Friday, December 18, 2009

The Ethical Gaze

I don’t have cable anymore, but I was able to watch live President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance lecture the other day. Like most things about Obama, my reactions were very mixed. There were parts I was impressed with, parts I agreed with and enjoyed, but also plenty which I disagreed with and thought was foolish. The speech was very long and so since its final’s week and I have plenty of grading to do, I can’t go in depth into my thoughts or critiques about it, but I can write about some major points from the speech.

Fine’nina, gof ya-hu na put fin i Presidenten i Estådos Unidos, malate’. Esta mampos o’sun yu’ nu i chatlenguahin Si President George W. Bush. Guaha nai ti hu komprende taimanu tumaiguihi, na ayu na taihinasso na låhi, inilihi ni’ i taotao Amerikånu (Lao annai hu hasso put i hinasson i taotao Amerikånu, siña hu lakomprende).

Having an intelligent US President is not something to dismiss, but something to (even if just a little bit) cherish. When George W. Bush was in power, his rhetoric was very uneven, he was very one-sided and very divisive and very anti-intellectual in how he governed and even in how he would respond to simple questions. Listening to the final round of W. interviews before he stopped being the “Decider,” was particularly painful. What should have been a time of honest reflection for the President on the successes and failures of his tenure, became instead an exercise in being a dumb jerk. When thinking about what sort of mistakes he might have made in the conduct of the Iraq War, he responded that maybe he shouldn't have put that infamous "mission accomplished" banner up. Lana, ti hongge'on este na lahi.

When I say that Obama is intelligent or malate’, I don’t mean that he is smart and therefore he says everything I thing or I agree with everything ni’ humuyong ginnen i pachot-ña. I don’t also mean that him being intelligent means that his positions are vastly different then his predecessors. I wish this was the case, but it isn’t. As his Nobel lecture showed, he is not very different from Bush in terms of articulating a post-9-11 global/imperial framework for American security. But, his intelligence is manifested in the way he acknowledges differing opinions, incorporates counter arguments, and also lays bare a number of different narratives for how he has arrived at a position. The difference between Bush and Obama is that Bush constantly paraphrased, in almost everything he did that he is the decider, and his position as the sovereign (of un gumegera na nasion) meant that he never had to explain anything that he was doing. As Doonesbury made clear years ago, halfway through the Bush years, 9-11 operated for Bush like a bank, so long as he was allowed to keep going back to that bank, just about anything he desired could be bankrolled by the people and by other politicians.

With Obama as the President, you find much of the same heavy handedness and the same defensiveness of his power and of particular embedded American political and economic interests. You will also find, as he has made clear both in his Afghanistan speech and his Nobel Lecture, that he can go to the 9-11 bank as well in trying to legitimize his own policies. But the difference with Obama is that at least there is an opening, one which he actively creates. There are always several stories about how he came to this position, there are always conferences and meetings with people whom he both agrees and disagrees with.

As Jon Stewart on The Daily Show noted when Obama gave his speech in Philadelphia last year about race in the United States, it was as if a politician had for once spoken to the people of the United States about race, as if they were adults. I loved his speech, but loved it with a full awareness of how it was designed to manipulate people such as myself. That speech, while at times beautiful and challenging, was written in such a way to provide a little something for everyone, to appeal to a little bit in almost every type of person, even hard-core racists or radical ethnic studies students.

In a similar way, Obama’s Nobel lecture was meant to also provide a wide enough argumentative net, to provide some sections to appeal to people who want peace, others for people who love war, lots of American apologists and exceptionalists, lovers of multilateralism and internationalism, fans and detractors of the UN, and plenty for people who want a better and safer world. But there is a beauty to being able to pull off such a ridiculously complex task. Of course, no matter what you do, you can never fully convince anyone of anything, but it is nonetheless a work of art in and of itself, to attempt to create such a discursive tapestry, or ala the world of Harry Potter, a sort of discursive Mirror of Erised.

I found his parts on war to be a bit simplistic for my standards. By the standards of your average person’s knowledge and understanding of war, it might have come off as a grand philosophical treatise. For me however it sounded like a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of just war theory. Much more impressive sounding than any speech I’ve heard from Bush speaking on the topic (which he did many times (directly or indirectly)), but still saying basically the same thing.

One of the reasons however that I am not heavily criticizing the speech or condemning it, is because even if there were many parts I did not agree with, theoretically or ideologically, the pragmatic way in which approached certain intractable and impossible problems made me question some of my own ideas. Or perhaps question my own ideas isn’t the phrasing I want. A better way of saying it, would be that Obama’s speech made me consider what my positions would be, or would have to be in terms of certain problems, such as genocide. As Obama weaved together his vision of a better world, a safer world sustained by international cooperation and military intervention on certain issues such as terrorism and genocide, I was caught between ethical points, unsure as to which I truly felt, which one fit the best with what I want for the world. But as I considered the particulars of when its okay for one nation to invade another one, or several nations to invade another, it made me think of something else.

So much of our anxiety in the world, our conversations about what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, has nothing to do with the world itself. When we talk for instance about issues of war and peace and about going to war or intervening in places around the world, for millions of people in the Unites States and its colonies, the questioning of our questions or the articulating of our positions doesn’t have much to do directly with the violence that America’s military interventions cause. What we feel or what we say has a small and very miniscule effect on the policies of the American government, or the tactics of its military or the conduct of its soldiers. There are always possibilities for confluence or the butterfly effect, and that the things we say here affect things there, but most of the discussion which takes place about these issues isn’t mean to directly affect anything. This anxiety is instead tied to a desire to occupy the ethical gaze, or to be able to see the world from a comfortable position of ethics. The world, as Obama noted numerous times in his Nobel lecture is full of many problem which cannot be resolved, issues of violence and war which will never go away no matter what you do or don’t do. Despite this fact, we are always pushing and hoping for a world where those problems no longer exist, we are doing certain things to fight injustice, to improve human life, to prevent war, to fight evil, all of these wonderful things. But these sorts of things are actually exceptional in our lives, they are not the main ways in which we relate to these massive problems which stick out like traumatic gaping abysmal holes of nothingness in human life. Instead of seeking to resolve these problems we work to find the mythical ethical point in relation to them.

Although we tend to articulate the search for this place, as the point which is most right, or most justice, the one which is truly in everyone's best interests, the real, secret impulse behind this pursuit is to find place from which we could not, or would not have to feel anything. The place at which I can feel no guilt as to these problems, where they can exist, but I will not feel that emptiness, that nothingness that is behind them, the trauma that no matter what I do, they will still persist. The search for the ethical gaze is the search for the ability to say and feel that I was on the right side, that I knew what the best course was, that I understood the situation and had the ethical stuff, the strength to believe it and know it and not be deterred from that truth.

Obviously nationalism plays a big role in convincing you whether or not you’ve found this point. So can academic theories or religion. So can the presence of other people in your life who agree with you. But no matter what, you never reach that point, you can never really absolve yourself from both the positive and the negative meanings of the famous saying that “no man is an island.” That we are all connected in ways in which we can transform, bind together, work together, love, nurture and help each other. But we can also destroy each other, kill and torture, maim and denigrate, and worst of all we can and should feel guilty, not just for what we do, but for everything and anything that happens. This is the stain of the human condition, that we can (and sometimes should) feel responsible for everything that happens around us. We work and create an identity, and an ego in order to define who we are and what we are responsible for, what we can take credit for in life, what can be our fault and what cannot.

When Obama invoked the specter of Rwanda, as a failure of the world to intervene to prevent a genocide, I scrambled to find the best ethical gaze for myself. Even as I write this now my mind is still being tugged back and forth across different arguments. If a genocide is taking place, how do you stop it? And if you did want it to be stopped, wouldn’t it be better if it was a regional or an international effort? If you can argue that something like Rwanda would be an acceptable “just” intervention, then you’re just a few steps away from arguing that Afghanistan would be acceptable as well? Is the issue then one of remaining long after the intervention is over? Is that the real problem, not the aid or the assistance, but the ways in which countries and militaries lay the groundwork for exploitation or control? Should the basis here be that the only just intervention or just war is the one where all the soldiers actually return home and all the bases get shut down?

The power of Obama’s speech was that when Bush made the exact same points, and even weakly pushed for international efforts, to me it was imperial aggression, and the United States once again expanding its hegemony around the world. With Obama however, he provoked my thoughts, and although I still strongly disagree with his desire to escalate the fight in Afghanistan, he made me consider the issue of intervention in a very different way. He encouraged me to forsake the purity of the activist or the outsider, who considers him or herself to be without power and therefore seem to find the ethical gaze much easier, and instead consider my ethics from the position of having some power, or having some obligation to human life beyond the singing of its praises. I don’t think that Obama is fundamentally different than Bush when it comes to foreign policy, he hasn’t reduced the military budget, he hasn’t stopped the military buildup on Guam and he hasn’t started closing any bases with the exception of the detainee area of Guantanamo Bay. So it really can’t be anything but “hope” or “partisanship” then, when I say that when I hear Obama using longstanding American imperial rhetoric wrapped up on a shell of internationalism, strengthening peacekeeping or cooperation between nations, I actually believe that it might happen, or that in cases such as genocide, it might actually help stop them.

I mean it very sincerely when I say that Obama was using imperial rhetoric. But while Bush invoked this rhetoric in order to invigorate the United States, to call it to rise and meet its God given destiny, Obama does indeed appear to be a more reluctant global dominator. That doesn’t necessarily make the violence he exports any less imperial or immoral, but it does reveal a weariness which has been eating at the United States and its military since 2001. While most people in the United States can simply ignore the (open) wars the US is still fighting, its military can’t. Bush laid out an ambitious remapping of the world and Obama doesn’t have either the will or the interest in changing that design. But in his sleepiness when he speaks, his eyes closing and opening in much slower ways than two years ago, the hair visibly graying (it seems) as he speaks, the darkness under the eyes, we can all see that there is a futility to that imperial quest. That if he is serious about redefining security in an international context in favor of global peace, then his power and his military are the biggest obstacles. The very wars that he justified early in his speech, the military power of his country that he sought to defend and protect as being exceptional and something only wielded for justice, these things are useless for the world he invoked at the end of his speech. From the imagery of the speech, I imagined the United States as a ferocious and menacing sword, drawn laying quietly on an empty battlefield. Once so deadly, but now simply pointless.

When I heard Obama trot out all those same imperial tunes, I immediately remembered a passage from the manga Berserk. I won’t give any background on Berserk, since I’ve written about it on this blog several times, I’ll just say that it is definitely not a manga about peace. In the Conviction Arc, in the Birth Ceremony chapter, an issue titled “Cracks in the Blade,” Guts, the main character is speaking to Goddo, the blacksmith who makes his armor and his monstrous sword. Goddo asks Guts why he left his friends Casca and Ricket who have been staying there, and instead chose to go out into the world and seek revenge against the inhuman foes who killed off all of their friends known as the Band of the Hawk. Guts talks about revenge about needing to get revenge against the one’s who slaughtered the only family he ever knew. Goddo, who is an aged man, lying close to death in his bed, after a long life of making implements of death and defense, tells Guts that he is wrong, that he shouldn’t have gone and that he abandoned the only things which matter to him, because it was safer and simpler to seek revenge and attack rather than defend and love what matters to him. Goddo says that Guts reminds him of a sword lying useless and about to break on a battlefield.

Estague i palabrås-ña:

Kalang un sapbla hao gi i edda’ gi i fanmumuyan.

Esta meggai mafte’, masmai ni’ hagga’ yan tinatake’.

Giage un ka’ka’ buena

Este un sapbla, esta para u mayaya


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