The Hard Question

Dufferin Grove Watershed, Toronto

We all like to think we’re asking ourselves the hard questions.

I’ve never acted my age, and I’ve always thought I could get away with it because I didn’t look my age.  “I saw a gray-haired lady at yoga today,” my wife just told me, “and I thought it was you.”  So, maybe it’s time to ask some hard questions about that acting-my-age stuff.  We took over the Gardiner expressway with three hundred bike riders last Friday night here in Toronto, and I thought we were just having a little family outing.  I mean, the boys looked very cute up there on that skyway.  Even flashing police lights are kind of pretty when they’re stuck in traffic way behind you.  Someone in a sports car shook their fist at me and told me to get a job (how did they know?) but I was looking over at Eva-Lynn, who has nice little flowers in her basket.  I met a guy once in East London who was from an African country.  He was as black as the handle of my kettle and I thought we were having a nice little multi-cultural moment. “In my country,” he said, eyeing my bike skeptically, “grown men don’t ride bikes, they drive cars.”  Comments like this make it hard for me to remember which age it is I’m supposed to act.  And anyway, the age keeps changing, and no longer corresponds to shoe size.  Who can keep up?

Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher and politician, used to have a special VIP passport because he was a bigwig in his little country.  It was supposed to give him passing-lane status at international checkpoints, but it ended up slowing him down because border guards would never believe he was a VIP.  Don’t tell him I said this, but he does look sort of like a terrorist.  Well, okay, maybe he looks a little like me, now that I think of it. Which means that yoga lady might want to reconsider the hairdo.  The point about Zizek is that he comes from a country so small it only has two tourist attractions, one of which is a castle on a hill up above the principal city.  The other attraction is Zizek himself.  I once asked him how he liked the castle.  “Never visited it,” he said.

Zizek and I—it’s got a ring to it but you can only go so far with the concept—Zizek and I once had offices across from each other in the basement of a certain American institution.  I mention this to point out that I once had some cultural capital, or perhaps to suggest that at one point Zizek didn’t.  I’d also like to call attention to our varied responses to the large signs affixed to the doors of our offices:  Not Fit For Human Habitation Extreme Radon Levels.  Zizek thought radon was a Western bourgeois notion, and he just shrugged and wrote another book about Hitchcock.  You could see him in there spitting at his computer and laughing away.  He can write a book in a few weeks.  Me, I took a look at those radon signs and got the hell out of Dodge.  And I’ve never looked back, except for the many times I’ve glanced over my shoulder and wondered why I left Dodge.

Zizek and I are good friends, as close as Jesus and Brian, but I find that I still need to be critical of him when, for his part, he criticizes Simon Critchley, the Essex philosopher, for a perceived lapse in toughness, as he did last fall in the London Review of Books (15 Nov).  Zizek’s comment was directed from one esoteric philosopher to another, but its swagger is right out of American talk radio: “What would Critchley do if he were facing an adversary like Hitler?” (LRB, 15 Nov/07)  Well, WWCD?  I mean, Critchley’s a well-dressed metrosexual, unlike Jesus.  What would he do?

We should probably be clear about that word ‘Hitler’.  ‘Hitler’, like ‘rapist’, is a sort of pavlovian cue for Western males.  Just say ‘Hitler’ and we start kicking the bar stools over to make room for all the self-congratulation.  How dead would Hitler be if it were just him and me in an ally, pal?  What part of this 2 X 4 don’t you understand, Hitler (rapist, pure bad dictator, etc.)?  Is there anything easier than this “hard” line of questioning that “sees through” the problem with pacifists?

But the hard questions about Hitler would, at the least, include hard questions about ourselves.  Why was our side so happy to go kill Germans in 1914?  Why did we choose to brutalize their side at the Treaty of Versailles?  What did we think was the plan for the world when Germans after the first war were so poor that they had to bring a wheelbarrow of money to the baker to buy a loaf of bread?

How hard is that?

What we find too hard is to criticize our biggest fetish.

Democracy is our biggest fetish.  It’s a brutal system, conceived in slave nations like Greece and 18th-century America, wonderfully synchronous with whatever form of corporate savagery is in style (right now it’s globalization), glorifies the movement of power away from the individual and the neighborhood in a process called “representation” which would be a travesty even if it worked.  Perhaps especially if it worked.  It enables people to invert the most significant dynamic in their lives, stability versus radicalism, by pretending that the radicals are the gentle folk who like to sit on their stoops and get their food locally and ride bikes and so on while the conservative and stable people are the ones who send young men and women off to torture and rape and murder in foreign adventures (or to foment such activities repeatedly, as has Barrack Obama, who comes from the only nuclear power to use nuclear bombs against large cities, and projects this brutality on to Iran).  The strongest democracies have the biggest prison systems for keeping blacks and males ‘out’ of trouble.

Because it begins as a practice of distancing, of being elsewhere, of sending one’s proxy to faraway capital cities where no oversight is possible, democracy is good at sequestering, at hiding its savagery at a distance, so the havoc created looks like it’s someone else’s responsibility.  They’re not called ‘capital cities’ for nothing.  How clever we democratists are, to make Chinese labor for us, die from the poisons in our computers, from a poverty that causes them to destroy their environment and succumb to “natural” disasters, etc., while we reserve for ourselves the right to criticize them for lacking democracy.  How righteous we know ourselves to be, choosing a black man to run for president!  How patronizing we are to the people who will have no part of acclaiming, yet again, a brute who will slut himself out (or have I missed something in all these years of reading CounterPunch?) once again to corporate interests.  The people who resist the ballot box and its filthy distancing work, people who understand well that this process has nothing to do with them or their humanity, are scorned for “apathy,” as if the most apathetic gesture were not the most common, to once again do the nasty for the system, ratify it, tell it that it’s doing the right thing, give it one more vote of legitimacy.

I’m a vegetarian for sentimental reasons—I had a pet chicken when I was a kid and she was one of my best friends.  ‘Poultry’ was fighting words in my neighborhood.  But I’ve always sort of liked hunters, because they’re not democratic about their food.  They don’t pretend ignorance.  They don’t get a hundred poor Mexicans, dragged in a sealed trailer to an unknown spot in Florida by rich pro-democracy corporate fuckers, to rip the heads off the cows and chickens, and then pretend that all they were doing was buying it in the Winn Dixie.  They do the job themselves.  I was going to make a joke here about the Vice President of the United States and how he hunts but I see by my tears I am in an altogether different register.

Democratists wouldn’t be so bad if they’d state what they’re doing in plain English and then tell you they’re going to do it anyway.  With Obama, for example, that would be something like, “I’m going to vote for him and send him to Washington and not do stuff in my neighborhood myself but let this bureaucrat do it and if Obama does what he says he will kill lots of Iranian children, and he’ll continue spreading it extra wide for the corporate fuckers, and I don’t know why he has such a hard-on for army generals, and why he hates Iran but those people beat their wives anyway,” and so on.  Just spell it out.  And then say they’re going to do it anyway, for whatever greater good they think will come out of it.  I’d be appalled.  I wouldn’t like it.  But I’d have some kind of respect for the honesty of the admission.  They’d be like hunters in that sense.  But in real life democratists are sleazeballs who are slyly slipping their poultry into the cart with the organic tofu, like no one sees anything.

The reason it’s supposedly easy to “see through” pacifists who won’t “get it” till a rapist appears in their wife’s bedroom is the same reason that it’s so satisfying to believe that there’s some part of a 2 X 4 that philosopher softies like Critchley don’t understand.  But in fact we don’t see “through” democracy, despite its millenniums-long history of pimping for every radical brutality that comes down the pike, because it is so much a part of us.  How can we see “through” ourselves?

Well, how indeed.  That would be a hard question.  Maybe we should get cracking.

When Alexander Cockburn writes in the British newspaper The First Post [today, June 4] that Obama’s triumph is a “great achievement,” I hardly need to school him in all the shenanigans that got Obama to that place.  Indeed, the Cockburns and St. Clair have been the ones who have schooled me, and they’ve made the usual perps in the sad drama very real.  As my kids like to say about disgusting things: “too much information!”  The only thing really ‘great’ about the achievement is that Obama roundly beat his even sleazier opponent. This is the apparent bargain we’re offered on the left, of making the calculation of lesser brutality that is the term of engagement in democracy.

Do we need another lesser brute?

Here’s a hard question: what it if it’s not the big brutes and the slightly less big brutes who are going to solve something for us?  What if it’s just us?

Democracy isn’t complex.  It will have someone who represents you who can’t get elected.  It will have someone who doesn’t represent you who can.  Not much has changed since 1914, when we went to war “to make the world safe for democracy.”  Well, that’s what always stays safe—democracy—while the boys lie rotting on the battlefields.

It’s time for emancipation.  All the representatives are free to go home now.

How hard is that?

DAVID KER THOMSON (Ph.D. Princeton) is in the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, where he teaches graduate courses on cities and ethics.  A version of this article was given as the keynote address at the conference “Apocalypse” at York University in March.  His article on family and friends taking back the Gardiner Freeway last Friday appears in the Toronto tabloid Now tomorrow (June 5).  His latest article on democracy is “Emancipation,” in right now.  His article on American radicalism and democracy will appear in the academic journal SAQ in December of this year.  Prof. Thomson is finishing a book on traveling in England with his family entitled, View from a Kettle.


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