Category Archives: nationalism

“Reasonable disagreement” v. “beyond the pale”

niqab4 no text

Isak has begun a series of posts on this blog under the rubric “Upon Further Review.” He explains this project of gathering and analyzing the allegations of “fouls” on the campaign trail this winter and spring on the Presidential campaign trail here, and he continues here (and elsewhere “above” this post in the near future, no doubt). His rubric borrows the language of video-replay officials in American football, and other sports, who take a slow-motion second look at calls they used to be able to make only on the fly.

Canada went through its own federal election in the fall of 2015, and in later stages of that election the then-governing Conservative Party was accused of “playing the race card” — albeit in coded language that might appear almost quaint when compared to the game played by the current frontrunner in the Republican primaries. (I say almost, because it would not have appeared quaint to those whom these Conservative tactics were attempting to stigmatize.) And when they did play the card, Canada’s leading political philosopher, Joe Heath (University of Toronto), called them on it in this post on his blog In Due Course.

Those tracking the US campaign these days should find plenty of useful analysis in Heath’s post: from an excellent summary on why democracies thrive on “reasonable disagreements,” to how we decide when certain tactics that exploit unreasonable disagreements must be considered “beyond the pale.” The cartoon below captures some of Heath’s argument for why certain ways of playing the game of politics fall short of our minimal standards of “political sportsmanship.” (For those unfamiliar, a “niqab” is what the hockey player in the cartoon at the head of this post is wearing.)

niqab2

Heath begins like this:

One of the most important concepts in modern democratic politics is that of “reasonable disagreement.” There are a number of different principles or values that most of us subscribe to, at some level, but in cases where they conflict, it is not entirely obvious how they should be ordered. When should public welfare be assigned priority over personal freedom? How much loss of welfare should be accepted in order to promote greater equality? These are the sorts of questions that define the zone of reasonable disagreement in modern politics. The central distinguishing feature of the right-to-left spectrum of political parties is that they propose different answers to these questions, with the right putting more emphasis on personal freedom, the left more emphasis on equality, and the centre focusing on maximizing welfare. This naturally translates into different views about the role of government in society.

The disagreement is “reasonable” because the underlying principles are ones that are very broadly accepted – they are in fact foundational for a liberal democratic society – the disagreement is more one of emphasis.

And ends like this:

…after Friday’s press conference, I can no longer regard it as morally acceptable for anyone to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada. A week ago, I could still persuade myself that reasonable people could disagree over how to vote in this election, but no longer.

As they say on the sites that troll followers with clickbait: you won’t believe what those mild-mannered Canadian Conservative politicians said during that press conference last fall. But seriously: if you’re looking for guidance on how a committed Republican should vote if Donald Trump is the GOP’s nominee, click into Heath’s post.

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“As if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down”

To figure out what is different about regulation and ethics for deliberately adversarial institutions, we obviously need clear examples of (relatively) non-adversarial institutions.

If sports are the touchstone examples of deliberately adversarial institutions, then various physically challenging art forms (like modern dance, ballet, acrobatics, cheerleading, “pro” wrestling, a Bruce Springsteen concert…), ritualistic displays (including dances, running in front of bulls in Pamplona, standing on one leg for hours or days in India…), and forms of exercise (yoga, aerobics, sweatin’ to the oldies…) are the closest non-adversarial cousins.

The appeal of sports is that they put on display most of the physically beautiful or breathtaking features of those non-adversarial practices, but they add to it several elements derived from the competitive challenge: the incentive to innovate and improve, the uncertainty, the partisan affiliation of the spectator, the tactics and strategic rationality, defense, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. (And this is why we see so many attempts — some of them successful, alas — to move physical activities from the latter categories into the “sport” category, by using judges to decide whose yoga poses, dance routines, bodybuilding, skateboarding tricks, etc, deserve to “win.”)

And then there’s sumo wrestling.

Is it a sport or a ritual? Well it’s both, obviously. The Japanese public is said to consider “sumo — which traces its origins to rituals of Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto — [to be] a venerable tradition. Wrestlers, their hair in samurai-style topknots, have been seen not just as athletes, but as upholders of a stoic work ethic and noble public behavior.” So how important is the “sport” part of this practice? Opinions are divided. But a recent match-fixing scandal suggests that the competitive element may be essential to maintain interest. (Police have found text-message evidence of two wrestlers orchestrating and fixing a match, as an article in the New York Times recounts. ‘“Please hit hard at the face-off, then go with the flow,” one of the wrestlers, Kiyoseumi, texted on the afternoon of May 10…’)

Some fans, it seems are not terribly worried about the draining away of the competitive element of sumo, as long as the illusion of competition remains. “It’s been going on from the old days,” Shintaro Ishihara, 78, Tokyo’s governor, told reporters Friday. “We should just let them trick us into enjoying it,” he said, adding, “It’s just like Kabuki theater.”

But other fans, especially younger ones, are voting with their feet (or their remote controls or smart phones) — deserting sumo in favor of baseball and soccer. There are surely plenty of reasons for sumo’s declining popularity in contemporary Japan. But the contempt of true fans in the face of cheating scandals is most telling — though we cannot be sure what it exactly it tells us. Is it that the ritual is just not interesting enough on its own unless we can believe that both adversaries really are doing everything possible to win? Or is it that by cheating, these guardians of ancient samurai traditions in the post-modern world are betraying the values of the “ritual” element of the sport?

The Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan considers the scandals to be “a very serious betrayal of the people.” And the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, Hanaregoma, sighs that “It is as if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down.”

Baseball in America is mostly sport, but also part national ritual. Still, the steroid scandal of recent years never prompted quite this reaction. So I suspect sumo is more ritual than sport — but that the deliberately adversarial nature of the ritual is an absolutely essential element.

How China Won…

We’ve featured a few posts over the last week on what seems to be a spike in the use of competitive rhetoric to characterize the new global economy. Even the President can’t resist motivating the economic and education policies he favors by suggesting that the road to success — victory — runs through a competitive showdown with our Chinese and Indian rivals. (See here, and here, for example.)

Well, in this context, I can hardly resist linking a recent BBC article that interviewed a handful of Duke students, including one of the best ones I ever taught here.

We put together a team of Duke’s best and brightest – including three Chinese-born students – to discuss America’s place in the globalised world. We showed them a slick and controversial advert aired during the recent congressional election campaign by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste. Set 20 years in the future, a Chinese professor is lecturing students about the fall of the American Empire. Reckless spending led to crushing debt, he explains, before adding: “Of course we owned most of their debt so now they work for us.” The message: America, be scared of China.

The students’ responses are all interesting, and the first couple in particular cast skeptical light on the “competition” metaphor or framework everyone, from the President on down, seems to be taking for granted.

Jack Zhang, who was born in China but grew up in Pennsylvania, was dismayed by the confrontational take.

“It portrays it as a zero-sum game and that somehow Communist China is just the mortal enemy of the US and that the way forward is through competition of some sort. I think that’s the wrong approach.”

Sharon Mei, who runs an “Understanding China” house course with Jack, said the advert played on fear.

“What I was most hurt by was when they had the audience of young people and everyone was yelling in a hostile and malicious manner – these are the people on the other side of the world who will take us over if we don’t do something about it.”

 

The State of the Union, part 2: our Sputnik moment

The second “adversarial ethics” theme in President Obama’s State-of-the-Union speech last night came with the rhetorical emphasis on “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

For those any younger than Obama — and I guess that includes me, for I am three weeks younger than Obama — “Sputnik” was the name of the Soviet satellite that won them the first round of the “space race” in 1957.

(For those younger than, say, my students, many of whom were born in the 1990s, the Soviet Union was basically Russia. Russia and America were competing, in part to prove to the countries that were wavering on the sidelines that their system of government and political economy was the one to emulate. They decided to try to demonstrate their superiority by being the first to master space. To boldly go where no dog, monkey, or man had gone before. Both sides built their space programs on the backs of Nazi rocket scientists they captured at the end of the Second World War. But the Russians seemed to have snatched the smarter ones. They won the first three quarters of the contest by getting the first satellite, the first animal, and the first human into space; but America won with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter by landing the first man on the moon. There’s a great exhibit on the whole race in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was kind of a Big Deal, as the headline in the New York Times, above, makes clear.)

So the time has come for our generation’s Sputnik moment. Only now it is the Chinese and the Indians we are competing against. (The Russians are not our main competition any more. It turns out, capturing some Nazis and making them build you rockets does not prove that your political and economic system is superior. But I digress.)

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” …

Now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future. And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there…

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.

In an earlier post here we highlighted Paul Krugman’s skepticism about this renewed emphasis on international competitiveness. From the perspective of adversarial ethics I would add only that it is a curious (rhetorical, no doubt) framework for motivating a number of policies and investments that aim to improve the American economy. Again — as with the argument for squaring the competitive instincts with the cooperative spirit which I discussed in the post below — this argument for taking seriously the international competition with the Asian giants appeals baldly to American nationalism. How dare they try to beat us at our own game! We practically invented innovation and entrepreneurship. (As George W. Bush once said, “the French don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur’.”)

It’s a curious appeal to nationalism and national pride. If we can’t be motivated to adopt smarter policies for the simple reason that they would improve our lives, are we really more likely to adopt them so that those uppity foreigners don’t prove they are better than us? As a humble philosopher, I don’t know the answer to that question. But the President is paying good money to people who presumably do. Our Sputnik moment indeed.

All that said, I generally liked and admired the speech. Politician’s speeches are not usually about showing why they believe a policy is justified, but rather about trying to move people who are not inclined to agree with them. And they do this because they are locked in a fierce competition with people who don’t want them to succeed. That’s what adversarial democracy is all about. A bit of rhetorical flourish is surely not unethical in such a contest. Is it?

The State of the Union, part 1: toward a more perfect competition?

Democracy is a delicate — well, often not so delicate — balancing of competition and cooperation. The competitive aspects of democracy are largely justified as the best available means to good government in the public interest over the long haul. By forcing would-be leaders to compete for the loyalty of the electorate, they are incentivized to at least appear to act and to propose policies that will benefit the public and not just themselves.

But again, the rough-and-tumble of the democratic competition does not guarantee good government. Sometimes winning tactics might undermine the public good. Sometimes cooperation across the partisan divide can be a more effective way to do what is best for the society. Opinion polls routinely find the electorate clamoring for more cooperation and less partisan gamesmanship; but they also reveal that people want both sides to cooperate around the policies already favored by their prefer partisans.

Adversarial ethics in the political realm is in part about when the competitors should set aside their attempt to “win” the next contest and instead cooperate with their opponents to achieve more directly results in the public interest.

I suspect that all State-of-the-Union speeches implore the members from both sides of the aisle to put aside their differences — and their focus on the next election — and to work cooperatively together. And President Obama’s speech tonight was no exception. In fact, it led with this “adversarial ethics” issue.

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.

This way of defining the basic war in the breast of any democratic polity — between competition (to benefit the public indirectly) and cooperation (to benefit the public directly) — could be uttered by any President of either stripe. Of course, all it really does is describe the inherent, perennial conflict.

It says nothing of any substance about the solution — unless you consider the globbing of sweet nationalist syrup over this mess to be a solution. Do we really think that it is a shared sense that we are members of a common family that sets Americans apart as a nation? Do we have to believe that we are a beacon of light to the rest of the world in order to set aside our partisan differences and work together? If we can’t set those differences aside to come up with, say, a sane system of healthcare for all members of the American nation, are we really going to do it because we are duty-bound to light that beacon for foreigners who are counting on us to lead the way?!

The absurdity or vacuousness of this appeal to nationalism just shows how acute this tension is between competition and cooperation in 21st-century democratic federal politics in the United States of America. It is a perfectly adversarial union.