Wednesday, August 13, 2003

some recent thoughts:

1. was the past better or worse than the present? recent discussions with friends uncover a consensual belief that all valorization of the past over against the present are delusional and regressive fantasies. Two hundred years ago, the population of Europe was roughly 11% literate, the majority of people were peasants (soon to become industrial laborers), and cities stank running with filth in the streets (since plumbing in the modern sense did not exist). While I have tended to agree that worship of the past was generally motivated by politically conservative interests and relied on a purely constructed version of "what was," I've now decided that it all depends on your perspective. In this regard, I've been primarily influenced by Mike Davis' "Victorian Holocausts" book in which he demonstrates how colonial policies and practices turned drought conditions from Brazil to China into humanitarian catastrophes of biblical proportions, thus creating a long-lasting divergence between the conditions of the poor in the 1st World (Europe and North America) and the poor in the 3rd World. In the case of the latter, it cannot be asserted that the present is better than the past since, as Davis shows, imperial policies in china, as well as practices of the moghuls in India, were geared to prevent exactly the kinds of disasters that the colonial policies produced. Of course that may beg the question of the present present vs. the past past - that is, for example, are the inhabitants of modern day China, or India for that matter, "better off" than their ancestors. Conditions are better, certainly, than they were 100 years ago, but are they better than they were 200 years ago? 10,000 years ago?

2. liberalism and America. Lieberman claims that a "swing to the left" - whatever that would mean in America - would mean certain defeat for the Democratic party. I would instead wager that a further commitment to centrism would further the party's demise. Americans are extremists by nature, not moderates, and appreciate high contrasts. The larger problem for the Democrats is actually producing a worldview that is as simplistic and stark as that propogated by the Republicans, a worldview with a clear division between the good and the evil, and easy to understand solutions to the problems currently facing America (unemployment, "terrorism," etc.) This would involve a reclamation of the concept of America itself. The Republicans, while actually serving the interests of a small minority of extremely wealthy Americans, have successfully marketed themselves as the embodiment of America. They are the flag wavers. They are the patriots. Etc. Their idea of America, however, is Christian, conservative, and plutocratic. Because they mobilize fundamentalism in all its forms on their behalf, they have successfully projected the message that any opposition to this concept of America is opposition to America itself (as one conservative put it, "Life is a living hell for liberals because they hate America but don't hate it enough to leave"). America should mean, is supposed to mean, was intended to mean: FREEDOM, LIBERTY, EQUALITY, DEMOCRACY. If the image of Republican community par excellence is the Christian fundamentalist revival meeting - which is about submission to an absolute authority, then the image of Democratic community par excellence is the old-style Dead show/Woodstock/ Lollapalooza-type rock festival - which is about the celebration of freedom, enjoyment, and self-expression.

3. But it's not just about the battle of worldviews - on the one hand, the monolith of Republican fundamentalism, on the other, a polyglot bazaar of Democratic pluralism - it is about power: the power to tax, the power to legislate, the power to mobilize, etc. The Republicans are all about power, taking power, and using power to benefit specific special interests. They do not want to change the world or social system. They want to control the government to fulfill certain personal and business interests. They do not say this. Instead, they say they want to protect America, keep the streets safe, etc. The democrats, on the other hand, at their best, would like to create a better, different world on behalf of a generalized human interest involving the right to education, healthcare, income, welfare, shelter, security, etc. Because they do not serve specific financial interests, and instead want to promote a diffuse interest inherited from and invented by the humanist enlightenment, they have a harder time of it. In a sense, they have no center of power, no specific interest unified enough and identifiable enough to mobilize and direct the actions of the party. This results from their celebration of diversity, in part.