File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1999/bhaskar.9904, message 41

Subject: Re: BHA:International law a subset of critical morality
Date: Mon, 19 Apr 1999 11:41:54 -0400

Well, well, Jonathan, how lucky for you to be living in Italy.

For starters: The post you have responded to made sufficiently clear that I
was already coming to view NATO's intervention in a different light.  Clear,
at least, to anyone capable of reading what I actually wrote.  Thus the most
charitable interpretation of your disgraceful ad hominem attack upon me is
that you are quite illiterate, for if in fact you can read, the conclusion
is inescapable that you are a self-righteous coward so consumed with your
own "political correctness" that you cannot even allow someone *else* to
change his or her mind. As it happens, my reading over the subsequent two
days has decisively altered my assessment, and I now completely agree that
NATO's intervention is abhorrent and must be opposed.

Second: Theater history is rife with stories of naive rubes and yokels who
storm onto the stage to stop the villain, thinking the events on stage were
really happening.  Recent research has begun to show that some if not all of
these stories are fictions invented by elites at the expense of working
people.  So it tickles me to see someone who is at least nominally part of
the intelligentsia react to my role-play with exactly that naivity.  I could
hardly have made it more obvious when I was and wasn't playing the role I
presented; and I chose to use role-play in part *because* I had already
achieved some critical distance from that position, but feel those concerns
well enough to believe I could usefully play the role in order to help us
build an understanding of the political and discursive hurdles we
*ourselves* create.  Apparently you possess not even a notion of
self-reflectiveness (a thoroughly dialectical process, by the way).
Apparently you think you know all you need to know, and no-one has anything
to teach you.

> I think that Tobin is highly cynical about the possibilities of action
> below, despite what he may have done in his union, and his abstract
> discussion of 'agency' replaces any concrete consideration of the existing
> possibilities for influencing events in the Balkans.

You evidently have some difficulty with the meaning of "cynical," and as you
may not have a dictionary handy, let me help you.  To be cynical is to
expect the worst from people, and to doubt that their motives consist of
anything but self-interest.  I have never had such an attitude toward
working people; I hope I never will.  The argument I presented through my
role-play was *predicated* on the assumption of worthy motives.  To me, the
frequent practice of donating time, goods and money to those in need is
highly telling on both an ethical and political level.  I *will* confess to
some cynicism toward the professoriate, at least in the U.S., where the
academic "star" system is very strong, and where in practice "leftism" of
the dominant (postie) sort turns out to be a game of academic one-upsmanship
on the one hand, and what Bourdieu calls a "strategy of condescension" on
the other.

As for *pessimism* about the practical opportunities and resources for
action from below, well, given the condition of the unions and (even more)
the left in the U.S. (which is where I am), not only is such pessimism
forgiveable, claiming otherwise would amount to irresponsible utopianism and
voluntarism.  I don't know the current figures, but as I recall, for a long
time Italy had the highest participation in left-wing organizations of any
country in the industrialized West.  The U.S. never had anything remotely
close, and so bad is the situation today that most of us are grateful to
have one single socialist in Congress (Bernie Sanders).  This assessment in
no way excuses inaction, but it *should* obligate us to think about tactics
very carefully, and to make sure that both our message and our manner shows
respect for the audience we would reach and addresses the concerns uppermost
in their minds.  More on that shortly.

> The point is that capitalism continually produces problems (let's just
> them that) which either cannot be resolved under capitalism or which can
> only be resolved at enormous human cost. This stretches from the
> devastating effects of economic crisis, through various nasty forms of
> nationalist and fundamentalist politics to environmental disaster. It may
> be difficult for people to accept this point and continue to believe that
> capitalism 'is the best system available'. It is difficult to stare these
> contradictions straight in the face, so therefore we see hysterical
> for more intervention, more bombs, ground troops etc. precisely from those
> ex-leftists who previously looked to Russia as an alternative. For me, it
> is just another example of how rotten their politics were in the first
> place. I am sorry, but there are no quick-fix solutions which leave all
> structures intact, which merely intervene in Kosovo and elsewhere to patch
> things up on the surface. The kind of agency that Tobin appears to defend
> is individual, not collective, and highly constrained.

How dare you lecture me about the contradictions of capitalism, its failure
to approach anything even close to the "best system available," and the
absence of quick fixes!  What do *you* know about me or my experience in
such matters?  I've *lived* those contradictions, to a degree which I doubt
you can comprehend and which most likely would have killed the likes of you.
I *continue* to live them.  For me to be oblivious to the failures of
capitalism and the necessity of its overthrow, I'd have to be brain dead.
And I struggle every day with the absence of quick fixes, indeed the
difficulty of even slow fixes.  Nor do you know the least thing about my
political history or current stance.  In making such statements, your
ignorance, profound as it is, is surpassed by your arrogance.

As for individual agency, by golly I *do* defend it, because it *is* a form
of agency, and one which collective agency cannot do without.  It is the
condition of collective agency's *existence*, even as collective agencies
are the condition of individual agencies' activities.  Moreover, some people
are in material circumstances which quite literally preclude almost any form
of collective activity whatsoever.  That they are constrained is a most
palpable fact, but nevertheless one that should and *can* be worked with.
Sneering at individual agency achieves nothing, or rather, nothing for
socialism.  One might have thought the histories of Stalinism, Maoism and
fascism could have suggested that to you.

I wrote:

> >    The red thread through my
> > work is, how do people perform political acts?

You replied:

> People perform political acts when they stop talking in small groups and
> start getting organised.

It is thoroughly disheartening to see how little impact the struggles of the
past six or seven decades have had on your thinking, which seems to be
shared by several others in this discussion.  Apparently you have yet to
absorb the realizations that the personal is political, that process is as
important as product, and that there are politics of everyday life.  People
perform political acts in *all* types of activities, whether in mass
strikes, small groups, or as individuals.  There is no special anointed
time, place or method for political activity.  It is not reserved for
political parties, labor unions, and radical grouplets, or for particular
kinds of discussions.  It's part of who you choose (or get) as a partner;
what you watch on TV; the style of clothes you wear; the food you eat.  The
question I ask is not "What sort of organization or activity makes something
political?", because no special organization or activity is needed.  The
question is, "What are the political substructures and entailments of the
strategies, discourses, behaviors and qualities that people adopt in the
course of their activities?"  Not only are the words you speak to me
political, the very way you conduct your part in this debate is political.
One might have hoped that feminism in particular would have had some small
influence on your thinking.  But apparently we are back in the 1950s, or
maybe '30s, when men were men and politics meant purges.

>      If a movement emerges which looks serious and
> offers convincing answers to the real problems people face in their lives,
> then it will attract much wider support. This is why we should start with
> the existing possibilities of building a concrete opposition to the war.

This completely begs the question.  Just *how*--in what manner--do you
imagine you're going to convince someone that your solution will solve their
problems?  Here I am, someone already sympathetic to your position on the
issue at hand, who had indeed *begged* for a convincing argument to change
my mind, and by the time of your own intervention had *already* moved toward
your view ... and the approach that you and two or three others have adopted
has consisted of name-calling, brow-beating, and attempts to silence me.  If
you oppose NATO's attempt to pound the Serbs into submission, how can you
condone it in your own behavior toward one who at *minimum* is a fellow
traveler, and in fact much more?  I *am* one of your "existing possibilities
of building a concrete opposition to the war."  Talk about performative
contradictions!  If this continues to be socialists' main method of
"convincing" and "organizing" people, then capitalists will sleep easy

I am not the least bit embarrassed by my previous position.  On the
contrary, I'm glad to see that my first impulse was sympathy for the ethnic
Albanians, who figure not at all in your thoughts, and anger at those who
are attacking them.  I'm glad to see that, despite everything, I still have
a heart.  Nor does it embarrass me to say, "Yes, I was mistaken in
supporting the NATO offensive at first."  Not only does it prove my mind is
still alive, still ceaseless at criticism even of myself in order to achieve
a better understanding, it also makes me better able to talk with others who

have similar feelings for the refugees.  I'm even prouder of the fact that I
achieved my revised analysis and changed my mind regarding NATO's
intervention not because of your (collective) efforts, but *despite* them.
And that, in the face of the various insults to my intelligence and
dedication, I struggled hard to keep relatively patient and to establish a
degree of mutual understanding, even if we couldn't achieve agreement.  The
only thing that *does* embarrass me is that I naively hoped we could conduct
a rational discussion about a political issue without ending up in a flame
war and attempts to quash debate.

I don't mind sharp disagreement.  I don't mind showing or *being* shown the
problematic implications of a particular line of thought, my own included.
But I am fed up with the name-calling and the vicious insinuations.  To the
degree I have engaged in it myself, I am regretful and offer sincere
apologies.  The only excuse I have is that I have been forced into a
defensive position, because even though some people expressed their
disagreements in a decent and intelligent manner, several came out of the
woodwork to make personal attacks on someone they don't even know; and to
that degree I am quite justified in being angry.  What is this about?  Do
you lack the moral courage to treat those who err as your equals, and to
take your own lumps when you deserve them?  What is the goal--to drum me off
this list?  If so, then have at it.  Write up the blacklist.  Have
yourselves a purge.  But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish
for--you might get it.

Tobin Nellhaus
"Faith requires us to be materialists without flinching": C.S. Peirce

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