Friday, September 28, 2012

Death Race 2012

If you’re not voting in the Presidential election, you’ve probably been confronted with the strange desperation of an Obama voter who will not let go of your sleeve. This voter insists that you must vote for the President regardless of your analysis of the political situation and no matter what you think of his policies. This is remarkable, and hasn’t happened in quite this way before. Others have weighed up the reasons for voting for Obama or for anyone—again and again by now. The last thing I want to cogitate is why one should or shouldn’t vote for Obama or why one should or shouldn’t vote at all. I know and understand people on all sides of these questions. What I find worth reflecting on instead is why even raising the question is intolerable for a certain sector of Obama supporters.

If mass elections are always about coerced choice, more recently embracing the coerciveness itself as an index to reality has become a fetish. Apparently, a lot of Obama voters really believe that Ralph Nader supporters—Ralph Nader supporters—are responsible for the invasion of Iraq and its hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. 2,882,995 people voted for Nader, and about 118,990 civilians have died in Iraq so far. So every 24 Nader voters or so share between them the death of an Iraqi civilian. According to DOD, 11,473 Afghan civilians have died in Obama’s Operation Enduring Freedom through June 2012, and ~900 in Pakistan (meanwhile the government has narrowed what counts as a “civilian,” but never mind). In the calculus of the Obama voters, they are therefore responsible for less mass death than Nader voters. I’m filling in the details, but not exaggerating. I’m looking right now at a comments thread in Crooked Timber: “You have to consider the alternative. Last time people played this game we ended up with Bush for president and hundreds of thousands of people dead”; “bad as the Pakistani drone warfare is it can at least be said that . . . the number of casualties is lower than what [R]epublicans gave us. Pakistan can plausibly be said to have harbored Bin Laden”; “Obama’s horrible ‘drone war’ . . . is only a pale and wan reflection of Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars,” and so forth.

Projecting the actuarial logic, the commenters figure that they stand to be less responsible than non-voters if Romney is elected and bombs Iran. Romney is seen as a weapon of mass destruction that will be unleashed against the Middle East, abortion and other civil rights, the Supreme Court, and the poor. The immediacy of this threat is so real that it seems wrong to them even to think about not voting for the President whom they freely call an imperial “murderer”: “It’s about minimizing the number of infants who die of shrapnel wounds in their mother’s arms . . . . You’re not choosing between ‘no infants’ and ‘some infants’; you don’t get that choice this election . . . . How many infants dying of shrapnel wounds in their mother’s arms would it take for you to change your mind and vote for Obama?” Ignoring the difference between, let’s maximize it, 118,990 shrapneled infants and 12,373 shrapneled infants is cruel, “purist,” idealistic, jejune, isolated, superior, personal, privileged, and self-indulgent. It’s “monst[rous],” because it disregards a savings of 106,617 shrapneled to death infants.

I don’t know whether this group of Obama voters is unaware of the darkness of their implications or rather, as they claim, perfectly “O.K.” with it—as perfectly comfortable as you can be, that is, with a world that is “imperfect” (imperfect!). No one questions the form of reasoning that is being supported so strongly here, even more strongly than the moderation of civilian death, to the point at which no other valid thinking is acknowledged to exist. The crudely quantitative form of mass elections feeds dangerously into the degraded utilitarianism that provides their content as well. If there are two candidates and one will be elected and both are likely to preside over the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, it becomes self-evidently “silly” (silly!) to make civilian murder one of your main concerns: “You’re pretty much stuck with ‘less murder’ or ‘more murder.’” Although I think the position that the entire notion of ethical adequacy can be dismissed out of hand because it is moralizing also symptomizes the destruction of alternative ways of life (in fact, the very notion of “ways of life”) that has occurred, the inadequacy of the Obama voters’ language to the situation they describe is not only ethical and “symbolic.” It’s historical and effective. Rational choice-driven political realism of this sort is part of the formal apparatus integral to the worst, and I mean the worst, projects of human management in the last two centuries. It’s neither natural and inevitable, nor merely mental. It is neither synonymous with realism (political realism shouldn’t be allowed to stand in for all realisms, which are plural and divergent) nor with organization. Of course, not all its uses are equivalent. But that doesn't mean that the armature of rational choice is neutral and ahistorical, and therefore outside the realm of contention. Other types of realism and even other principles of bureaucratization are not equally compatible with the projects of mass death and the imperial foreign policy of the U.S.: without this kind of political realism, the others cannot easily be neutralized and assimilated. Without it, we can’t see mass state murder as “imperfect”; without it, mass state murder cannot be orchestrated.

Instead of being critical of the reasoning of WMD, experience of which ought to have showed us how to dissolve a coerced choice into a more thought-provoking field of observations and possibilities, the Obama voters believe they have found real WMD: the simple, binary existence or not of people who bomb over fake WMD. “A lot of people who would live happy and healthy lives, all over the world, if Obama wins in November will die if Romney wins. This is very nearly settled fact.” By constraining, even terrorizing, what counts as value, such formulations numb dissensus. A coercive security discourse arises around the threat of the worse violence and the stricter security discourse that awaits you if you ever leave the circle of concerned citizens. But the circle is policed not only by the threat outside, which there are a variety of ways to interpret and deal with, but from inside.

This group of Obama voters is regretful, even angry, about the outcomes of his policies but militantly unapologetic about their political realism. They insist that all that matters is what they think, and not what they think with. They draw the political line not regarding any “issue”—those, as we see, are all negotiable—but between themselves and anyone who asks questions about how they view the process. They conflate raising such a question with a personalist turn toward intentions, when the challenge is rather about the effects of their machinery. Perceiving the barrenness of the choice on offer, they point out and embrace its coerciveness as a kind of hygiene, superior because it offers no grounds for "feeling superior." They act like people who are relieved to have touched bottom. They respect themselves for having shed their illusions. They don’t see the historical connection between the political realism they are proud to be able to use and the infrastructure of the killing, nor why they can seem to others to be going around in a death spiral.

Image: from Alexander Kluge, The Patriot (1979)


pietro said...

great post. I think this issue is a symptom of something greater...something really sick.

moonjelly said...

Totally. Thank you for writing this. For me the "militancy" of unapologetic political realism appears more like displaced frustration with the apparent horizonless of choice, or lack of choice. I mean that, the concreteness serves as some kind of compensation for the fact that these people (the sector of Obama supporters you're referring to) really CAN'T see beyond the inanity of the logic within which they themselves are stuck. Your language is perfectly on point: "They don’t see the historical connection between the political realism they are proud to be able to use and the infrastructure of the killing..." If the pride is a (compensatory) variantion on the form that unapologetic attachment takes, it's perhaps because they know that there's something they don't know,there's something they can't see--and that "knowing about not knowing" is itself frustration...which gives way to militancy, and ultimately, terror tactics.

RT said...

Ah - right - the concrete militancy then means something like "seeing that you can't see," in a defensive mode. So, there's already something apologetic about being "unapologetic" by the time this un-apology is manifest....

Tx, MJ. I hope you're having a good weekend of unborrowed books & gâteaux mangés.

Christopher Malcolm said...

I liked this post. And the Obegg one.

I would agree that the coerced choice, is, and leads into, a very strong form of instrumentalization that repeats the mechanism of the act of the choice in the content of the politics. Politics in the UK has been so fully rationalized that the imagined coerced-choice maker has actually become the content of what follows. Because of the localized, many seat (646), FPTP electoral process, and increased ability to pin-point the swing-voters in the 50 swing-seats, the rationalization of that homogenized choice-maker, imagined or otherwise, has dominated the political landscape for 30 years. As a result the gap between the fatalistic acceptance of the coerced-choice and the imagined beyond of it is tiny. Thus the "pay-off" of the Obegg: "well, we must be realistic and propose cuts" or "we must join the coalition because of the "national interest"."

Re: Obegg, I like the idea of the strength of visionary desire. Clegg's first position on the tuition fee increase was that he was sorry he had not sufficiently explicated the actual terms of the policy (that actually students will pay less during the duration of their study et-blah). The move away from the "if only the people were able to comprehend the magnitude of my actual political success" to the fetish of the realism of the hard-choice which precipitates the heart-felt apology (which obviously increases the fetish), is then so clearly an abandonment of anything resembling a conviction for the identity-thinking of a future-reconciliation, the basis of the coercive context.

This is the best video I've found. The spectral mist around his words haunt the visionary.

RT said...

Yes, on the disappearance of the difference between the means and the beyond, to the for-itself of instrumentalization [!]. Clegg's heartfelt apology again resonates with Obama's "overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." And that might be contrasted to his 2010
"moral arc of the universe" allusion. "The moral arc of the universe ... has nowhere else to go!"

The video is great. :)

city said...

thanks for sharing..

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