Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On the Need for a Critical Progressive Perspective in the Age of Obama

As a Québécois of Haitain ancestry, it is quite human of me to be happy that Barack Hussein Obama, a biracial African-American man, has become president of the United States and how his historic election may enable Americans - white and black, Northerner and Southerner - to see and treat themselves differently in ways we cannot yet fully imagine.

However, as both a left-wing progressive and a critical thinker, I've always prefered that Obama be elected without any radical illusions. As Matt Taibbi of RollingStone.com reminded us with a cold shower way back in February 2007, Obama is first and foremost a politician regardless of how good a politician he has proven himself to be. Furthermore, although he will stir the US away from some of the authoritarian policies of the Bush administration, it doesn't change the fact that he, like Bill Clinton, is a "Third Way" centrist Democrat that will most probably govern from the American political center rather than the left.

So in order to be a credible force that can hold Obama to his liberal campaign promises, American progressives (and their allies and sympathizers in other countries such as myself) must resist getting swept up in the "Obamania" spreading all over the globe by remaining informed, engaged, and, most of important of all, critical.

This is why I very much appreciated this excerpt from an AlterNet.org article entitled Why Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, and Others Might Be Nervous About President Obama where Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! interviewed Australian investigative journalist, bestselling author, and documentary filmmaker John Pilger for his response to the election of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States:
John Pilger: Well, my response, Amy, is that really anyone was better than Bush and the Bush administration. Having experienced election night in the United States and then seeing the response here [in Britain], I feel that it's time that analysis and critical thinking took over and that those of us who wish to think that way, who wish to think critically, really should start addressing the -- this rather manipulated emotional response. I don't, in any way, cast doubt on the sincerity of the way people are speaking about the election of Obama around the world [...]. But I do think we have to consider President-elect Obama as a man of the system.

Michael Moore had it right when he said the other day, let's hope that Obama breaks all his election promises, as politicians generally do, because all his election promises, in terms of foreign policy, are a continuation of business as usual. And even if there is a return to what used to be called a multilateral world, I think there has to be critical analysis of the return to the pretensions of America as a peacemaker around the world. We had to endure this, and I mean endure it during the Clinton years, and I don't think that we, in the rest of the world, ought to have to endure it now through the Obama years, so that we have a continuation, if you like, of liberalism as a divisive, almost war-making ideology, being used to destroy liberalism as a reality, because that has gone on under so-called liberal presidents, from Kennedy to Clinton, Democratic presidents. And President-elect Obama suggests to us, in his promises, that he is going to continue that, bombing Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Someone said to me -- in fact, I was talking to my daughter when I got off the plane from Houston this morning, and she said, "What was it like over there?" And we were discussing it, and I said, "Well, it comes down to, I suppose, asking an Afghan child how they feel when their family has been destroyed by a 500-pound bunker-busting bomb dropped by the United States and dropped by President Obama, as he continues that war. I think that's the reality that we really have to begin to discuss now, having celebrated, and rightly celebrated, the ascent of the first African American president of the United States.

JG: And, John Pilger, what sign would you look for in these early days now, as Obama begins to move into a transition period, that would indicate to you that he would be trying to break, in one way or other, from this neoliberalism of the Clinton years?

JP: Well, it's difficult to know. Breaking from the Bush years is going to be the first, and I suppose breaking from the Bush years means actually talking to people and negotiating. I think breaking from, let's say, the Democratic years [...] the Clinton years will mean giving us a sign that the ideological, rapacious, war-making machine that has been built over many years and reinforced, as perhaps never before during the eight years of Bush, that that ideological machine does not transcend a loss of electoral power. You see, that's really the central issue here, that a kind of ideological consensus has been built under Bush. Now, yes, Obama has been voted in, but will that vote, will that -- will a new president transcend this ideological machine?

You know, during the campaign, there was almost nothing between McCain and Obama in foreign policy. Indeed, Obama went further. I mean, he even declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. He threatened Latin America. He, at times, seemed to be going further than Bush. And, of course, people, realists, the so-called realists, would shake their heads and say, "Well, yes, he has to do that."

Look, in answer to your question, I think he has to -- in order to show that he is in any way different -- he has to start dismantling this machine, for example, going against his promise to continue the embargo on Cuba, to drop that; to reach out to the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia and Ecuador, each of which is under attack, subversive attack by the United States; to face the reality that Afghanistan is a colonial war; and to not let the so-called withdrawal from Iraq be a sham, that it leaves these so-called enduring bases. That, any one of those, any change in one of those, would indicate that Obama is truly different.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

On the Ideology of Waste

An insightful passage from French journalist Hervé Kempf's eco-socialist book Comment les riches détruisent la planète (How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet):
But we cannot understand the concomitance of the ecological and social crises if we do not analyze how they are two facets of the same disaster. The latter is a result of a system directed by a dominant class which todays has no other recourse than greed, no other ideal than conservatism, no other dream than technology.

This predatory oligarchy is the principal agent of the global crisis.

Directly through the decisions it takes. It seeks to maintain the established order, prioritizes the goal of material growth, the only way according to it to make the subordinate classes accept the injustice of its positions. Hence, material growth increases environmental degradation.

The oligarchy also exercises a powerful indirect influence by virtue of the cultural attraction its mode of consumption exercises on the whole of society, and particularly on the middle classes. In the most wealthy countries as in emerging countries, a large part of consumption responds to a desire for ostentation and distinction. People aspire to elevate themselves in the social ladder, which occurs through an imitation of the consumption of the upper class. The latter therefore diffuse in all of society its ideology of waste.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

From Fear of Genetics to Genetics of Fear

In the most sober response to common left-wing fears of reprogenetics, Henry Greely wrote:
When not speculating about future speciation events, Metzl seems most worried about fairness–that genetic enhancement would be a way for the rich and powerful to stay both, and to ensure their children’s wealth and power. This is a real issue, today and tomorrow. Fairness in access to life-enhancing activities like good education, adequate nutrition, safe streets, and decent health care need to be among our primary concerns today. But if, against my own expectation, human genetic enhancement becomes both effective and clinically available, the better policy response would be to assure that it is available to those who want it. This is both more practical and more ethical than trying to ban it. Just because educational opportunities are unequal doesn’t mean we should ban education.

Safety issues can and should be addressed, but as safety issues are for other biomedical technologies. In the United States that largely means through the Food and Drug Administration (though an FDA free from the political and budgetary constraints that have caused it to leave genetic testing, for example, almost totally unregulated). Europe, the United States, and Japan do not have identical safety regimes, but they have proved effective regardless. Why should genetic engineering be any different? And, of course, when coercion is a concern, the regulatory response that deserves primary attention is banning or limiting coercion, not eliminating the object of the coercion.

Some have a deeper concern about human genetic engineering, one Metzl does not expressly name but hints at–and one that is attractive to parts of the left in the United States and elsewhere. It is a concern about the naturalness of genetic engineering, about the need to "preserve" the human genome against its intentional modification by humans (as opposed to its constant and unintentional modification by chance and natural selection). This concern peeks through in Metzl’s apparent but unexplained eagerness to ban human reproductive cloning, even if it were shown to be safe.

But it is neither progressive nor prudent to launch complex crusades without close analysis or to be dazzled into seeing everything new as posing uniquely new problems and requiring dramatic action. Indeed, such arguments, in reproductive cloning and elsewhere, are being made by the "bioconservatives," centered, in the United States, in President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. This branch of the religious and philosophical right is convinced that biotechnology is dangerous because humans should not tamper with their human natures or their human selves, which were, after all, made in God’s image. The chief spokesman for the bioconservatives, Leon Kass, is famous for propounding the "wisdom of repugnance."

The parts of the American left–found in both activist groups like Greenpeace or California’s Center for Genetics and Society, as well as in various corners of academia–drawn to arguments against biotechnology are pulled in, I think, by the lure of naturalness. But we need to worry about what–and whom–an emphasis on "the natural" human may exclude. We cannot let "natural" be an important guide to what is "human," especially when religious fundamentalists and conservative bio-Luddites will be only too eager to provide their definitions of human nature. Progressives must be very wary of allying themselves with a line of argument that was used against freedom for slaves, votes for women, and tolerance for gays and lesbians
You can read the entire response in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

''Using Sci-Fi to Change the World''

In her AlterNet column, Annalee Newitz has touched upon the heart of what I am trying to do with my screenwriting:
WisCon is the United States' only feminist sci-fi convention, but since it was founded more than two decades ago, the event has grown to be much more than that. Feminism is still a strong component of the con, and many panels are devoted to the work of women writers or issues like sexism in comic books. But the con is also devoted to progressive politics, antiracism, and the ways speculative literature can change the future. This year there was a terrific panel about the fake multiculturalism of Star Trek and Heroes, as well as a discussion about geopolitical themes in experimental writer Timmel Duchamp's five-novel, near-future Marq'ssan series [...] Perhaps the best part of WisCon is getting a chance to hang out with thousands of people who believe that writing and reading books can change the world for the better. Luckily, nobody there is humorless enough to forget that sometimes escapist fantasy is just an escape. WisCon attendees simply haven't given up hope that tomorrow might be radically better than today. They are passionate about the idea that science fiction and fantasy are the imaginative wing of progressive politics. In Madison, among groups of dreamers, I was forcefully reminded that before we remake the world, we must first model it in our own minds.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Progressive Media Action Plan

Jeffrey Chester writes:
It's time to develop a progressive digital media action plan, creating a system of broadband video networks, mobile social networks, buying-recommendation services and other new media properties committed and managed on behalf of social justice. Some may be for-profit, others a mix of nonprofit and revenue generation. The opportunity to bypass the media gatekeepers is before us, with support from this and future generations of youth accustomed to getting their news and culture online -- not from the media mainstream. An array of local and national Internet TV channels, including those operated by women and people of color, could provide the compelling content that will help drive the political debates (or at least keep them more honest!), and also illustrate the power of the creative imagination when not bound to protecting the status quo.

To do so will require expanding the definition of media reform, moving beyond public policy to engage in market-oriented strategies. Progressives have experienced great success with digital media -- including MoveOn.org's campaign for privacy rights on Facebook and its clever political quiz on the difference between Bush and John Mccain. Another good example is Web-based political organizing around the Jena 6 protests. But the steady consolidation of control online (including the cable and phone broadband access giants), and the growing power of interactive advertising as the Internet's business model, will have a profound impact on the evolution of our media system.

While the Internet and other emerging digital media will remain a source of diverse content, how well they promote the ideas and goals of progressives in the long-term will be greatly influenced by the commercial marketplace. Progressives can claim a great victory in the Net Neutrality debate. But we shouldn't rest on laurels and assume that our ideas and the online audience they can muster today will be there tomorrow.

US media history in the twentieth century illustrated how radio, broadcast television and cable were media with great promise, but once advertising took hold their public interest potential was soon scuttled. A hallmark of our new digital media landscape will be the flourishing of advertising-driven services; now practically everyone can create an ad for online or even for television. But whether this ad-supported system currently focused on generating corporate or individual wealth will help provide the resources to support long-term reform efforts will largely depend on our willingness to be progressive entrepreneurs.
Read the entire article on the AlterNet.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cyberpunk Disobedience

Annalee Newitz writes:
[W]e need organized crowds of people systematically and concertedly breaking the tethers on consumer technology. Yes, we need safe spaces like Wikipedia, but we also need to be affirmatively making things uncomfortable for the companies that keep us tethered. We need to build technologies that set Comcast DVRs free, that let people run any applications they want on iPhones, that fool ISPs into running peer-to-peer traffic. We need to hand out easy-to-use tools to everyone so crowds of consumers can control what happens to their technologies. In short, we need to disobey.
Read the entire article on the AlterNet.