Brexit’s Cautionary Tale for Democracy

I’m one of those democratic theorists who believes there are no right answers. By that I mean that there are no timeless truths that the will of the people will either grok or not. There is no epistemic gauge of whether people get it right or not. Contra Plato’s reactionary stance against democracy, I think that—under the right circumstances—people can measure and decide what ought to be done on a case by case basis. In other words, what is right is not something separate from public judgment but something that emerges from it.

But under the right circumstance—and by this I have long meant in an open and fair and inclusive process with opportunity to deliberate and consider multiple points of view. The more such conditions are in place, the better I think the outcomes are. And by “better” I mean what works best for all involved, and I mean all, not just the majority.

But with the news that 52% of the British people voted to exit the European Union, I can’t help but think they got this massively wrong. Do I think they got it wrong because their answer was wrong? According to what I said, that would be nonsense. Did they get it wrong because the opportunities for full and open deliberation were truncated? Now, there’s the rub. I don’t think so. Surely the discussion in the British media was open and robust. Surely all had an opportunity to offer their views, if not in mainstream media then surely in social media.

But I still want to say they got it wrong—simply because the results are catastrophic for Britain’s own welfare and because of the xenophobic and reactionary politics it has confirmed. So am I a Platonist after all?

I hope not!

Perhaps more needs to be added to “under the right circumstances” than the Habermasian litany of an ideal speech situation. There is also the need to deal with unconscious fears, paranoid projections, and infantile regressions that increasingly multicultural and globalized phenomena elicit. It’s no coincidence that this Brexit came on the heels of the refugee and debt crises emanating from the South. While the EU’s response to these has hardly been ideal, in fact it has been awful, but it has at least been a response rather than a complete shut down and reversal of any responsibility. Clearly the British people in the non-urban, non-Scottish, non-Northern Ireland, parts of Great Britain think even this response was too much.

So they vote to leave, complete with fantasies that now they will be stronger, that they will determine their own future, and they can take back their country from all these marauders.

What if, before the vote, there had been a way to address straight on these fears and fantasies? Imagine a series of deliberative forums for the last six months throughout the country on these issues where citizens would have to squarely face other people’s perspectives and the likely consequences of their own views. When a country is on the verge of making such a major and largely unalterable decision, that whole country should engage in some serious deliberation about its idealizations and fantasies—and the ramifications of its choices. Now they’ll have to deal with this all in real time.


A Guest Blog for the Leiter Report

This morning I found, to my surprise, that Brian Leiter had invited me to write a guest blog for him on “Tips for Writing Your own Wikipedia Entry.” I love a good joke, even an  April Fool’s one like this.  But now the joke is on him — because if anyone has expertise on writing one’s entry, it’s him.

I’ll get to that; but first, let me address the nasty insinuation that I wrote the Wikipedia entry on Noëlle McAfee. Now all one needs to do to see if this is so is to go to the history tab of the entry and see who created it.  If you do so, you’ll find that someone named Kevin Gorman wrote the entry:

This and the following eight entries are by Kevin Gorman, who I’ve since discovered is a high-level Wikipedia editor in California. The day after the entry was created, there were several minor edits by a chrisclaire88, a pseudonym for an editor who has started pages on other women philosophers.  For the sake of argument, what if I am chrisclaire88?  If that is the case, then that would have been in bad form and readers might wonder if the entry is biased. To check, readers could go through the boring changes that chrisclaire88 made and decide for themselves. If chrisclaire88 were indeed my pseudonym and I had used it to guard the entry, reversed things that made me look bad, and been an all around nasty and vile person, there would be cause for concern.  But chrisclaire88 was instead a tedious editor making trivial changes. And she seems to have moved on to other ventures.

Before turning to the edits that Brian Leiter made to the Wikipedia entry on him — and there are many! — let me offer my tips.

Tip number 1: Don’t write an entry on yourself.

Tip number 2: Don’t edit an entry on yourself.

Tip number 3: If you want to edit an entry anywhere on Wikipedia, start an account so you are accountable, otherwise you’ll be identified by your IP address.

Tip number 4: Don’t guard the entry on yourself and remove things that make you look bad.

Tip number 5: Be aware that an entry on you is not your entry. It belongs to the wikiuniverse. There are guidelines on entries on living persons. Follow those. If you think someone else has violated them, report the matter to wikipedia.

Tip number 6: Don’t accuse anyone who has edited the entry on you in a way you don’t like as “vandalizing” the entry. That just makes you look like an idiot for (1) thinking the entry is “your” entry and (2) being so clueless about how wikis work.

In keeping with those tips as well as the guidelines on entries on living persons, the most egregious thing to do is guard your own entry and remove things that make you look bad. Let’s say someone else finds that a reference in the entry has been removed, say to an old Boston Globe article that said, basically, you’re a schmuck, and then this person puts it back in the entry. Don’t remove it. Again, this is not your promo piece; the entry should be well-sourced and balanced. And, yes, the Boston Globe counts as a good source.

For example, from IP addresses that Brian Leiter has used (click on the “diff” button to see a comparison of the previous entry and the subsequent edit made by this IP address):

Here are other changes that were made to the entry on Brian Leiter from IP addresses that Brian Leiter has used to comment on my blog,

I also believe that Brian Leiter has used IP address while he was still in Texas. Here are the results I get for this one: on Brian Leiter (4.71% of the total edits made to the page)

Next 500 results →

There is nothing safe about democracy

Recently my university has gotten caught up in a brouhaha about a supposed chalk controversy, with many Latino and Muslim students taken aback by “Trump 16” chalkings across campus and, supposedly, the university caving in to their fear and terror over political sloganeering. The dichotomy being portrayed is democracy versus “safe spaces.”

There is some truth to students wanting Emory to be a Trump-free zone, given that Trump regularly demonizes and literally wants to extrude many of those living here, which would include a significant portion of our student body.  Who wouldn’t be a bit terrorized by that? And, yes, these students did march to the president’s office requesting some response from the university to address their concerns about the climate and policies on campus. Yes.

And, yes, the president did respond to their concerns in an email to the whole Emory community,

As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry. It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.

Many in the press are claiming that the Emory administration is caving into “coddled” students demands, but I don’t see a trade-off between free speech and creating a good culture for open inquiry. Students are free to express their concerns. The university is free to help foster open inquiry.

But the aim for a “safe” environment is misbegotten. There is nothing safe about democracy. In fact, as we’re finding now in these days of Trump, democracy can be horrifying: what if the mass of people make a disastrous and unjust choice? Yes, that’s always a possibility.  At least we’ve got a bill of rights, however weak, to do some protection against demagogues.

But the search for safety runs right up against and contradicts the search for rule by the people. Democracy always teeters on the unknown and it can never tether itself to the certain and true, for these words are meaningless when “what is to be done” is “whatever the people decide.” Yes, this is frightening. No safe space will help. Instead we all need to be more courageous and step up, even if in the short run that means aiming a waterhose at the Trump chalkings, and the next day holding a rally about why you did so.

“Let’s Make America Great Again”: Trump’s Paranoid-Schizoid Politics

The cry that Donald Trump repeats at every rally — “Let’s Make American Great Again” — taps into a dual wager: (1) that those who imagine themselves as the dominant and quintessential “American” people need not mourn the loss of their presumed dominance at home and abroad and (2) that those who are undermining the old status quo can be undone, thrown out, excised from the body politic, making possible an ideal and perfect state. Those who will not mourn their losses nor tarry with indeterminacy, uncertainty, and democracy demand a politics of black and white and good and evil; and they presume that those who oppose them are the enemies of all things perfect and true.

This wager has been going on for decades if not millennia and is likely a large part of what made Reaganism and neoliberalism possible. All the ostensible reasons for taking down the welfare state had subterranean motives of demonizing the poor, the dark, the queer. Even the most belligerent and conservative politicians cloaked their ulterior motives with reasons, however illogical, e.g. Reagan’s mantra that a rising tide lifts all boats. (It didn’t take a Ph.D. to point out that if one didn’t have a boat, one was sunk.) But they did at least pretend to trade in reasons. And people who shared their ulterior views could vote for them and support their policies as reasonable affairs. We all said we dreamt of freedom and equality for all, even if we had different ideas about how this could be achieved.

But now there is Trump, who dispenses with all the niceties and gets to the truth — or what many imagine to be the truth — who says out loud what was never said on a national stage in the modern era, even by people who believed it. Here are few samples from recent rallies:

“Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico?”

“Get out of here, get out of here. Get out.”

“We’ve become weak; we’ve become weak.”

“Our country has to toughen up folks. These people are bringing us down. … These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea. They contribute nothing, nothing.”

“Get him out. Go home to mommy. Go home and get a job. I tell you these are not good people, folks ….These are not the people that made our country great. But we’re going to make it great again… These are the people that are destroying our country. Get him out.”

The Trump phenomenon taps into a deeper political problem, not in just the U.S. but in multi-cultural polities throughout the world: a lack of public and shared means for working through ambiguity and loss, for coming to understand the strangers in our midst, that is, for moving from a paranoid-schizoid politics to what we might call a Kleinian depressive position. Psychoanalytic theory, including Freud’s tantalizing but undeveloped concept of working through, offers a doorway out of this mess. The iconic scene is the analytic space: patient on the couch, analyst behind, and the analytic third to their dyad where Manichaean divides can transform into shades of grey; where projected demons can be taken back and metabolized; where the adolescent selves we all are at one time or another might grow up and realize the world is not made of saints and sinners but of complex and imperfect people; and most importantly that there are no perfect solutions that will solve all our troubles.

The task now is how to take this micro-politics to a macro level, how to move to a politics of mourning and working though. How to see people different from us not as threats but opportunities to open up new worlds and possibilities.

Trump slams shut any such door. Maybe he needs to get himself out of here — or at least get off the stage.

Politics & the Work of Mourning

Here’s something I’m working on….

There are many languages of reason, but perhaps the most powerful and insidious one is the unconscious logic that emerges during political, ethnic, and religious conflict. What may at first seem madness, is, if looked at with the right lens, a very cool calculus of justice aimed at righting past wrongs — no matter how out of scale the “solution.” The unconscious is not mad. It keeps careful tally. It never forgets insults, injuries, traumas, or wrongs. It waits for its moment to set matters straight. And the unconscious of a people traumatized and bereft will bide its time for centuries, if need be, waiting for an opportunity to set matters right. Consider what lay behind the shot that set off World War I: six hundred years of grievance and political melancholia. Psychoanalytic hermeneutics can help make sense of the effects of political traumas. Might it also help people work through them? With his all-too-vague notion of “working through,” which shows up in dream work and the work of mourning, Freud thought he found an antidote to traumatic remembering and repetition, a process that could calm and bind the psychical excitations that trouble the organism. Considering a political body of restless people haunted by past traumas and injustice, what kind of Arbeit can help political communities deal with buried traumas and insults before they explode in vengeance? Without some kind of work, politics becomes an enactment of fantasied, unrealistic expectations; demonic projections; and persecutory anxieties. In this paper I draw on and move beyond Freud’s model toward a post-Kleinian one that can be tethered to the political process of public deliberation. In my account, political deliberation is not just a process of reason giving and consideration, which many political philosophers think it is, but an affective process that helps people work through fantasies of denial, splitting. and revenge and toward a position that can tolerate loss, ambiguity, and uncertainty, that is, the human condition.

Neoliberalism, the Street, and the Forum (or what the Eurozone could learn from the Greek left)

My Greek Uncle Rathos spent two months living in the dark. In September 2011, in response to pressure from its European creditors, the Greek government imposed a new property tax to be paid via electric utility bills.[1] A construction contractor hit hard by the financial crisis, my uncle couldn’t make those tax payments and so his electricity was cut off. Reportedly, 350,000 other households suffered the same fate.[2] This was just one in a series of austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and other lenders to deal with the supposed debt crisis: i.e., that Greece’s ratio of debt to Gross Domestic Product was too high.[3] But rather than find ways to pump up Greece’s economy and thus its GDP, the IMF and Eurozone leaders have focused on bringing down its debt. Austerity measures toward this end have included wage cuts and layoffs of civil service workers, reduced job security and severance pay for private sector workers, reduced benefits and imposed budget cuts, all of which have exacerbated unemployment levels that, as of this writing, are about 27% overall and 60% for those under 25.[4] Additionally Greece was called on to engage in “structural change,” that is, to make its economy more conducive to market processes via methods such as privatization.[5] There is no alternative, the people are told Continue reading

philoSOPHIA 2015 at Emory May 14-16, 2015

philoSOPHIA 2015

Ninth Annual Conference

The Neolithic to the Neoliberal:

Communities Human and Non-Human

Emory University

Atlanta, GA

May 14-16, 2015

Local Hosts:

Cynthia Willett | Noëlle McAfee | Erin Tarver

Graduate Assistant: Lilyana Levy

Keynote Speakers:

Drucilla Cornell | Lisa Guenther & Chloë Taylor | Kelly Oliver

Many Thanks to our Generous Sponsors:

Subvention Fund, Hightower Fund, Emory Center for Ethics, Department of Philosophy, Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Department of Comparative Literature, Department of African American Studies, Department of Philosophy, Disability Studies Initiative, Oxford College Humanities Division, Office of the Dean of Academic Affairs at Oxford College, Emory Center for Women, The Loemker Funds

All events will take place at the Emory Conference Center Hotel

1615 Clifton Rd. NE, Atlanta, Georgia 30329

Continue reading