Thursday, October 15, 2009

On worth

Another security-certificate detainee, Adil Charkaoui, is off the hook, a free man, exhausted by six years of government harassment.

A brave diplomat, tearing off his gag, tells all--and shatters Stephen Harper's ruse: "Torture? What torture?" But the Conservative government's obsession with secrecy, and its determination to cover up its own evident malfeasance, continues apace.

A Mexican police officer of impeccable reputation and unimpeachable credentials is ordered back to Juárez to almost certain death by the Immigration and Refugee Board--a tribunal that recently granted refugee status to a white South African claiming persecution because of his race. A Globe and Mail letter writer asks: "Do I see a pattern here?"

I believe you do.

In one way or another, we've been having extended discussions and debates in the blogosphere for years about the worth of human beings. And if there is one generalization that seems to hold when we survey that admittedly overstated binary, "Left vs. Right," it is this: we on the progressive side take it as a given that all human beings have fundamental worth by virtue of their humanity alone. Our opponents, on the other hand, believe that some human beings are worth more than others.

Some of them think it's a matter of hard work and exercise. The lazy and dissolute will not prosper, the tough-minded individuals will. The fruits of their labours offer a comparative measure of their value as human beings. This yardstick measures poorly, though, and so an alternative presents itself: those with less worth are born that way.

Whether it's poor life-decisions, or has genetic or metaphysical origins, those who are at the bottom of the heap, morally, socially, economically, are pretty much doomed to be where they find themselves. If it isn't their poor, self-defeating attitudes (see the many variations on this theme with respect to First Nations people, for example), then it's literally what they are.

Viewed through this lens, it becomes easier to understand (if not forgive) the behaviour of so many conservatives. Charkaoui is--simply not like us. Neither are the dusky prisoners we take in Afghanistan, or Hispanics seeking safe haven among us, or, for that matter, the Canadian citizens we exile abroad and then defame when they force their way back.

Of course, racism/ethnocentrism is not the whole story, although they are more salient than many will admit. Conservatives have learned a thing or two from the past, and have realized that denial is their best defence when the r-word comes up. So long as they avoid outright racial slurs, they have discovered that they can get away with quite a bit. Even a white nationalist site like VDARE, with its squad of genetic racialists like Steve Sailer, gets alibied away as simply concerned about immigration. Racism wears a pretty new dress--"human biodiversity." Same ugly body inside.

We progressives jump up and down about these and other "isms"--sexism, heterosexism and so on--reflecting a sometimes poorly-articulated reaction to the notion, not just of differing innate qualities and capacities, but of differing innate worth--the latter being a moral, and hence political, judgement. Our vision of society and the social contract runs directly counter to a subterranean ideology that once legitimated such abominations as slavery and, pace Godwin, the Holocaust.

"There is no such thing as society," a prominent friend of Chilean dictator-torturer Augusto Pinochet once said. And when you assent to this "warre of all against all," putting it into bloody practice, life can truly become a nasty, brutish and short affair, in our communities, our country, and on the world stage--unless you're at the top of the heap, of course, with the help of armies and police officers and compliant serfs.

Within this paradigm, there are not merely "lesser breeds," or genders, or sexualities, or classes. If they kept themselves to themselves, as though they lived on Other planets, our own culture would not be suffused with images and discursive techniques that define, enforce and reinforce our complex social relations. It is because we are all brought into relation--manifested by
oppression, exploitation and other systemic forms of violence, such as incessant wars of intervention--that an ideology that frames these hegemonic relations as "natural" is essential.

Of course it can be argued that the progressive notion of human worth rests upon equally shaky ontological foundations. At its most superficial, it is merely a statement of faith. Yet it is saved, I think, by the notion of the social contract: since we all must live together, and each of us would like to grow, prosper and be happy, it is logical that we should treat each other as equals, or else those who don't may in turn be treated badly themselves--and we're back to Hobbes.

Why, then, do we have power-and-privilege hierarchies? Without going into how they arose--that ground has already been amply covered--there is no question that they are self-sustaining, and maintained to a large extent by force as well as persuasion. They are sustained by such things as the ability to speak blithely of holding the truths of human equality to be self-evident, while maintaining the institutions of slavery, class, and imperialism. All that has to be done to accomplish this trick is to argue or assert that we don't mean them, or to blame their misfortunes on themselves: to uphold, in other words, an exclusive view of the country of the We, to which some are admitted while others are not, and within which, as though by magic, everyone rises to their proper level.

If it is possible to speak, grosso modo, of a progressive paradigm and a conservative one, then we are forced to realize that they are simply incommensurate. We talk across a gulf. We use our insufficient reason to argue and contest, but we inhabit two (or more) realms. Victory is not solely about winning hearts and minds (which, some even suggest in all seriousness, are already spoken for). It's a matter of building our counter-institutions; articulating, shaping and giving force and effect to our counter-hegemonic impulses, and creating a revolutionary paradigm shift to pull us back from the abyss--of climate change, the exhaustion of energy resources, increasing poverty, and the deployment of more and more fearful weapons to shore up crumbling and outmoded class and imperial structures.

Those of us who reject outright the idea that our worthiness is to be found in our genes (or our jeans) must therefore make our case, again and again--and primarily to ourselves. Only thus can we find the collective will and new ways to organize, build capacities, and eventually bring about transformational social change.

I would suggest that our discussions and disputations with conservatives are primarily for display. Our opposition generates, in dialectical fashion, discursive expressions of our values and world-view that resonate among us, and, at least ideally, offer the potential of more than talk. I'm not advocating against dialogue--not at all--but merely suggesting that we should recognize that dialogue for what it is, and accept its limitations. How many people are persuaded to change from one value-system to a conflicting one by a good argument?

Perhaps it's my perpetual starry-eyed leftism, but I do believe that the fundamental value of human equality, from which everything else flows, will prevail. Yet, given the spectacular failure of some projects ostensibly promoting that value (Soviet Communism, as one egregious example), how do we do it?

Floor's open to one and all, as always.

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