July 11, 2009
Look, I love the idea of social capital as much as the next guy. But this is taking it way to far…
The above artifact, a “Reputation Statement of Account,” was designed by our colleague Jason Tester, a researcher and a designer, as a part of our 2004 Ten Year Forecast. It remains one of my favorite artifacts and seems to perfectly encapsulate emergence of new types of social currencies as a part of a reorganization of our lives around social relationships. In this world, it would be easy to imagine that the statement of your wealth would include accounting of your social capital as measured by contributions to various types of open communities, such as Wikipedia or Flickr.
Test of new era: clustered riot police having rendered physically mass politics impossible, ‘cloud’ politics succeeds
There’s been a great deal said about the Internet’s role in the events in Iran, but James’s remark put me in mind of something I’ve been mulling for the last couple weeks. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the wake of the Iraq war, it was how limited parts of the Islamic world’s experience and expectations for democratic institutions is. You can topple the dictator, set up a representative government, have elections, and still, there will be people ready to use guns and ethnic allegiances to subvert the process. Looking at nations like Iran (either before or after the protests) we see a similar picture; suppression of the press is just part and parcel of daily political life, especially in the midst of civil unrest. No army or institutional tweaking can resolve that fact; it’s just how elites operate, and how things get done.
And if we were living twenty years ago, that would more or less be it. What we’re seeing in Iran, though, is that the Internet is creating a new set of questions running parallel to the old ones. Freedom of speech originally set out to address the fact that speech could be restricted effectively for political ends. This premise, at least in Iran’s case, clearly isn’t holding any more. It’s guaranteed, eventually, that we will see the public violence of this regime, often in graphic detail. The question of whether the press is free is in some point moot: the Internet has replaced the freedom of speech with the fact of speech, which now confronts any regime with some measure of technological penetration and a sufficiently unsettled populace.
Many have made the observation that the Internet is a technological crystallization of free, even anarchic, speech, albeit one framed by its own internally imposed limits and one that can be manipulated in new and potentially frightening ways. There’s definitely something to this, though the Internet’s equally strong tendency towards segmented discourse makes me hesitant to embrace too Habermasian a reading of the thing. But that said, there’s still something very powerful in the notion of speech existing as a machine, rather than as a pure right, or an act, or a event. Suddenly its not, hey, you’re taking my rights (towards which everyone may or may not have positive feelings), its hey, you’re taking my computer (give it back fascist bastard!). And the fact that that speech machine has become vital for any country’s functioning introduces a whole new dynamic to dictatorship: if you want control, you must either never give an opportunity for nation-wide unrest (roughly the Chinese approach) or you must remove info-technology completely (the North Korean approach.) It’s strikes me that the Iranian regime will be/is now stuck between its inability to maintain the first option and the inevitability of the second. Which will be a very hard, maybe impossibly hard, pill for the Iranian people to swallow.
June 17, 2009
To browse through The Food of a Younger Land is to be transported into a time when mothers improvised recipes because of shortages of certain ingredients and fathers brought home fresh game from the woods and mussels from the ocean. The book describes the “sugaring off” parties in Vermont, where people hosted neighborhood celebrations as they finished off the annual tapping of sap from trees for maple syrup. It describes the making of persimmon beer among Mississippi African-Americans. In and around Darlington, South Carolina, people would host outdoor gatherings and serve “chicken bog,” a distinctive chicken-and-rice dish. Nebraskans loved buffalo barbecue and Wisconsin folks enjoyed sour-dough pancakes.
All I can say is that I hope there’s a section on squirrel melts.
June 16, 2009
Here’s another good reason for Americans to remain staunch realists about this whole shabang:
What’s often forgotten amid the genuinely awe-inspiring spectacle of hundreds of thousands of long-suppressed people risking their lives on the streets to demand change is the fact that the political contest playing out in the election is, in fact, among rival factions of the same regime. Ahmadinejad represents a conservative element, backed by the Supreme Leader, that believes the established political class has hijacked the revolution and enriched themselves and is fearful that the faction’s more pragmatic inclination toward engagement with the West could lead to a normalization of relations that will “pollute” Iran’s culture and weaken the regime. Mousavi is not really a reformer so much as a pragmatic, moderate conservative who has campaigned with the backing of the reform movement because it recognizes that he has a better chance of unseating Ahmadinejad than one of their own would have. (The reformists’ own economic performance, during their eight years in power from 1997 to 2005, unfortunately also left much to be desired, and was a key reason for Ahmadinejad’s election to the presidency.)
To my mind, this is one of the best reasons behind Obama’s reticence on the whole issue. The problem with being aggressive on the diplomatic front is not just that it gives Ahmadenijad a handy whipping boy to justify his thuggery. Its also that offering an effective endorsement for Mousavi is going to be a very hard thing to deal with once the admittedly intoxicating thrill of the moment is gone and we get back at the same old issues we started with, namely Iran’s domestic troubles and our conflicting international interests. Barring outright revolution, structural change that favor our interests are simply not in the cards. What we have here are two different options for Iran’s future, both of which represent real change either towards authoritarianism or reform, but neither of which escape the basic facts of Iranian political life, including that state’s position towards the U.S. and towards Israel. The only proper response to this kind of situation is an insistence on due process and the rule of law, both of which Obama highlighted yesterday, and, as I’m writing this, today.
June 16, 2009
Both Andrew Sullivan and Chris Dierkes are now using the “F” word to describe the situation in Iran. I agree its headed that direction, and if Ahmadinejad gets his way that will almost certainly be the outcome. But having just finished Agamben’s masterful book on the subject, I hesitate to call it fascism proper. What we have now is civil chaos, which can be a decisive moment for any state. Should Ahmadinejad succeed in crushing the demonstrations, he will have proved not only his power through the law, but also his power in the absence of law, in the state of exception. If that happens, Iran will be a genuinely fascist state, its foundations built on the intertwining of order and violence under the watchful eye of the sovereign. And that will be truly terrible thing.
However, I think the current situation doesn’t amount to that yet, precisely because the disorder has not been contained, either politically or semantically. Consider the images of state-sponsored violence we’ve seen through the last few days. They are intensely disturbing, not just because of the obvious pain we made witness to, but because those crimes are being committed by the very agencies founded to prevent them. Who is it beating people in the streets? Who is it breaking into dormitories and arresting without warrant or cause? These are plainly not the acts of a representative of the law. In lieu of that legal grounding, Iran’s authorities are mere thugs, armed thugs with big ideas and central planning. And they cannot amount to more until the government reconstitutes them, either as the hidden arm of state violence or as a reformed entity of civil society.
But so with Ahmadinejad’s thugs, so with Mousavi’s supporters, who now share that strange place between chaos and the exception. The authorities recognize they must exit the exception by containing the chaos as their own, and its this point that the protesters, in their demonstrations and their own violence, have put into question. Whether their efforts will succeed in creating a new establishment, and how they do so, will set the course of events in Iran. Should protests stay relatively peaceful, we may see something remarkable happen in the next few weeks. Should things turn violent, truly violent, I worry we may arrive at something just as bad as the Islamic Republic; founding states on violence is a dangerous undertaking, no matter what the intentions. But just for this reason, we shouldn’t confuse the reality of the unstable state as the signs of a new fascist order; the weird equality of chaos should teach us that at a minimum.
I recognize that all this may be being overly picky, since one might at least argue that while Iran is not yet fascist is is being run (ostensibly) by fascists. Granted. Mostly I post this to air my own thoughts on the matter, less to argue than to try to comprehend what’s going on here. And there is so much to comprehend.
June 11, 2009
Coates on slavery and conservatism:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I’m not a conservative, mostly because I’ve been thinking so much about slavery and Reconstruction. It seems, to my mind, to be an authentic conservative in the 1850s is to perhaps recognize slavery as evil, but oppose doing anything about it that might upset the planters. It seems, to my mind, to be an authentic conservative in the 1960s would be to recognize that segregation was also evil, but resolve to nothing about it which might upset its supporters.
If you are the slave, that essentially conservative approach will always privilege your master over you. Conservatism, with its belief in institutions, traditions, and the past, will seemingly always privilege (perhaps inadvertently) the powerful over the powerless. Institutions, traditions and the past belong to those with power. Privileging them, privileges their agents.
Will de la League responds:
I think it’s quite possible to argue that there were no good conservative answers to slavery or Jim Crow. But I don’t think this invalidates every conservative insight into the nature of our politics and culture. If anything, it’s a simple acknowledgment that some problems really do transcend rote ideological responses, and that no interpretive framework can provide a universal set of predictive guidelines for dealing with every possible eventuality.
Seconded; if we take seriously the notion that no-one has a monopoly on truth, then it follows necessarily that everyone will be wrong at some point, and in the case of slavery, radicals clearly had the upper hand, morally speaking.
That said, I want to take issue with Coates’s claim that conservatism had nothing to offer the African-Americans trapped under slavery’s thumb. If we follow the line of reasoning offered by Burke and like-minded souls, authentic conservatism is founded on much more than simple demand that things happen slowly, though in many cases that would be the ultimate conclusion. Rather, their views were based on the assumption that those institutions undermined by revolution are actually indispensable for the human good and for stability; in lieu of the ties established by family, church, culture, and class, political organization is impossible and human welfare declines precipitously.* So conservatism is not just an insistence that we should wait, but also an insistence that certain forms of the human good be allowed to flourish without the interference of the abstract reason represented by radicalism.
As an institution, slavery is unique in that it existed for so long, on such a huge scale, and became such an integral part of the world economic order, that conservatives who failed to think on a world-historical scale would have mistaken it for an established order. Yet that doesn’t change just how radical a system it was, and how deeply it damaged those systems conservatives were supposedly sworn to protect. It destroyed homes, families, traditions, nations, and entire religious traditions, in the place of those things erecting a system based on the constant erasure of whatever African-Americans might build outside the boundaries of a white dominated power structure. And, sure to form, during the enlightenment, slavery was justified by pseudo-scientific ideologies which persisted for centuries and left thousands of lives ruined.
Now, on the flipside of all this stood the plantation aristocracy, who doubtless saw slavery as vital to their culture and would have cited conservatism in their defence. But as I suggested above, the measure of a society’s conservatism is not how little it changes; it is how well it fosters stability and persistence at the most basic levels of culture. Because the conservatism of slave-holders was founded on the multi-generational exportation of radical violence to Africa, and the denial of slaves’ capacity to build those stable organizations, their conservatism meant more or less the exact reverse of what it normally means.
So I think it can be argued (as I tried to do above) that conservatism doesn’t necessarily mean that the master comes out ahead. It means that established institutions are valued, and insofar as all institutions require some measure of power and privilege then yes, conservatism favors the powerful. But it is not a rote endorsement for despotism; indeed, it should oppose despotism precisely because it disrupts the social fabric on which we all, white and black alike, rely.
June 6, 2009
May 29, 2009
May 27, 2009
(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)
Increasingly, persons are recognizing parallels and complements between Mormon and Transhumanist views. On the one hand, Mormonism is a religious ideology of the Judeo-Christian tradition that advocates faith in God leading to salvation. On the other hand, Transhumanism is a mostly secular ideology that advocates ethical use of technology to extend human capabilities. However, Mormonism and Transhumanism advocate remarkably similar views of human nature and its future: material beings organized according to law, rapidly advancing knowledge and power, imminent fundamental changes to anatomy and environment, and eventual transcendence of present limitations. Resources available through this site provide details on the relation between Mormon and Transhumanist views.
Of course, this is definitely a fringe deal, but its a fantastic if terrifying illustration of just how thin of a line separates our frontier mythology and our belief in the salvific power of technology.