Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Poems of the Climate, I

(After Eliot's Waste Land, of course)

December is the weird-ass month, raising
Daffodils from dozing land, mixing
Hallmark cards and bafflement, mudding
Up our seasons with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, no joke there,
Earth in forgetful grey, not even
Bothering to freeze the ticks.
I read, the long evenings, drive north and it stays warm.

What is the tropic here, what equinox
orders this unfrozen scene?  Son, hey son,
You’re quick to say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, affixed to tweets,
And the almond gives no shelter, the Gulf Stream no relief,
And the Arctic the sound of water.…

I will show you fear in a season of rain.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Poem: Tongue-tied leaves

Why shouldn’t all things be oracular
for one whose words
get swallowed or perch
on the tip of the tongue?

Tongue-tied leaves,
pleading in sworls
of orange, green, and crinkled brown;

Beech-bark maps
of coasts, swamps, broken lands,
the wen or burl of settlement;

Ridges spelling out lines for the sky,
and even clouds, old tricksters,
dropping their sticklebacks and mouses’ ears to say,
Hear me down there, listen and
lend me what you have.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Talk About the Weather

Reasons to talk about the weather.
1. It gives you feelings.
2. It's a metaphor for mood and consciousness.
3. Its event seem to imply personality.
4. And polytheism.
5. It reaches you through all the senses.
6. It links the global and regional scales through your own horizon and personal sensations.
7. It's now a real-time newsfeed of planetary history.
8. Light changes everything, all the time.
9. Clouds are amazing.
10. The only boring thing about the weather is the mind it can't reach.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Benevolent Authoritarian Reviews

         Amused to pieces by an Amazon review that complains about After Nature's support for democracy and asserts, "An authoritarian leader with a real commitment to solving these problems could be more effective," I decided to apply the benevolent authoritarian standard to a sample of reviews and commentary.

      Other Amazon review: “What this pattern-weave bathmat lacks is a commitment to benevolent authoritarianism. Three stars.”

            Yelp review of new Thai restaurant: "I liked the drunken noodles, and the appetizers came out quickly; but the service showed a distinct lack of grit; I left still hungry for the feel of the iron fist within the velvet glove. Two stars."

RateMyProfessor Review of male professor: “Obviously very knowledgeable, even though he couldn’t always answer our questions.  Sometimes intimidating, but that’s his job! LOL Didn’t beat us enough, though.  Three stars.”

            RateMyProfessor Review of female professor: “Great shoes!  Didn’t seem self-confident, sometimes couldn’t answer our questions, which made wonder if she’s really an expert.  LOL. Didn’t beat us enough.  Two stars.”

            David Brooks column: Will you people please tell me how to live my life meaningfully, already?  Have I mentioned that freedom is a burden?  I’m giving you all two stars; no, three, because I’m still the friendly conservative.

Yelp review of old Chinese restaurant: “The egg rolls were fine.  Nice to have forks as well as chopsticks.  The General Tsao’s Chicken did not lay to waste my stomach and burn the fields of my intestines, nor did it build a new society on the ashes.  Three stars.”

            Focus-group review of Bernie Sanders debate performance: “Liked his clear talk about inequality, political corruption, prison reform.  Felt good to be harangued a little.  But I was really hoping a so-called socialist would assign me a job and tell me which uniform to wear to work.  They don’t make ‘em like they used to! Two-and-a-half stars.”

            Focus-group review of Donald Trump’s campaign: Five stars.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Postmodernist Hulk prove you always already smashed.

Foucaultian Hulk interpellate you to smash self, agonizingly, invisibly.

Marxist Hulk smash bourgeois state. Marxian Hulk take long view, dissect changing means and relations of production, new class formations.

David Brooks Hulk: last good smash was Princeton class of 1910. We are Hulks with hollow chests. Email Hulk tips on living with your green self.

Ross Douthat Hulk: Do not make me moral panic. You not like me moral panicked.

Antonin Scalia Hulk smash how Founding Fathers smashed.

Historian Hulk smash contingently; how differently it might all have turned out! Too late: all is smashed.

Hobbesian Hulk rationally smash first.

Humean Hulk have always smashed before, but maybe not this morning.

Kantian Hulk not understand moral formula whether or not to smash. Kantian Hulk head hurt.

Walt Whitman Hulk smash multitudes.

Emily Dickinson Hulk contemplate mote of dust, beam of light, ephemeral insect, and fleeting feeling: impulse - to smash -!.

Academic Hulk table smashing motion pending re-consideration by committee.

Hillary Clinton Hulk, given what we now know, could not prudently endorse own earlier smashing.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Equality, Emancipation, and Anthropocene Futures: A reply to Andreas Malm

Writing in Jacobin earlier this year, Andreas Malm launched a broadside attack on “the Anthropocene narrative” about climate change.  In this polemical essay, Malm makes some essential points about the distortions, evasions, and hidden complacency in the most “serious” and urgent-sounding climate talk.  What he is describing, though, is only one strand of Anthropocene thinking, the neo-liberal one.  There’s also a left Anthropocene that is essential to engaging planetary crisis in a way that doesn’t give up on egalitarian and emancipatory aims.

“Anthropocene,” a portmanteau word meaning roughly “the age of humanity,” refers to the fact that human impacts on the earth now amount to a geological force.  Exhibit One is that the global atmosphere, and so all the weather and the regional climates, are now parts of a Frankenstein hybrid.  Mass extinction, toxicity, synthetic hormones in marine environments, and the agricultural-urban-suburban surface of a densely inhabited planet are all supporting details.

Malm slams the Anthropocene for what he calls “species-level thinking.”  He means two things by this, and he’s right about both.  For one, simply talking about “humanity” as the agent of global change conceals difference and conflict among people.  It wasn’t humanity that put most of the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the last couple-few centuries, but the industrial economies of the rich countries.  There are still vast differences between the richest and poorest populations in carbon impacts.  And the effects of climate change and other environmental disruptions will intensify inequality: they promise, at least for the first couple of centuries, intensifying inconvenience for the rich, accelerating catastrophe for the poor.

Second, some scientists have treated the Anthropocene as part of natural history in very dubious sense: by tracing it to allegedly permanent human qualities.  These, conveniently, are often the same qualities that are often used to prove that there is no alternative to a certain style of market capitalism, including infinite acquisitiveness.  Malm objects to these in particular, and he also to the idea that any invariant human nature can account for, hence naturalize, the economic order that is driving the present crisis.

Universalizing the Anthropocene as simply a “human problem” encourages two kinds of pernicious response.  One, which Malm emphasizes, is moralizing about how “we” caused this crisis and now “we” have to overcome it.  Since there isn’t a “we” that caused it, this simply adds symbolic insult to structural injury for the world’s poor and exploited.  Moreover, being willfully blind to actual avenues of cause and potential response, this universalizing approach fosters a spuriously individualistic kind of lesson: “we” must improve our consumer behavior.  Besides ignoring inequality, this kind of non-program vastly exaggerates the autonomy of individuals living within systems of energy production, transport, shelter, food provision, and relations of production that all presuppose cheap, profitable fossil energy and an extractive relation to the planet (and, often enough, to other people).  Only a democratic engagement with these systems themselves can provide the pivot to shift to an economy that does less damage – off all kinds.  And that implies conflict, since some people are doing very well in the present economy.  But there is no room for conflict in a moralized “we.”

There’s also another neoliberal response to the Anthropocene, which Malm doesn’t really address, but which is just as inadequate as the first and probably more influential.  This is the managerial attitude that proposes that a certain kind of market-minded technocracy needs to take over the problem.  On the one hand, this means geo-engineering measures such as changing the atmospheric mix or limiting the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth (and so reducing warming from the greenhouse effect).  On the other hand, it means the “green bottom line” approach of economists, corporate sustainability officials, and business-oriented conservationists such as the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva.  They propose to build a higher valuation of “natural capital,” or “ecosystem services” into corporate accounting so that profits, at least, will be sustainable in a thoroughly monetized and privatized world.  This, approach too, embeds the current economic order more deeply than ever and hurries political alternatives off the table.  Its practical effect is a market-based confirmation of inequality – for instance, in the contracts committing decades of agricultural production in parts of Africa to Chinese consumers (at least as long as the Chinese can pay).  This response uses the Anthropocene story to say, in effect, If we are remaking the world in our image anyway, then we might as well be intentional about it.

Malm does not distinguish between these neoliberal uses of the Anthropocene and its democratic potential.  He writes as if there were only one Anthropocene.  But that is not so.  Calling this age the Anthropocene means recognizing that the shape of what used to be called the natural world is, increasingly, a product of political economy.  This fact expands and gives an ecological dimension to the process that Marx described in the Communist Manifesto: global capital involves all of humanity for the first time in a single system, with rules and relations that span the planet.  The point of the famous exhortation – “Workers of the world, unite” – was to turn a new material reality into a basis of self-conscious political activity.  It was present people’s new reality to their minds so they could reclaim it as theirs by remaking it.  This remaking was, of course, ultimately concrete material work, but a critical step was an insight into how the world had changed, in the ways that it bound people and in the ways it bound them together.  To borrow a somewhat clunky distinction, Marx presented workers with the reality that the world economy had made them into a class in themselves – they objectively had the same relation to capital, wherever they were – so that they might become a class for themselves, aware of their situation and able to act without illusion.

The Anthropocene idea does the same kind of work.  It points to a condition that binds every region and people of the world – not so much in a common humanity as in relations of unequal contribution to the planet’s changes and unequal vulnerability to those changes.   In this respect, invoking the Anthropocene issues a challenge to construct a political humanity that is commensurate to the scale of our unequal and often terrible material commonality.  This is “species thinking” – hence that anthropo- - in the sense of what it points toward trying to build, not for sentimental reasons or because “humanity” sounds heroic, but because the global material scale of unequal interdependence requires a global political scale for any reconstruction of interdependence along egalitarian lines.  This ambition marks the difference between a neoliberal Anthropocene, which naturalizes and reinscribes inequality in a global material order, and a democratic Anthropocene, which aims at making the future of a shared condition into a question for common decision among equals.  Nothing in the idea of Anthropocene requires the neoliberal version, or fosters sentimental blindness to the real conflicts present in a transition to a democratic approach to global ecology as a problem of political economy, emphasis on political.

This is all frustratingly imprecise, but so is the “environmentally responsible socialism” that Malm cites as his alternative to today’s capitalism.  That is the condition of alternatives now.  And making the political economy of the Anthropocene a democratic question – is certainly a precondition of Malm’s alternative.  For now, a democratic Anthropocene is mostly likely to begin, like the labor movements Marx was addressing, in local, national, and regional politics, the self-organizing of hopeful – and just desperate – protest and alternative that Naomi Klein calls Blockadia.  Even with a blend of local motives and internationalist vision, such movements are still likely to have their most important forum in national governments, because these, for all their failings, are still the best institutional approximations of anchoring real political power to some kind of popular will.

One of the most important political projects is to press against austerity, neoliberal changes to labor law and social provision, and economic inequality and insecurity.  The effectively limitless appetite for material things that has become a strut of political stability from the US to China is one of the major barriers to the plausibility of a democratic transition to a fairer and greener world.  But this appetite is a political artifact of economies that produce insecurity at every point in the human life-cycle, and so force human appetites into ever-more intrusive (and profitable) incursions on all the other life-cycles that are entangled with ours.

It’s true: talk of the “global” and the “human” can be soporific and hazardous all at once, and that the impulses to conceal inequality while naturalizing market capitalism are so pervasive that those who do it are often quite unaware.  Malm’s frustration with all of this is well taken.  But a democratic politics, aimed at a democratic political economy, now has to include humanity and the globe among its problems.  This isn’t about a choice among narratives, but about how to begin making history in circumstances that we didn’t choose.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Supreme Court, a literary exchange

"The past is never dead. It isn't even past." ~Chief Justice John Roberts, quoting Faulkner while dissenting in Obergefell v. Hodges (the marriage equality case),


"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." ~Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

"Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." ~Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy

"What fresh hell is this?" ~Associate Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito, in unison, entering from opposite directions

"What I'm trying to do is save your ass, gorgeous." ~Associate Justice Elena Kagan

"Hell is empty, and all the devils here." ~Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor

"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." ~Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, spurring his horse into a sulfurous pit in the heart of Rome

“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” ~former Chief Justice William Rehnquist

"Words, words, words." ~Associate Justice Antonin Scalia

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy." ~Associate Justice emeritus John Paul Stevens

"Hell is other people." ~Associate Justice emeritus David Souter

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Field notes on reality (+ Elena Ferrante, Greek gods, landscape aesthetics, and Antonin Scalia)

“We are each tiny parts of something enduring, something that feels solid, real, and true.”  When I read a sentence like that one, from James Rebanks’s much-praised A Shepherd’s Life, I grow suspicious.  What is it to claim that a place, an experience, a practice, is real?  As opposed to what?

Then I grow pedantic: real as opposed to nothing, I insist.  “Real” means “actual.”  Brand-new suburbs are real.  So are plastic trees, made-up religions, neurotic projections and hallucinations, and every page on the internet.  Every last one, an actual thing.  What is so specially real about sheep that descend from earlier sheep owned by your ancestors in the same place where you live now?

Of course, this kind of thinking will not get very far.  Calling something real pays it a certain kind of compliment, marks it for distinction.  And so, the same question again: real as distinct from what?

Well, usually as distinct from those other words that Rebanks uses: false or insincere rather than true; insubstantial rather than solid.  Fair enough.  But calling these qualities real raises the stakes.  It draws an ontological borderline and expels to its far side everything flimsy, fleeting, disingenuous, and unconvincing.  In practice, what is convincing is often what is familiar: old, well-trodden, with chthonic notes in the bouquet.        

So what “feels real” will often be an object of nostalgia, and in that respect a fantasy and flight from the real present – which may feel oppressive and inspire flight precisely because it really is flimsy, fleeting, full of halfhearted work and disingenuous words.  The real can be the mortal enemy of the actual, route of an attempted escape from it.  

What counts as “real” in this sense will often be conservative.  Collective nostalgia, in particular, is likely to seek after a golden age of real men and real women, real faith and real causes, as opposed to the shifting and hybrid genders and compromised movements and institutions that we live with in fact.  But this is not always true: some trans activists insist specifically on the reality of their non-traditional genders, as opposed to the false and constraining actuality of hard binaries.  Talk of reality can be revolutionary rather than conservative, abruptly recasting all that merely is as artificial and obfuscating.  Marx did something similar in Capital when he invited readers to follow him into capitalism’s basement workshop, where they could envision the extraction of surplus value, which no one had ever seen or touched, but which, he argued, was more real than all the contracts and property rights of the marketplace.

“Reality” has often had affinities with “nature” and all that is “natural.”  Real food is food from the earth, whose sources you can touch, whose taste you recognize, food for which your language has an old and perhaps colloquial name.  Real work is work with material things, tied to the rhythms of seasons, animals, and crops.  For Americans, in particular, wilderness, the most natural place, has often seemed the most real place, the place to encounter both the world and one’s self unmediated and unmodified.  Never mind that the places we call wilderness are designated as such by law, and managed by federal agencies to preserve a prescribed set of “wilderness values.”  Wild nature, as a paragon of reality, takes work to produce and maintain.  It is unavoidably artificial.

The very idea of nature is under pressure these days, and rightly so.  Scientists and humanists alike argue that the planet has entered the Anthropocene, a geological era when humans are a force, maybe the force, in the earth’s development.  In this time, there is no more nature that is independent of human action: from the upper atmosphere to the chemical composition of soil to the mix of species in an age of mass extinction, our mark is everywhere.  The world we find can only be the world we have made.  The question cannot be, as environmentalists have often put it, how to save the world, but only what kind of world, with limited powers and foresight, to try to shape.

The Anthropocene has a brute empirical dimension, based in the great and growing human effect on the world.  It also has a more theoretical dimension.  The discovery that there is no more nature comes along with the insight that “nature” has always been a way for people to talk to – and about – one another.  Nature has always been cultural and social.  So aesthetic concepts of the beautiful and sublime have been bids for status by social groups that prized them, and attempts to vindicate experiences that were precious to them – such as scaling mountains to admire creation’s wild and dangerous place.  So the Lockean idea that nature was made to fulfill human needs, if only people would clear, plant, and develop it, rationalized the displacement and expropriation of native peoples in the settler colonies of the Americas and Oceania, entering the political and religious culture of early United States and the law of Australia and New Zealand.  Such opposites as monarchy and democracy, slavery and revolution, have all been celebrated as the favored principles of nature, depending who is interpreting it, and with what purposes.

Of course, these motivated interpretations of nature do not feel strategic to those who undertake them: they feel natural, sincere, real.  Nature has always stood for what comes before politics and culture, is not susceptible to their judgments, and so sets their limits.  In this way, talking about the principles of nature has been a self-concealing mode of cultural politics, a politics premised on denying – with a pure heart – that it is a politics at all.

Followed through, embracing the Anthropocene would mean giving up this unearned purity of heart, and surrendering the happy protest, “It’s just natural!”  It would mean embracing the necessary artificiality of every version of the “nature” that is a joint product of human activity and the rest of the world.  That would require finding new and clearer ways of talking about what is precious in the forms of halfway artificiality that have been called natural.
The same goes for the real.


            In a rare interview earlier this year, the reclusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante told the Paris Review that sincerity and accuracy, the hallmarks of the real, ironically falsify writing that relies on them.  She said, 

“The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? … It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs.”

            In other words, we should accept that the real is an aesthetic achievement.  Appreciating this point preserves the value of accuracy, the fidelity to fact that should be the standard for a piece of reporting or a police report.  It also preserves the real from the enervating confusion with mere accuracy.  It is, instead, an achieved resonance between expression and experience, or between subjective experience and its objective setting, that seems to clarify and dignify both.  What makes the real, in this sense, is a circuit linking self and world in a feeling of mutual fit that seems to touch something timeless, even as it is, itself, fleeting.

            Understood this way, the real is the antidote to a banal literary and aesthetic realism that amounts to literalism – the kind of storytelling that wants you to know it really happened.  Making literary reality is not unlike making Anthropocene landscapes: only the materials and certain formal constraints are given, and the goal is an aesthetic excellence that stems from self-consciousness about what experience one is trying to produce, and how the materials and craft can sustain or undermine those.

            This way of praising the real leaves room to doubt it where it doesn’t belong or its use is, as Ferrante puts it, falsifying.  For instance, in American constitutional law, the “originalists” who insist that the constitution’s phrases must mean today what they meant in 1789 are engaged in an aesthetic interpretive exercise that falsifies the nature of legality.  Justices such as Antonin Scalia gather scraps of old legal text and dictionary definitions, assemble them in the soft light of claims about the ethos of the American Revolution, and conclude, with an air of inevitability, that the constitution guarantees the right to own a gun, or contains no right to abortion or same-sex marriage.  When it is done well, the effect can be exhilarating: total persuasion!  The judge opens his hands, palms out to show that they are empty and innocent.  Reality made me do it!

            The originalist’s achievement mystifies the ways that law should be transparently artificial.  It makes a world that was not there before, by forming rules – such as liberty and equality – that are pure human creations.  It makes a dwelling-place, as surely as civil engineers make a city.  Its power should be lucid and open, hence potentially democratic, or at least open to criticism at every point.  Concealing its world-creating work by cloaking it in an old “reality” mystifies the workings of power.  Even when the execution is impressive, the response should not be admiration.

            Recognizing reality as an aesthetic achievement can also liberate world-making as a form of play.  Think again of nature and its landscapes.  Recognizing that they are doubly artificial – made or preserved by human power and interpreted in human experience – need not leave them flattened and lifeless.  The suspicion that this is so, that new and palpably artificial landscapes offer nothing, is what drives people back to familiar kinds of “real” places, places with sheep and cottages and old paths.  But creating and interpreting those is a way of inventing the real, not finding it!  And so, with that in mind, we should be able to invent it elsewhere, and in other ways.

            A week in the Peloponnesian countryside recently showed me something about how landscapes, stories, and the mind can play together.  I thought all the time of the gods and spirits that were supposed to have animated the peaks, forests, and streams.  The history of the place invited these thoughts, of course, but so did its shape. 

            The instinct that gods live in high came alive in a terrain with steep slopes that open up into broad terraces and generous mountaintops, level meadows shaped for revels.  Why would there not be a life up there, inaccessible but imaginable?

            It is a place of intense microclimates.  A slot canyon rips a lush, dusky line into an arid mountainside.  Surrounded by dry pines, backed against a thousand-foot cliff, a vertical stream throws out a fan of hanging grasses, then comes to ground at the roots of big, gnarled figs and planetrees (also called sycamore maples).  It reminded me of Northern California, and also of the Banias, a river cleft at the base of the Golan Heights in northern Israel, named by Roman occupiers for Pan.  In the spring, cold, blue-tinted meltwater races through a green, heavily shadowed rent in a near-desert baked in gold Mediterranean light.  Where a blade of that gold slices between wood and leaves and strikes the water, two worlds meet.

            This kind of anomaly is a place for spirits.  It’s a product of a place vitally unlike itself, always generating its own exceptions and inviting imagination in its interstices.   It’s a home for something of the place yet not entirely of the world – a dryad, say, or river spirit.

            In the modern west, the aesthetics of landscape generally comes down to two categories.  One is beauty, the quality of a restful and regular place – a lovely farming landscape, for instance.  The other is sublimity, the half-frightening, half-elevating power of huge, alien nature: a volcano, a whirlpool, the ocean in a storm, lightning in the Sierra Nevada.  Both beauty and sublimity have been traditionally figured as emanations of the real, emblems of a unified and given world, the product of monotheistic creation.

            The animated landscapes I’m describing fall into a third aesthetic category: the uncanny, the place we aren’t sure what to make of, which may or may be looking back at us with eyes like but also unlike ours.

These are the landscapes of the strange familiar, where we recognize ourselves but are also frightened and baffled.  They are inhabited, personal, vital, and alien, all at once.  Animist, pagan places, they have a variegated vitality that fills me as I race and stumble across them, trying to reach the next strange grove.  That is, they invite play more than reverence, and the reverence they elicit is only one of their moods, another form of play.  In them, the mind plays tricks on itself by invitations – some serious tricks, some not so serious.

I would welcome a world where such experience is more common.  This does not mean returning to the real, but it does not mean rejecting it, either.  It means learning the safe ways to have dangerous play with it.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Pope and I Are Having a Complicated Day

            The Pope and I agree on many things.

            We agree that economic growth does not solve all problems, and that it creates some.

            That the real question about an economy is what lives, relationships, and work are possible within it.

            That we use ourselves up in getting and spending, even in getting and spending experiences.  That this is waste.

            That the real work is to be open to others, especially the strange and inconvenient.  That this is very, very hard.

            That the natural world is part of all of this.

            That the world’s beauty is a sign of its goodness.  That its value is deeper and broader than our convenience.

            That we should make the places we live beautiful, open to the world, and serving to relationships.

            That there is a difference between working hand in hand with the natural world and dominating it, and that we should work hand in hand with it, as we should with one another.

            That the best way to these goals is not for each to get as rich as possible, and maybe give it away in old age.  That the world is too small for that, time is too short, and we have better things in us.

            The Pope and I disagree on many things.

            I don’t think that, without the backstop of God, we can only become selfish, insatiable, and trapped in ourselves.  That is, I don’t think climate change is a crisis of secularism.

            I don’t think that women’s choice is a symptom of our selfishness.

            I believe that much of the equality, cooperation, and love of the world that the Pope voices comes from the experiments of free people, often radical, scorned, and resisted, and that he is adapting to these values, not creating them.  Maybe one day women’s equality and choice will also change his church.

            I don’t think the world – what the Pope calls creation – contains a blueprint for its own right use.  I think we have to find that ourselves, in ethics, aesthetics, and politics.

            And I don’t share the Pope’s politics – which is, basically, what the Europeans call Christian democracy: capitalism with a human face, an updated, idealized society of orders.  But I note that, compared with the defenders of American capitalism today, the Pope is easy to mistake for a socialist.

            At base, I am uneasy when anyone’s high priest tells the world what should concern it most.

            But I take what the Pope says as ethics, aesthetics, and politics, clothed in theology.
            And he takes what people like me say as spilled theology, ethics that doesn’t know it needs God.

            In 500 years, I hope the world will be green and full of equals, that new forms of cooperation will have come, and that love will be pretty much the only law.  There will be no priests, just elders, teachers, friends, and wise advisers.

            The Pope’s future is different, but we want to move in the same direction out of this particular dark patch of time.

            And, although the disagreements concern “philosophical” questions, they will not have theoretical answers, only historical ones.  Time will tell.

            The Pope and I agree, as he says more than once in his encyclical, that “Realities are greater than ideas.”

            Here’s to the uncertain future of this one.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Constitutions of Violence (essay for the first issue of Scalawag)

The first constitution to govern what is now North Carolina, other than the original royal charter, was written for hire by the political philosopher John Locke, who served as secretary to the colony’s Lords Proprietors.  These rich Englishmen directed their draftsman to open with a statement of purpose: “that we may avoid erecting a numerous democracy.”  It was an ironic moment for the theorist of natural freedom and self-government, who later founded a theory of human equality based on the idea that people are “promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature.”

Locke’s Carolina constitution, adopted in March 1669, for a region that included portions of today’s North and South Carolina, may be the strangest fundamental law ever to govern a piece of North America.  It populated the new colony with “signories,” “landgraves,” and “caciques,” and more familiar feudal categories – baronies and manors – under the government of a Palatine and his council of seven Lords Proprietors.  It sets out a hereditary aristocracy, with precise and unalterable proportions between political authority and land ownership.  Ratios of acreage, office, and power interlock and turn back on themselves like an Escher drawing.   Locke’s baroque scheme strikes the modern ear as more Dungeons & Dragons than Constitutional Convention. 

Indeed, no convention produced this constitution, just a board meeting.  In the new colonies, political governance was corporate governance.  Labor was to be done by a hereditary class of serfs called leet-men, who lived under the direct governance of their landed lords (who would administer law to the lower orders in “leet-courts”).  Below them were “negro slaves,” property at the whims of their owners.  Neither leet-men nor slaves were part of the body politic formed by Locke’s constitution.  His charter opened, “We, the lords and proprietors … have agreed to this … form of government.”  That is quite a contrast to “We the people,” the phrase that famously opened the US Constitution in 1789.  Most of the people in Locke’s Carolina were not the People, but the help, or just the stuff.  This constitution was intended to shut down all future democracy “in the most binding ways that can be devised.”

I feel a macabre fascination with John Locke’s constitution.  And, honestly, I find it funny.  It is funny because it is so rococo, racialized exploitation and political tyranny done up in ruffs and lace, a slave state from the Eastern Lands of Game of Thrones.  Daenerys Targaryen would have liberated John Locke’s Carolina.  Or maybe it’s not funny, but I wish it were.  I wish it were because I wish we could laugh away the absurdities of race, wish that all undemocratic and arbitrary power were as nakedly preposterous as what Locke proposed.  But of course what he wrote didn’t seem at all preposterous to him, or, more to the point, to “we the lords and proprietors.”  The world you have yet to change usually seems obdurate and halfway natural, while the injustices of faraway times and places feel fundamentally insubstantial: they should disappear like the Wizard of Oz, with a tug of a curtain.    


Locke’s phrases sometimes swam through my head at Moral Mondays rallies in 2013 and 2014.   There we were, still trying to erect a numerous democracy.  We were promiscuous in our equality, the kind of proud motley Carolina that generations of white supremacists have feared.  But we were also still unequal among ourselves, marked by lines of wealth and privilege, and subject to laws that have made the state less democratic: Locke’s Lords Proprietors would not have been entirely displeased by Thom Tillis’s North Carolina.

You don’t have to be, like me, a constitutional lawyer and political theorist to think of constitutions at a Forward Together rally.  Constitutional language is sacred text in the mouth of Reverend William Barber, head of North Carolina’s NAACP and the visionary of Moral Mondays and the Forward Together movement.  As anyone who has even dropped in on a rally know, Reverend Barber works with two canons: one religious, the other civic.  The Bible resonates everywhere in his speeches.  “Without vision the people will perish,” he quotes from Proverbs, and you realize that everything you have been hearing is in cadences and phrases that English speakers are trained to vibrate to, whether we are churched or unchurched.

But it’s the civic canon that really catches me.  When Reverend Barber raised the roof at 2014’s Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressive activists, he opened with several minutes of provisions from North Carolina’s Reconstruction constitution, written in 1868.  This later document established a principle of equal and universal citizenship to the state for the first time.  It outlawed slavery forever in the state.  Its drafters deliberately echoed the Declaration of Independence, declaring it self-evident that all people are created equal.  They also added “the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor” to the people’s inalienable rights, a potent statement of the anti-slavery principle.  The Reconstruction constitution took Thomas Jefferson’s words, the fine phrases of a slaveholder, and applied them to everyone – restoring them to their right meaning, or, if you prefer, dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools.

Constitutional language is living tissue in Reverend Barber’s fierce, looping rhetoric.  His speeches move in several dimensions at once.  They interpret the history of Reconstruction, interracial fusion politics, and white reaction, bending time’s arrow into a mythic loop, in which the present becomes the past, a second Reconstruction arising in the Civil Rights movement and Barack Obama’s election, a second Redemption (white supremacists’ favored term for their attack on Reconstruction) in the Tea Party and North Carolina’s right-wing legislature.  The language mimics this movement, phrases and images recurring and gathering force with each pass.  These cycles of ever more forceful recitation come to suggest an upward spiral, in the energy of the repeating words and the historical promise of the echoing events, until both explode into prophecy—not a promise of help from above but a call to act where you stand.  In dark times, the speeches manage to say that history is on your side, that language itself is on your side.

Barber would be the first to point out that North Carolina’s Reconstruction constitution was written with the ashes and blood of the Civil War still present to the minds of its authors.  Some of those authors were freedmen, recently enslaved people like Abraham Galloway, one of the Reconstruction constitution’s 15 black authors, who freed himself by escaping to Canada in 1857, returning to North Carolina as a Union spy and abolitionist tactician during the Civil War.  It is in part a peace treaty and document of surrender, abjuring secession forever and thanking God for the preservation of the Union.  It is a victor’s document, but one written to enshrine the rights of those its own canon – the Declaration and the US Constitution of 1789 – ignored.   Today it is the civic sacred text of a movement of underdogs, the charter of a dream deferred.

Like the Christian Word, civic sacred texts carry the memory of blood and wounds.  The idea of equal citizenship took on life and power among slaveholders, and also among settlers who expelled and slaughtered Native Americans, confident that both God and history were on their side.  Equal citizenship for some came with excluding others from citizenship altogether, either as enslaved laborers in the South or as inconvenient savages on the frontier.  Yet the lived reality of political equality among the oppressors worked the ideal ever deeper into American myth, imagination, and practice.  This reality drenched the fine phrases of equal citizenship in the blood of lynchings and massacres, associating them indelibly with what we have learned to call white privilege.  But these same phrases are also the civic catechism of Reverend Barber’s peaceful, democratic, and entirely unfinished revolution.  


How can slaveholders’ words anchor a language of prophecy and redemption?  (I am deliberately using redemption, the word that white supremacists used for their attack on Reconstruction, because it is also the right word for progressive constitutional prophecy.)  How does the record of hypocrisy and violence call Moral Mondays marchers – as Reverend Barber put it in his refrain at the mass rally of February, 2014 – to higher ground?  What are we doing when we treat a constitution as civic scripture?

            A constitution may do what its name suggests: constitute – form, make up – not just a system of government but a people.  A people, of course, is partly an imagined thing, a way of thinking and seeing.  When you imagine that you are part of such a people, constitutional language offers to tell you something about who you are.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s used such language to say, “As Americans, you are already committed to equality.  Now it is time to be true to yourselves.”  This is arguably strange or alienating, reaching inside you to make you someone else, while claiming not to change but to perfect you.  Yet this is also the language of transubstantiation, of redemption, of being born again into the self you were meant to be, the self you always were, but secretly or imperfectly.

            This redemptive attitude treats the glittering generalities of constitutional language, and of the Declaration of Independence, as a Word yet to be made Flesh. 
But it is not just a matter of borrowing religion for politics.  Something is happening in common between the two.

How do I, a secular marcher behind Reverend Barber, hear the language of prophecy and redemption?  There is a tradition in philosophy holding that all religion is a kind of Word yet to be made Flesh: that its promises of equality, dignity, and harmony express a worldly human possibility that has not yet become real.  If religion is a human creation, this tradition says, then it must be explained by human wishes and human capacities, not supernatural sources.  Seen this way, constitutional prophecy and redemption are not displaced forms of religious passion.  Instead, both constitutional and religious prophecy express the human knowledge that we contain more worlds than we have yet made and inhabited.  They are ways of naming and imagining a world we know we should make, a world we want, which we have not yet found the way to create.  It is a world of equality and inalienable rights, where there is no slavery and the fruits of your labor are your own.

            A constitution, then, is a line of tension connecting the world that exists with other worlds that might be possible, which we name to try to imagine them, and imagine to try to bring them nearer—or at least to see more clearly the distance between their ideals and the unredeemed present.   We use words to form this line of tension, to name the distance between worlds, if not exactly to measure it.

To my mind, this is true and powerful.  But there is a danger in redemptive imagination that is part of its power: it gathers all history into covenant, all injustice into reminders of a promise betrayed.  It can obscure the waste, suffering, and horror of past and present, so that its gloss becomes the highest truth about moments of felt possibility, but also quite inadequate, even false, to the lives where we spend most of our time.

Each of these Carolina constitutions is threefold.  Each is a record of its time’s violence and exclusion: a record of a bloody social settlement, an imposed peace in a long struggle.  Each is also an occlusion, a cloak over violence, and so a record of hypocrisy.  From the open neo-feudalism and slavery of Locke’s constitution through the freemen’s constitution of 1776 and the nominal universalism of 1868 – which proved to be a hospitable framework for Jim Crow – the balance shifts from an open record of violence to a subtler and more tragic record of hypocrisy.  It is partly here, in the gap such hypocrisy produces between words and reality, that the third aspect of these constitutions, the prophetic possibility, emerges. 


Locke’s constitution didn’t last long.  By 1700, it had mostly faded from relevance.  That said, Locke’s constitution was widely printed and circulated in the colony for three decades, and was fundamental law in those strange and turbulent decades (which spanned a restoration and revolution in the home country). Later Carolina constitutions are comfortingly familiar.  The phrase “We the people” would not open a North Carolina constitution until Reconstruction, but already in 1776, the newly independent North Carolinians declared in their state constitution that “all political power is vested in and derived from the people only.”  This constitution is studded with personal rights and protections against abuse of power.  The trick is that these apply only to “freemen.”  It is a freeman’s constitution, meaning, mostly, a white man’s covenant.  A form of democracy had come, but those who were left out of it now did not even merit a mention, unlike the leetmen and slaves that Locke’s constitution had called out by name.  Only silence marked their exclusion in 1776, the unspoken implication that “freemen” had an opposite. 

Such early state constitutions formed the template for the Supreme Court’s notorious 1858 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which just before the Civil War declared that the US Constitution should be read to mean “we the white people,” the Declaration of Independence to declare “all white men are created equal,” and that white supremacy was the implicit, permanent commitment of American nationhood.  This, of course, is what Reverend Barber’s beloved 1868 constitution was written to destroy.  And even this egalitarian vision lasted only thirty years. Then the violent reassertion of white supremacy was constitutionalized in new amendments that created literacy tests for all voters except those who had been eligible to vote in 1867—that is, the white people who had been “freemen” under the old, slavery constitution.  Those amendments brought a poll tax as well.  This was the constitution of Jim Crow and separate but equal, which only the Civil Rights Movement, the Second Reconstruction, would displace.


Locke’s colonial constitution – there, it still holds me! – holds that any ambergris found on the Carolina coast belongs to the Lords Proprietors of the colony.  Ambergris, for those who don’t recall, is a potent gray mass produced in the digestive tracts of sperm whales.  Before the magic of chemistry, it was a major raw material for perfume.  A rare ingredient for a luxury good, it was prized and costly.

            This is a telling little irony.  When Locke described the origins of property in his most influential work, the Second Treatise of Government, he offered ambergris as proof that the world primordially belonged to everybody and nobody, but a person could make a part of it his own by taking hold of it.  Isn’t it true, he wrote, that a walker who finds ambergris on the beach becomes its owner, and demonstrates this ancient, basic human power to make nature into property?  Well, not so much in Carolina.

            This small betrayal of Locke’s celebrated principles may stand for many larger betrayals.  Locke was a theorist of human equality, which nature had spread “promiscuously” throughout the species.  He argued that anyone who tried to get you in his absolute power had, in effect, declared war on you, and that you could kill him in self-defense.  Unless, apparently, you were a “negro slave” in Carolina and he your master.  In that case, his absolute power over you was part of the constitution, which has no more room for promiscuous equality than for a numerous democracy.


            These kinds of inconsistencies capture my imagination partly because, as a constitutional lawyer, I belong to a strange subculture whose members sometimes imagine principles as Archimedean points: if we could just find their true meaning, we could shift the world.  We are trained to go after inconsistencies the way acupuncturists go after blocked meridians.  In that sense, we are technicians of constitutional prophecy, trying to bridge the pregnant gaps between words and the world.

            But this is not just technical, professional craft;. here again, the redemptive idea makes itself felt.  If only we could overcome these betrayals and errors, it suggests, we could make things right, as they were always meant to be.  This is the implicit idea of the whole tradition of civic preaching that Reverend Barber echoes, and which goes back to Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists, and runs through Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and others who portrayed the first Emancipation and the second Reconstruction as redeeming the country’s original promise.  This is an American story with a Christian template: original sin destroys what should be perfect harmony; only a sacrifice of blood, faith, and patience can redeem it and restore the primal design.  Those who like to say this is a Christian country may not realize exactly how right they are.  They should be answered: yes, conceived in sin and redeemed in blood.

            But even the story of redemption makes it all too neat.  Powerful as it has been as a tool of emancipation, it misses something else, something the Declaration of Independence and the Reconstruction constitution conceal, but Locke’s constitution lays bare.  The settlements that became the United States did not begin as an imperfect democracy, struggling to work itself pure.  They began as a project of settler colonialism, building a new world of economic opportunity for free settlers and the investors at home – the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony.  The American Revolution took the home investors out of the picture and consolidated self-government for free settlers – but still on the backs of enslaved people and the lands of expelled peoples.  The exclusion and oppressions of American history began not as original sin but as what conservative constitutional theorists call original meaning.  Steps toward equality and genuine democracy have not have been corrections to a founding mistake, but revolutionary reallocations of power and privilege.  They radicalized the idea of citizenship that white male settlers claimed for themselves with their revolution; but in radicalizing it, they transformed it, because exclusion and oppression were built into it from the start and by design – albeit over the objections of genuine democrats like the immigrant Thomas Paine and the free black radical David Walker.

            What does this mean?  Well, for one, that an adequate Reconstruction needs to be just that – a deep engagement with the roots of continuing inequality in inherited wealth, economic structure, between races, and in institutions such as schools and the criminal justice system.  We are fooling ourselves if we believe the key is already hidden in our old principles, if we could just get them right – no matter how potent and attractive this idea is, no matter how much partial good we can manage with it.  The problem is not just to perfect a flawed democracy, but to decolonize national life.  The constitution that would do that has not been written yet.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

South Carolina, 1782

Asked to dine with a South Carolina planter,
Hector St. John Crevecoeur took a small,
Cool path through the woods.
“Examining some peculiar plants,”
He felt the air disturbed, though the day was calm and sultry.

He saw “large birds of prey, anxiously endeavoring to perch”
On a cage, raised over the path, which held
“a negro: the birds had picked out his eyes,
his cheek bones were bare.
No sooner were the birds flown,
than swarms of insects covered the whole body.”

Crevecoeur lifted water to the dying man,
Then “mustered strength enough to walk away.”
His dinner host said that the slave
Had killed his overseer.

In his letter Crevecoeur hoped this scene
Would account for his “melancholy reflections,”
For which he apologized anyway:
“While all is joy in Charles-Town, would you imagine
that scenes of misery overspread the country?
Where do you conceive that nature
Intended we should be happy?”

His host, wrote Crevecoeur,
Had given all the usual arguments,
Self-protection and the order of nature,
“With the repetition of which I shall not trouble you.”