Morning in America

Now this really is morning in America.  And maybe we can get on with the work of mourning a long dark history of racism and hatred that has always worked against the American ideal of freedom and equality.

I am so proud that my country elected a brilliant man, an African American, a person willing to work through and get past all the stuff that turned upside down what this country stands for.

Democracy’s Good Name

Not so long ago it seemed that every progressive person I knew who was over 55 years old was majorly depressed about the state of democracy. It seemed that what George W. Bush had done to democracy’s good name was irreversible. The war in Iraq, the ill will between reds and blues, the destruction of the social safety net: it all seemed totally dire.  And that was before the economy caved in.

I’m too much of an optimist to despair, so I just hung in there.  And then Barack Obama comes along and starts to give people hope that yes we can save democracy’s good name, that yes we can change this country.  And yesterday morning we woke up saying not only “yes, we can,” but “yes, we did.” I’ve been to three parties already and even those who’d been most depressed are giddy with delight and optimism.

Now Obama has a lot to live up to.  But I think we need to realize that he’s an emblem, and if he were to “save democracy” then we’re not talking about democracy.  Democracy is rule by the people, not rule by a really good guy, no matter how good the guy.

I live outside D.C. and we’re all aflutter around here about what the new government is going to look like.  This is fun talk over a beer with friends.  But we’re not talking about democracy, not really.

What’s the meaning of democracy?  Democracy means a culture in which all who are affected by common matters have a hand and a voice in shaping common matters. That need not mean that everything is decided by referendum but that public matters are matters for public discussion, deliberation, decision in a deep and fundamental way, namely in sensing that what we say matters and then acting accordingly.

With his community organizer background, I think Obama would agree.  Let’s hope he’ll govern in a way that allows space for democracy. But for democracy to happen we have to step up and step into that space and continue to take ownership over what happens in public life.

Political Illogic 101

In Philosophy 101 one of the first things we teach is logic, along with logical fallacies. Here’s the big one we’re starting to see in this presidential campaign, as well as in some comments on this very blog (especially regarding Barack’s Mother): guilt by association. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ” Guilt by association is a version of the ad hominem fallacy in which a person is said to be guilty of error because of the group he or she associates with. ” In response to my Barack’s Mother post, one person noted that Obama’s mother once went to a school where she was taught by a couple of Communists.  Merde!  I have no idea if this is true.  But for the sake of argument, suppose it is.  So what?  The implication is that this association was more than coincidental but said something sinister about her parents’ character (in sending her to that school) and about the kind of person she would become.

My seventh grade teacher was a right-wing kook who imagined Communist conspiracies around every corner.  Does this make me a right-wing kook?

At a meeting in 1996 attended by about eight people, I sat next to Karl Rove.  I didn’t stand up and denounce him and disassociate myself from him and all the nefarious things he would later do. Even more “damning,” he and I were both occasional guest hosts of a public affairs program in Austin, TX. Does this make me like Karl Rove? Or does it mean that I moved in some of the same circles as he did and was being polite?

As we enter the final month of the campaign, we’re already starting to get this kind of ridiculous, ugly politics fueled by this logical fallacy.  Palin, the attack dog, is already putting it out there: Obama knew Ayers; Ayers was a terrorist; therefore Obama is somehow tainted, suspicious, and dangerous.  Any freshman college student can spot the fallacy.  Will the American people?

Notice that the fallacy is employed to divert attention from the real issues.  There is plenty to talk about: the effects of deregulation, the economy, foreign policy, energy, to name a few; and there are real differences in the two tickets’ positions.  Can we talk about those please?

It’s also employed to provide cover for racist fears.  How many times have I heard people say, “I just don’t trust him” even when they cannot articulate a single reason for this fear?  Guilt-by-association provides a pseudo-justification for distrust, a way of avoiding examining our own psyches and complicated histories.

The Real Political Impasse

I had lunch yesterday with my colleague Sara Cobb and one of the things we talked about was how to theorize what happens when people with radically different worldviews begin to fathom the other.  She and I are both familiar with successful processes that bring about this change, but we wondered aloud about how to understand theoretically what is happening. I ventured that one thing that seems to happen is that one or more parties will begin to see something amiss in their previous perceptions. The other, who at first seemed to be, for example, someone with alien values and beliefs, suddenly comes into focus as someone with understandable motivations and aspirations. Another thing that seems to happen is that one party will begin to realize that there is a differend at work in the conversation, that a term is being used in totally different ways by the different parties. Part of the task of working through an impasse is to recognize the impasse.  In both examples, parties need not get to agreement on solutions; change begins to happen when they start to see the flaws in their initial perceptions.

In the midst of this election, there’s no shortage of impasses between worldviews. As a holder of a blue worldview, the red one looks foreign.  I can’t help but think that a supporter of the McCain-Palin ticket is either a creationist or willing to look the other way for the sake of other conservative values, perhaps faith, a free market, apple pie?  (The free market part isn’t flying well this week when the Republican executive branch is nationalizing industries!) I know several McCain-Palin supporters who oppose Palin’s extreme views, but have McCain placards in their yard anyway, including two of my gay neighbors.  What are they thinking?  I don’t want to ask, because I want to stay friendly with these neighbors.  (The other 98% of my neighborhood has Obama placards, so the McCain supporters are being plenty brave.) But I really want to know.  I’d like to talk about it.

I have had one real conversation with a conservative, Catholic friend.  She says she doesn’t like Republicans these days, but she just doesn’t trust Obama either.  She’ll vote for McCain, because he’s “her people.” She cares about faith, and she cares about science. She’s pro-life, but she also supports choice. Obama’s not “her people”; she just doesn’t trust him.

I want to ask, but I let the conversation end, what makes someone “your people”?  What are the values you care about? Who best embodies them?  One conservative blogger has come around and decided that McCain’s no conservative, so he’s going for Obama.  Check out his blog here.

The labels get in the way.  The issues, the things we care about, need to come to the fore. And we need to find ways to talk across all these differences about the things that matter to us. We need to talk first about what kind of country we want to have, and only after that can we have a real conversation about this election.

Fighting Words

I could barely stand listening to Sarah Palin last night.  After a week of high ideas, we get a week of snide mockery.  As an antidote, I just listened to one of the speeches I missed during the Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama’s, where she talks at length about her husband’s distinction between the world as it is and the world as it should be.  Too often we settle for the difference between the two, but as Barack said, and Michelle remembers, we shouldn’t.  We should fight to make the world the way it should be.

I like this kind of fighting.  It’s what is otherwise known as ethics, what we in philosophy teach as moral philosophy.  In my own work I take ethics to be a performative practice aimed at bringing about a better world.  What we take to be “better” isn’t based on moral foundations but on our real, lived aspirations; what we hope would be a more decent and humane world, a world we’d like to bring about and belong to. It’s always to easy to settle for and try to make the best of the world that is.  If everyone is out to make a buck, why shouldn’t I.  If people have low ideals, why not do the same.  To hold out for the world as it ought to be is to fight what is.  Let’s fight what be and work for what ought to be. This is the same impetus that Christine Korsgaard noted in Kant’s moral philosophy, the same that motivates Levinas, the same that seems to motivate Barack Obama.  It’s not about fighting the power — power is good when we can put it to good use — it’s about fighting the status quo.

Sarah Palin’s speech was also filled with fighting words; but her enemy wasn’t injustice but “their opponents.”  All her vitriol was aimed at belittling everything that happened at the Democratic Convention, including the insulting claim that elected officials do more to create change than community organizers do. There was precious little in her speech that explained what she thought would be a better world, what she was ready to have a servant’s heart for.  She didn’t mention the specifics, but note that they include teaching creationism, banning a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, and exploiting Alaska’s natural resources, even more than McCain has been willing to do.

As for her jab at community organizers, excuse me.  When was the last time that officials did anything without either (1) thinking about how it would play with the public or (2) acting because of public pressure?  I wouldn’t mind elected officials who acted independently for the public good.  I’d just like to see some.

The Republicans are coming on strong accusing the Democratic nominee’s camp of all the usual democratic sins (taxes, spending, big gov) never mind that none of this is part of the Dem’s platform.  I wish Obama and company would fight back stronger.  So far their language is that the Republicans are disparaging the American people.  No, they’re disparaging Obama. It’s time to come back at that.

Pause over this…

Not so long ago it looked like we were in for a vicious general election. The Republican candidates kept trying to one-up each other on how anti-immigrant and unwelcoming they could be. The Democrats were put on the defensive about not being vitriolic enough. It seemed like we were in for an election that was all about why we should bar the door against foreigners and strangers.

As the Democrats, pulled along by Edwards, moved more toward worrying about  poverty and those in need, the Republicans seemed to move even further right than Bush in blaming those in need for their own fate. As the divisions escalated, we seemed to be in for a hell of a divisive fight.

The amazing thing now seems to be that the American people wanted none of this crap. We have the evidence: the Republicans chose the most conciliatory, pro-immigration, anti-ideological of its candidates. The Democrats rejected the party standard-bearer in favor of a new voice wanting to reach out across ideological differences. It is actually conceivable, though maybe not advisable, that each nominee might choose as a V.P. candidate someone from the other party. And it is quite likely that they’ll even share the same ride to their debates. Has that ever happened?

I am not saying that McCain and Barama are alike. They are as different in policy means and goals as any two candidates could be. As a Texan, I’d vote for a yellow dog before I voted for McCain. And I hope any other Democrat would do the same.

What I am stunned by is what the voice of the American people seems to have uttered: we want candidates who are so willing to solve problems that they will cross party lines; we want a politics that will bring people together; we want a politics that is welcoming, conscientious, and accountable to citizens rather than lobbies.

Just as there were many themes that Obama and Clinton shared, there are many that Obama and McCain share. There’s plenty that puts them apart, but we should take time to pause now and marvel at this new turn of events and what it says about what the American people want: a different kind of politics, a country that is welcoming and a model for the kinds of values that have sparked admiration around the world. Part of the credit for this climatic change goes indeed to McCain and Obama, but I’d like to suggest that the bulk of it goes to the American people, fed up with politics as usual, ready for a different kind of politics.

The Hillary Lesson

In today’s New York Times, Peggy Orenstein writes an important piece about what “The Hillary Lesson” is for our daughters:

One recent morning, as my 4-year-old daughter and I strolled to our favorite diner, she pointed to a bumper sticker plastered on a mailbox. A yellow, viraginous caricature of Hillary Clinton leered out from a black background. Big block letters proclaimed, “The wicked witch of the East is alive and living in New York.”
“Look, Mama,” she said. “That’s Hillary. What does it say?”
Let me state right off that I don’t consider Senator Clinton a victim. Her arm is so limber from the mud she has lobbed during her political career that, now that the whole president thing is doubtful, she may have a future as the first woman to pitch for the Yankees. So it is not the attacks themselves that give me pause, but the form they consistently have taken, the default position of incessant, even gleeful (and, I admit it, sometimes clever) misogyny. Staring down the sightline of my daughter’s index finger, I wondered what to tell her — not only at this moment, but in years to come — about Hillary and about herself… (continue)

I’m with Orenstein on not revering Clinton, but I am also with her on worrying about how the vitriol against Hillary has often been totally sexist and extremely offensive. One offensive jab that came through my own liberal neighborhood’s email list compared HRC to a certain Kentucky Fried Chicken assemblage. To my neighborhood’s credit, after this post many other people responded expressing how offended they were by his “joke.” To this he replied:

Doesn’t anyone have a sense of humor or believe in FREE speech…I see that anyone’s future comments can be silenced depending upon one person’s point of view… is this America ???? Or do we have to conform to editors….what does that remind you of….I have not liked comments made by certain people but I have NOT complained or tried to silence them…..Happy New Year and get a life !!

Free speech, speech free to attack women? Is that America? Not my America.

The best thing about this campaign, to my mind, is that it has allowed all of us to support people for their positions regardless of their skin color or gender. This isn’t really possible when it’s a campaign between a bunch of white guys and one white woman, or a bunch of white guys and one black man. But in a race between a black guy and a white gal, both of whom are progressive people with good values, then the scene changes considerably. I can lean to Barack more and Hillary less, but not because of some deep sexist stuff but because it’s finally possible to glean, however hazily, a post-sexist and post-racist future. But clearly there are still plenty of people caught up in old mind games over sex and race that still make this campaign a truly fraught one. And it’s only going to come to the fore more once the general campaign begins.