Tag Archives: moral seriousness

Another Abuse of Asking

I’ve been interested for a while now in the way asking works: what exactly are we doing when we ask what to do (what we should or ought to do) and when we ask things of each other (when we make requests or demands)? For the most part, my posts on what I’ve called, for better or worse, the power of asking have focused on the abuse of asking, the confusion of asking with orders that are not open to deliberation, or the issuing of commands in the guise of requests, as when people use the nominative “ask” but aren’t asking anything at all.

When I talk about “abuse” in this context I mean, for starters, that these confusions and ruses and other kinds of indirection make asking an “act professed but hollow,” as Austin puts it in How To Do Things With Words. In Austin’s scheme, abuse is just one kind of infelicity, and I don’t want to be too strict about it, or pretend that the term covers all the instances in which asking does not come off as it should; but I’m drawn to talking about abuses of asking in part because I think it’s important to point out that acts professed but hollow may not only be insincere but also lack moral seriousness, in the sense that moral seriousness requires taking others seriously, giving them moral standing as second persons to whom one is accountable and answerable.

Abuses might take the form of a well-meaning effort to soften commands, so that people don’t feel pushed around or ordered about. That might seem like a harmless management ploy. But to allow that this professed asking is really a nicer way of commanding is to admit that abuses of asking can also mask real power relations. They don’t afford interlocutors equal standing or a share in power, or even the freedom to answer “no,” as genuine deliberation or serious conversation about what to do might.

An illustration is provided by what North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said just this Wednesday past, before the police moved into the Oceti Sakowin Camp:

Our big ask for tomorrow is that, you know, anybody that’s remaining in the camp, we want to make sure they know that they have an opportunity to voluntarily leave, take your belongings, remove anything that you think might be culturally significant, and we’ll help you get on your way if you need to do that.

This “big ask” followed an eviction order issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that was backed by heavily armed, militarized police. Those who did not take the “opportunity to voluntarily leave” were arrested and forcibly removed. Governor Burgum might have chosen to present what is essentially an ultimatum as a request in order to seem fair and reasonable, or to defuse a tense situation. But it’s curious — isn’t it? — that it wasn’t just the governor who indulged this bureaucratic habit of speech. The governor’s spokesperson later made the same request: “We ask those that are remaining to pack up their belongings, to take off,” he said, and again repeated the offer to “help” with transportation.

Neither he nor the governor wanted to be giving orders, apparently. If their statements on this occasion can be set down as abuses of asking, that abuse is hardly the worst charge to be leveled against the governor of North Dakota in this situation. And to parse Governor Burgum’s language or that of his spokesperson on this occasion probably isn’t the best place to start reflecting on all that just went down at Standing Rock. But it’s important, I believe, to be look at what was said on this occasion and what was actually meant, how power presented itself and how it actually went about things.

The two are not even close.

The governor and his spokesperson were not asking anything at all. They were disguising not just an order but a threat of violence as a request, and publicly refusing to take responsibility for what might ensue. Apparently, they weren’t the ones giving the orders. By asking, or pretending to ask, they washed their hands of the situation. In essence, the governor said that it was up to the water protectors at the camp to keep the forces under the governor’s command from doing violence to them.

It is a classic example of the abuser’s refrain: don’t make me hurt you.

Serious Conversations, 10

From Part 2, Chapter VI of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute, this description of a coffeehouse in the Sehzadebasi district of Istanbul:

What wasn’t discussed in the coffeehouse? History, the philosophy of Bergson, Aristotelian logic, Greek poetry, psychoanalysis, spiritualism, everyday gossip, lewd adventures, tales of terror and intrigue, the political events of the day—all gathered up into one swollen conversation that burst like a spring deluge, carrying away everything in its path, as surprising as it was senseless, one topic seething forward before the other was finished. But, then, of course, nothing was ever discussed in detail. In the coffeehouse a story would rise up as if from a long slumber, or like a faint memory of the ancient echo of a death. As conversation turned deliriously from one subject to the next, Alexander the Great would join forces with Hannibal or the Kantian imperative, all to serve as antidotes to daily life. With even the most benign adventure, the pleasure was in the retelling. The patrons had listened to one another for so long that they could guess more or less what would happen in any story. Conversation was merely a platform for the speaker to display his eloquence; it was more like a play, or the recitation of a dearly loved work, for the exchanges were executed according to predetermined conditions—not at all unlike the traditional Turkish mime theater, ortaoyunu. The story would be interrupted by the same interjections, and laughter would follow; if certain members of the crowd were directly involved in the tale, they would make their defining pronouncements at just the right moment. If the narrator introduced new details, he would be cut off at once with, “You made that up!” But it was these new twists that people came to enjoy most in later recitations. And no one ever found the endless—and mandatory—repetitions tedious. In fact it was only the out of the ordinary that met with some resistance. New ideas were at first humored out of courtesy and a slight curiosity, but they would remain unaddressed until the crowd’s ever-vigilant imagination had recast them as pleasantries, thus assimilating them to their own idiom. This is what happened to any attempt at serious conversation. A new story was accepted into the repertory only once it had been reduced to a base sexual escapade, a tale of pederasty, a piece of slapstick shadow-puppet humor, or the replica of an ortaoyunu. There was a specific name given to those who discussed serious matters: they were known as the “world regulators,” the aristocrats who busied themselves with the regulation of the world.

Enough Shovels

Its exact provenance remains a mystery, but over the past month or so the phrase “shovels in the ground” has become a touchstone of the political vocabulary. “If we’re going to really make infrastructure work,” Governor Ed Rendell said at the National Governors Conference in November, “we have to have shovels in the ground quickly.” In Colorado, Bill Ritter has “100-plus projects that we could have shovels in the ground in 90 days.” Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, too, wants to “put shovels in the ground and paychecks in workers’ pockets.”

When politicians start handing out shovels, there’s usually a pile of horse manure nearby.

Taking their cues from President-Elect Obama, who has promised “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” governors are touting infrastructure investment by the federal government as a quick fix to their states’ woes, an engine of job creation, and a way to jumpstart economic recovery. Talking about “shovels in the ground” helps them conjure a scene right out of WPA propaganda: sturdy American workmen stand at the ready, shovels in hand, dutifully awaiting the go-ahead from their Governors. Everybody is ready to start digging our way out of this mess, right away.

Obama himself said over the weekend on Meet the Press that the top priority of his plan would be “shovel-ready” projects. Put aside for the moment the question whether this is the right priority: it is certainly expedient, given the political pressures from the states. My concern is whether in responding to the economic emergency and to all those shovel-wielding governors, the President-elect will miss the bigger picture or overlook the longer-term benefits that history suggests can be derived from wise infrastructure investment.

To get a sense of how an investment in our nation’s infrastructure can have long term payoff – as well as unintended consequences – just look at the development of the Internet. Better yet, consider a story that apparently is, or at least ought to be, very much on Mr. Obama’s mind these days, and to which he made passing reference in last Saturday’s YouTube address: the story of President Eisenhower’s Interstate project.

The project took shape in Ike’s mind long before he took office. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a military vehicle convoy that traveled from the Zero Milestone marker in Washington, D.C. to California’s Golden Gate. The Transcontinental Motor Convoy’s journey “through darkest America” at a time when there was no national network of roads, and in some places no roads to speak of, was rough going. But it gave Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower a political education and a feel for the whole country, and helped persuade him that America needed a national highway system. This conviction only grew after General Eisenhower saw firsthand what the Germans had accomplished with the Autobahn system.

After the war, Ike became the political architect of our federally-funded, multi-lane, interstate highway system. A Highway Trust Fund was established to finance the system from Federal gas and motor vehicle taxes, so it would be self-financing and its ongoing development and expansion would not contribute to the Federal deficit. The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways had an important strategic military purpose, but it also promised to relieve congestion in towns and cities and improve farm-to market commerce. By the 1970s, the Interstate had changed the country even more profoundly than the railroad, creating new and more efficient ways to move people and goods, transforming industries and work habits, and determining where and how people lived. Along with television, it made us less regionally diverse, more homogeneous; and it revolutionized how we imagine our freedom. Think Jack Kerouac, or Thelma & Louise.

When President Eisenhower warned the nation against the military industrial complex, he couldn’t have foreseen that the Interstate system he built would give rise to so many of the problems we face today. On a visit to the United States, Khrushchev drew Ike’s attention to what we now know as suburban sprawl; since then, the Interstate has altered forever our landscape and cityscapes. We depend every day on an expensive, dirty, inefficient means of transportation. Now we’ve driven ourselves into a foreign oil rut — which Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones, has rightly characterized as a major national security threat. The Cold War system originally intended to keep us safe now leaves us vulnerable, easily manipulated and exposed.

Rahm Emanuel is right: our current crisis gives us a great opportunity — to think big, and to think strategically. That’s why General Jones has urged us to approach our dependence on foreign oil “with the same degree of seriousness as when General Eisenhower said, ‘let’s build a highway system.’” Seriousness of this order demands more than filling potholes and fixing bridges.

There are a number of proposals already on the table. Building a Smart Grid – using information technology to create a more responsive, resilient and reliable power grid — will help us move energy more efficiently and securely, and lay the groundwork for delivery of alternative energy sources. An Infrastructure Bank could do more than the Highway Trust Fund ever could, especially if it allowed for new combinations of public and private financing. More broadly, we need to fund research, encourage innovators, and provide incentives for new business development. That, in turn, will spur real economic growth and job creation.

Beyond these measures, and I would say above all, we need research that challenges science and engineering, and helps us understand how the decisions we make now might affect our lives, our livelihoods and our liberties in the future.

If, as I believe, Mr. Obama is ready to lead, and not just break ground with the governors, this is the national conversation he needs to start right now. There are plenty of shovels to go around.

Republican relativists

The philosopher Bernard Williams used to counter the weak relativist arguments of his Berkeley students with the rejoinder, “Hey, I know where you’re coming from, but, you know, relativism just isn’t true for me.”

The story (which may be apocryphal, though Hilary Putnam mentions it in Renewing Philosophy) may not amount to a full-blown critique of relativism; but it’s enough to dispense with relativist arguments that confuse moral judgment with prejudice or point of view: i.e., you may think Matilda is chaste, but I just don’t see it that way; you may think that Joe is trustworthy, but I just take a different view.

Of course things get a little fuzzy when you start moving from chastity to piety to trustworthiness to moral goodness. Still, it’s worth observing that the relativist arguments mocked by Williams are common enough these days and that they go hand in hand with, or are usually marshalled in defense of, consumerist solipsism, a lack of shared principles or standards, a disrespect for convention and civility — the sorts of perils conservative writers warned against all through the culture wars of the 90s.

Odd, then, that this brand of sloppy relativism now informs the nonsensical arguments wielded at every opportunity by the McCain presidential campaign.

To take just a couple of recent examples: asked by reporters at the Des Moines Register about the truthiness of the kindergarten sex-ed smear and the charge that “lipstick on a pig” was an sexist jibe, John McCain angrily and automatically responded by retreating to a sophomoric distinction of fact from assertion: the reporters at the Register may say that McCain is being untruthful and running a smear campaign; but that’s just their assertion. He was a POW, after all, and he remains committed to the truth, their editorial assertions and observations and be damned. A nincompoop small town mayor like Sarah Palin lacks experience? That’s just what you say. I see it differently. And she sees Russia right from her doorstep.

Just yesterday, when a reporter noted that McCain himself has spoken contritely about his role in the Keating Five and the S & L crisis of the 80s, McCain’s lawyer John Dowd responded, “I’m his lawyer and I have a different view of it.” You may say he was contrite; he may have said he was contrite; but that’s just not the way I look at it — now.

The campaign resorts to these relativist contortions to make a muddle of history, so that anything whatsoever can be asserted and nothing can be observed for certain about John McCain or Sarah Palin or Barack Obama. In so doing, they lose any claim to moral seriousness while asking us to entrust them with serious questions at a serious time.

This is the cost of trying to win at any cost. Things are true by your standards, not mine; things are sleazy or indecent by your standards, not mine. There are no standards that govern what we say except those that serve immediate political needs.

Only a few conservative writers have called the campaign to task on this stuff. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post comes immediately to mind; he cited Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire to style McCain both a tragedy and a farce. Others, like George Will and Kathleen Parker, have told the truth about Sarah Palin. But that’s not quite the same thing. All these contortions and distortions, the turning of objective fact into subjective fiction, the casting of historical description as mere political assertion, are ultimately tactics that serious conservatives pretend to deplore.

Will there eventually be a reckoning? I hope there will be, but I doubt it. Right now, the John McCain campaign acts as if whatever truth you will is as good as any other, as long as CNN picks it up and runs with it or it gets you out of a tight spot with the editors of a Midwestern newspaper. That may be politically advantageous, but it is morally reckless — and destructive to our political culture.

Right now, the McCain campaign is now doing as much as, if not more than any liberal academics ever did to hasten the closing of the American mind.