It’s not every day that I have the honor of being accused of writing “foolish things” by the “great tax reformer” Grover Norquist. After reading Kevin Drum’s account of Louisiana Republicans’ exacerbation with Norquist, I Tweeted my own exacerbation. To my surprise, Mr. Norquist took at least a few seconds to break from his busy agenda of bankrupting America to explain himself.
To whom was he referring? Who would say such a foolish thing, I wondered? “We can do better than freedom?” What an absurd argument to make! And then I suddenly realized that it was me! He was referring to my Twitter profile, which leads with the sentence “We can do better than capitalism.” Easy mistake to make. I gently corrected him.
.@GroverNorquist I wrote “We can do better than capitalism”—but I totally see how elites like you might get freedom and capitalism confused.
And one is tempted to say, contrary to the moralists who insist on pure intentions, that it is good that it should be so. No one can any longer believe that history is guided by reason; and if reason, and also the universal, moves forward at all, it is perhaps because there are profits in rationality and universality so that actions which advance reason and the universal advance at the same time the interests of those who perform them (Bourdieu 1997:126).
Bourdieu argues not only that the political project of universality is inescapable—i.e., that someone (or some group or class) will succeed in defining the contents of the universal, even if others eschew the contest itself—he is also suggesting here that there is potential social value in the operations of universality. It is not only a matter of practical necessity in the terrain of politics that contenders claim and contest the symbols, contents, and products of universality; there is also a broader social good in the operation—potentially, at least, and however untidy. While the political operation of constructing, cultivating, and wielding broad unity, and of framing universality(/ies), does indeed obfuscate important differences, heterogeneity, and power concentrations within the constructed alignment—sometimes at great costs to particular groups, especially those that are already marginalized—it simultaneously bridges between the potent solidarity found within fields (and in-groups) and the broad inclusionary project of constructing a common society within which all particular groups and fields must coexist. Continue reading →
Another intense semester has come to an end and suddenly I have some time to relax, to catch up with friends, and even to indulge in wasting a little time on the Internet. Just now I remembered old Leeroy Jenkins — the disruptive antihero of World of Warcraft — and I thought I’d watch the Youtube video of his performance from ten years ago.
Because of my predisposition to see WoW as an unforgivable waste of time, I’ve always loved Leeroy’s utter disregard for the norms, processes, and careful strategic planning of his WoW teammates. Unilaterally cutting the collective planning stage short, Leeroy enthusiastically runs headlong kamikaze-style into enemy territory, embarking on what is sure to be a suicide mission, while narcissistically shouting his own name, “LEEEEEROOOYY JEENNNKINNNSS!!!” With the action kicked off prematurely, his teammates have no choice but to follow Leeroy into the field to do battle with beasts and demons and who-knows-what-else, hoping against hope to salvage something from the unfavorable situation created by the asinine antics of their stupid/brave comrade.
This time watching the clip, I realized how tragically perfect Leeroy Jenkins fits as a metaphor for way too many of my experiences in grassroots social movements. From the global justice movement to Occupy Wall Street (*not these movements as a whole, but particular episodes therein) to countless local campaigns over the past two decades, I have spent so much time and energy running headlong into an asymmetrical battle terrain prematurely — because a few ‘heroes’ self-righteously interpreted the imperative to act as an excuse for neglecting to develop a strategic plan. And once the action is underway, others follow, of course — in order to protect their comrades, to bail them out of jail, to fundraise for their legal defense, and on and on; essentially doing ‘damage control.’ (To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that everyone who gets arrested at street actions is akin to Leeroy Jenkins, or that willingness to endure arrest and repression never serves to further the strategy of a movement.) I have struggled in so many situations like this to try to reframe actions that have already been unfavorably framed by our shit-show first impression.
Yup, I have reluctantly followed Leeroy Jenkins on doomed and costly missions. I can also remember being Leeroy Jenkins at least a few times. Fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins, screwing it all up. And it just takes one Leeroy Jenkins.
A related kind of ambiguity pervades political process as well: uncertainty about how much public support or opposition for programs exists or can be created. Because opinion is constructed and volatile, all indicators of it are problematic. Poll reports are therefore another device for the reduction of ambiguity to clarity.
Polled individuals are abstracted both from their everyday lives and from political discussion and action shared with others. Their opinions are therefore also abstract — not necessarily related to any course they would pursue when involved in political activities different from answering an interviewer (or, perhaps, voting). In this artificial situation expressed opinion depends upon verbal cues together with changing memories of past situations and anticipations of future ones. Polls and surveys generate numbers that have the dramaturgical look of hard data and the epistemological look of shifting fantasies.
In his essay “Public Opinion Does Not Exist,” Pierre Bourdieu similarly deflates polling as an elaborate trick that elites use to claim to speak for ‘the people.’ This mechanism, which measures aggregated answers of individuals, who are extracted from any organic social context, to questions about matters that they may or may not have any prior concern or idea about, has an inherently conservative bias to it. This conservative bias is due, in part, to the fact that the majority of people will likely be marginally informed, at best, about most issues, and the vague impressions they have will have been mostly informed by dominant discourses. So, while a particularly impacted community or field may hold intimate experience, expert knowledge, and higher stakes concerning a given issue, the opinion of an ill-informed majority—whose snapshot ‘opinion’ is no-doubt shaped by dominant discourse, which tends to be biased to favor elite opinion—will count just as much. Actually it will count for more, in the aggregate. Nonetheless, political elites can use the concept of ‘public opinion’ as a weapon—a weapon that is disguised as a mere measuring stick—to legitimize themselves, their agendas, and their powers.
While it may be foolish for political actors (including underdog challengers) to ignore popular sentiment, it is perhaps even more foolish to ‘chase after the wind’ of public opinion; to treat it as if it were something that existed concretely, as an unbending thing, rather than as an ever-constructed construction, whose articulation a political actor has to constantly contribute to and contest — if that actor hopes to be a contender, and not merely a commentator on the sidelines.
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” —Frederick Douglass
The phrase “the personal is political” was originally intended to mean that the oppression that you experience as an individual is patterned—that there are structural factors underlying your experience, and so there are probably others experiencing similar things. “The personal is political” encouraged individuals who were experiencing oppressive situations—for example, a woman abused by her husband, or a worker exploited by her employer—to view these situations not as personal problems, but as political problems, and to realize that remedial action requires coming together with others to address the issue collectively in the public sphere.
Such a process is precisely what has been happening across the United States as police killings of our black and brown brothers and sisters are now being seen as a pattern, a structural problem, and a political problem, by more and more people. This means that each needless death and each instance of excessive force is now understood as part of a bigger moral narrative. Victims’ families and communities no longer have to struggle on their own, isolated from each other. There is now a stronger sense, at least, that ‘you are not alone.’ This articulation of a common story about structural racism and economic inequality in relation to America’s police departments provides a stronger basis for the collective mobilization it will take to change this intolerable situation.
Racism is a powerfully destructive force in American society. Its crimes and its harm are immeasurable. It is a structural problem, which means it is everyone’s problem. It is all of our responsibility. It asks something of each of us. Please pay attention to Baltimore, with compassion in your heart. #BlackLivesMatter#FreddieGray
The Rev. Westley West leads a march for Freddie Gray to the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station, Wednesday, April 22, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
An amazing person left us today. Eduardo Galeano’s writing about Latin America is a gift to all of humanity. If you’ve never read anything by Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America is a good place to start.