Tag Archives: rules

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.

 

Is This A Serious Conversation?

Is this a serious conversation? Is he discussing this question in earnest and giving you second-personal authority, or is he simply going to decide what to believe and do it unilaterally? If the latter, then not only will there be nothing reciprocal about his choice, but also there will be nothing genuinely reciprocal about the conversation; it will not be serious. He will have no particular need to determine what you are going to do, say, by listening carefully, because his choice will be unilateral. If he is an egoistic non-cooperator, he will not cooperate whatever you say or do. He has nothing at stake in the conversation and need give you no authority in it, either to answer the theoretical question of what (to believe) you will do, or to answer the practical question of what to do himself. No genuine co-deliberation, either theoretical or practical, will occur.

I found my way back to this discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Darwall’s Second Person Standpoint after reading this morning that a group of leading NGOs had walked out of the Warsaw climate talks. “Talks like these amount to nothing if countries refuse to come to them and negotiate in good faith or worse, try to drag the process backwards,” said the World Wildlife Fund’s Sam Smith. There are complaints that corporate sponsors compromised and undermined the talks from the get-go. But the conversation about what to do — and who should do what — was already at an impasse. There were a few fine speeches, but the time for fine speeches has long ago passed.

Some people — Suzanne Goldberg calls them “experts familiar… with the politics of climate change” in The Guardian today — seem to think that new research by Richard Heede will help “break the deadlock.” This seems like the sort of thing only experts and journalists who interview them can believe: that a piece of research is what’s needed to make an unserious conversation serious.

As The Guardian headline has it, Heede has identified ninety companies that have “caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions” since the start of the industrial era. His list includes state-run companies and coal producers from around the world as well as big oil companies from the developed world. The idea, or at least the hope, is that Heede’s comprehensive, historical accounting of fossil-fuel producers will change the dynamics of the conversation, which has tended to pit developed against emerging economies, rich countries against poor, and so on.

It’s hard for me to imagine that Heede’s findings will really bring about anything like what Darwall calls “genuine co-deliberation” or translate to new cooperation. These talks are a game of dodge ball.

Al Gore is quoted here as saying that Heede’s list places “a clear obligation” on companies “historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere.” But what exactly does that obligation entail? “To be part of the solution,” says Gore. And how are these companies to be held to that obligation? Gore does not say; but without binding agreements and a whole new set of rules I am not sure we will get anything but the usual greenwashing rhetoric, more corporate funded climate denial and more inaction.

And even if we somehow do manage to hold fossil-fuel producing companies historically responsible, or (as Michael Mann suggests) fingerprint the sources of future emissions, we will need to hold ourselves and all fossil-fuel consumers responsible as well. That’s where the conversation gets really serious — when we start talking about historical responsibility as shared responsibility. Are we ready to start enumerating the obligations we all have on this score and figuring out how we are going to meet them? It seems very few people in Warsaw or anywhere this week really want to have that conversation.

Everybody’s A Beginner

This passage from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition has come up again and again as I think about asking, action and non-coercive power — or what I’m calling the power of asking — so I thought I’d share it. It’s a little dense, but it repays careful reading.

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative. To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, “to begin,” “to lead,” and eventually “to rule,” indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere). Because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth, men take initiative, are prompted into action. [Initium] ergo ut esset, creatus est homo, ante quem nullus fuit (“that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody”), said Augustine in his political philosophy. This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world; it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before. (pp. 176-177)

Pay close attention to Arendt’s distinction of action from labor and work in the first few sentences. That’s crucial. For Arendt, action is “never conditioned” by “others.” Unlike labor or work, action isn’t something we undertake because it is “forced” upon us by necessity or “prompted” by utility. It is not prescribed, commanded or ordered, nor are its terms to be set down for us by others in the form of rules or requirements. Its “impulse,” for Arendt, springs from within, or rather from that within us which responds to the fact that we are, each of us, a beginning.

You might get the impression from this passage — which places emphasis on initiative and invokes “the principle of freedom” — that acting is something one does, something one can only do, entirely on one’s own. That would be a misreading. There is a difference between autonomy and isolation, and a difference between being free from constraint or necessity and acting freely with others. We are all self-starters but we are also capable of starting things together.

It takes coordinating, and that’s where asking comes in.

One of the things that interests me about asking is that it can prompt action while recognizing and respecting freedom and autonomy. It can be a way of coordinating our actions with those of others, or of entering into league or “company” (the word is Arendt’s) with others — acting together. The power of asking is that it doesn’t set down rules or requirements, or set up a chain of command. It is a different kind of prompt: more like a cue for improvisation than a script to follow.

Asking doesn’t mean we have to do away entirely with all those rules, protocols and titles that structure human society and human institutions, but we also don’t have to take them so seriously and assume they are the primary condition of our lives. They are, at best, secondary agreements.

Leaders — the first to ask, or the first to act — may be primus inter pares, but in this view a leader is always inter pares, among equals. When we ask and when we act we are all on equal footing, and all of us, by the very fact of our birth, by nature, have the capacity to act, to begin, to set things into motion. We are all beginners.