I'd been trying to grapple with the weeks and weeks of horrifying stories about the treatment of Black Americans at the hands of police, with Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose only the latest victims, when the story about Cecil the Lion hit social media. Some reacted angrily, frustrated that one lion was getting more attention than all the black women and men whose lives had been lost. Lori Gruen, however, responded differently:
Rather than pointing fingers at each other about inadequate or disproportionate grief at the deaths of some and not others, social justice activists might instead work to develop what political theorist Claire Jean Kim calls an “ethics of avowal.” In contrast to disavowal, the act of rejection or dissociation that often leads to perpetuating patterns of social injury, she suggests that we recognize the ways that our struggles are linked and to be “open in a meaningful and sustained way to the suffering and claims of other subordinated groups, even or perhaps especially in the course of political battle.” We should empathize with the pain and indignities of others who are disempowered and avow, rather than belittle, their search for justice.
[UPDATE: It seems that my post is being interpreted by some as a criticism of the Charlie Hebdo collaborators. Nothing could be further from the truth; I align myself completely with their Enlightenment ideals -- so I'm intolerant too! -- and in fact deem humor to be a powerful tool to further these ideals. Moreover, perhaps it is worth stressing the obvious: their 'intolerance' does not in any way justify their barbaric execution. It is not *in any way* on a par with the intolerance of those who did not tolerate their humor and thus went on to kill them.]
I grew up in a thoroughly secular household (my father was a communist; I never had any kind of religious education). However, I did get a fair amount of exposure to religion through my grandmothers: my maternal grandmother was a practicing protestant, and my paternal grandmother was a practicing catholic. In my twenties, for a number of reasons, I became more and more drawn to Catholicism, or at least to a particular interpretation of Catholicism (with what can be described as a ‘buffet’ attitude: help yourself only to what seems appetizing to you). This led to me getting baptized, getting married in the Catholic church, and wearing a cross around my neck. (I have since then distanced myself from Catholicism, in particular since I became a mother. It became clear to me that I could not give my daughters a catholic ‘buffet’ upbringing, and that they would end up internalizing all the dogmas of this religion that I find deeply problematic.)
At the same time, upon moving to the Netherlands in the late 90s, I had been confronted with the difficult relations between this country and its large population of immigrants and their descendants sharing a Muslim background, broadly speaking. At first, it all made no sense to me, coming from a country of immigrants (Brazil) where the very concept of being a ‘second-generation immigrant’ is quite strange. Then, many years ago (something like 13 years ago, I reckon) one day in the train, I somehow started a conversation with a young man who appeared to be of Arabic descent. I don’t quite recall how the conversation started, but one thing I remember very clearly: he said to me that it made him happy to see me wearing the catholic cross around my neck. According to him, the problem with the Netherlands is the people who have no religion – no so much people who (like me at the time) had a religion different from his own.* This observation has stayed with me since.
Anyway, this long autobiographical prologue is meant to set the stage for some observations on the recent tragic events in Paris. As has been remarked by many commentators (see here, for example), the kind of humor practiced by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists must be understood in the context of a long tradition of French political satire which is resolutely left-wing, secular, and atheist. Its origins go back at least to the 18th century; it was an integral part of the Enlightenment movement championed by people like Voltaire, who used humor to provoke social change. In particular in the context of totalitarian regimes, satire becomes an invaluable weapon.
We continue awaiting the decision of a grand jury on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, exactly 15 weeks ago today on a suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri. News reporters from across the globe have been camped out in Ferguson for months, their expectation of an announcement teased and disappointed several times in the last week alone. On Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in advance of the grand jury's decision. Yesterday, President Barack Obama, in what can only be judged to be an anticipation of Wilson's non-indictment, preemptively urged protesters not to use Ferguson as an "excuse for violence." In the meantime, demonstrators of various ilk remain on standby, rallying their troops, refining their organizational strategies, painting their oppositional signs, standing vigilantly at the ready for whatever may come.
But what are we waiting for, really, as we wait for Ferguson?
As someone who has spent the better part of her career researching, analyzing and teaching not only about the structure and nature of oppressive power regimes, but also better and worse ways to resist or transform such regimes, I've nevertheless been unable to settle in my own mind, to my own satisfaction, my position with regard to the moral or political value of revolutionary violence. I can say that my core moral intuitions (for whatever those are worth) definitely incline me toward favoring nonviolence as a principled ethical commitment... though, over the years, I have found those intuitive inclinations fading in both intensity and persuasiveness. As a philosopher, a citizen and a moral agent, I continue to be deeply unsettled by my own ambivalence on this matter.
First, a preliminary autobiographical anecdote: I spent a year between undergraduate and gradate school in the nonprofit sector, as the Director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. (That was back in 2000, when the Gandhi Institute was still housed at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, which is now my academic home, evidencing the kind of bizarro turn-of-fate that can only be credited to some particularly clever-- or ironically humorous-- supernatural bureaucrat.) I went to the Gandhi Institute initially because nonviolence was an all-but-unquestioned moral virtue for me at the time. But, after a few years in graduate school and consistently since, the many and varied until-then-unposed questions about the moral or political legitimacy of violence pressed their way to the fore of my mind. In roughly chronological order, I'd say that the combination of (1) my first real engagement with Frantz Fanon's argument in "Concerning Violence" (from his Wretched of the Earth), the arguments by Marx (and Marxists) in various texts advocating more or less violent revolution, and Noam Chomsky's considerations of the same, (2) my extensive research into human rights violations, transitional justice and transitional democracies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, which collectively constituted the subject of my dissertation, (3) the radically dramatic shift in what counts as properly-speaking "political" and/or "revolutionary" violence in the post-9/11 world and (4) my own experiences, from near and afar, with the increasing number of (threatened, proto-, aborted, defeated and/or more-or-less successful) revolutions taking place in my adult lifetime (e.g., OWS, the Arab Spring and, much closer to home and far less violent, the current and ongoing academic revolution surrounding the Salaita case), all worked together to contribute to my rethinking the merits and demerits of violence as a way of resisting/combatting/correcting oppressive, exclusionary or otherwise unjust power regimes.
For they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory. --Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth America has been and remains an apartheid state. That sad but increasingly undeniable fact was made apparent last night in Ferguson, Missouri to a group of peaceful protesters amidst tanks, deafening LRADs, a haze of tear gas and a firestorm of rubber (and real) bullets. The other tragic fact made apparent in Ferguson last night is that America is only ever a hair's-breadth away from a police state... if we understand by "police"not a regulated body of law-enforcement peacekeepers empowered to serve and protect the citizenry, but rather a heavily-armed, extra-constitutional, militarized cadre of domestic soldiers who provoke and terrorize with impunity. Much of the time, we are able to forget or ignore these unfortunate truths about contemporary America-- and by "we" I mean our elected officials, our bureaucrats and financiers, and a lot of self-delusionally "post-racial," though really white, people-- but the mean truth of gross inequality, both de facto and de jure, remains ever-present in spite of our disavowals, simmering steadily just below the allegedly free and fair democratic veneer of our polis.
Greg Howard, journalist and parrhesiates, said it about as plainly as it can be said this past Tuesday in his article for Deadspin: America is not for black people. The truth of "American apartheid" should make us all ashamed, saddened, angry, deeply troubled as moral and political agents. And, what is more, it should frighten us all.
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt--Celan.
Yesterday, I posted a very lengthy (by our blogging standards) piece about the role(s) the purported contrast between understanding and explaining the Holocaust can play in the arts, ethics, and social science. It was framed as a response to a two-part review by Mark Lilla. I was careful not to motivate my disagreement with Lilla in political terms. In fact, I avoid mention of "politics," "Israel," "evil," "Hitler," (etc). Interestingly enough, three out of four published comments on the piece thus far (two by fellow NewAPPSies),* focus on political abuses of the Holocaust in Israel or Stateside (or elsewhere); these comments seem to target primarily what they take to be the political and legal implications of Lilla's position.
One brother is dead and the other is in custody in a hospital. Obviously I loathe what they did. Obviously my thoughts are with the victims and their families. Obviously I would have stopped them if I could have, by any means whatsoever. But I also feel enormously sad that a 19 year old boy could come to this. And being a naturalist - that is not believing that things happen magically because of some supernatural force for evil - I believe that there is some explanation for why this happened. Maybe his brain chemicals are at different levels from ours. Maybe he underwent some trauma - either acute or chronic. Maybe he was taken in by an irrational ideology or systematically trained as are government torturers. Maybe all of these. I have no idea, and neither do you. Probably we would never fully understand even if we tried. But something happened, something contingent and potentially avoidable. And I hope that there is a way to redeem some modicum of life for this boy also. I hope that there is a way for all to find restorative, rather than vindictive, justice in this. I hope we can do better than toss one more body on the pile.
In describing the Columbine killers in Political Affect I looked at their ability to handle the bodily intensity of their actions. The problem they faced was overcoming the wide-spread inhibition on cold-blooded killing (as opposed to berserker rage or fugue state killing) [link to draft version here]. One of the problems in using the Columbine massacre for a case study was the suicide of killers, preventing us from hearing what they had to say about the experience.
Anders Breivik's trial testimony (see here for previous posts on the case) provides fascinating insights into his preparation for and ability to withstand the intensity of his acts (the commentary by the reporters also is important for detailing how difficult it is for the other people in the courtroom to hear the testimony). I call this negotiation of intensity "political physiology" because it involves finding ways to allow a political action that normal physiology prevents (by triggering inhibitions, as in this account of Brevik's testimony: "I thought about it for 1 minute. Whole body resisted. Felt like a year. 100 voices in head saying STOP." Note the resistance of the "body" as well as the psychological aspects of "voices in head").
[UPDATE, 20 April 4:10 pm CDT: See here for more traditionally "cognitive" training Breivik did, using Call of Duty first-person shooter game for practice in "target acquisition." Of course there's a heavy affective component here too, but that's not dealt with so much in the article.]
Below the fold are more excerpts from the article emphasizing the dissociative and emotion-deadening political physiology practices Breivik performed, both before and during the events:
In Britain, there's a charming tendency to put British figures of great achievement on the pound notes, i.e. dollar bills. One of the things that clearly separates Britain from the US, for example, is that Charles Darwin looks proudly out from the ten pound note. Check out the beard:
You think they'd use that as legal tender in Colorado Springs? Now, there's a campaign to put Alan Turning, a key founder of modern computer science, the man who broke the Enigma Code of the Nazis, and the homosexual who killed himself after being prosecuted and chemically castrated for being gay in 1954. There is surely some justice in this. No one diputes his genius; or the contribution he made to Britain's survival in the war against Hitler. But to partially right a horrific wrong against someone abused by his own government for his orientation makes it all the more poignant.
The UK government is open to suggestions for figures on the next ten pound note; and there's a petition to honor Turing in this fashion. You can sign it online here.
So this post is really just ranting. But the song is kind of perfect for the latest racist attrocity.
To recap, for those who haven't been watching the news: 250 pound white guy - part of "neighborhood watch" - is driving in his car and sees a 140 pound, unarmed 17 year old black kid walking in the rain. Calls police. Told not to follow. Follows. Gets out of car with his gun and confronts kid. Multiple witnesses hear kid begging for help. Shoots and kills kid. Local police say that there is no evidence it wasn't self-defense.
Tears ... anger... Sure as hell the time for something around here.
Though the accession of the Prince of Orange to the throne might at first give occasion to many disputes, and his title be contested, it ought not now to appear doubtful, but must have acquired a sufficient authority from those three princes, who have succeeded him upon the same title. Nothing is more usual, though nothing may, at first sight, appear more unreasonable, than this way of thinking. Princes often seem to acquire a right from their successors, as well as from their ancestors; and a king, who during his life-time might justly be deemed an usurper, will be regarded by posterity as a lawful prince, because he has had the good fortune to settle his family on the throne, and entirely change the antient form of government. Julius Caesar is regarded as the first Roman emperor; while Sylla and Marius, whose titles were really the same as his, are treated as tyrants and usurpers. (David Hume, Treatise, 3.2.10; emphasis added.)
Hume's paragraph is a crucial source-text in Jose A. Benardete's beautiful manuscript, Greatness of Soul: in Hume, Aristotle and Hobbes and Hume, that is circulating among his admirers.
... and Troy Davis' sister. She died after more than 10 years of fighting against breast cancer, and only 2 months after the execution of Troy Davis. Martina Correia was a highly regarded advocate against the death penalty; according to this news item,
Correia was chair of the Steering Committee for AIUSA’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty and was Amnesty International’s coordinator in Georgia for the death penalty program. She is a recipient of the Georgia Civil Liberties Award from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Frederick Douglass Award from the Southern Center for Human Rights.
I can only say: what an extraordinary woman. She will be dearly missed. (See also my previous post on the execution, with additional info on her in the comments section.)
A sentence at the end of this article caught my eye, regarding that old philosophical warhorse, instrumental vs prudential reason:
The Associated Press quotes Swedish forensic psychiatrists Anders Forsman as saying, “It is difficult to see this as criminal insanity. He seems to have carried out the killings in a rational way. He is an efficient killing machine."
This blog post is a worthwhile reflection on American securitarianism w/r/t insanity, with an interesting reference to John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin.
Today the US celebrates, by way of a national holiday, the man who launched one of the most significant genocides of human history. This celebration is a small but non-trivial part of the extraordinary erasure from history of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. For those who need a refresher on the man whose day it is in the US, here is the classic chapter from Howard Zinn.
Christopher Norris, professor of philosophy at Cardiff, sent the following message to Philos-L, in response to a CFP for a conference in the state of Georgia (re-published here with his permission):
Could I suggest that the Georgia CFP is a good opportunity for list-members to express their moral outrage at the murder of Troy Davis by the Georgia state and judiciary? This they might do either by withdrawing any previous commitment to attend the conference or by writing to the organisers and making plain their abhorrence of capital punishment generally and of this gross and hideous miscarriage of justice in particular. Short of that, delegates could make their attendance provisional on the organisers going public beforehand with a statement of protest and a commitment to do everything in their power to educate people concerning the moral evil of capital punishment. The organisers could make a good start on this by honouring Troy Davis’s memory at the outset of the conference and dedicating most of the sessions to aspects of his case and the urgent need for reform of the judicial system.
In the longer term, could British philosophers who share this view perhaps agree to boycott all conferences and so far as possible avoid all dealing with academic institutions in those parts of the US (especially the deep south) where this practice is carried on? They might even take the view – I do – that there is a moral obligation not to visit any part of the US so long as the infliction of capital punishment is left to the discretion of individual states under federal law.
I have mixed feelings about some of the suggestions he makes (e.g. academic boycotting of institutions located in states allowing for the death penalty), but I think this is a very good point. What can we, as philosophers, possibly do, both theoretically and practically, to fight judicial murder? I'd like to invite people to share their views on the matter.
UPDATE: Christine A. James, professor of philosophy at Valdosta State University in Georgia, sent the following reply to Prof. Norris on Philos-L, which I repost here with her permission:
In light of the latest fight over judicial murder - at the moment a contest focused on whether to murder now, murder later, or merely continue to kidnap an innocent man while a cop killer goes free - it seemed like the right theme.
This isn't particularly politically sophisticated, but gee, had to start here
The essay from Inside Higher Ed is here. Below I'll lay out a few thoughts on the move from culture war to shooting war as the move from ideology to political physiology. Before that, excerpts:
Shortly before the bombing and shooting spree in Norway last month that left 77 people dead, Anders Behring Breivik e-mailed a thousand people the document he called his “compendium” -- a more accurate label than “manifesto,” as some have called it, since large chunks of text were cut and pasted from various sources rather than composed by the murderer himself....
Breivik’s anti-feminism and Islamophobic rage, his conviction that “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” are destroying civilization, and must be stopped -- all of this is the usual stuff of contemporary resentment.... But there turns out to be more to Breivik’s text than the usual hateful boilerplate. The killer was also a perverse sort of public intellectual.
In Slate Christopher Hitchens does a decent job untangling the complicated intellectual landscape of the European right. But he trips up subtly in the following passage: "Breivik has apparently declared himself a passionate pro-Zionist as well as a sworn foe of all sorts of Islamization. More attention should be paid to that last aspect: The true "neo-Nazi" gangs in Europe have violent anti-Semitism in common with their ostensibly deadliest Islamist foes, whereas anti-immigrant populists of the Geert Wilders stripe in Holland seek respectability by standing up for Israel, very often against criticism from the multi-culti left."
Here Hitchens assumes that being pro-Israel means being pro-local-Jews. But this turns out to be an unreliable inference (as Dutch Jewish supporters of Wilders are discovering to their horror). Geert Wilders is instrumental in making (un-anesthetized) ritual slaughter and (male) circumcision illegal in the Netherlands. The former has already passed parliament, while the latter will probably pass parliament in 2012. With friends like these, Dutch Jews don't need enemies.
Breivik's lawyer's statement that his client took drugs to be "strong, efficient, and awake" is being widely reported. He's also reporting his impression that Breivik is “a very cold person,” adding that “I can’t describe him because he is not like anyone else.” We've already remarked on Breivik's misogyny; here is another way in which this case crystallizes many dimensions of our world; Eric is exploring the role of the media-military-industrial complex here, here, and here.
I've long been interested in investigating how people manage the corporeal intensity of the act of killing. Both the drugs and the coldness are important factors, as we know from the US military (see here a review of Jonathan Moreno's Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, which deals briefly in Chapter 6 with dexedrine and modafinil in the Air Force).
I'd be very grateful if people would email me or comment here if they see anything else of this sort in the Breivik case.
UPDATE, T 26 July, 11:37 am CDT: Please take the time to read this very important and very perceptive comment below.