Uncommon Denominator newsletter
|April 30, 2009|
Here in the midst of another Presidential election season – or more precisely, on the upslope of another phase in the seemingly permanent wave-cycle of electoral politics – we are hearing a lot about the techniques of effective, or ineffective, political communication. The fate of candidates, parties, nations, seems to hinge on who best manages the alchemy of words and images; finds the right blend of theme, gesture, and utterance; marries the power of language with the aspirations of an audience; and, in today’s fashionable parlance, “frames” the issues in the most advantageous way.
The idea that the United States is fighting for “freedom” in Iraq, and in the greater Middle East, is the last reed the Bush administration seems to be clinging to as the turbulent waters of sectarian civil war rise higher. Unfortunately, it is a weakly rooted reed, and clinging to it has about as much promise as adhering to a strategy of clear-hold-and-build, or clinging to the fragile, suspect Iraqi regime.
The desire to advance human liberty is certainly laudable, but the problem is that the administration has emphasized freedom as a policy goal at the expense of clearly articulating another social value, justice, which is much more deeply rooted in Arab culture. The result has been to cloud our understanding of the conflict, to limit our options for dealing with it, and to distort badly our entire foreign policy in the Middle East.
In recent months it has become common, even fashionable, to describe the situation in Iraq as “Hobbesian.” In his Nov. 29 column in the New York Times, for example, Thomas Friedman wrote that Iraq “is not the Arab Yugoslavia anymore. It’s Hobbes’s jungle.” Or, as Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks said on “Meet the Press” on Dec. 10, the Iraqi sectarian conflict is a “Hobbesian war of all against all.” Helena Cobban, in the June 6 Christian Science Monitor, wrote that Iraq “has become a Hobbesian nightmare.” The examples could go on and on.
The point, clearly, is that the situation in Iraq is really, really bad, but never do those invoking Thomas Hobbes’s name bother to examine the deeper issues that such a comparison invites. What does this persistent reversion to a seventeenth-century British political philosopher tell us? How far does it take us in understanding the war in Iraq? How does it work to frame the issue, and what assumptions are built into it?
For the past year, Russia has held the presidency of the “Group of Eight,” or G-8, the exclusive club of powerful nations which together account for about two-thirds of the world’s economic productivity. What a strange turn of affairs! For the G-8 is supposed to represent the interests of economically modern liberal democracies, and Russia is neither economically modern nor a liberal democracy. Moreover, in its foreign policy it is increasingly acting against the interests of the other member states. The time has come, therefore, to reevaluate Russia’s membership in the G-8
The day after the 2006 midterm elections, the basic conservative interpretive frame emerged. A veritable chorus of commentators on the right rose up to declare that the results represented not a defeat for conservatism but rather for a Republican party that had abandoned its conservative principles. The election was less an ideological victory for Democrats, progressives, or liberals, we were told, than it was a sharp correction administered to the incompetents and big spenders who had disappointed their conservative constituents.
At time when news of climate change, human rights abuses, the UN's Millennium Ecological Assessment, and the dire state of the half of the world’s population that lives on less than $2 a day should be bringing new adherents, Progressives seem to be losing influence around the world. The work of many of us demonstrates that appealing alternatives exist to the destructive practices of the last century. Yet despite our efforts these lessons remain isolated and largely ignored. We must and we can do better.
October 3, KQED, an NPR radio station in the San Francisco Bay area,
aired a panel discussion (www.kqed.org/epArchive/
The research results attracted widespread media attention, including that of MSNBC, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and Newsweek.
Like some kind of strange avatar of controversy, the pop singer Madonna from time to time bursts back into the national conversation, through carefully transgressive acts that can seem at once silly and yet revealing of our cultural preoccupations. This month has witnessed a double-header. Most visibly, her fast-tracked adoption of an infant from Malawi has generated lots of hyperventilating headlines about the unfair prerogatives and unseemly habits of celebrity. Less visibly, but more importantly, she has once again offended religious sensibilities in a provocative stage performance – and this time lost.