Saturday, May 30, 2009

Progress and Farce: the Sotomayor "Debate"

For most of the time since the idea of “democracy” emerged in ancient Greece, Western political thinkers, with a few exceptions, regarded the idea as unworkable or contemptible or both – in much the way that most political philosophers today regard the idea of “anarchy.” Significant support for “democracy” did not develop until late in the eighteenth century and the idea remained controversial for many decades thereafter. Well into the twentieth century, there were political formations that were officially “anti-democratic.” But with the defeat of fascism after World War II, that ended; everyone became a “democrat.” Lately, the consensus has been shaken in some parts of the world by the rise of theocratic regimes, but even “Islamic republics” do not expressly oppose democracy; indeed, some of them, Iran for example, are quite democratic according to many of the usual measures. But at the same time that there is near universal support for the idea, disagreements rage about what “democracy” is. The “peoples’ democracies” that not long ago abounded throughout the Eurasian landmass and that still survive in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia bear little resemblance, at an institutional level, to so-called “Western democracies” which, in turn, bear little resemblance to the “democracies” assumed by most philosophically minded democratic theorists. Thus nowadays the term is what philosophers call “essentially contested”; everyone or nearly everyone is a “democrat” at the same time that there is no consensus on what “democracy” is.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of “democracy’s” fortunes represents progress of a sort. It reflects an incontrovertible and probably irreversible fact: the emergence of the demos, the people (in contrast to elites), as full-fledged participants in the political scene, even as rule by elites remains unshaken everywhere. The fact that everyone now claims the democratic mantle as their own also shifts the nature of political debate in generally salutary ways. There is no consensus on what “democracy” is, but there is a consensus among “democrats” of all stripes on some points pertinent to that question; for instance, on the idea that political regimes are accountable, ultimately, to the people whose lives and destinies they control. The more consensus there is, even if only on vague generalities, the more constructive debates about what “democracy” really is and what “democrats” really want become.

There are many other essentially contested concepts in our political culture; for example, equality of opportunity. No one is against equal opportunity, but debates rage over what that ideal involves. To a large extent, this is what the debate over affirmative action is about; defenders defend preferences for certain classes of people as a way to equalize opportunities across the population; detractors reject special preferences for the same reason. “Freedom” is another example – who today is against it! – even as conceptions of freedom diverge significantly. It is the same with “justice.” In these cases and others as well, the gap between theory and practice cannot just be explained by hypocrisy and deception, though there is plainly no lack of either. There are also “philosophical” differences lurking beneath the nearly universal support these very general ideas now enjoy. That this is so shows that progress has been made; not nearly enough, but progress nevertheless. It shows that we are moving in the right direction, albeit at a tiny fraction of a snail’s pace.

Thanks to Barack Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to become a Justice of the Supreme Court, it has become clear in recent days that “racism” or rather “anti-racism” has become an essentially contested concept too. Nearly everyone, it seems is officially against it – even blathering right-wing talk show hosts, Fox News pundits, and GOP luminaries. No doubt, this represents progress too. At least for the time being, we are past the days when overtly racist doctrines can become official state policy or when right-wing political movements expressly endorse racist views. Even the Jean-Marie Le Pens, Jörg Haiders, and Avigdor Liebermans of the world are obliged to pull their punches.

But in the Sotomayor “debate,” it is not like it is with “democracy,” and “equal opportunity,” or “freedom” or “justice.” This is not because there is nothing to discuss about what racism is. There are interesting questions that might be raised about that and about connections between racism and the various forms of ethno-centrism and theocracy that blight our planet’s politics. There are many questions to be asked; many debates to be engaged.

The reason why the current “debate” is unilluminating – indeed, farcical -- is that the right-wing drivellers and pundits have no coherent concept of what “racism” is. There is no “philosophy” underlying their comments, not even implicitly. For them, the word is just a tool to deploy to confuse and inflame.

[Or so I understand. My information about the latest from Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, G. Gordon Liddy, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Tom Tancredo and a few others comes mainly from the copious examples adduced by Rachel Maddow on her show on MSNBC. I haven’t the stomach to watch Fox News, much less to listen to talk radio. Life is too short.]

No doubt, the Obama administration is subtly encouraging the blather; it is to the Democrats advantage, after all, when Republicans make a mockery of themselves. Obama is still preposterously popular, so perhaps the current spate of race-baiting in the guise of “anti-racism” is comparatively harmless. But, according to all the polls, at least a fifth of the American population is so benighted, so ignorant and so uninformed that Rush Limbaugh and the Fox pundits and, what is by now nearly the same thing, the Republicans do have a “base” they can rally by playing the “anti-racism” card; in fact, it seems that that’s the whole idea. But this is a dangerous game. As became evident in the presidential campaign last year, there are more than a few nativist, know-nothing, God-fearing bigots out there who can easily be driven over the edge. That this could happen in the guise of “anti-racism” is, I suppose, a development to be applauded. It is further evidence that progress has been made. But that will be small consolation, should the Limbaugh-listeners et. al. become unhinged. Even with an African American President and a Latina on the Supreme Court, it could still happen here.

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