Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is the rule of law dead? - reply to Brad Delong

I decided to go the 50th anniversary of social studies for two reasons: to celebrate it and to protest Harvard's tolerance of anti-Arab, anti-black, anti-Chicano racism. The program is special. As Stanley Hoffmann says in a video interview – sadly, he could not be here – it tries to get students to think broadly about economy, history, society and politics. Social studies 10 - the common, beginning, yearlong course - reads Marx, Weber, Smith, Durkheim, Hume, sometimes Ricardo, inter alia. The program abridges or ignores rigid disciplinary styles and obfuscations. I once remember Stanley at an early social studies gathering when I was a sophomore, lifting the lapel of his jacket with one hand to conceal one side of his face and saying: “now speaking as an Africanist…,” then lifting a lapel with the other hand, to cover the other side of his face, and saying, “now speaking an an international relations specialist…” One would no more imagine, as my niece Kate who was in social studies later said, not reading a good book in sociology because one majored in anthropology than that the sky is falling. She said this, Brad Delong reported to the anniversary gathering, while talking to sociologists about a book that they were reading excitedly that they could not imagine she, being an anthropologist, could have read.

Brad also reported forcefully that Marty Peretz had corruptly attacked a billion people (Arabs and even all Muslims). And Brad said, rightly and courageously: what the “frackedy frack” is going on with Peretz?*

There is an experience of being on the outside – or in exile – looking in which I acquired from living in Pakistan with my parents during high school. Whatever positive influence the US had as an undercurrent – my father was a Keynsian economic advisor to the Pakistan planning commission, pushing for a works program in what later became Bangla Desh; my friend Peter Linebaugh’s father who worked in the American embassy was a democrat and profoundly disturbed at the Ayub Khan dictatorship – there was a conspiracy of American forces, officers’ families often drawn from South, ** a few corporate executives, government, world bank and other officials, who seemed united around a reactionary policy. Even quite wonderful people, some of the women who taught me at the Karachi American School - were fatalistic about Pakistanis (one who introduced me to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India had absorbed this foolishness strikingly). On Sundays, my family would drive to the Indian ocean, and be surrounded by a sea of boys all calling “Baksheesh sahib.” (a tip, sir). If one had all the drops of water in the Indian ocean as rupees to give them, there would probably not have been enough to help. Or I would go to Dacca for the first time, and see a beautiful four year old in a sari begging, her wrists snapped and turned inside out, by whoever had set her to do so…

So I became very interested in the social theory we read, particularly Marx, but also Weber and Freud, and did not just do so in four or six weeks. After I became a radical as a senior, I read a great deal about what Marx did and found that he organized a demonstration of 10,000 peasants in rural Worringen (the stereotype taught to me by the wonderful Barrington Moore was that Marx thought all peasants reactionary, and studied and wrote in the British Museum, but never did anything). In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels surmised that the German democratic revolution of 1848 might be immediately followed by a proletarian revolution. As a graduate student , I wrote my thesis and first book on Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens (Rutgers and Martin Roberson, 1981).

I then came to do work in philosophy of science and ethics, and wrote Democratic Individuality on moral objectivity – that we know slavery is bad a lot more straightforwardly than most of us know quantum mechanics – and how many complex, controversial moral and political questions arise from differences in social theory, roughly empirical differences, than from underlying moral standards (mass murder and genocide, for example, are just uncontroversially bad). In Democratic Individuality, I also settled some things, for me, that came out of Social Studies 10 – I read Weber’s political writings, untranslated at the time, and reinterpreted his social theory contextually (historically) in the setting of his political activity. Democratic Individuality then compared it, in the light of moral objectivity to Marx and socialist/communist experience, and developed a new theory – one based in Marx but with an emphasis on what I call radical democracy.

I have since gone on to write a book on how aggression in foreign policy undermines or destroys democracy at home – Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? – and a new one on Emancipation and Independence on the shockingly unexpected centrality of the fight against slavery in the American Revolution. These efforts also grow out of social studies for which I am grateful from the heart – I wanted to celebrate social studies because it has meant something fundamental to who I am. I am one among many exemplars, as I learned again wonderfully at our gathering, of the diverse flowering of its students and have the greatest affection for the people who taught in it. But I have also become in a certain way critical of social studies, which was reflected in my question to Brad Delong – see Brad's is there hope for the rule of law in America? here - on the first panel.

What is true about social studies as Richard Tuck and Stanley Hoffman said in the beginning is that far from pretending to eschew “values,” it sees moral values as the base of important studies. It is thus a vigorous version of Kuhn or Feyerabend rather than empiricism. Their observation is true, and reveals standard strivings for “value freedom” – not just to see and counter one’s own biases but somehow to shun conclusions of importance for our values – as superficial. But the point of moral objectivity, as I raised in the first question at the panel, is that torture is really bad for human beings – is inconsistent with a decent society, and the rule of law since the Magna Carta in 1218. Defense of habeas corpus is a moral insight, "the rack" a horror. I then underlined that opposition to torture and affirmation of freedom of conscience, as with Mayor Michael Bloomberg here, are shining principles of justice – what makes political regimes decent to the extent they are – and that Marty Peretz’s attacks on more than a billion people, including blacks and Chicanoes, are no ordinary disagreement. They violate the equal liberty of each citizen which is the prerequisite of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. They destroy toleration. They falsely legitimize continuing oppression. I did not know Marty was in the room but I challenged him to come up and talk with me and he certainly could have. He has perhaps been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of apt criticism, however, and when I eventually saw him, just looked grim. But he then had the gall to call his critics cowards in one of his few statements at the social studies luncheon just after Bob Wolff, devastatingly spoke. See below and here. I concluded by underlining Obama’s odious notion of state secrets – see here and here – which attempts to consolidate a bipartisan regime (Jack Balkin’s concept) of illegality, in fact, war criminality in the United States, and asked what could be done to restore the rule of law.

Brad replied to me by mentioning that he had been in correspondance with my niece Kate – who blogs as Aimai and whose wonderful posts one can find here – and then giving a lively account of the fight concerning habeas corpus in the 17th Century. Charles II, a Catholic king, tried to get parliament to affirm the rack; it would not, the parliamentarians honorably replied, recognize that possibility under law (Blackstone). Instead, it conceded the “privilege” to Charles as a matter of royal – executive or "commander in chief" – prerogative. I seem to recall the revolution later cut off his head (see Walzer’s Revolution of the Saints, and Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution). It is this lingo – prerogative exaggerated in Locke by special advisor Robert Goldwin to President Ford and chief of staff Cheney – which found its way into Cheney’s pseudo-legal advocacy of torture. See here. Brad’s exposition of this point was very good, in fact, devastatingly learned in history – he is a true social studies major, furthering interdisciplinary education at Berkeley to this day – for an economist! His ending at the meeting, and on his blog, however, is weak and unself-aware. For he says the rule of law is dead. At the Social Studies meeting, only Jamie Gorelick in the afternoon disagreed head-on with Brad about torture. She said rightly: the US does not have to torture, but offered no argument.

I would say it differently. With the election of Obama, the US, at once, surged to a new credibility for decency – his second day executive order eliminating water-boarding. The fact that the American people elected Obama, a black man in the land of slavery and segregation, a seeming anti-war figure, and even an admirer of Gandhi and King, was rightly, internationally, considered a miracle. It seemed a hope where in the darkness of Cheney, none had glimmered. Since I have been an outsider here for a long time, I have never thought that the head of the Empire was likely to do many good things. I like Jimmy Carter, but not as President. So even though I am very critical of Obama, I am not as disappointed in Obama as many people who had taken his campaign vision to heart. He has sought to mitigate torture rather than “doubling the size of Guantanamo” (Romney’s platform in 2008). Nonetheless, Brad is right that Obama has gone far to protect elite torturers, including my student Condi; in his doctrine of state secrets and his arrogation, beyond Bush, of a supposed royal prerogative to murder Americans – see Greenwald here - taken America far toward becoming a police state.

But this is amazingly destructive and self-destructive for ordinary Americans and for Obama as President. Obama with advice from the Democratic think-tank neo-neo cons, is firing drones here and there, murdering a much larger number of civilians than “suspects,” in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, Neocon think-tanks in Washington make the ratio of murder of innocents 5 to 1, the Pakistani government 600 to 1. But since US intelligence isn’t very good (Bin Laden is still at large), the claimed killing even of Taliban may be a problem. More importantly, the US blew up a wedding party of over a hundred in Yemen including 50 women and children. How many enemies among all the relations of these people and even those who hear about it has the US government made? The US is thus aggressing against and making new enemies in three other countries, beyond its continuing though slightly phased down occupation of Iraq, and its escalation in Afghanistan. See here. Americans cannot afford to be, in addition, the torturers of innocents, the sender of drones murderously here and there. If the Obama administration continues doing this, it can ensure a cycle of self-destructive incidents, which will – I would emphasize the poisoning of the planet through wars, the already visible and growing destructiveness of global warming which are deep, perhaps already irreducible threat to human existence. This temporarily benefits the war complex, but drags most Americans down. Everyone, including the citizens who were sitting in that Social Studies celebration, needs to fight this. It is by no means clear, even with the Supreme Court hanging by a thread and Obama’s corrupt doctrine of state secrets, that the rule of law must be dead. Obama, by the way, has appointed two women whom one may hope (even Kagan) will stand for the rule of law. Yes, the elite is serious about and quite crazy and comfortable with the "legalization" of torture, the routinization of drones. And no, a mass movement to restore jobs, peace and the rule of law, is possible, and the arguments against doing something decent are powerful only in the elite. Brad spoke too easily as if this has to be. So here is a challenge to his fatalism.

* The panel on social studies and the social sciences was very interesting, particularly Sherry Turkle who gave a striking talk on the internet and the enthusiasm we all feel which conjoins with virtual but not physical – real - interactions. Seyla Benhabib spoke of the privatization even of the army and though she argued for globalization being a new stage, beyond what one could grasp through social theory, did mention that Marx is taken very seriously on the business pages – perhaps, one might say, an income distribution worse than that imagined in the Communist Manifesto diminishing the bottom 80% of the population to elevate the top 1% deserves notice - even though academics sometimes fail to see Marx's relevance.

**I went with some of their sons at the Karachi American School to play basketball with a Pakistani team. The Pakistanis had basketballs with the stuffing hanging out. I took one of our new basketballs to shoot around with them, a “race-traitor” as I soon learned. Now one might think that becoming friendly with Pakistanis was what nice white boys from America might want to do. But I came back to join my teammates for the start of the game, was derided by the coach and two of the other players for fraternizing with “Pakis,” and quit the team on the spot. Bigots have never been my idea of honorable Americans…

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