Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Events in the world do not take place in a void. This should be obvious, but it can be important to remember it when getting overly fixated and caught up in any one given example of the madness that is the modern world. The situations that are continually unfolding around us occur in a context wherein the reverberations from one brow-furrowing incident may amplify (or at the very least) muddle other equally (if not greater) sources of anxiety, frustration and even rage. All of which is a long way of pointing out that there’s plenty to be worked up about in these (and all) moments.
Regardless of how a person might want to interpret the occurrences of the last few days, politically speaking (in the US), at the very least they would have to acknowledge that it’s proved to be an interesting week. Interesting, of course, is not synonymous with “totally good.” While the week began with media personalities and politicians trying to guess the location of Edward Snowden, and thereby proving that they were anxious to discuss him if not what he had revealed, Snowden was fated this week to be bumped out of the upper echelons of media concern by the more rote goings on of the American political system. For this week was to feature several important rulings by the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) and a major speech by President Obama on the topic of Climate Change.
President Obama’s speech, though filled with his standard rhetorical flourish, was not in and of itself much of a surprise. He largely staked out positions on climate change that would not rankle the majority of Democrats (or citizen in countries that are not debating whether or not climate change is happening), tossed in some nice bits to keep more environmentally minded folks moderately satiated (threatening to block the Keystone XL pipeline), and peppered his comments with nice quotable one-liners. Though he laid out executive actions that he could take at once the speech was largely destined to be another to add to the pile of “sounds good, accomplishes a bit, but much of it will be stuck in the mire of US politics.” Indeed, President Obama’s speech was largely overshadowed by the news story from earlier in that same day…
For, on Tuesday morning, in a 5-4 decision the US Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Signed into law in 1965 the VRA has been an important piece of civil rights legislation in protecting the voting rights of communities that have historically been disenfranchised (and to look at recent “voter ID” laws and the lines at the last election day the case should be obvious that such disenfranchisement continues). In striking down the VRA – and passing the buck for “doing something” back to Congress (cue the laugh track) – the Supreme Court (at least the 5 judges in the majority) have effectively stomped on a piece of legislation that Chief Justice Roberts (part of the 5) had acknowledged “has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.” But apparently it has been proven so successful that it’s no longer needed, and despite Justice Ginsburg’s withering (withering!) response, taking any pleasure from Ginsburg’s words is at best a bitter pleasure. (Colorlines has had some excellent coverage on the VRA)
On the heels of their VRA decision, on Wednesday morning, the US Supreme Court weighed in on two cases with important implications for the LGBT community. In, what is probably fair to describe as a bit of a surprise, the Court (again with 5 to 4 decisions) struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional while ruling that a lower court’s overturning of Prop 8 stands, as the group fighting the case in the Supreme Court lacked standing. While this ruling was not as sweeping as some may have dreamed (emphasis: dreamed), it still far outstrips what many had expected. The ruling on Prop 8 will likely mean that gay marriage will begin again in California without much delay, but the more significant ruling is likely the striking down of DOMA. With DOMA struck down the board is set for gay couples in states that currently “ban gay marriage” to challenge the constitutionality of these bans, what it also effectively does is ensure that (legally speaking) gay marriages are accorded the same level of federal recognition as marriage between heterosexual couples. Thus, at least in states where gay marriage is legal, there’s no longer gay marriage and straight marriage, there’s just marriage.
And as these battle lines were drawn and redrawn in the upper chambers of US politics another struggle was waged in Texas, where state Senator Wendy Davis held a lengthy (over eleven hours) filibuster to block (yet another) legislative push to limit women’s ability to control their own reproductive health. Davis’s statements of “I will not yield” were mighty but did not prevent her filibuster from being broken by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst (R). Though the bill was still halted. For now.
And of course as all of these conflicts – that seem to divide along party lines – continue, citizens can take heart that the one thing that all of these politicians can agree on is that Edward Snowden is a villain who must be brought to justice, even as the actions of the Supreme Court make many wonder about the state of justice in this country. In handing down these two 5 to 4 decisions the Supreme Court did something much more interesting than had both decisions fallen under a single political ideology. Indeed, watching people spin themselves nauseous with their reactions to the Supreme Court had an almost comic aspect to it, generally speaking: those happy with the court on Tuesday were furious on Wednesday, and those furious with the court on Tuesday were thrilled on Wednesday. The America we Dream about living in keeps us in bed for another week. And thus the Supreme Court, though these were 5 to 4, decisions gets to continue appearing somewhat above the political fray handing down steely eyed decisions that thrill and infuriate across the political spectrum. At the very least the clear result of these rulings is that the Democrats and Republicans have both found their organizing issues for the 2016 election cycle.
Or to give a vastly overly simplistic recounting of this week in politics (in the US): gay marriage is marching proudly forward, voting for minorities is being beaten viciously backwards, Texas (amongst other states) is committed to further restricting women’s access to reproductive choice, gay/straight female/male and regardless of race the NSA is still spying on all of your communications (all those celebratory or angry texts/calls/emails), and to top it all off if we fail to act to deal with climate change we’re doomed. And throughout it all the politicians and judges march before the cameras to give their expected sound bites demonstrating, as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno put it in Dialectic of Enlightenment, that:
“The leaders have become fully what they always were slightly throughout the bourgeois era, actors playing leaders.” (H&A, 197)
DOMA, VRA, NSA, USA, we are inundated with politics so filled with acronyms that one must almost forgive people who in the heat of the moment muddle which acronyms they’re for and which they’re against. In moments of such oscillating political euphoria and anger one is tempted to divide rulings and speeches into categories based on which are more important and which will have larger impacts. This has a certain crass element to it. Yet its aspects were on foulest display by watching the sanctioned political actors (read: politicians) over the course of the last few days. It may be unfair to tar all politicians (and judges) actions as the same political stagework, but from the theatrics of the Climate Speech to the vaudeville of howling that DOMA was a bulwark against barbarism to the continuing Guignol grotesquerie of chasing after Snowden and the fact that all of this occurs whilst millions of Americans are effectively disenfranchised, all of these give rise to a certain takeaway that of course is never expressed. Part of the sentiment that has emerged in the last few days is one of a government saying “look, you can trust us, really, really, please!” But to watch what has transpired is to wonder if perhaps the real lesson is that the government is only worried about those things that might most effectively challenge it. It is as Herbert Marcuse wrote, in One Dimensional Man:
“Advanced industrial society is indeed a system of countervailing powers. But these forces cancel each other out in a higher unification—in the common interest to defend and extend the established position, to combat the historical alternatives, to contain qualitative change. The countervailing powers do not include those which counter the whole.” (Marcuse, 54)
One can celebrate the death of DOMA (one should celebrate the death of DOMA) but one of the lessons of the last few years is that gay marriage does not pose a structural challenge to the contemporary power structures in the US. On the flip side however, one can see that enfranchised minorities, women with full control of their reproductive health, whistle blowers exposing government misdeeds, and potentially catastrophic climate change pose significant structural challenges, hence responses to these that seek to mitigate their chances of truly impacting and changing the larger system. In other words, it is good to celebrate the striking down of DOMA (one should celebrate the death of DOMA) but woe be upon us if in enjoying the good feelings of this decision we for a moment think that we can relax. In recent years many have spoken of gay marriage as the “civil rights issue of our time” and if Wednesday’s decision was victory for “civil rights” we must remember that Tuesday’s ruling was a massive setback for “civil rights.”
In rendering these two decisions amidst the slew of other political occurrences we can see the US political system trying to restore some sense of balance, and trying to regain some sense of trust. Amidst the talk of the VRA one heard comparatively little about the NSA, and amidst the talk of DOMA one heard comparatively little about the VRA (which in turn was still blocking most discussion of the NSA), and in the emotions around both issues most people wanted to focus their joy or anger around that specific acronym ending with A as opposed to wondering to what extent these are really all just the endemic problems in the USA. To say nothing of how little has been said about Climate Change in the midst of it all. And the seeming inability of many to be able to balance the happiness at the DOMA decision with continuing fury at the government displays a still present lack of real organization (whither the Left?). Indeed a major question going forward is whether the wonderfully active LGBT community shall grow more subdued in the aftermath of the ruling even as the fight around voting (not to mention climate and privacy) will require a bigger broader and more active coalition than has manifested and been maintained in years.
Thus the celebratory cries of “freedom” and “equality” can have a grating tone to those who refuse to treat either term as just another advertising slogan for “your government in action,” those who fear that, as Marcuse wrote:
“To the denial of freedom, even of the possibility of freedom, corresponds the granting of liberties where they strengthen the repression…an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a totalitarian regime but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights, and smells.” (Marcuse, 249)
After all, it is wonderful to be able to marry whom you choose but is it really “equality” if you still can’t vote? What of economic justice? What of access to health care? Education? equal pay? Is this “equality” and “freedom” of which we speak simply the liberty to buy a glistening technical device so that we can all be equal before the eyes of the NSA? Or is it the equality of all to be forced to cope with the misery that shall come with unchecked Climate Change (President Obama’s speech may have been impassioned, but what are the odds that real steps will be taken?)? It would seem that to truly desire “freedom” and “equality” must entail challenging a political and economic system in which such questions wind up before a venal court and mediocre congress for decision. On display in the last few days has been the fact that our political process is ever more interested in optics—a good speech, a spy drama, cheering celebrants—than in truly contemplating freedom or equality, we can see that (to go back to Horkheimer and Adorno):
“Ideology becomes the emphatic and systematic proclamation of what is. Through its inherent tendency to adopt the tone of the factual report, the culture industry makes itself the irrefutable profit of the existing order. With consummate skill it maneuvers between the crags of demonstrable misinformation and obvious truth by faithfully duplicating appearances, the density of which blocks insight.” (H&A, 118)
The real thing to keep in mind throughout these political ups and downs is that whether or not your rights were broadened or shrunken this last week the real winner in all instances has been the power system that has the ability to broaden or shrink your rights at whim. It is important to celebrate the death of DOMA, but this celebration should take the form of organizing for the next battles. Conflicts that recognize that “equality” to marry in a farcically unequal world are not even quarter measures. Equality to marry is wonderful. But so is equality to vote.
Careful with your acronyms: “USA” only stands for “Freedom and Equality” if we make it, and we have a lot of work to do before that point.
Other posts of interest
Horkheimer, Max & Adorno, Theodor W. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Routledge, 2002