It’s been a big week for cynicism in the news. Involved as I was with the book party for Reinventing Political Culture and teaching preparation, I didn’t realize that this would be the case until an A.P. reporter called on Tuesday morning. I get such calls every two years or so about some cynical development in the news as a part of the election cycle, as the author of The Cynical Society, This time the journalist focused upon two headlines: the “etch a sketch” remark by a Romney campaign aide and President Obama’s open mic remark in his conversation with President Medvedev.
I perversely enjoy these periodic interviews. Because I wrote a book with cynicism in the title, I am asked to provide rapid responses to questions about latest cynical manifestations. This provides some kind of public confirmation that my academic writing has some continuing relevance beyond academic circles. Yet, I must admit, there is cynicism in the asking and the answering.
Sometimes the journalist and I have a robust interesting conversation. At other times, I am at a loss for words, because I am busy with other things, hadn’t really given much thought to the issue, or know that what I have to say will not serve the journalist’s needs. But even when I am not sure what to say, the journalist presses and I usually comply. She needs a quote to build up her piece, to get “expert opinion” because journalistic convention stipulates that she should not express her own judgment explicitly, and I recognize the convention and willingly comply, concerned primarily that my name is spelled correctly and my institutional affiliation is properly identified, hoping that the sentence or two that the journalist draws from our conversation resembles what I actually think. Cynically speaking, I do this because I know that to appear in public is good for my and The New School’s reputations, and there is always a chance that what I say may matter a little.
I have talked with Nancy Benac, the reporter who called . . .
Read more: A Cynical Society Update: Part 1
On September 21, 2011, two American men, both in their early 40s, were put to death by order of their state government. One death provoked much discussion; the second was widely ignored. However, it is that second death that matters should we as a nation – or as a collection of states – decide to eliminate the death penalty for good and for all.
Outside of Georgia’s Jackson Prison, opponents of the death penalty gathered to hope, pray, and pay witness to the long death of Troy Davis. Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer, Mark McPhail, in 1989. Whoever the killer was did a dastardly deed. And Mr. Davis was, according to the courts, that man. Over the years there came to be real doubts as to whether he was, in fact, guilty. The case depended largely on eyewitness testimony, and since the trial most of those eyewitnesses changed their stories. Perhaps Mr. Davis was not guilty of this crime.
No one, whatever stance they take on the legality of the death penalty, wishes for the state to kill innocent men, letting the real killer go free. Still, Mr. Davis had twenty years of appeals, and he never found a judge or parole board that was persuaded of his innocence. Shortly before his death, the Supreme Court, without dissent, refused to stay his execution. And it was done. Perhaps we must establish a more robust level of proof and be more modest in our certainty. Without doubt Mr. Davis came to be an impressive advocate for his own innocence. He wanted to live. However, shortly after 11:00 on the night of September 21st, he was put to death by lethal injection. CNN’s Anderson Cooper covered the death watch with inspiring intensity, raising issues of Mr. Davis innocence and also the justice of the death penalty.
Eight-hundred miles west of Jackson, in Huntsville, Texas, another death occurred, quietly and . . .
Read more: Two Deaths
More than ever, cultural context informs the political scene, from late-night comedy to a recent Supreme Court ruling.
Sometimes the solution to theoretical problems become apparent not through careful research or close reading of important texts, but in the course of thinking about everyday life, in the course of leading a reflective life. You have an everyday encounter. You give it thought, and a major intellectual problem is solved.
I had such an experience and revelation at a lunch in Berlin in November of 1994. I remember the discussion. I remember the setting, an Italian restaurant in the leafy outskirts of the city. But I have only a vague recollection of my lunch partner, a female German scholar.
I was in Berlin in 1994 on a leg of a United States Information Agency sponsored lecture tour in Europe. The main event was in Poland, where I helped inaugurate a short lived American Cultural Center there. Following my stop in Warsaw, I flew to Berlin to speak in the well established American Cultural Center there about my book The Cynical Society, but also gave a talk at the Free University about my other relatively recent books, Beyond Glasnost and After the Fall. The first Berlin talk was about my work on American political culture, the second on my work in Central and Eastern Europe. After the second talk, I had a lunch with my hostess. We engaged in the normal small talk. No doubt, we discussed the presentation I gave and the reaction of the audience. The details escape me except for one exchange. It went something like this:
Jeff – “I think that it is not at all clear that Hitler’s crimes were qualitatively different than those of Stalin.”
Hostess – “No! Hitler was unique. The intentional project of modern industrial genocide was unprecedented, uniquely evil, something that must not be forgotten.”
We went on and discussed this, I, as an expert on the Soviet bloc and its democratic opposition, she as a German scholar. The conversation was warm, not . . .
Read more: Cultural context is crucial in identity politics
Andrew Arato is an expert in constitutions, a pressing topic in Turkey right now.
I read the news about the Turkish referendum on constitutional reforms with great interest. Turkey is a bridge between East and West. Europe meets Asia in modern booming Istanbul. It’s a place where the commitment to democracy and to an open Islam is the official policy of the governing Justice and Development Party. It’s a place of great hope and promise, where instead of the clash of civilizations, there is dialogue and reinvention. But it is also a place where people committed to secularism worry about the prospects for their modern way of life. I tried to follow the news reports about what happened, but they were unclear. I understood that a sweeping package of constitutional reforms were approved, that the referendum purported to bring the Turkish constitution up to European standards, but also that the opposition was claiming that the package was a systematic power grab. Is this a sign of democratic progress as the ruling party spokesman declared, or is it, as the opposition declared, a significant regression? I called my friend and New School colleague, Andrew Arato, a distinguished expert on constitutions, who has been working with a group of young scholars on constitutional issues in Turkey. He agreed to answer my questions. I opened by asking him whether the referendum results were good or bad news?
I think bad. The successful Turkish referendum of September 12 was ultimately about court packing. Not only is the manner of choosing judges for the Court now altered, but six new judges presumably friendly to the government will be added to the Court within 30 days.
This is a point missed by almost all Western commentary on the event. Court packing is always bad business. The way is now almost open for the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the ruling Party with leaders who have an Islamist, but are committed to membership in the European Union) to remake the country’s secular constitution entirely on its own.
Read more: Politically Weighted Courts in Turkey “Bad News” for Democracy
Politics in the Kagan confirmation hearings, like that of Sotomayor, were clearly on display. I think E.J. Dionne had it right in Kagan’s case, “Something momentous has happened to our struggle over the Supreme Court’s role when Republicans largely give up talking about “judicial activism,” when liberals speak of the importance of democracy and deference to elected officials, and when judges are no longer seen as baseball umpires.” (link)
In Kagan’s hearings significant changes were revealed in how the parties approach justice. It was the Democrats who were concerned about legislation from the bench, concerned as they were by the threat the Court poses to the Democratic political agenda, from regulating oil drilling, to delivering healthcare reform, to controlling the use of guns in this very violent country of ours. The Republicans, on the other hand, while making gestures against judicial activism, were cheering it as it served their political ends, equating campaign contributions as speech, granting corporations the right of free speech, selecting a President.
For many, on the Republican extreme, indeed, the Constitution has come to be identified with their anti-government agenda, their agenda for keeping the Reagan revolution alive. At the Kagan confirmation hearings this political confrontation was perfectly clear. I do worry about the balance and direction of the court, given my political commitments. I wish the balance of the court would change, just as those who are happy with the character of Roberts’ Court would like to see it sustained. I observed the hearings with an understanding of the two sides, and I knew which side I was on, which team I was rooting for. I think that the confirmation hearings were a great success demonstration of the political issues involved. In this sense they were a great success.
But I have a special concern, a sociological one that is not strictly speaking political. It concerns the issue of free speech and free public life more generally. I fear that a political cultural ideal is being compromised, by one side, the other side of the great political debate. I know that a free public life depends upon keeping intellectual . . .
Read more: A Tale of Two Justices: Kagan
The confirmations hearings of Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court Justice nominees were more about politics than about justice, and the politics revealed were not attractive:
Thoughts on Sotomayor:
A significant portion of the population in the United States is not comfortable with an African American President. This very seriously has shaped official public debate, clearly in the confirmation hearings of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The New York Times reported about Sotomayor’s leading critic in the Senate before the confirmation hearings: Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the highest-ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the fairness issue was “the core of the American system” and was central to Republicans’ qualms.
“Every judge must be committed every day to not let their personal politics, their ethnic background, their biases, sympathies influence the nature of their decision-making process,” Mr. Sessions said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
Mr. Sessions pointed to what he called Judge Sotomayor’s advocacy positions and to her widely publicized remark that a “wise Latina woman” would make better judicial decisions than a white man.
“I am really flabbergasted by the depth and consistency of her philosophical critique of the ideal of impartial justice,” Mr. Sessions said. “I think that’s a real expression of hers.” (link)
The underlying theme of the Republican questioning of Sotomayor was revealed in Sessions’ statement. There was the proposition that because she thought that the special insights and experiences of people with different identities could improve the quality of justice, she somehow was less committed to the ideals of impartial justice. Over and over, the Republican Senators returned to one quotation from her public speeches, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” (link)
The principle reason given for opposing Sotomayor was that she didn’t believe in equal justice. Could it be that this was serious? What she meant is really not complicated. Bringing in new perspectives improves the pursuit of justice. People who have been excluded add something important, and they can be proud of it. Of . . .
Read more: A Tale of Two Justices: Sotomayor