Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Casting aspersions on the asparagus

Ecce Homo

"The various vitalities of human history are moreover not only in conflict with Zeus but in conflict with each other."--Reinhold Niebuhr

I want to start with something I said once before, beginning with some:

 thoughts from Derrida's Rogues. He notes that:

It has always been hard to distinguish, with regard to free will, between the good of democratic freedom or liberty and the evil of democratic license. They are hardly different. Book 8 of the Republic, for example, proposes a close examination of democracy as a regime. [According to Plato's critique]...with democratic man comes a general abdication, a complete loss of authority, a refusal to correct by means of the law the young akolastoi, literally those who go unpunished, unreprimanded, who are intemperate, licentious, undisciplined, delinquent, spendthrift, one might even say somewhat anachronistically voyous and roues, "wantons," says Plato, young men "averse to toil of body and mind, and too soft to stand up against pleasure and pain, and mere idlers." (Rogues, p. 21)
Is it an accident that the critique of Plato sounds very much like the general critique of modern Western culture that sounds from Imams and other leaders or voices from the "East," from Islam? As Derrida himself notes:

This is already beginning to look like a real bazaar, a carnival, a liberal, or better, neoliberal or precapitalist marketplace where the governing oligarchs have en economic interest in maintaining the dissolute life of the profligate in order eventually to acquire his estate. They thus lend money on hypothec, says the Republic, lending against the property of these men so as to enrich themselves even further through speculation:

"And there they sit within the city, furnished with stings, that is, arms, some burdened with debt, others disenfranchised, others both, hating and conspiring against the acquirers of their estates and the rest of the citizens, and eager for revolution....But these money-makers with down-bent heads, pretending not even to see them, but inserting the sting of their money into any of the remainder who do not resist, and harvesting from them in interest as it were a manifold progeny of the parent sum [their capital, which is to say in Greek their patrimony...], these money-makers [these agents, so to speak, of usurious capitalization] foster the drone and pauper element in the state"

We must never forget that this portrait of the democrat associates freedom or liberty (eleutheria) with license (exousia), which is also whim, free will, freedom of choice, leisure to follow one's desires, ease, facility, the faculty or power to do as one pleases. Plato says this explicitly. (Rogues, pp. 21-22)
All of which is prelude to this insight:

But what allows me for the moment to formlate things in this way by making reference to Plato is what the Republic itself draws our attention to just after the passage on the democratic man and his freedoms, eleutheria and exousia. Insofar as each person in this democracy can lead the life he chooses, we find this this regime, this polteia...all sorts of people, a greater variety than anywhere else. (Rogues, pp. 23-24)
License, freedom; what, as Derrida points out even Plato said "they say" are the fundamental hallmarks of democracy, "they" being first the proponents of democracy, but taken up against them by their harshest critics. (The question of whether proponents of democracy actually saw it that way at first, or have adopted that stance from their critics, we will save for later. But keep in mind that "political correctness" began as a shibboleth for assailing "the left," and was never a term used by it, until it adopted the term itself.)

Which is not to say freedom is never a part of democracy. Rather, it is really the risk of democracy. Derrida says:

Freedom is essentially the faculty or power to do as one pleases, to decide, to choose, to determine oneself, to have self-determination, to be master, and first of all master of oneself (autos, ipse). A simple analysis of the "I can," of the "it is possible for me," of the "I have the force to", reveals the predicate of freedom, that "I am free to," "I can decide." There is no freedom without ipseity and, vice versa, no ipseity without freedom--and, thus, without a certain sovereignty. (Rogues, p. 22)
It is the question of sovereignty we find ourselves bound up with, again.

It is, but this time the question of sovereignty is the question of responsibility.  Charlie Pierce notes:

To me, the most singular thing about the Senate report is how thoroughly it takes the rest of the executive branch off the hook, which is the same dynamic that Weiner noted about the report of the Church committee. Whenever a scandal like this hits, it seems, the people who give the actual orders, the people who create the climate for the crimes, and, in this case, the people who tortured the Constitution to find a legal justification for torturing human beings, are always invisible. As was the case with the Church commission, I believe, this Senate investigation shrank from demonstrating to the American people the kind of monsters they freely elected. I believe this investigation shrank from the obvious conclusion that the legislative branch fell down on its oversight responsibility and, therefore, to its responsibility to the country. I believe that this investigation shrank from the obvious conclusion that, as regards the investigation's findings, the ultimate conclusion is that democracy committed a kind of suicide. So, as always, the onus for the crimes falls almost always upon the unelected and the faceless.
We are, in other words, the sovereign.  We are the king.  As Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be king."  The king doesn't have to be responsible; the king can just be authority.

But it's no good to say we have met the enemy and he is us.  It's true, but it doesn't help.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  But who is responsible?  Mr. Pierce says this report on torture hangs the CIA agents out to dry.  But they'll get theirs; they'll spit in Dick Cheney's salad one day; they'll drop Donald Rumsfeld's suit in the dirt on the way back from the cleaners.  Yeah, they'll get even.

And the rest of us will go on complaining about those jerks in Congress, or the White House, or inside the Beltway.  After all:  we have the force to.  We are free to.  We can decide.  There is no freedom without sovereignty; and no real responsibilities on the sovereign, in a democracy.  We cannot be corrected by the means of the law.  We ARE the law.

Of course, we are also "the young akolastoi, literally those who go unpunished, unreprimanded, who are intemperate, licentious, undisciplined, delinquent, spendthrift, one might even say somewhat anachronistically voyous and roues, 'wantons' says Plato, young men 'averse to toil of body and mind, and too soft to stand up against pleasure and pain, and mere idlers.' "  The pleasure and pain of governance is too much for us; but it is also too diffuse.  Who is responsible when no one is responsible?  Rogue agents in the CIA? Unnamed contractors?  Former White House officials?  CIA directors?

The State Department feared a backlash at the release of the torture report, but none immediately came.  Why not?  According to NPR, it's because people in the countries affected (or from which the affected were drawn), have been living with this story for over a decade, now.

Old new, in other words.  It's only new to us, in America.  Ain't freedom grand?

Is this, then, the death of democracy?  No.  This is how it works.

How do you like your blue-eyed boy now, mister death?

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