Trump’s Banality of Evil

By: Jared Marcel Pollen

What does fascism smell like? It’s a question the late Christopher Hitchens used to ask, and one that’s worth revisiting. In 1945 it might have smelled like Zyklon B, whose reportedly almondy aroma rose with the ashes from the brick chimneys of Nazi death camps into the skies of Europe. In 1988 it might have smelled like the sick yellow waves of chlorine gas that swept over the northern provinces of Mesopotamia during the Halabja massacre, when the Baathist regime tried, not for the last time, to eliminate the Kurdish people of Iraq. Americans in New York and Washington DC certainly knew what it smelled like in September 2001. Last Friday though, it took on a seemingly more innocuous smell, one that could have been synonymous with any other summer night in America: the bitter odor of a thousand citronella torches in the streets of Charlottesville. 48 hours later, the President proved himself incapable of performing the most basic of moral duties: to stand behind a podium for a scripted ten-minutes and call this stench by its name.

I’ve scanned enough Facebook fights to have seen the word “Nazi” appear somewhere in my feed at least once a month, and I’ve been to enough rallies to have seen a black toothbrush mustache smeared on the face of at least every major world leader, regardless of context. The problem with throwing around hyperbolic clichés so lightly is that they lose what little currency they already have in discourse. Indeed, what makes clichés so tyrannous is that they’re true but useless. As a writer, I have a visceral aversion to platitudes perhaps more than the average person, and the reductio ad Hiterlum approaches the very top of my list. But the cliché of calling someone a fascist is somewhat supported by the fact that fascism is itself a cliché. The irony of the events in Virginia last week and the President’s colossally mishandled response to it, was that this banality was conspicuously absent precisely when it was called for.

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All Generalizations are False. Including this One

By: Anurup Doshi

Racial profiling techniques have been at the heart of debates about crime-fighting for a very long time. The application of such techniques has generally been followed by accounts of abuse and horror stories about harassment. Profiling was the focus of renewed attention in 2016 when Donald Trump called for adopting an Israeli-style practice. Particulars of the Israeli-system aside, profiling techniques are often accused of being outright discriminatory, and of turning generalizations into policy. Even beyond the realm of policy making, the use of a generalization in a social context tends to draw pronounced indignation. Frequently, the statement ‘you must not generalize’ becomes a blanket assertion that is thrown around while talking about different categories of people.

When certain actions based on generalizations proliferate and have wide reaching consequences on society, these actions, and the underlying generalizations, become the target of a great deal of public ire. It can be argued that such outrage is not misplaced. It might also be that a person’s loathing for a generalization is most conspicuous when his or her individual identity is directly challenged by it. That is, however, just a superficial look at the entire picture. A generalization is actually a tool that is used by default, or by design, on a regular basis.

This article aims to separate the formation and usage of a generalization from the effects of acting on it. It explores the manner in which generalizations take root, the pivotal role they play in different contexts, and it attempts to dissect the rationale behind using them in policy making and the nuances associated with the implementation of such policies. Given the pitfalls accompanying such an approach, it also hopes to define some boundaries for subscribing to generalizations.

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Two Proposals to Foster Autonomy, Renew Democracy and Exit Post-Truth Politics

By: Marco Senatore

In a world where money is the only universal means of exchange, how different would society be if racists had economic incentives to embrace human rights, and the average citizen found it profitable to foster democracy? In this article I will attempt to answer this question.

Last year the neoliberal narrative suffered a major blow in the United Kingdom, with the vote for Brexit, and in the United States, with the election of Donald Trump as President. By neoliberalism here I mean that political and cultural model that subordinates every public decision to economic rationality, and adapts the state and the whole society to the needs of the market. More specifically, I include in neoliberalism the Ordo-liberal School that influenced the architecture of the Economic and Monetary Union, the Chicago School, the so-called Washington Consensus and, somewhat, the Third Way developed during the 1990s. Beyond its economic principles, neoliberalism has also been important in supporting human rights and rule of law, as they facilitate the functioning of the markets.

In the current juncture, highlighting the risks of populism and of post-truth is an important and useful exercise. It is obvious that the manipulation of facts, racism and other forms of discrimination make populists much more dangerous for democracy than most politicians who have ruled the world in the recent decades.

However, in order to change some of the paradigms that are shaping the political debate in America and – to a less extent, after Macron’s election – Europe, it would be essential to deal also with the flaws of that neoliberal order, whose contradictions have helped the rise of populists. After recalling some elements that are shared by populism and neoliberalism, I would like to propose two forms of social interaction, aimed at overcoming these elements.

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Lessons from Montana

By: Caleb Mills

Learning the hard way is not fun, but the lessons are all the more valuable for it. Particularly when it comes to politics, no one wants to lose and, yet, the losses are what instruct you as to what you did wrong, and how to do better the next time.

The May 25th, 2017, special congressional election in Montana provides such hard lessons. It reminds the interested observer that in American politics, voters are more moved by ideas than by ideologies, and that it is never wise to ignore the moderate center of the electorate.

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Isolationism – Playing the Devil’s Advocate

By: Siddharth Jayaprakash

Ever since President Roosevelt began using the term to disparage the anti-war lobbyists in the 1940s – lobbyists who lost their last vestige of credibility after the bombing of Pearl Harbour – ‘isolationism’ has had a distinctly negative tone, bringing to mind narrowmindedness and an oafish refusal to accept the inevitability of globalisation. Astute political commentators have learnt to watch out for the rise of this attitude in the populus after every unfortunate mishap in the global sphere – whether economic or military – reminiscent of a tortoise retreating into its shell after a run-in with a coyote. Or perhaps these commentators would prefer to use the image of the ostrich digging its head into the sand – the futility of the ostrich’s evasive manoeuvre, they would say, is a more fitting metaphor of the naïve government policies that ‘isolationism’ has come to signify.

And there is a lot of truth in this attitude. In a world that prioritises the generation of individual wealth it is a matter of fact and not opinion that free market capitalism is at logger heads with economic isolationism. And the success of the development wings of the United Nations – especially UNICEF and the various departments of the ECOSOC – is a testament to the global urge to standardise certain social norms. The empowerment of women, for instance, is non-negotiable – regardless of what one’s culture dictates, the equal status of women is guaranteed by the Human Rights Charter. But this is not the entire picture, and in a world where isolationist tendencies seem to be cropping up not just in the West but also in the East – where nationalist parties are in power both in India and in the Philippines – an exploration of just what ‘isolationism’ could entail has never been more crucial.

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Memory and History

Memorialization and politics in Germany seventy-two years after the Second World War

By: Aditya Adhikari

Today the Holocaust stands as the epitome of political evil. The German people’s effort to renounce and atone for their past is often held up as exemplary. “Never again” – these words first appeared on handmade placards put up by inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after the Nazi defeat in 1945. In the following decades, the slogan radiated out into the world and was repeated in Cambodia, Argentina, Rwanda, Bosnia. The trials of war criminals in post-war Germany, the reparations provided to victims and the memorials erected in their name have become lodestars for what is now called ‘transitional justice’.

I participated in a seminar organized by the Robert Bosch Stiftung on Truth, Justice and Remembrance in late 2016. During our excursions in Berlin and Nuremberg, I had the sense that Germany’s sites of commemoration did not just evoke the horrors of the Holocaust but also showed how German attitudes had evolved in the post-war period.

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New Jacobins

By: Jared Marcel Pollen

TO MY FELLOW-CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:

I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

This is Thomas Paine’s dedication to The Age of Reason, the first part of which he completed in France on the evening of December 28th 1793, hours before he was detained and imprisoned by a radical faction that had hijacked the very revolution he helped bolster with his treatise The Rights of Man. By the time Part II of The Rights of Man was published a year earlier, Paine was already an enemy of the state in Britain. He was tried in absentia for sedition and forced to seek refuge in France, whose people had watched their nation descend into bankruptcy and warfare, and their efforts to dismantle the ancien régime mutate into terror. The Jacobins, the leaders of the terror, considering Paine as a British citizen to be too dangerous to the revolution, locked him in Luxemburg prison in Paris for seven months. As the story goes, Paine was spared the guillotine only because a chalk mark (signifying the prisoner was to be collected for execution) was mistakenly left on the inside of his cell door, rather than outside. Fortuitously, this went unnoticed long enough for the National Convention to revolt against the Montagnards and execute Robespierre. Paine was set free later that year.

Terror is once again an emergent force in our political discourse––if we can take frightening people into a state of paralysis or submission to be one of the usable definitions for this already overused term. I employ it therefore, with reluctance, but with meaning. I’m mindful of the temptations of hyperbole, but I’m also unable to find a more fitting word to describe the scenes that took place at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College earlier this year.

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A People’s Buddhism?

America can learn much from B.R. Ambedkar’s liberation theology. But it first must get beyond bourgeois dismissals of the Dalit leader’s revolutionary dharma.

By: Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Over the last decade, a collection of social change efforts — including (but not limited to) Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the climate movement, third-wave feminism, LGBTQ rights activism, Fight for $15, and the Moral Monday protests — have helped focus much-needed attention on many painful realities about life in the United States today. With Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the White House, many more are and will be engaging with these and other causes: the recent Women’s March on Washington was the largest demonstration in American history; organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have seen unprecedentedly large donations; Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter are preparing to launch their first joint action as part of a “broadening of the coalition”; and the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has tripled since last year.

It should not be a surprise, then, that, within religious communities, liberation theologies (those in which the emancipation of the oppressed from all forms of suffering is centrally important) seem to be having a moment. For example, in 2015, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who is considered one of the founders of the movement, was invited by Pope Francis to be one of the main speakers at a Vatican gathering of Catholic charities. In addition, as part of the process towards canonization, the Church is currently looking into a miracle attributed to another key figure, El Salvador’s assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero. Harvard anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer recently spoke at length about the influence of liberation theology on his international humanitarian nonprofit Partners in Health as well. Looking at events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland in 2015, divinity student Daniel José Camacho also authored a powerful piece at Religion Dispatches, underscoring the percipience and enduring importance of black liberation theology. “Will Christians who have long dismissed [movement founder James H. Cone] ever admit that he was right?” he asks.

As Buddhist Americans begin to grapple with their theologies in the era of Trump, it seems to me that they could stand to ask themselves a very similar question: “Will those who have dismissed the dharma of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar finally give it a fair shake?”

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Rethinking the Goals of Finance, Cont’d

Some Letters to the Editor

The article Rethinking the Goals of Finance: Lessons from the Amherst Arbitrage proved controversial. Below are a couple emailed responses Political Animal recieved on the topic:

Dangerous Derivatives?

I particularly enjoyed the case example of Amherst Holdings versus the banks. Indeed, the use of financial derivatives was a superbly brilliant strategy by Amherst to protect itself against financial loss and importantly provided a social good to the community whereby none of the homeowners lost their houses.

That said, this essay should have ended in the second paragraph with the authors’ assertion that “there is nothing inherently problematic with finance……financial practices are troubling because of their execution, not because finance is itself problematic.”  As with many things in life, including finance, poor execution can typically lead to unfortunate and unintended outcomes. For example, owning a car is considered a valuable and useful asset, but poor execution (reckless driving) may very well lead to catastrophic consequences.

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The Pledge of Allegiance: A Reading

By: Richard Oxenberg

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What does it mean to say the Pledge of Allegiance? In this time of national tension, when the President of the United States has pronounced his inauguration day a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” and declared that “from this day forward it’s going to be only America first,” it might be helpful to remind ourselves just what we devote ourselves to whenever we say the Pledge.

To this end, I offer this brief reflection on the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

It is an oddity of the pledge of allegiance that, in it, our allegiance is pledged, not to any particular, actual, nation, but, first of all, “to the flag.”

What can it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? What is a ‘flag’ such that one can pledge one’s allegiance to it? Of course, if we take the flag to be no more than a piece of decorated cloth this makes no sense. Rather, the flag is a symbol. Our allegiance is pledged to a symbol and what it symbolizes.

This symbol transcends the instantiated nation as it may exist at any moment in time. We do not pledge our allegiance to the United States of America as it exists now, or at any time. Rather our allegiance is pledged to its symbol and what it represents. To understand just what we are pledging our allegiance to, then, we have to ask what the symbol symbolizes.

II. And to the Republic for which it stands

The flag symbolizes – “stands for” – a Republic. The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin, ‘res publica,’ meaning literally, ‘public entity.’ It refers to a society dedicated to the public good, the good of all its people, as opposed to the private interests of any of its people, and governed for and by its people toward that common end. Thus, in pledging our allegiance to the symbol of this Republic, and to the Republic symbolized by it, we are dedicating ourselves to a particular ideal: The ideal of a society itself dedicated to the common good.

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