by 397 votes to 223, to carry out airstrikes in Syria. After the result had been announced, after the morbid spectacle as hundreds of overstuffed suits cheered the news that people would shortly be dying at their hands, the Speaker and a few MPs congratulated each other on an orderly and decorous debate, on being sensible and well-mannered as they discussed whether or not to throw dynamite at people from out of the sky. We will bomb Syria, not because it’ll make anything better, but for purely symbolic and autotelic reasons: to be seen to be bombing, to kill for the sake of having killed. (Who else behaves like this?) So it’s not surprising that as the eternal war continues to spin out forever, all anyone wants to talk about is how great Hilary Benn’s speech was.
During the debate, Hilary Benn MP, son of the great socialist campaigner Tony Benn, delivered a 14-minute speech in which he defied Jeremy Corbyn to express his support for an air war in Syria, and seemingly everyone agrees that it was wonderful, statesmanlike stuff. He might be endorsing a thousand years of blood and slaughter, but what great rhetoric.
The reviews are pouring in, as if this were a West End musical instead of the overture to a massacre. “Truly spellbinding”, the Spectator gushes. “Fizzing with eloquence”, gurgles the Times. “Electric”, gloops the Guardian. The Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges, who can reliably be called upon to provide the worst possible opinion at any given time, goes further. “He did not look like the leader of the opposition,” he writes. “He looked like the prime minister.”
But none of this is true. It is, however, a very convenient stance for those who see failure to drool at the prospect of an aerial bombardment as an unpardonable offence, and something that they hope to turn into fact by constant repetition.
Hilary Benn’s speech was not the masterstroke of a consummate statesman; it was disingenuous nonsense. Even on the level of pure rhetoric: he imitated better speakers by occasionally varying his tone, rising from a sincere whisper to tub-thumping declamation without much regard for the actual content of what he was saying; this is now apparently what passes from great oratory. The speech was liberally garnished with dull clichés: “clear and present danger”, “safe haven”, “shoulder to shoulder”, “play our part”, “do our bit”. He said “Daesh” a lot, and mispronounced it every time.
As if the self-image of the British state were worth a single innocent life.
And then there’s what he actually said. Hilary Benn has form here: he voted for the 2003 war in Iraq (making him far more responsible for the rise of Isis than some of the people who will die in the airstrikes he’s so passionately promoting) and the disastrous 2011 air war in Libya. Much of his speech is familiar invocation of the just war doctrine: laying out the brutality of Isis, as if the eight British jets we’re sending could put an end to it; asking “what message would [not acting] send?”, as if the self-image of the British state were worth a single innocent life.
But along the way Benn made a few comments that were really startling, both callous and clunky. He mentioned the inevitability of civilian casualties only once. “Unlike Daesh”, he said, “none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh, who target innocent people.” Well, that’s fine then. As if our sincere good wishes mean anything when we’re lobbing bombs at a city from 30,000 feet.
He declared that the United Nations had been founded because, “we wanted the nations of the world working together to deal with threats to international peace and security,” rather than with the goal of abolishing wars altogether – wars like the one Hilary Benn MP helped start in 2003, which led to the one he helped start last night.
He gave a strange sort of credence to David Cameron’s absurd claim that there are 70,000 ground troops in the Syrian opposition ready and waiting to help Britain defeat Isis – while admitting that it’s simply not true, he insisted that, “whatever the number, 70,000, 40,000, 80,000,” their existence requires us to act now. Maybe there are a million, he may as well have said. Maybe there’s just one.
All of this was followed by a truly cackhanded coda. Addressing his colleagues in the Labour party, Benn said:
“We are here faced by fascists. […] And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil.”
It’s a very strange comparison to make, especially as he aligns himself with a Tory war. During the Spanish Civil War, thousands of British left-wingers did indeed join up to fight against the fascists, but Benn’s new friends weren’t great supporters of the effort. George Orwell writes in The Lion and the Unicorn of the “frightening spectacle of Conservative MPs wildly cheering the news that British ships, bringing food to the Spanish Republican government, had been bombed by Italian aeroplanes.”
The British government choosing to attack a city halfway across the world for no good reason and to no great effect doesn’t have much in common with the heroism of the thousands who travelled to Spain, volunteering their lives against fascism. But there are other analogues. During the Spanish Civil War, the first mass aerial bombardment of a population centre was carried out by German and Italian pilots over the Basque town of Guernica. The town itself had little military importance; it’s possible the fascists committed their slaughter their just to see what their weapons could do. Up to 300 people died as they tried to go about their lives; the town was almost entirely destroyed. Afterwards, the massacre inspired a painting by Pablo Picasso, Guernica; a copy hangs in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations, put there to remind the delegates of the consequences of war. Clearly, as Hilary Benn’s speech shows, it isn’t working.
Trump is Wrong: Comparing the US to Other Countries
This entire article analyzes how the U.S. stacks up against the rest of the world. The data are clear. The summary below is from here by the Council on Foreign Relations. By way of example, these are the issues with respect to trade. Click on the link above for the entire visual data set. Trump is simply wrong about America and just fabricating stories to scare people and serve up red meat for his supporters.
In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said, “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” Some of Obama’s critics have countered that the United States’ standing in the world is slipping and that the country is losing out to rivals like China. So how does the United States actually measure up?
A new book from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), How America Stacks Up: Economic Competitiveness and U.S. Policy, examines how the United States has responded to global economic competition and benchmarks the United States against other advanced economies. The book is an invaluable resource in the 2016 presidential election cycle for assessing the Obama administration’s economic legacy and debating priorities for the next administration.
Clear infographic charts rate the United States against its competitors in eight areas: education, transportation, trade and investment, debt and deficits, worker retraining, corporate taxes, regulation, and innovation. It’s a good read.
The Commensurability Challenge
The below is from Radical Conflict: Essays on Violence, Intractability, and Communication. Edited by Andrew Smith. Lexington Books, 2016.
The assumption that two groups are incommensurable, and locked in their culturally particular language, has some undesirable side effects such as cultural essentialism and parochialism. Moreover there is a tendency to focus on the past and the traditional which can lead increasingly to dualist dichotomies. The Israeli-Palestinian dualist narratives are classic examples of the consequences of moving toward incommensurability and differentiation. Neither side can escape the past and both are poor when it comes to establishing conditions for change. Because each side refuses to get beyond its own boundaries, and remains encapsulated in their particular cultural logic that is incommensurable with the other, they reproduce the exact conditions they are trying to avoid. Solving problems and moving toward some acceptable integrated consensus (becoming more commensurable) will only accrue with more generality rather than specificity.
Wang makes the argument that a cultural group confined by particularity is in fact in a position to achieve more universality through the workings of the particular. This is especially pertinent to my arguments because from this perspective the particular is not a matter of the opposite of universal but plays an active and vital role in constructing commensurability. The particulars, for example, of Palestinian and Israeli culture should be the stimuli for communication about more broadly shared commonalities. A simple clash of opinions and historical statements will never close up this divide. But a more organic approach, with greater interaction between paired concepts, including an open system mentality that continuously monitors the environment for information, can produce an understanding of history that is mutually constituted. As with the fled-expelled dichotomy, a new common ground as possible
The most basic challenge for incommensurability is to bridge differences and find ways to do it such that one paradigm can be translated into the language of another demonstrating that differences are not irreconcilable. It is important to underscore that commensurability is more concerned with similarity and equivalents rather than commonality. A particular culture might find commonalities with another culture quite difficult yet have enough similarities to facilitate communication. As Wang states, “no two human beings or cultures and societies are ‘the same’ at any moment, in any way.” This is true because all humans communicate and this communicative function re-conceptualizes their individuality into something more interdependent and other-oriented. Any constructivist perspective on communication, which challenges the Enlightenment notion of individual autonomy, by definition implies that attitudes, beliefs, and values are a consequence of interaction and thereby malleable enough to move from isolated incommensurate realities toward commonality.
A position that holds incommensurability as equivalent to incomparable or incommunicable is indefensible. It is certainly possible to immerse oneself in the language and culture of another and learn to translate that culture into something more broadly communicable. Ricoeur has made the argument that despite the challenges, confusions, and barriers to learning another culture and language it is possible to be multilingual and multicultural. It is possible, for example, for one day in the future Israelis and Palestinians to find new interpretive links and resonate with the culture of the other. No two cultures are completely different especially when each culture has been the recipient of deep hermeneutic interpretation that reveals hidden similarities and differences. Dialogue, when it is functioning properly, should move the two conflicting cultures toward improved historical background and cultural contexts that offer deeper clarification and understanding. Cultures present arguments differently and express worldviews on the basis of opaque cultural influences and traditions, but can still sometimes find commonalities. Everyday knowledge, shared experiences, and similar linguistic expressions are the tools for understanding incommensurability and then become the basis of new language worlds that unfold as commensurability is revealed.
The commensurability-incommensurability argument is an important theoretical and philosophical position because it speaks to a key conundrum in cultural conflict. The issue of each side in a cultural conflict having roots in its local soil but reaching out to connect to others has implications for research directions as well as managing difficult conflicts. This matter of roots in local soil and connections with broader networks is a fundamental characteristic of the type of political conflicts discussed here. Moreover, the theoretical power of the micro-macro link, which explores the reciprocal relationship between macro structural categories in society (e.g. race, gender, class etc.) and the micro interactions of individuals (real-time talk), remains ripe for research attention. If communication and dialogue are as effective as academicians and professionals would have us believe, then examination of these issues must continue until we reach a point of theoretical coherence.
Don’t be Fooled by Trump’s Use of Studied Sincerity
The video below is a dramatization (although not much of one) of “common sense” and part of its infrastructure, namely, “sincerity.” Donald Trump has been trying to capitalize on this deep-seated American value where “common sense” or “plain talk” or “telling it like it is” is glorified as the highest form of discourse. John McCain in 2000 termed his campaign tours as the “Straight Talk Express.” Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” and the rhetorical technicalities of Bernie Sanders continue this effort to convince people that they are authentic and lack any pretenses. The Norman Rockwell image of the common man standing up to speak plainly is burned into our psyches and is an iconic image of communicative authenticity.
Well, I’m here to point out the dangers and the potential damage of this rhetorical shell game called “straight talk.” Trump is the worst perpetrator of this myth and he is successfully fooling millions into believing he is actually worth listening to. The assumption that one is “telling it like it is” or doing nothing but “talking straight” is a dangerous myth that weakens the quality of decision-making and directs attention away from substantive issues. Of course, for Trump directing attention away from substantive issues is just the point. Since he does not know anything about foreign policy, governance, or macroeconomics he has to redirect the conversation. Thus, he has spent his time trying to convince the populace that he is “sincere”.
Political communication is organized around language and symbols of various types so it is particularly important that we attend to words, their meaning, and how they are used. Otherwise we are confused about the state of political discourse and are likely to come to poor decisions. The myth of straight talk directs attention to a preferred ethical stance related to sincerity rather than the quality of reasoning. Sincerity is, of course, important because we do not want to believe our leaders or communicative partners are lying or manipulating us. But sincerity doesn’t have anything to do with the quality or truth value of what we are saying. You can “sincerely” say something stupid and inaccurate.
But it gets worse. Performing sincerity is designed to convince the listener that the source of the message is not only being truthful but also complete. The implication is that everything of importance and relevance is being said and nothing is left out. The speaker is providing all relevant information and nothing else is pertinent. This blunts the listener’s responsibility to pursue additional information. So when Trump says, “the economy is in terrible shape” (which it certainly and clearly is not) he wants you to accept that statement on the basis of his sincerity and not facts.
And it gets worse again. Convincing someone you are being sincere and speaking “straight” is designed to relieve the source of the message of any further responsibilities. The implication is you no longer need to inquire any further or challenge anything I have to say because I have “laid it all out.” It’s a way of saying a speaker is not responsible for what he says, and thereby sealing him from criticism, because he has fulfilled his responsibilities.
More than a few times I’ve heard people whom I know can barely pay their bills characterize the billionaire narcissist Trump as “telling it like it is” and a “man of the people.” To describe Donald Trump as “like the average guy” – meaning a sincere absence of artifice and symbolic trickery – means you have been thoroughly co-opted by the candidate’s studied sincerity.
Language and symbols are central to political communication, but so is critical inquiry. If leaders and political figures are going to be held responsible for their words, which is crucial to the democratic political process, then the capacities of the subject population must not be limited; it must be possible for them to interrogate leaders and satisfy truth challenges. Trump has skillfully convinced many to substitute his calculated sincerity for thoughtful critical inquiry. This can be dangerous and we have seen historical precedents for this danger.
I Don’t Think God is a Multiculturalist
Multiculturalism is the recognition of different ethnic, gender, and religious groups but also refers to political decisions. We begin with the assumption that natural resources, status, power, cultural qualities, and individual abilities are not equally distributed in society. People organize themselves into groups on the basis of particular categories (gender, ethnicity, common practices) and these groups develop what we term cultural differences with respect to language, dress, values, behaviors, etc. Sometimes these differences are small and easy enough to accommodate and other times these differences are deep and in opposition to other groups. Politics is the management of these differences.
A common assumption – especially in the United States – is that political decision-making should be neutral with respect to race, class, or creed. This is a natural extension of liberal democracy. From this perspective multiculturalism is steeped in human rights and central to the development of democratic citizenship. But there are problems with this conceptualization of multiculturalism that renders it unnatural (that’s why God has problems with it) and contradictory. Other arguments promote some special treatment for groups in order to compensate for historical injustices.
First, Gadi Taub has pointed out how an entire discourse of progressivism has developed around multiculturalism that glorifies diversity, encourages contact with others as growth promoting, and perpetuates a belief that we all share basic liberal values. This is underscored by contemporary academic theory (postmodernism, gender studies, cultural studies, critical theories, postcolonial studies) that relegates the most important cultural differences to the outcomes of power struggles between a dominant group (e.g. European white males) and the minority group. The dominant group of course sets the conditions of the discourse and defines the identity of the “other” group. As a consequence, about any minority groups can be or has been defined as oppressed.
Multiculturalism assumes a uniformity of values and liberal identity among different groups such that all humans are assumed to be equal as are their cultures. There is also the assumption of cultural contact or articulation being expansive of democracy. But as Taub asks, what about cultures that oppress citizens, use force indiscriminately, enslave women, or promote female circumcision? These are not democratic or worthy of cultural sensitivity.
There’s also a contradiction in multiculturalism, which has not been satisfactorily resolved, between pressures toward uniformity and respect for the maintenance of differences. Do we want cultures to converge or encourage differences? The United States is relatively successful at avoiding cultural conflict and encouraging multiculturalism because of the overarching “American” identity and allegiance to values (freedom, democracy, individuality, voting rights etc.) rather than being organized only on the basis of skin color, religion, or nationalism.
Furthermore, the multicultural debate spends little time making the distinction between a genuinely diverse society and the prescriptions for dealing with diversity. Diversity and cultural differences are inevitable and even biologically advantageous. Even those seeking the most pressure toward equality, assimilation, and democratization don’t argue for the obliteration of cultural differences. Given, then, the inevitability of differences and a more nuanced understanding of multiculturalism that is not knee-jerk political correctness the necessary forms of communication between groups must reflect bonding and bridging discourse more than simple assimilation.
A multicultural sense of democratic citizenship is admirable when cultures share deep consensus on certain values. But things fall apart with greater cultural distinctiveness. The Muslim immigrant in the outskirts of Paris is not a partner of African-Americans; the sealed world of Orthodox Jews has little to do with immigrants from Syria; Turks in Germany are viewed with increasing antagonism by Germans.
We must work more on the distinction between people and values. The “values” of freedom, democracy, participation, and equal treatment under the law are crucial to the maintenance of peace and cohesion. But such values cannot be encouraged by accepting all aspects of culture as equally worthy.