Obama, Niebuhr, Zizek?

April 20, 2008

On the blog that I co-edit with a number of other US intellectual historians, a compelling discussion has developed in response to a piece I posted.  It includes references to Obama’s “bitter” comments, Niebuhr’s Christian realism, and Slavoj Zizek’s interpretation of fundamentalism.  Check it out:

USIH as a Lens to Understanding the Election

Ideas are often expressed on this blog and elsewhere in the blogosphere that you might find offensive, irrational, unproven, wrong, or just plain goofy.  This is a good thing.  Wneed to read ideas that appear offensive, irrational, unproven, wrong, or goofy.  We need more heresy.  “Polite society”—otherwise known as the corporate media—does not allow for heretical thinking, shoving it to the margins where it can’t be disruptive.  Or, in terms consistent with the current corporate media mantra: Our heretical ideas are not part of the “national discussion”—a narrowing, normalizing phrase if ever there was one. 
Now to offer up an idea that I find rational but that others night find heretical.  I want to call into question American concerns for women in largely Muslim countries–a concern that seems weird in the context of continued patriarchy in the US.  Most of the recent rhetorical lamenting about the rights of women in Muslim countries is little more than hypocritical opportunism.  Yes, most evidence suggests that it is better to be a woman in the US in 2008 than a woman in, say, Saudi Arabia in 2008.  This is beyond doubt.  But this is not to say that gender inequality is a thing of the past in the US.  For instance, although women in some Muslim communities (not to mention some Christian and Hindu societies) are subjected to involuntary genital mutilation, this is not to say that the pervasiveness of plastic surgery in the US is not mutilation by other means.  Just because an increasing number of American women “choose” to have their breasts augmented does not mean that repressive gender conventions aren’t the root of such a “choice.”
Another way to think about the issue might best be by way of philosopher Gayatri Spivak’s most famous written statement, a passage taken from a famous essay she wrote called “Can the Subaltern Speak.  Spivak writes, “White men will not save brown women from brown men.”  This is not a racially reductionist formula—”white men are the root of all evil”—but rather a provocative entreaty to wake us from our imperialist dreams.  When we send our military to the Middle East, it is not to rescue their women.  Saying as much does not make me a “relativist.”  Yes, genital mutilation is always wrong.  Period.  Absolutely.  But our leaders don’t wage war to save genitals.  They wage war to extend the reach of their power and to increase their access to oil.  And because war makes them feel like manly men—like the patriarchal rulers that they are.  In the process, the wars our leaders wage on brown men make life objectively worse for brown women.
We human beings are complex creatures.  It’s OK to be an absolutist and not extend an absolutist belief to the absolute ends of war.  For instance, I absolutely believe that societies with high degrees of economic inequality are not only irrational but also immoral.  Period.  Absolutely.  But this does not mean, then, that I support the US military invading and occupying Kuwait, one of the most economically polarized nations in the world, in order to liberate Kuwaitis from the yoke of their unfair economic structure.  There are three reasons for this.  First, the means don’t always justify the ends, especially when it comes to war.  Rarely if ever is war justifiable.  Second, any realistic assessment of a US war on Kuwait, even if rationalized as class war (or war for female genitals), would lead me to conclude that the poor would likely bear the brunt of the war, thus rendering my rationale moot.  Third, such a justification for war would be intensely hypocritical coming from someone living in a country where 48 million people don’t have health insurance, where the richest one-percent of the population controls nearly half the national wealth, where, in an economic downturn, failed Wall Street banks are bailed out while working-class people with bad mortgages get kicked out of their homes, where, where, where…  I think you get my point. 
Oh how much better off we’d be if we’d abide by simple childhood morality lessons, like, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”
Andrew Hartman