Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bobs and Weaves

Responding to my post on why it's wrong to be happy when the suffering of marginalized people gets worse, Larry, aka the Barefoot Bum says a number of interesting things. He has an interesting perspective on the way libel law works, for example, and he has an interesting view that simply asserting that someone doesn't understand the word "palliative", without any warrant for why the way I applied it is wrong, is a meaningful argument.

But most interesting is the fundamental shift in position Larry takes. Recall what I was criticizing in my previous post: the view that we should oppose marginal improvements in the lives of the oppressed (which don't really effect the overall structure of oppression), because in doing so we make it less likely that they were get so fed up with their position that they will actually go out and revolt (we'll call this Reason "A"). There are a lot of reasons why that position is pretty appalling, which you can find in the post and in the comments section.

But in the new post, Larry, without telling anyone, quietly but dramatically changes stances. Now he argues against supporting marginal improvements for the subordinated absent corresponding structural reforms for two quite different reasons. The first is a simple deontological, "I don't want to get my hands dirty supporting even the lesser of two evils" (Reason B). The second is a consequentialist sop to the first: arguing that staking out seemingly radical (but "right") positions can help shift the political terrain and make the hitherto impossible, mainstream -- shifting the "frame" of the debate rather than accepting as inevitable two bad choices (Reason C). It's unclear whether these positions are inextricably linked together; that is, if C (which is primarily an empirical question) doesn't hold true, whether B is still justifiable. In any event, these are certainly superior grounds for Larry's position than the one he previously held, though I don't think actually succeed either.

A sub-point of my last post was a note on how abstract analogizing tends to be more obscuring than illuminating when making philosophical points (in that case, the body politic can't be analogized to a human medical patient, because particular human cells aren't morally relevant individuals, whereas particular citizens are). Here, we see this same beast roaring again, this time in the form of a hypothetical about killing babies. Political Party 1 "wants" to torture and kill 1000 babies, Political Party 2 (the "liberal" one) wants to torture and kill only 500. Radical Party 3 wants no babies killed or tortured.

Of course, in the real world no American political party "wants" to kill babies. However, there are certainly differences on how much different parties might tolerate babies dying. There's a fascinating debate on how much intentionality matters in these sorts of things (I think it matters very little in terms of assessing consequences and quite a bit in terms of assessing moral culpability), but the point of framing the scenario in this way is to put us in the realm of cartoon villains cackling about how they will soon shroud the world in evil and misery. It's simply not productive. The goal is to elevate the third party to a position of moral superiority: even though it's participation in the political sphere may yet lead to the death of babies -- indeed, perhaps more than certain less "radical" alternatives -- it's different because they don't want the babies to die. Unfortunately for them, that doesn't make them different from anyone else. The only standard for evaluation is seeing what blend of political participation produces the least number of dead babies.

So let's take a scenario we can imagine happening, one that strips out the self-congratulating and distorting elements best left to Marvel Comics. Suppose each year in a particular inner city, 1000 babies starve to death. We'll imagine Party 1 doesn't address this at all -- it's policies will basically continue the status quo, or even increase the amount of dead babies moderately (say, to 1,500). Party 2 has a package of proposals which make it so only 500 babies starve to death, but which doesn't strike at the root problem that leads to starving babies. Fringe Party 3, which will never get elected, has a set of proposals which they say would reduce the amount of starving babies to a negligible amount. Note that I'd consider any baby starving to death to be an example of injustice even if I believed that society had done everything possible in its power to prevent it.

Under Larry's original position (Reason A), of course, the right thing to do is to try and increase the number of starving babies dramatically, in the hopes that the oppressed will wake up, mobilize, and make Fringe Party 3 not so fringe anymore. In the "torturing babies" hypothetical, perhaps Revolutionary Communist Party members could start kidnapping babies and torturing them in the public square, and broadcast it on national television, in hopes that it might shock the nation into passing a "no torturing babies" law. If that's too visceral, maybe they could just give an award to the killer of Dantrell Davis, who finally managed to create the political will necessary to do something about violence-plagued high-rise projects.

Reason C, as I said, is an empirical claim that depends on the strategic impact that flows out of each particular political move. It also seems to assume that voting is exhaustive of one's ability to influence political framing: that while voting Party 2 there is no way to nevertheless challenge the dominant framing of the issues. I highly doubt that is true, and I think a superior counterplan to voting Party 3 and ignoring the fact that it will immediately and directly lead to more starving kids is trying to get as much mitigating policy as possible passed (through voting for Party 2) while simultaneously engaging in advocacy, grassroots organizing, letter writing, blogging, whatever to increase the profile of the radical alternative. I don't believe these are mutually exclusive. One might argue that the "palliative" effects of Party 2's mitigating policies will dissipate the momentum needed to put together a radical organization, but that's just the discredited Reason A method of thinking that complains that the underclass isn't miserable enough to listen properly to the revolutionary music. Color me (still) unsympathetic.

But even restricting the scope of analysis just to voting, I think Larry is off base. Larry says that leftists who "hold their noses" and vote for the center-left party are likely to alienate moderates who then will cross-over to the right, obviating their impact. Not only do I not really think that's true, I think the effect is probably worse if the leftists go it alone. The presence of Danny Davis in the Democratic Party doesn't make the Party that much less appealing to moderates because he's just one guy in a big tent. An undiluted, pure communist movement is far more likely to elicit visceral revulsion from the middle. Revolutionary Communists have an annoying habit of over-estimating their appeal to the proletariat, when in general they're "anti-persuasive": the greater presence they have amongst the leadership of a particular political position, the less likely it is that position will be seen as viable by the majority of voters. Unfair as this may be, if you're going to play politics you have to understand the shape of the political terrain, and there is absolutely no evidence that the Communist Party in America has ever even nudged our nation to the left -- but a lot of right-wing crap has come together under the guise of suppressing it.

Put less polemically: There is good reason to believe that political outcome of defecting from Party 2 and voting Party 3 will be both an increase in the number of starving babies (both because Party 1 is likely to gain more support, and because Party 2 is likely to tolerate more dead babies as the most vocal proponents of feeding infants leave) and a decrease in the credibility of the "no starving baby" position (due to it being now associated as a position held only by fringe radicals). To the extent this is true, and assuming that even with the defectors Party 3 still will be a negligible player on the political scene (both of which -- given just how fringe the communist movement in America remains -- I think are quite reasonable), Reason C cuts entirely against Larry's argument.

So finally, we get back to Reason B -- the wonderful moral purity of deontological ethics. Of course, even Larry seems to concede that this isn't really the case: he has blood on his hands for all those who would have been saved through "the expedient path"; just as I have blood on mine for all those who will continue to suffer in the status quo (and I do accept that I am, at least in part, morally liable for this injustice). Whom, it must said, Larry isn't actually accomplishing anything for either -- he's just making himself feel good. So even had this argument not collapsed back into consequentialism, I'd still label it as pretty self-indulgent. Larry asks at what point slightly better marginal benefits cease to justify participating in fundamentally unjust social arrangements (10,000 dead babies versus 9,999?). My answer would be: at the point at which alternative practices are reasonably likely to lead to actual superior consequences for the oppressed -- a standard under which participating in revolutionary communist politics (even if I believed that ideally they'd lead to better results) dramatically fails to meet.

But turning the question back onto him -- at one point does one's desire to stay pure from the corrupting effects of the real world collapse against the need to produce actual, tangible improvements (even if only "palliative") in the lives of breathing human beings? One can imagine the purist of them all -- refusing to even sanction the "framework" of contemporary Western bourgeois capitalist democracy -- engaging in a piece of performance street theater to protest against the structure of contemporary capitalism. But if their actions merely alienate the public, and end up blocking an S-CHIP expansion that gives millions of kids insurance, is it still worth it? At least Nero didn't cloak his fiddling in the drapes of self-righteousness.

A final point which I put down in the comments to the last post, but feel compelled to raise on the front page. Nowhere in Larry's analysis is there even the slightest nod at respecting the desires or agency of oppressed people themselves. Oh sure, they'll make noises about the need for the revolution to occur with democratic support, but when push comes to shove the lack of such a mandate is held to be a failing of the people, not a fault in the ideology. This, perhaps, is why he uses the example of babies: who don't have articulated desires or agency to speak of anyway. We don't have to wonder why babies aren't communists -- it's their intellectual maturity, certainly not anything problematic on our end. It's a perfect metaphor for how he envisions the oppressed more generally: helpless infants whom he can swoop in to save from themselves with his message of revolution and communist brotherhood. The fact that the damsels in distress do not now, nor ever have, really found the message compelling doesn't even seem to give Larry pause.

There are many reasons why oppressed persons in America might not be rushing to join the RCP, that don't rely on tagging them as intellectual infants. They might not find the ideology compelling. They might not think that the RCP truly has a grasp on the realities and particulars of their current existence (crazy as that might sound). Or, they might not believe it is the best repository of their limited political and social capital. All these compete with the RCP line, which is that these people are crazy and don't know what's best for them -- but we do, and we'll get it for them over our their dead bodies!

If the marginalized classes in America -- the poor, people of color, women, LGBT persons, religious minorities -- were working actively on behalf of the RCP, then I think we'd have an obligation to take that view seriously. But of course, most members of these classes do not support the RCP. Most of them vote Democratic, often by overwhelming margins. Insofar as they seem to think incrementalism is the way to go, then by golly, I'm going to incrementalize to the best of my ability. If they want to get tactical, then it's not my place to sabotage their efforts because it interferes with my "strategic framing".

Iris Marion Young -- a greater exponent of progressive philosophy than either I or Larry could ever hope to be -- once wrote that "Normative judgment is best understood as the product of dialogue under conditions of equality and mutual respect. Ideally, the outcome of such dialogue and judgment is just and legitimate only if all the affected perspectives have a voice." There is no question that the status quo is a massive failure in this regard, but this is also one axis where revolutionary communism can't even claim theoretical superiority. At every step of the way, it is sectarian, exclusivist, anti-democratic, condemning of alternative worldviews arising out of the experiences of the oppressed (when it isn't actively ignoring them), disrespectful, arrogant, and ultimately elitist. No wonder it's fringe.


Larry Hamelin said...

Given that this whole controversy exists because of your obtuse and illiterate interpretation of an obvious metaphor, it's difficult to know whether we're engaging in political argument or postmodernist literary criticism.

Still and all, you might actually have a point buried in this turgid prose. Being specific enough to be actually wrong would be sufficient improvement in your thinking to deserve continued engagement.

I might be mistaken though. I'll parse this mess in the morning and see if there's anything worth responding to.

David Schraub said...

The fact that you gave a lousy metaphor doesn't mean I don't understand the words you used, or that I'm "failing" to interpret it properly, or that I'm engaging in postmodern literary criticism (as if that'd be a bad thing). It just means it was a lousy metaphor.

If you had only argued reasons "B" and "C" in your previous post, I think you'd be wrong, but I wouldn't find it outrageous (well, I'd still be kind of annoyed at the decentering of the marginalized themselves, but it be subdued). It's the (now abandoned?) House metaphor about the need for society to "get sicker" that I think is really, badly off-kilter. If it wasn't the position you meant to stake out, then fine -- say it was a screw-up, and we're all cool. If it wasn't a screw-up, then I'm not sure where I'm making my alleged misinterpretation, because I think I've been pretty clear about why "make it sicker" is not a morally tenable position to hold when it's morally relevant individuals, not cells, who suffer the consequences (particularly when, as Matt notes in comments, you have no guarantee that the result of "making it sicker" is improvement down the road).

Larry Hamelin said...

The fact that you gave a lousy metaphor doesn't mean I don't understand the words you used, or that I'm "failing" to interpret it properly, or that I'm engaging in postmodern literary criticism (as if that'd be a bad thing). It just means it was a lousy metaphor.

Whether a metaphor is lousy or not is a matter of subjective taste. If you didn't like the metaphor, you didn't like it. Deconstructing a metaphor is the sine qua non of postmodernist literary criticism. (And yes, postmodernist literary criticism is a bad thing.)

It's the (now abandoned?) House metaphor about the need for society to "get sicker" that I think is really, badly off-kilter.

So your entire argument for concluding that I'm arguing a specific position is based on your interpretation of a metaphor.

In intellectual circles, this is known as a fallacy of uncharitable interpretation, intellectual dishonesty and bad faith.

No, David, you're not even wrong. You're just a liar.

Anonymous said...

David, because you don't seem to be able to grasp the gist of the metaphor, let me put it a bit more plainly to you.

A palliative, does not make the patient healthier. It only makes him hurt less without treating the underlying disease.

The end result of only palliative treatment is DEATH.

Clear now?

David Schraub said...

Ooo, "subjective taste". That cuts deep.

What's bizarre is that while I might have arguably "deconstructed" a different metaphor you used (the starving babies one, noting how this assumes helpless actors who don't have formed preferences or agency), my "interpretation" of your House metaphor was quite above board. Indeed, it flowed entirely out of the two paragraphs of your own text I block quoted in the preceding post -- and aside from whining that I'm being a "deconstructionist", you haven't explained what "There's an important sense in which Barack Obama is actually worse than John McCain....Obama is a palliative, not a cure....a palliative is actively bad when it removes the motivation of pain for curing the underlying condition while it worsens...." means other than in an important sense, Obama is worse than McCain because Obama would relieve pain amongst the oppressed reducing their incentive to revolt while not doing anything to remedy the structural problems causing the pain -- an argument which I explained is really really bad. You can't make an argument that relies on a metaphor, then get all huffy when people explain why the metaphor fails.

The palliative metaphor works for House because the super-structure (the human body) is the only relevant being, so it can -- if it consents -- be subjected to greater sickness internally to be healed. The "internal" doesn't have any moral claims on us. It doesn't work for the political body because the component parts that are getting sicker are morally relevant individuals who have just claims on us, and can't be subject (at least, without their own consent -- going back to my point about respecting the revealed preferences of the marginalized in America for incrementalism versus revolution) to increasing torture for the theoretical "greater good" (particularly when we have no guarantee that said good will be forthcoming).

This argument concedes that the care Obama provides won't mend the structural problems (in other words, concedes its palliative nature). In essence, it argues that a known increase in the suffering of the poor now, coupled with a speculative -- I'd say unlikely -- improvement in their situation later that is dependent on said increased pain creating the "impetus for progressives to actually organize" is an immoral choice. There's a difference between "I disagree" and "I don't understand".

It seems like you're now saying that's not an argument you meant to make, which is good. But it's not my fault you expressed yourself poorly, it wasn't an "uncharitable interpretation" or "intellectually dishonest" or "bad faith" or anything of the sort. I read the paragraphs, took them to mean what they said, and explained why the argument was appalling.

You wrote two stupid paragraphs. It happens to everybody. Chill.