“My Taxes Pay Your Salary!” Research Time, 31/10/2016

I'm Canadian. Growing up here has given me some pretty peculiar cultural touchstones. One of those is an occasionally brilliant, mostly mediocre, sometimes seriously annoying popular sitcom – shot in Rouleau, Saskatchewan, don’t you know! – called Corner Gas.

One of the running gags in the show was when Oscar, a crusty old retiree with too much time and resentment on his hands, would complain to Davis, one of the two police officers in the town, about anything to do with any government service.

“Oscar, I’m a police officer. I don’t have any control over library policy.”

Oscar would improvise some sputtering justification for her rage, and then shout, “My taxes pay your salary!”

When Justin Trudeau recently said that the electoral reform he
campaigned on was no longer necessary, he was making a common
mistake of many institutional leaders – taking the face of his
leadership for the legitimacy of his orders. Laying all institutions
and the theories justifying their legitimacy aside, that's the most
fundamentally anti-democratic mistake you can make.
On the show, Oscar was usually a kind of town fool. When the show would tell us to laugh in a situation with Oscar, it was usually at the old man’s expense. But in his heart, Oscar was a radical democrat.

I've been ranting over the last couple of weeks about the concepts of radical democracy – much of it to do with reading Jacques Rancière, but also the ideas more broadly. The concept has a lot of dimensions to it, as all good philosophical concepts do, different ways to understand it and apply it.

A very important dimension of radical democracy has to do with what kinds of attitudes we should take toward our institutions. As I’ve been saying in the “Hating Democracy” series, just because you have democratic institutions like regular elections, representative government, and a free press, it doesn’t mean your society is actually democratic or free.

There has to be an attitude among the population that isn’t satisfied with their government and their elected leaders just because they’re basically following the rules as the institutions set them down. 

But isn’t that asking too much? Considering how rarely even democratic institutions end up legitimated and stably built around the world, wouldn’t it be enough just to live in a democratically-governed state? Should we just sit back and accept that our government isn’t going to lock us in prison and our prime minister will occasionally take his shirt off in public for viral social media posts?

Now, what the hell kind of democracy is that? This is the point Rancière has made in Hatred for Democracy. The foundation of a democratic society isn’t the institutions – it’s the constant demand that our leaders know their place in society.

That place is as our servants. My taxes do pay their salaries. Our parliamentary officials are 338 people (and 105 senators, and several many thousands of government employees) who have 36 million bosses.

That’s a weird way to think about governance. The word governance doesn’t even fit the concept, because it implies that the bureaucrats who run government institutions control the activities of the millions of governed people.

Thank you Oscar, for reminding us what freedom really is.
Now, that’s how our governments actually run. And we need our governments to run this way to provide the services we demand from our public servants – States need public health and population information to know where to build infrastructure and provide health and welfare services.

They have this power as part of a compromise – the people demand that their governments provide services to make everyone’s lives better. The government needs to impose on people to raise the money and manage the services, and the people accept that. 

But people have to constantly be on our governments’ and our leaders’ asses to make sure they live up to their end of the bargain.

When this century started, I don’t think I would have been down with this. I would have thought that democratic institutions were all we needed to be a free society. When I first heard about Rancière’s ideas, I thought they didn’t make sense. You can’t institutionalize rage.

The naïveté and blindness of youth.

The spirit of revolt isn’t meant to be institutionalized. Governments are institutions. Freedom is the spirit that keeps the government – and its members and leaders – from thinking it’s in charge.

Hating Democracy VI: Only If You Deserve Freedom, Research Time, 28/10/2016

Continued from previous post . . . There are three serious threats today to democratic institutions and the social freedoms we’ve built and continue to build in the West. Two of them have a serious level of political and social power.

One would be the nationalist cultural conservatives – whether they define themselves in terms of religion (American Biblical literalist Evangelicals), race (the alt-right), or both (Dugin-style Russian nationalism). 

The other would be oligarchs – the political movement for small government, lower taxes, an end to all welfare state institutions, and the removal of almost all labour and environmental protection laws. 

It's not as though either of their victories would make no different in
people's lives. States are powerful institutions, and the American
state controls literally millions of armed personnel across all levels
of law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies, and the
standing army. Trump would wield that power in the name of
white nationalism, and Clinton is a second wave feminist who at least
also believes there should be a welfare state.
But democracy has been criticized and attacked pretty well ever since democracy in any form has existed. Working in the Western tradition* – and reading Jacques Rancière in particular – most folks learn Plato’s arguments against democracy pretty early in a humanities education.

* I only know little bits of the democratic idea in the Asian traditions of politics and philosophy. But Mozi’s philosophy of universal love seems like it’s been a roiling undercurrent of Chinese political thought from the Warring States period onward.

Basically, it’s that democracy – rule of everyone by everyone – is the rule of the mob, the ignorant masses who destroy themselves with chaos and tyranny. Maybe their community collapses after takeover by a charismatic despot who seduces the people into supporting him. Maybe the community fragments into internal conflicts. 

This idea is at the heart of all ill will toward democracy and universal freedom – that only the wise deserve to be free. Because only the truly wise will know how best to use their freedom. 

In the institutions of democracy, that means restricting the right to vote. Not by some explicitly crude metric like race or religion. But by a person’s level of knowledge about their democratic institutions, the policies of the candidates, and the history of the country.

This was an idea that the conservative scholar David Harsanyi published this May. It amounts to a literacy test, which is one argument against its use. You’re damn right it would have detrimental effects against marginalized communities, disenfranchising huge swaths of people who need more than anyone to be heard by the powerful in society.

But the idea is seductive, because as an abstract principle, it makes perfect sense. If you don’t know anything about the real effects of the power you wield in voting, you shouldn’t use that power until you have the knowledge to use it wisely.

The modern Russian state is the perfect counter-example to the theory
that all a democracy needs is democratic institutions. Putin's
government has to be accountable to its people and report on its
activities. There are multiple political parties who contest fair
elections. Putin even has constitutional term limits that he has to
dance around to remain in control of the country. Russia is no
So there’s a more profound argument to make here in favour of the democratic drive for everyone to have the maximum possible say over their own futures. At first glance, what I’m about to say may sound completely absurd – that knowledge of democratic institutions doesn’t matter for your civic engagement in a democracy.

Think about everything I’ve written about as I’ve hammered out my conception of immanent freedom in society. Democratic institutions – like elections, government transparency, and voting – are actually the least important elements of a democratic society.

They’re necessary, but far from sufficient. Institutions alone can produce an entrenched oligarchy – rotating in and out of legislative power through elections, all parliamentary parties corrupt, campaigns so expensive and financed by absurdly rich individuals and huge corporate subsidy. 

Why does that sound so familiar to me?

You can be a democracy and be an oligarchy. Knowledge of institutions doesn’t make a difference if you still let those institutions slide into a transparent oligarchy. 

What makes a democracy a society of freedom is the activism of people. People demanding a better deal, not only from their government, but from each other.

So in a way, Harsanyi and Plato are right that you need knowledge and wisdom to build a truly free society. But it’s a different kind of knowledge than the institutional and historical. It’s the knowledge of the networks, relationships, lives, and imbalances of justice all over your society.

One kind of knowledge that makes you more free? Knowing people from lots of different ethnic groups, cultural communities, social classes, genders, and sexualities in your city and your country. It’s the basic knowledge of the literal fabric of your society. 

You learn what kinds of people exist in your society – what makes you different, and the struggles for common dignity that bring you together. And that's the fundamental fabric that holds real freedom together.

Bloody Traces, Class: “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” Reviews, 27/10/2016

I wanted to take a couple of days before digging into the deeper philosophy of the second episode of Class, even though it premiered simultaneously, and the story follows immediately from the debut.

Dense Narrative Mesh

The show's chief producer and head writer Patrick Ness is crafting a very subtle television serial in Class. In that way, it's very much a creature of the current time, especially since it’s on an online-only platform – the cut-from-TV BBC Three. 

Even though the series will unfold largely at a pace of one episode (or in this case two) per week, it has a density of webbed connections that will reward binge-watching. The 21st century’s addictive and attentive viewing style that resurrects the mass-audience page-turning novels of the early newspaper era when Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky would publish massive serial novels. 

There are a bunch of small moments and sub-plots indicating where the season’s story will go over its next few weeks of episodes. Of course, I can’t discuss any of their details without warning of 

Another point for the space below the spoilers tag: I have to use official
publicity photos for these posts, but in the show, you get to see Fady
Elsayed's bum as he gets into the shower. And it's a very nice bum.
Makes me wonder how nobody else on the team ever sees his artificial
leg when they have communal showers.

There are moments and scenes throughout "The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo" which clearly foreshadow future payoff. The most obvious to anyone following the series is Tanya's discussion of her father’s death two years prior, as she helps Ram deal with his grief over Rachel’s refrigeration in the premiere. 

If you know the basic premise of next week's “Nightvisiting,” you know that the spectre of Tanya’s father is going to become central to that episode. And you can guess that April will play an important role in that story, thanks to a brief moment near the end of this week’s episode where she refuses to acknowledge a text from her own absent father.

And an important part of Ram’s own arc in this episode is coming clean to his own father about his situation, the aliens invading his high school, his extraterrestrial artificial leg, and the truth about his girlfriend’s (and both of his coaches’) deaths. 

So navigating the human kids' relationships with their families will be central to the character arcs of these eight episodes over seven weeks.

But that's character. What about the threads of the plots?

The clearest subplot with future payoff is Quill’s fight with the government’s school inspector – a silent, robotic man with perfect reflexes – who turns out to be an actual robot. In an otherwise emotionally wrenching episode, this B-plot is played with the dark comedy natural to Quill’s ego and sarcasm.

Quill's subplot with this school inspector shows just how well
Katherine Kelly's performance can do comedy integrated with all the
violent adventuring of this show. Quite like how Doctor Who has
always worked, pretty much from the start.
And it ends with the robotic man actually being a robot, sent not by the school district’s board of governors but by some mysterious organization called the Governors. It makes me wonder what poor old Headmaster Armitage knew until that dragon the football coach was controlling skinned him alive. 

Yes, did I mention that this week’s story focussed on the campaign of violent murder perpetrated by an interdimensional dragon who skinned people alive for blood to feed its life-mate, who was trapped in the skin of Ram’s testosterone-id football coach? 

Because that's the central idea driving the plot of “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo.” It makes for some chillingly effective cinematography as the camera lingers on the last few drops of blood that the tattoo dragon wasn’t able to drink or Coach Dawson wasn’t able to clean from each killing site.

And it makes for an exciting background for Ram to deal with his trauma while becoming even more traumatized by walking into scene after scene of bloody, gory, wretched murder.

The Crack-Up

“The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo” is most explicitly the first of what will probably be a series-long engagement with grief as a phenomenon. So dealing with grief, mourning, and loss will probably recur in pretty much every episode and the season finale will probably require a detailed grappling with the concept.

Instead, I want to focus on Ram’s own psychology, as every stability in his quite generically successful life has catastrophically fallen to pieces. The phrase “crack-up” is an appropriate description for what’s happening to him. 

The episode also works as an incredibly blatant critique of toxic
masculinity, especially as it manifests in athletic culture. This is one
aspect of the show's approach that – at least in terms of popular
culture engagement – is actually now rather behind the times.
Ram’s life, prior to prom night in “For Tonight We May Die,” exists on a strictly defined, flat territory. Rather like the football pitch. He moves on a flat plane, free of complications, with perfect command of the space. 

The footballer who has become his territory so intimately that he’s a true expert of it. He even has the most ego-fuelling position on the squad – first row striker, earner of the most transparent glory.

All that comes crashing down at the end of the first episode. And at the start of “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” that flat space becomes utterly alien to him. Not to his mind, but to his body, as he must literally train his leg almost from its first principles of movement to become part of his own body. 

In that regard, it’s a more destabilizing state than even when he was learning to walk as an infant. Ram's body and mind is already expert, but his leg is an infant again.

His territory has become rocky and difficult in an instant – a physical flat surface torn into a tortuous space in an instant. And he didn’t choose this transition – the change is a burden to him for which he could prepare nothing. 

Ram's life cracked into thousands of fractures, on which he literally trips with his body that's become literally alien to him. If I ever get the chance to teach people about philosophy again, I’d use Ram’s story in this episode to explain what Gilles Deleuze means by deterritorialization.

Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze's concepts to describe how life forms
act in networked relationships are remarkably useful for understanding
Ram's story in this episode, and Ram's story makes a great model to
understand their theories and concepts.
“The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo” is a portrait of a rupture, what Deleuze and Guattari call a “deadly and alive, nonsegmentary” becoming. It’s the kind of rupture that is literally a “time to die.” 

Ram is ripped from the territory on which he functions as a person in society and as a living organism. Those are two aspects of the same phenomenon – the development and becoming of Ram himself in all his facets. 

He tells the dragon that he should be dead, that he wishes he was dead. That great rupture – in his body, his field, and his mind – is itself a kind of death. He's no longer the Ram that he was becoming before the Autumn Prom. So he now has to become another Ram.

Hating Democracy V: No I Seriously Mean They Hate It, Jamming, 26/10/2016

Continued from previous post . . . When I remember the days of the W Administration, I remember some pretty terrible days. 

Days when a soul-crushing national trauma was perverted into a justification for war and torture. Days when a government that conceived itself as a beacon of democracy and freedom employed trigger-happy mercenaries who thought nothing of committing mass slaughter in the streets.

But Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest of their crew never turned against democracy in their hearts. Their practice may have had horrifyingly anti-democratic effects, but they always fundamentally believed in freedom. 

I was 21 years old in 2003, when George W Bush was invading Iraq
in the name of democracy and the United States was torturing and
renditioning people in the name of safety from terror. At the time, I
didn't think American politics and culture could get more surreally
weird and horrible. Never bet on the limits of human perversity.
When Jacques Rancière was writing Hatred of Democracy at the height of the Bush years, he likely sounded like there was a lot of hyperbole in his words. Ten years later, reading him sounds like prophecy.

The current moment of Western politics isn’t all that friendly toward democracy. And I’m not just talking about Donald Trump’s disturbing resurgence of egomaniacal fascist aesthetics and white nationalism. Even relatively sedate Western conservatism is turning against democratic values in significant and disturbing ways.

Jeet Heer at The New Republic gives a pretty solid breakdown of three anti-democratic trends among the American (and to a lesser intensity the Canadian) right wing. Each are challenges to democratic life, the striving of people to live as they wish with dignity. But those challenges differ in important ways.

1) The demand for society to be defined by white European Christian heritage and tradition.

I can’t help but find this the least profound challenge to democracy, even though it might be the most powerful in the world. Transforming society along authoritarian Christian lines is the goal of the radical Christian Right of America. 

But it’s also the successful political program of Aleksandr Dugin, chief philosopher of Putinism – a union of state police authority, Russian white supremacy, and Orthodox Christian moral authority. 

Russia's leading philosopher of white nationalism, Aleksandr Dugin.
American religious conservatives praise Vladimir Putin as a leader who unites social conservative values, strong gender role segregation, and opposition to alternative sexuality. While the Americans may be Evangelicals, they see the radical authoritarian Orthodoxy of Putin and Dugin’s underlying philosophy as their fellow travellers.

You might even be able to call this international coalition of Christian authoritarianism a reconciliation of the ancient Schism of Christianity. All they needed was the common enemy of secular democracy.

But authoritarian Christianity is an inherently reactionary position. It’s the social fear of a group of people who face the ultimate denial of their faith – that their universalism is false. It’s the immature demand to be right, despite the world’s proving you wrong. In that, it has a similar structure as . . . 

2) Capitalism against democracy. This is the faith that billionaires have, that their riches are deserved and that any attempt to cajole them into directly contributing to their community is an assault on their freedom.

A lot of libertarian philosophy falls along this line. It’s the notion that property rights are the most fundamental – if you happen to have so little property that you can’t live a dignified life, so much the worse for you because you have no right to my property.

Follow this with a few libertarian.org memes like “Taxation is theft!” and “My guns are my freedom!” eagles with M-1s for eyes clutching the shreds of the US Constitution in their talons, that sort of thing.

The ultimate absurdity of this image is a famous story from Donald Trump’s life, appropriately enough. Sometime during his string of bankruptcies through the 1990s, the apocryphal Donald walks along a Manhattan street with Marla Maples or Ivanka. 

When Trump first started gaining popularity in his run for US President,
I worried that he could be a serious threat to America's democracy. I
no longer have that worry. But I think that if Peter Thiel eventually
takes over the political momentum and vacuum of right-wing
American nationalism after Trump's final implosion, that will be a
genuine cause for worry.
He sees a homeless man begging for change in the street, and says, “That guy probably has more money than I do right now.” Then Donald walks into the expansive lobby of the first skyscraper to bear his name and retires to dinner in his opulent penthouse while the beggar freezes to death in the winter.

It’s depressing and more than a little scary that all these anti-democratic ideas are so mainstream. It just goes to show that democracy is never a finished process. We’re never fully, completely, and irrevocably free. 

But that doesn’t mean we should give up on freedom. It means that an essential part of human freedom is to fight for freedom, and to think hard about the concept of freedom and what a free life would really be. That way, we’ll keep our democratic institutions and cultures on track to work for universal freedom and dignity.

Yet it’s not as though democracy hasn’t been criticized and denounced ever since the idea was invented. One of the most insidious and profound critiques of democracy today is also an echo of the oldest. . . . 

3) The idea that most people are too ignorant and stupid to have any say in how their government and institutions should be run. 

I was going to talk about this for most of this post, but I spent too long explaining my preamble, as I do on this blog pretty often. Especially when I'm in a series. So there’ll be more detail about this flavour of hate for democracy on Friday, after my review of “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo.”

A Terrifying Universe, Class: For Tonight We Might Die, Reviews, 25/10/2016

For early previews of these posts, and to keep supporting more elaborate projects down the road, please sign on to my Patreon.
• • •
Media studies is easier. That’s the last of many lampshaded moments in the first episode of Class. But it’s probably the most important one. 

That line follows a conversation among the teenage regulars where they drop the names of all the television shows that have guided them on how to handle a weird spacetime wormhole under a high school. From Buffy onward. Though discussing those references will constitute 

Rachel is a sadly textbook case of a refrigerator character. All she does
in this episode is look lovingly at Ram, remind him of what a kind
person he is under his footballer douche self-image, then get brutally
killed by a Shadowkin right in front of him.

But it isn’t enough to know the rules that govern your show. That’s the message from the Doctor, the most metafictionally complicated character in television today – probably in the whole history of television. You can throw in as many references as you want – like Tanya’s joke about the Bechdel Test – it won’t be enough to save you from actual invading aliens from a wormhole in the depths of your high school.

That said, this kind of trope awareness is needed. If only to highlight that the viewer should be wary when characters like Rachel are so clearly fridged to provide motivation for our footballer-with-a-good-heart Ram.

The real meat of “For Tonight We Might Die” lies in two issues. One is the nature of sacrifice – asking what you’re willing to give up to save another or (at the scale of the conflicts in Class), to save your entire civilization and world. The other is an extremely sticky engagement with the nature of genocide.

The Strength to Give It Away

I have a distinct feeling that I’ll be returning to questions of sacrifice throughout my reviews of this series. It seems to be the major philosophical theme of April’s long-term character arc. Consider that she’s been tapped as the heart of resilience in the Coal Hill team from the end of “For Tonight We Might Die.”

Rachel's death scene even sprays Ram with her blood in a moment
that I think was a riff on the mass shooting flashback sequence in
The Fisher King.
Consider how we understand her family background. Raised by her mother, seemingly without a father figure, April describes her family’s situation to Charlie as the grounding she has for dealing with the immensely dangerous life she’ll lead from here on. Paralyzed in a car accident she never should have survived in the first place, April’s mother continued on, raising her daughter alone.

Likewise, April now carries a burden and a duty in the face of a physical disability. She has the weirdest heart condition in Britain, as it disappears in and out of phase with our reality whenever Corakinus the leader of the Shadowkin appears in our world. 

Knowing her fatal link to this monstrous invader, she’s actually prepared to stab herself in the heart to stop him. The ethical strength to take that drastic step upon yourself is at the heart of April as a character in this show. 

And I think we’ll see that strength as a narrative of conflict and growth with Ms Quill. April’s willingness to give of herself to save another is a stark contrast with Quill, whose first act in the show was to trick another student into sacrificing himself without any knowledge of what he was about to do.

Yes, she defended herself and the school from a Shadowkin invader, but the weapon that destroyed it also destroys the one who fires it. That lack of scruples to dispose of another person as a weapon to defend yourself is the real crime that the Doctor is right to label her with.

April and Tanya's first scene in Class, in which a conversation about
decorating for prom turns to April's question about how
available Charlie is. So Tanya delivers the show's first piece of
media studies. April doesn't get it.
Quill was a freedom fighter for her people on the Rhodian homeworld, leading a failed guerrilla campaign against the monarchist government, represented by Prince Charlie. When the Doctor first refers to her punishment, her reflex is to defend herself as a freedom fighter. 

But the Doctor is well-accustomed to overthrowing monarchies – If they had met years earlier on Rhodia, he probably would have helped her in the fight for her minority’s freedom. And Charlie would have been a sympathetic villain instead of a hero with secrets. But the only crime of hers that the Doctor cares about is having tricked that student into his own death in that first scene of the whole show.

Her willingness to give up another’s life for her own without transparency is Quill’s weakness, while April’s openness to give of herself for others is her strength.

To Deserve Genocide

That’s a horrifying concept for most humans – whether anything actually deserves its genocide. We rightfully consider genocide the ultimate evil humans could commit. Even the planetary destruction of a full-on nuclear war would be less evil than a genocide. 

At least in a nuclear war, the perpetrators are just as dead as the victims. In a genuine genocide, there are survivors to profit from the remnants of the dead. Just think about all the Russians, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, and other folks who moved into those fertile farming communities along the old Pale of Settlement in the late 1940s.

Once you know their backstories, you can better appreciate how much
Quill relishes their cover identities, since her job as a math teacher lets
her boss around Charlie, the prince who's essentially her slavemaster.
The original owners were never coming back. They were all dust, ash, worm food, and lampshades. 

So genocide would be the ultimate moral horror. The Shadowkin are monstrous because – as we see from what they do to Rhodia and the casual way they commit violence at the Autumn prom – they literally live by genocide. They stalk entire civilizations interdimensionally, nesting in their shadows until they strike. In a single day, every individual member of the entire civilization is killed.

It’s the Shadowkin’s essence to be the most effective genocide machines in the universe. Speaking in the context of Doctor Who’s monster gallery, they’re more efficient killers than the Daleks. Daleks at least enjoy torturing other creatures enough that they let you live long enough that you might manage to escape or fight back.

The Shadowkin seem beyond pleasure. They are driven by a desire to kill without exception. They are less a sentient or sapient species and more a disease. 

And yet Shadowkin are sapient. They have individual identities like Corakinus, and presumably a society – horrifying though it is. A society of individuals that is simultaneously a plague of fire and smoke. Given the inherently destructive nature of the Shadowkin, would we call their total destruction genocide? Or disease control?

I also can't help but think that Charlie's name is another meta joke,
this time throwing some UK history into the show.
Given their relentlessness, a clear case can be made that their total destruction would be an act of self-defence on the part of your entire civilization. And an act of defence on behalf of all other civilizations in the universe, whose lives are threatened by the mere existence of Shadowkin. If they’re alive, then any of us could very well be next.

We have no guilt about wiping out smallpox or polio. So why the Shadowkin? Charlie explicitly says that he won’t answer a genocide with another genocide, that he won’t take on the burden of destroying the Shadowkin out of revenge for his own people.

Yet if they are more destructive than smallpox, it would be a great good to destroy the Shadowkin. So what makes their death genocide?

I can only conclude – from the narrative evidence I have, at least from the first episode – that it’s because of their self-consciousness. You can destroy an entire species of virus, bacteria, or fungus if their existence threatens your own because it’s the basic civilizational self-defence of disease control.

Yet despite genocidal propaganda, destroying a whole community or species of self-conscious individuals would not be mere pest control. It would be mass murder on the most horrifying scale. It would be genocide. 

Can even a Shadowkin's face summon you to an ethical confrontation?
In the phenomenological ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, he identifies the experience of the stare of another person – particularly another face – as the foundation of ethics itself. The face is itself a plea for recognition, its living presence a call for consideration and an absolute demand on you. 

Experiencing a face, you meet a force that limits your own action by its very existence. Reaching out to it humanizes you as much as the face itself imposes its humanity on you in that first encounter. And to harm or destroy that face is an ethical ruination. The face accuses you as it dies.

To destroy all faces of a particular kind is a genocide – even of something like the ontological plague of the Shadowkin – because they can accuse you as they die.

Kind of heavy stuff for a teenaged-aimed show. See you in a few days with my review of “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” and I’ll see you tomorrow with some more thoughts about Jacques Rancière’s philosophy of radical democracy.

Hating Democracy IV: End Your Traditions, Research Time, 24/10/2016

I haven’t gotten my hands on the first episode of Class by Sunday night, so the first post in that series will come on Tuesday. That’ll be my discussion of the first episode “For Tonight We Might Die.” The post on the second episode, “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” will likely go up Friday – But Patreon backers will get to see it a day earlier.

Posts on Class will probably appear each Tuesday after that. This will probably be how the Doctor Who posts end up going as well.
• • •
Continued from last post . . . You can say democracy is a lot of things. It’s not exactly a simple concept. But here’s what democracy is on today’s post. 

Democracy leaves ever aspect of a community’s social order up for grabs in every moment. It’s the fundamental opposition to social conservatism at all times. 

The unity of a culture is built from the ground up, from such ordinary
things as brief television commercials about noteworthy moments in
your country's history. Like when Drake took those baskets back to save
the Raptors from the Halifax Explosion at the conference to choose the
design of the new Canadian flag. At least that's how I remember it.
This is another part of Jacques Rancière’s account of the democratic attitude, democratic life. If I can name it a little more poetically, it’s the fundamental human yearning for freedom.

I sometimes feel as though a lot of popular political discourse in the West has lost this more profound conception of freedom. Too many of us think freedom is a matter of “money talks.” The kind of freedom that means we shouldn’t care how much a company pollutes if people still love their products because the market will guide our reason. 

The kind of freedom that means I can say whatever I want, even if it’s horrible and racist, because my fundamental freedom is freedom to be a jackass. That freedom is nothing more than the absence of coercion. Or sometimes even the absence of resistance.

In many ways, that kind of very individualist libertarianism doesn’t go far enough. It sticks with the perspective of an individual’s freedom as an isolated unit. But it doesn’t consider how deeply integrated each of us as individuals are with so many others. 

This doesn’t make individuality disappear into some amorphous blob of a society. For one thing, actual societies are way more complicated than that. Nations and communities aren’t homogeneous unities, no matter how many ancient* sociological theories treated them that way. 

* And undeniably fucked up . . . 

Societies don't really have any essence – no identity like an individual. They’re collections of many different individuals. These individuals all affect each other in complex networks. Think of how many different people you interact with half-frequently in a week. Or a month.

Co-workers, neighbours, friends, family members, casual acquaintances, occasional clients, people you see often enough at the grocery store that you remember their faces, that street musician with the steel drums and the cool hat. Now think about all the networks each of those people have. And all the networks that flow out from each person in those networks.

These networks aren't evenly distributed all over the world. They don’t have boundaries, per se, but there are hubs, as well as general tendencies to link in some ways and not in others. 

Though I'd like to meet some people from Kyrgyzstan. It seems like a
really cool place.
I don’t know personally anyone in Kyrgyzstan, for example. Because it’s far away, I’ve never been there, I don’t know any Kyrgyz myself in the city where I live, and I don’t even speak Kyrgyz, Russian, or Uzbek, the country’s most common languages. Physical, social, and institutional obstacles prevent me from direct connections to the networks of people in Kyrgyzstan.

But you could find a path through the networks of my networks (and all their networks) that would eventually lead to Kyrgyzstan. Because I live in immigrant-heavy Toronto, it probably wouldn’t take as long either. 

This is the reality of society. We’re not cells in some kind of big, giant person called Canada. We’re networks of individuals. But all these people affect each other – some a little, some a lot, and some in very subtle ways. Ideas, beliefs, and ways of acting all drift through these networks. 

So the individual people in those networks might share some tendencies, across the population when you survey it. Many of them may share tastes in food, or a peculiar rudeness in the behaviour of a city’s bad drivers. That’s where cultures come from: the integration of networks of individuals.

We’re not made by some omnipowerful essence called our nation. We’re individuals who all affect each other – and have some mild power over each other, in tension with each other. Most of the time, the people who are networked together benefit each other. 

We all do our jobs, keep our city’s infrastructure and businesses running, are generally nice to each other in the streets. But each of us, living our lives in pleasant, productive, peaceful ways, exercises their little bit of power to build and rebuild society every day.

Societies are not giant people who behave according to sarcastic
national stereotypes. But it would be funny if they were.
And that’s why you have no obligations to uphold your traditions if they stop working for you. If the world has changed so that something that you’ve always done before starts causing destructive effects, you can stop it. 

There’s no moral obligation to do something when it starts to hurt you instead of help you as it had for years or decades. Humans work best when we all strive to live so that we make each other’s lives better, or at least keep each other on the right track. The world is largely beyond our individual control, but we can adapt to a changing world.

Democracy is a politics that recognizes that fundamental human power over each other and over the world. It says to everyone who’s networked together and holds that little bit of power over everyone they’re fairly densely connected with: You have that power over each other, and an obligation to use it wisely for all our sakes. 

Democracy says: Each of us has a duty to help each other figure out the best way to survive and prosper. If that means overthrowing an old social habit or institution? If it looks like that’s the best route, heave ho.

Social conservatism in the face of destruction isn’t just foolhardy. It’s rude.

Hating Democracy III: The Rabble Babbles, Research Time, 21/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . In case you think this weird democratic hate on for democracy stops with the end of the Bush years, an intellectual very influential on today’s anti-democratic politics said essentially the same thing.

Yesterday, I described this disgust at real democracy as the belief that people’s freedom is living under and loyalty to democratic state institutions. That democracy isn’t actually the government of the people by the people, but institutions like regular elections of officials and leaders, a free press, and nominal transparency in government.

Rancière sums up the hypocritical anti-democracy like so:
“A good democratic government is one capable of controlling the evil quite simply called democratic life.”
In other words, freedom is little more than unchecked personal desire at the expense of the common good or a higher form of social life. Here’s a thought leader in our own time – even our own moment – saying exactly the same thing: Nick Land.

Another aspect of Land's political philosophy is that our transhumanist
impulses will eventually take humanity's elite in a radical divergence
from humanity itself to survive our ecological crisis. As a slightly
serious joke, he describes the monstrosity to some as "face tentacles."
Land’s The Dark Enlightenment is a founding philosophical text of the alt-right movement, and he’s the closest the alt-right has today to a top philosopher. The barrel isn’t exactly very deep, but he’s still a genuinely intelligent man and sharp writer. 

I personally wish he hadn’t given himself over to a movement of resurgent white nationalism and just stuck to horror philosophy and the attempt to think the abyss. But sometimes, I also think that too much abyssal thinking leads to some very terrifying, violent places.

Anyway, Land’s argument against democracy (at least one aspect of it) goes like this. 

People basically act from self-interest – this could be literal individual interest, or in the interests of your family, clan, circle of close friends, or organization. Maximum, no more than a few hundred people, maybe just a little more than the max number a person can genuinely know as people.

Rulers of democracies are no different. But in a democracy, no individual or faction is ever in power much longer than a decade. So a given set of rulers, affiliates, factions, and sponsors develop a tendency to loot the state and profit as much from their control over the common wealth as they can.

People who know they’ll only be in power for a short while will only ever think in the short term, and never lay down long term plans for their society to accomplish important tasks. Like surviving an onrushing planetary ecological crisis. Only a ruler-for-life will do that, because their self-interest will run over the longest possible term. 

Here’s my take on this argument against democracy. After about a decade, when organizational rot has set in at the seat of power, the people have to kick the rulers out to reset the corruption clock. 

It’s essentially very similar to Land’s argument, but I refuse the additional step of believing that being a CEO-for-life (or until you feel like retiring) makes you a virtuous ruler who always thinks and plans for the long-term health and vibrancy of his national culture.

The most recent long-serving Prime Minister of my country Canada
was tossed out of power after nine years, when plenty of corruption
scandals had already taken root in his office. But even if he'd won
the 2015 election, he would have retired voluntarily one or two
years afterward anyway. Because we're a democracy and you don't
stick around in the top office for life.
From one perspective, I’m actually more pessimistic about human nature than Land, whose argument essentially describes a national chief executive as a benevolent despot. 

As far as I’m concerned, any moderate-term wielding of state power corrupts the office-holder. So rulers and their cliques have to be forcibly retired before the taste for filthy lucre sets in. Despotism is inevitably malevolent – kleptocracy at best, and at worst Stalin. 

Democratic institutions are the framework to keep those forced retirements smooth and peaceful. That insurance against state corruption is the central justification for democratic institutions. But real democracy is a lot more than just the institutions.

But let’s get back to Land and anti-democracy for the rest of the post. Land’s argument returns one of the oldest criticisms of democratic governance in the world – it starts in Plato’s Republic, where he calls democracy the babbling of self-important jerks. I’m paraphrasing, of course. But that’s the idea.

Plato’s critique of democracy has been a touchstone in Western political thinking ever since it was published. Yet Rancière makes a very incisive stab at Plato’s doubts about democracy. It’s so obvious when I read it that I smacked my own head – not quite literally, but it was one of those moments. I wondered why no one had thought of it before.

Why are we taking a self-professed opponent of democracy at his word about the character of people who actually embrace democratic culture and governance? Yes, he had seen a democratic assembly condemn Socrates to death for radical sedition. Which is extremely bogus.

But Plato describes democracy at its worst, as if its worst was its essence. That’s not an argument against democracy per se – it’s an argument against letting your most paranoid, socially conservative, closed-minded passions rule your democracy.

Sounds fine. But I’d seem to be in a bit of a pickle. Given what I’ve said today about how inevitable corruption is, how do I expect to stop people’s most paranoid, conservative, closed-minded passions and prejudices from taking over society? . . . To Be Continued

Hating Democracy II: Freedom As Chaos, Research Time, 20/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . So that's the general setup of the problem. If you take democracy to be democratic institutions alone, you’re going to end up being an opponent of what democracy really is. 

But what would that opposition be like? How would you understand people’s freedom if you were a democrat who thought that freedom was contrary to democracy?

Jacques Rancière is writing Hatred of Democracy in the year 2006, publishing it in 2007. There are few figures in world politics that embody these twisted hypocrisies in the understanding of freedom and democracy than George W Bush. 

The imagery of George W Bush definitely contributed to the disturbing
surreality of the terror experienced by a generally progressive person
living through the global politics of the 2000s.
Understanding the Bush years is part of what I want to do in Utopias. There is a subjective element to this as well. Utopias might get a little experimental as a philosophical text, being very explicit about the book’s nature as a response to the cultural and political problems of our own time. 

I think the best philosophy engages with its world in a very conceptual, abstract way – it can be an expression in concepts and ideas of its time and society. 

Here’s a not-so-coincidental example. Just as the cultural and historical context of the English Civil War helps us better understand Hobbes’ Leviathan, the context of the 21st century should inform ambitious philosophical work of our time and society.

So how does the Bush Administration and the politics of the time inform Rancière? They're the prime example of the terrible danger that comes when you think democracy is solely a matter of institutions. That democratic institutions are not just necessary, but also sufficient conditions of real democratic freedoms.

As Rancière describes, this premise makes you sincerely think you can create a democracy – literally a thriving democratic culture – at the point of a gun. With a military occupation. Because that is literally what they were doing to Iraq.

The Bush Administration were following the ideas they all developed as members of the Project for a New American Century think tank – building an American military empire, but an empire that would travel around the world installing democracies. Democratic, free societies whose governments upheld people’s basic liberties, who would naturally be American partners because of their shared love of freedom.

Alberto Gonzales was ruthless in his ideological devotion to the Bush
Administration, purging the Justice Department of attorneys who
questioned or critiqued the government's anti-terrorism laws. He was
also the most cartoonish failure of those years, dopily telling a
Congressional committee that he couldn't remember any of the
details of major activities in his own office.
Because they all thought that all you needed to do was knock down totalitarian institutions, install democratic ones, and people’s natural freedom would emerge. This is why they thought you could make a democracy with a military invasion. 

Here are some examples Rancière doesn’t bring up, but that I will. It’s why they thought no one would ever vote for Hamas in the Palestinian Territories in 2007 – because an election is a democratic institution and democracies don’t vote for non-democrats.

It’s why they cracked down on civil liberties in America itself, authorizing the mass data collection of the NSA, routinizing torture and secret rendition of terrorism suspects, federally prosecuting political enemies of the administration. They still considered them democrats because they were in democratic institutions, answerable to the press and periodically elected.

So how does Donald Rumsfeld describe free people? People literally having just been liberated from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime? He’s sad for the public disorder after the invasion – people looting state institutions. 

But he’s sure that democratic institutions will channel that energy into the proper freedom. That's why the American military went to Iraq. 

Freedom is the goal of America’s invasion of Iraq, but raw freedom is a sad by-product of liberation. It’s disorder, chaotic, something unfortunate that needs to be brought to heel. 

Rancière doesn't collapse freedom into pure anarchy, but he's aware that
the liberty to do what you want is an essential element of government
by and for the people. My own conclusion is that freedom is only
possible among ethical people. So to build a perfectly free society,
we have to build a society where no one will be driven or desire to
harm others. I have no idea how that can happen, but it's a
wonderful asymptote to approach.
That understanding of freedom isn’t the freedom to live as you want and do as you like. It isn’t even genuine government of the people by the people. It’s the freedom of living under a particular set of institutions. The institutions are constraints, but they will shape people into their highest, most proper freedom. 

Yet even democratic institutions are still constraints. They ultimately involve coercion – police, armies, state violence whether by gun, jail cell, or fine. Institutions that punish malicious behaviour. 

Any punishment is constraining behaviour – it’s an ill done to you, which means that it takes away from what you can do. Just having to obey an institution’s rules does ill to you, even if it’s a nice institution that materially improves your life, as most democratic institutions do.

If you disobey the institution, you’re punished. And so for the threat of punishment, you conform your behaviour to the institution’s rules. You constrain yourself. The material freedom the institution may give you comes at a price of a degree of your liberty. 

Institutions are needed to constrain the chaos of real liberty. Democratic institutions are, accordingly, what transforms chaos into the ordered movement of a higher freedom – democracy. But what happens to a democratic society when they see freedom and liberty as an excess? . . . To Be Continued

Hating Democracy I: In Our House, Research Time, 18/10/2016

Reading Jacques Rancière is a lot of fun. He’s efficient – writing short, dense books. But he’s also fun to read – those books steer clear of over-technical jargon and they get straight to the point. There's nothing ambiguous about Rancière’s writing. You see it, it confronts you, and you deal with it.

Because it’s nothing if not confrontational. You don’t write a book called Hatred of Democracy and expect to avoid upsetting people.

Who hates democracy here? Certainly not Rancière, though he does hate a lot of what gets called democracy. Though he doesn’t name the individuals, the introduction to Hatred of Democracy expresses nothing but bile toward the racist nationalism and enforced secularism that's near-universal to his country France.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, recently said that
she would ban all conspicuous religious symbols in all public places, if
she becomes President. In the name of France's liberal secularism.
When he wrote about that, my first instinct was to think of Marine Le Pen and Bernard Henri-Lévy as examples of each. 

It made sense to me at first glance. Maybe that’s because, while Rancière was writing in 2006, I was reading in 2016 so could see more obviously (and unfortunately) how Le Pen’s socialist nationalism* and Henri-Lévy’s secular liberalism dance together.

* Where have I heard of a formula like that before? It sounds weirdly familiar.

It's a peculiarly European problem. Even more peculiar than European – a Western European problem and very much a French problem as well. That singular kind of opposition to freedom in the name of democracy. Perhaps it’s Dutch too

A devotion to liberal secularism and tolerance turns you against freedom

You can split democracy in two ways, you see. One side, you focus on democratic institutions – parliaments, courts, political parties, bureaucracies, welfare services, public utilities, police, and so on. Call that, just for the sake of the argument we’ll be having over the next few posts, civic democracy.

Now look at the other side of what we call democracy in this split. This is the freedom to do whatever you want with your life as long as you don't hurt anyone. I often joke with my friends and co-workers, when they float the idea of doing something harmless that they haven’t before – “Of course! Why wouldn’t you? We live in a democracy. You can do whatever you want!”

Maybe just call that liberty. 

The problem is that you can very easily confuse civic democracy with liberty. As if conformity to the institutions of your country was the same as being free to live as you wish, as long as those institutions were governed by democratic norms like representation, management transparency, and the freedom to criticize them.

Patriotic French citizens demonstrate for their religious freedoms.
But institutions don't free you. At least not entirely. They can certainly provide you with benefits you need to secure your material freedom – like subsidized or not-for-profit utilities, welfare payments, or the protection of your civic freedoms. 

Institutions demand something of you that constrains your freedom – loyalty. Conformity. Since the institutions of a state are closely entwined with a country’s culture, conformity takes on a powerful moral imperative as well as a political command to be loyal.

Look at the example of France. Racist nationalism has grown there (and throughout Europe) in response to large waves of Muslim migrants. Public suspicion of migrants and Islam’s association with terrorism drives the alienation of that minority community. And that alienation tends to swing more members to embrace the fanaticism of terrorism in Islam’s name. The cycle continues.

The response is all too often to push Muslim migrants to conform to secular French life. The freedom of secularism becomes a freedom of fealty, turning away from how you want to live. 

Even though a headscarf doesn't hurt anybody and the moralities of those who choose to wear it are far more diverse than the garment’s opponents believe. And the secularism of the French constitution is rooted in its cultural Catholicism to begin with.

The French case, which Rancière writes about, is a very clear example of a common mistake people make about politics – taking civic democracy to be material liberty. As though loyalty to democratically governed institutions was the same as freedom.

This is just one of many ways you can call yourself a democrat while hating freedom. . . . To Be Continued