I have also tried to work within a peace movement that often puts personal egos above peace and human life. This group won’t work with that group; he won’t attend an event if she is going to be there; and why does Cindy Sheehan get all the attention anyway? It is hard to work for peace when the very movement that is named after it has so many divisions.
Over the weekend we watched Children of Men. Though the decent into fascism in that film is as obviously the end point of the present trajectory of the state (made, again, ever more evident with the banal xenophobia displayed in conversation over the most recent iteration of the immigration bill) the really depressing part of the film is that the people most able to help change things--or at least who we often look to to change things--seem to be identical to the group Cindy speaks of, only with the added ingredient of violence and armed struggle. Likely, we could look closely at the Iraqi insurgency and see pretty much the same thing: the people positioned to fight against the occupation are corrupt and driven by their egotistical desire to hold some pitiful piece of the country their helping to destroy. In this, though Children of Men was meant to be tragic, there were moments when it really just seemed like a black satire of our own present circumstances.
And most important of all, it seems, is Cindy's observation that,
Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives. It is so painful to me to know that I bought into this system for so many years and Casey paid the price for that allegiance.I fully agree even as I'm guilty of this crime. I don't pay as close attention as I should be to the actual events on the ground in Iraq. It becomes a dull hum in the background that is much easier to ignore than confront head on. All that I start to notice is when the deprivation gets particularly bad--such as the story today in the NYT with the headline
Desperate Iraqi Refugees Turn to Sex Trade in Syria
to quote from the story:
Many of these women and girls, including some barely in their teens, are recent refugees. Some are tricked or forced into prostitution, but most say they have no other means of supporting their families. As a group they represent one of the most visible symptoms of an Iraqi refugee crisis that has exploded in Syria in recent months.Iraqi Freedom indeed. And, compared to this, watching American Idol is a lot more fun. On the other hand, I don't necessarily fault people for doing that. Many of them work hard all day--many of them much harder than their parents did with a lot less hope of getting ahead--and it seems like, as decadent as it sounds, sitting down in front of the TV for a few hours at night is a reasonable thing to do. This reminds me of Walter Lippmann who, in his pessimistic anti-democratic polemic The Phantom Public, says
According to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, about 1.2 million Iraqi refugees now live in Syria; the Syrian government puts the figure even higher.
Given the deteriorating economic situation of those refugees, a United Nations report found last year, many girls and women in “severe need” turn to prostitution, in secret or even with the knowledge or involvement of family members. In many cases, the report added, “the head of the family brings clients to the house.”
Aid workers say thousands of Iraqi women work as prostitutes in Syria, and point out that as violence in Iraq has increased, the refugee population has come to include more female-headed households and unaccompanied women.
The socialist scheme has at its root the mystical fallacy of democracy, that the people, all of them, are competent; at its top it suffers from the homeopathic fallacy that adding new tasks to a burden the people will not and cannot carry now will make the burden of citizenship easily borne. The socialist theory presupposes an unceasing, intiring round of civic duties, an enormous complication of the political interests that are already much too complicated. (27)In other words, as per Lippmann's solution, people are tired and overwhelmed already so how does adding more things for them to consider solve the problem. And besides, most of them are incompetant: better to leave it up to the experts. In effect, the two party system that Sheehan talks about in her letter is the end result of the solutions to the crisis arrived at by Lippmann's generation. The issue became less about asking people what they thought in order to make decisions than it was telling them what they should think through press agents, advertising and "news" and then sponsoring polls to make sure the propaganda was working--and that people still felt that, despite the fact they were even further from the decision making process than before, the were still included in it.
In theory, I don't completely reject certain aspects of this model. In fact, much of it makes sense. It would, indeed, hinder much decision making if there had to be a mandate for every decision made. This is all the more onerous because, in many cases, you have to wrench people's opinions from them. I definitely see the point he's making, but it takes present circumstances to be natural and, in some ways, inevitable. The contemporary answer to this criticism by the closest thing we have to what Lippman refers to as the "socialist scheme" would be that voter turnout would increase if people felt like it actually mattered.
I'm not completely confident of this and I think it is on par with a free market mentality in terms of its idealism ("Democracy hasn't worked yet because we've never really had democracy!"). But I think both are fairly entrenched as ideological fundamentals in the American polity and I'm more inclined to think that, in the long run, we would likely come up with structures of state similar to the ones we have now in order to streamline some of these processes. It doesn't make sense for us all to be expected to examine the evidence presented in a case for approving a drug or food product for the market. As Lippmann himself points out, in most cases, only the interested parties would form "The Public" here. In other words, instead of the version of "The Public" described by John Dewey (Lippmann's contemporary), where it would be described as anyone effected or potentially effected by a transaction, Lippmann said it would more likely just be anyone who understood their interest. Unfortunately, this means that, for instance, the businesses who create the drugs (or, more importantly and accurately, market, sell, and profit from the drugs) would have a much greater understanding of its interest in the drug's approval (and, incidentally, in its being protected by patent laws).
Dewey's feeling, on the one hand, was that people would simply need to be informed better of their interests. I agree with this completely, so long as it isn't the Drug Company doing the informing. But I can't help but think that, over time, the people who knew the most about this , the people who were most passionate about controlling the harmful effects of bad drugs and harnessing the benefits of good ones, would end up being the only ones at that hearing objectively countering the more subjective interests of the drug companies, whatever their size or configuration; and, in so far as they were interested in protecting the public (in Dewey's terms) The Public, in so far as it could be represented, would likely elect those people to watch over that process for them, as their representatives and in their interests. In short, over time, I can't help but think even the most anarchic or libertarian society would eventually develop some form of bureaucracy simply because, once one figures out some of the things that need to be done with a highly specialized knowledge but in the general interest of society, one will not leave it up to the free market alone.
In fact, it is even more likely that something like this would develop with the free market: if consumers are going to act with any confidence, they will want to know that the labeling of items as safe has some assurance. And outside of a completely monopolized marketplace, where the only people allowed to present new products are well known, even new players would likely welcome some sort of inspection protocol (provided it wasn't so onerous as to be unreachable.) I suppose the label of "organic" is undergoing just such a controversy at the moment and, since the state is not doing its job correctly (or is charging people a prohibitive fee for the label) there is emerging a general argument that "it's organic, but..." the labeling is too expensive. (I actually heard this in Starbucks the other day in Portland. The Barista told me that all their coffees were fair trade but the suppliers couldn't afford to get the labeling. This seems completely off the mark to me and if I'd had more information at the time, I probably would have probed a little deeper here.) In any case, this is not a very good analogy because it is not necessarily a life and death issue. Telling people it is "organic" or "fair trade," despite the possible health consequences of the former, is basically a way of placating consumers guilt rather than informing them of whether or not something will kill them. It is best if it is true, but unless they are really committed, most people--like myself--wouldn't probe too much more into it, particularly since it the reason given for the lack of labeling is actually fairly in line with the politics of the consumer anyway: we are supporting local farmers and farmers who are in impoverished areas so it seems completely logical that they might not have the extra funds to get the labelling. That this should also lead us to wonder just how stringent they might be about it often doesn't enter the equation.
On the other hand, I've heard similar claims about drug treatments or other kinds of non-western medicine that isn't approved by the FDA. But the people who begin to agree more with these kinds of claims are also the ones who begin to disengage with those bureaucracies, refusing, for instance, to take an asprin for a headache, despite the fact that this is a pretty old remedy, not some big-pharma ploy to push pills. Still, the problems that we're encountering here have more to do with casting doubt on these supposedly objective institutions. On this, I'm not exactly sure what to make of China's announcement this morning that they have sentenced their own former FDA head to death.
Outside of initially horrified about the death sentence for a corruption charge, I was puzzled this morning when I heard two different reports of what prompted it on NPR. In the morning edition segment, there was the sense that this was in response to the poisoned dog food and other products that had effected consumers on a global scale. As the report was given, there was a kind of breezy account here of the fact that someone was being put to death and this was a particularly problematic form of justice. Instead, the news was reported along just the lines it seems the Chinese government wanted it to be: namely that it was taking action to keep the food supply safe. That this kind of action is condemned by most of the civilized world was downplayed, it seemed, in favor of making people feel a little better about feeding their dogs and cats (and babies and kids) food shipped from halfway across the world.
There was no condemnation from the following segment on the Business focused "Marketplace" but they at least pointed out that this was ostensibly supposed to be in response to the Chairman's role in approving a drug that ended up killing 10 people in China. I guess I can see this logic and, if you're going to have the death penalty, it seems much more just to have it for the administrators who knowingly make decisions that lead to people's deaths as much as you do for poor psychos who go on rampages (or poor minorities who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.) It doesn't make the practice any less barbaric, but it does make it more sensible as a form of justice. If we made administrative corruption a capital offense, I think we'd have less of it here as well. On the other hand, I'm sure that even in this case, pinning it on one person is problematic and an old school Communist PR move so it is only effective for reductive twenty second news bites. Hence the US media will likely gobble it up without checking how healthy it is for civilized consumption.
I could try to bring this back round completely to Cindy Sheehan but I think that would be a bit too contrived. What I will say is that I don't think the answer to the seemingly intractable problems she articulates is to simply smash the state. But I do think that this quote from Dewey's book on the subject holds some insight. It is, perhaps, as idealistic about the possibilities of using rational, experimental methods in the formation of political institutions as it is in the possibility that people will always be able to tell that they are being stifled or moving away from their ideal) by their continued presence and, hence, prone to revolution (pace Sheehan's complaint). In all of this, he's a product of both the progressive era in the US, and the rising public outrage around the world that eventually led to fascism in a majority of countries of the world (at least according to the way Polanyi defined it). Still it is a good quote to end on:
In no two ages or places is there the same public. Conditions make the consequences of associated action and the knowledge of them different. In addition the means by which a public can determine the govenment to serve its interests vary. Only formally can we say what the best state would be. In concrete fact, in actional and concrete organization and structure, there is not form of state which can be said to be the best: not least till history is ended, and one can survey all its varied forms. The formation of states must be an experimental process. The trail process may go on with diverse degrees of blindness and accident, and at the cost of unregulated procedures of cut and try, of fumbling and groping, without insight into what men are after or clear knowledge of a good state even when it is acheived. Or it may proceed more intelligently, because guided by knowledge of the conditions which must be fulfilled. But it is still experimental. And since conditions of action and of inquiry and knowledge are always changing, the experiment must always be retried; the State must always be rediscovered. Except, once more, in formal statement of conditions to be met, we have no idea what history may still bring forth. it is not the business of political philosophy and science to determine what the state in general should or must be. What they may do is to aid in the creation of methods such that experimentation may go on less blindly, less at the mrecy of accident, more intelligently, so that men may learn from their errors and profit by their successes. The belief in political fixity, of the sanctity of some form of state consecrated by the efforts of our fathers and hallowed by traditions, is one of the stumbling blocks in the way of orderly and directed change; it is an invitation to revolt and revolution.