GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 26, 2008

Everyone’s Happy!

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:44 am

Barack Obama seems to be composing the most generic, centrist establishmentarian cabinet possible.  Most conservatives seem to be pleasantly surprised and most leftists seem to be suprisingly pleased.  Each side is even crowing at the other’s expense:  the right is claiming that the left, hoping for a changey, anti-Bush administration, has been had; while the left is claiming that Obama is the rational, inspiring unifier they knew him to be all along, depsite the right’s smears.  Indeed, one could imagine the Obama team carrying out policies identical to those a third Bush or McCain adminstration would have; and one could imagine leftists cheering this on as the coming of a new political millenium. 

If Obama’s transcendent political persona is predicated upon a messianic negation of the scapegoated Bush, then it might actually be that policy and political realities have become irrelevant:  if it is an article of faith that everything Bush did was awful and everything Obama does a transcendence of that awfulness, maybe it really doesn’t matter what either of them do at this point.  But, then, what would that mean?  The more cynical reading would detect a reduction to sheer partisan, party politics:  the Democrats didn’t care what was done, they just wanted to be the ones doing it already.  They saw an opening in Bush’s various vulnerabilities, mobilized their resources and allies in the media, and just hammered away. 

A less cynical account would insist there must be some “content” to the scapegoating:  pure scapegoating, with an arbitrarily chosen target, can only be a theoretical abstraction.  And what else can that content be but Operation Iraqi Freedom?  I remember the few conversations I had with Bush-haters over the years 2004-7, and they would always take a strange turn:  I would argue that they were supporting a catastrophic rout for the US and potential genocide for the Iraqi people, and the answer would always be:  no, no, of course we don’t want to simply leave Iraq immediately, heedless of consequences.  Of course, a withdrawal would be carried out cautiously and deliberately, paying close attention to military realities and the advice of military leaders; of course we could be ready to reverse course if necessary if certain bad actors came in and tried to fill the vaccuum we left behind, etc.  If one pursued the discussion a bit further, it would turn out that the differences concerned little more than details of implementation, and even those couldn’t be clarified since they regarded an unknown future.  It seemed to come down to nothing more than a mere verbal commitment to the claim that the invasion of Iraq was the worst, most criminal, most fraudulent, etc., foreign policy disaster ever.

Or:  the cautiousness and deliberateness was the merely verbal commitment, a line the Left was devising in order to reduce the differences to:  they screwed up and we’ll get it right (and the proof of that is how intensely aware we are of how they screwed up).  Over time, what was screwed up and what it would mean to get it right becomes rather vague, and the question comes down to representation:  on one side, a battered, tainted, tiresome administration, on the other side a fresh face.  This would seem to fit the less cynical account, if we were to assume that the centrism was the facade, the adamant rejection of the disputed policy the genuine commitment.  Maybe not, though–if the invasion itself was the real violation, there would be no contradiction between a genuine horror at that act and a willingness to treat its consequences with moderation, since that after the fact management of consequences could be seen as a necessary act of “healing.”

There is another possibility, more disturbing, and, indeed, soon to become quite testable.  The Iraq War was a kind of irremediable crime, a violation of something sacred, even an unbearable rupture in the texture of reality, which would explain why all the responses I have been describing look more like attempts to achieve some kind of reconciliation between the person holding them and himself and his surroundings than real thinking about what would be the best thing to do, what would be a range of possible consequences, and so on.  The verbal commitment was the real one, in other words, because we are working here on the level of oaths and imprecations rather than debate and critical inquiry.  In that case, as long as what happens now can be handled by the proper manipulation of verbal formulas, traditional diplomatic manuevering and occasional, “proportionate” military responses, then everything will be fine.  But nothing new is possible–this is the real lesson of Obama’s utterly familiar team, and the strong sense that his adminstration will be taking us back to the future.

The breach in reality which must be healed must be given the name “neo-conservative.”  Let’s give a kind of textbook international relations definition of the three contending foreign policy views today:  the realists take as the fundamental, indeed only player in international politics to be the state; the transnational progressives take the privileged players to be international institutions and agencies “deputized” by international law; while the neo-conservatives have introduced the radically new concept of addressing individuals, as dissidents and civil disobedients, and in their civic associations under tyrannical regimes, as actors within the international system.  It is this most authentic inheritance of both the West’s Christian heritage and the emergent legal regime forged at Nuremberg, that has so frightened the other two tendencies into a hard and fast alliance, committed to the proposition that the reality we knew before 9/11/01 is the reality we shall swear to always and only recognize. 

The neo-conservatives’ startling proposition–so startling, that I can’t really think of anyone “mainstream” who has even described it with the most basic intellectual sympathy needed to present it accurately–is the only new idea to enter international politics for a long time.  We are going to find out now if it will be found necessary, or will endure.  Don’t confuse the neo-conservative proposition with the general “support” for “democracy,” in unfree countries, or even the use of sanctions to pressure other countries on “human rights”  (although we see, and are likely to continue to see, very little of either in the near future).  Only when American force is used (or is so credibly promised so as to have the effects its use was intended to have) in defense of the victims of those who would present themselves as our victims do we see the proposition at work.  Only when we demand that those claiming recognition of their collective identities in what must be seen as a gradual re-feudalization of the globe (amenable to realist and transnational progressive alike) respect, unconditionally, the basic individual rights to speech, association, worship and property we consider sacred–only when we issue and hold to such demands upon pain of withholding and actively interfering with the desired recognition, will we see this proposition at work.   And, far from a wild, crusading interventionist spirit, this proposition will be most authentically applied in situations where it addresses some issue or crisis that the realist and transnational progressive would recognize as well–it will gradually carve space out within that covered by the other tendencies, focusing on those places where the solutions offered are incommensurable.


  1. If a humanities education has taught me anything, it’s that you can argue for or against any conclusion you like. What matters is how you frame your premises.

    An ostensive can be as real as your hand in front of you, but if you insist on bludgeoning another over the head with it, he would prefer rather not to see it.

    Half the reason the Bush years were so disastrous was preciesly because his ends were so obfuscated by his means. You may argue that this should not complicate what needs to get done in a very dangerous and demanding political sphere.

    But if the point of politics is to reduce resentment rather than create more, it matters very much how one goes about carrying out an agenda. If the (obvious) ostensive were the be all and end all of politics, anyone could conceivably sit in the White House.

    The point is to get others to buy into your interpretation of the ostensive. Most are willing to buy into Barack’s; less so Bush’s.

    I suppose one could view this cynically as “manipulation.”

    One could also call this “performative” as Eshelman would (I think). A politician has to find a way to build a suitable outer frame to mediate how/what the populace sees within it. Sometimes this is done post-facto (say in hindsight, by historians).

    But to bank on this seems to me more of a betrayal of what’s right in front of you than less so. The frame has to acknowledge resentments, which are just as real on the periphery as the objects at the centre.

    No doubt, sometimes, a politician has to risk running up short-term resentment of the sake of long-term stability. But it doesn’t seem to me that any historian will be coming to the aid of Bush, particularly because what he had assumed was “right in front of him” (WMDs) actually, wasn’t.

    Comment by amiracle — December 11, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  2. Sorry for the late reply to this–the comments have not been showing up in my email, where i am used to receiving them. Anyway, too little and too late, here is my response: the WMD question was bush’s attempt to, in your terms, provide the public with a readily available “ostensive”–in that case it was, of course, a gamble–even though we couldn’t have known this without the invasion (in which case Bush would have been vulnerable to charges of not being vigilant enough).

    I’ll play at projecting the views of future historians as well, regarding the long term reduction of resentment: as we can now see, Obama seems to be preparing much more to build on bush’s accomplishments, in Iraq and elsewhere, rather than to “clean up” Bush’s mess. If Bush is scapegoated in perpetuity, but Iraq ends up a functioning democracy and US ally in the middle of the Middle East, perhaps the price will be worth it. I think some future historians will see the irony.

    Comment by adam — January 5, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress