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Before Asking What Sort of Speech, Ask What Kind of Politics

In my first post, I attempted to deconstruct the “leading questions” about the nature of the decline of political discourse in the US and how to reverse it.  I argued that these were, in fact, the wrong questions to be asking.  I pointed out that political discourse is always a concrete thing.  It takes place in particular sorts of institutions, whether those are coffee shops, theaters, newspapers, or the internet, institutions that, following Jurgen Habermas, I called the public sphere.  I pointed out that institutions are never neutral.  Rather, they are always already partisan along the lines of race, class, and gender.  Institutions are produced by forms of political economy in which a given form of social life takes place, and, with the sorts of political economy in which they live, move, and have their being, they arise from a context of social conflict between rich and poor, free and slave, citizen and alien.  I pointed out that the political institutions of industrial, capitalist democracies, which comprise the public sphere and therefore “political discourse” as we know it, have a particular racial, class, and gendered character.  They were created as places for propertied white men, that is, people who own their bodies, to exercise that ownership as it applies to discourse, that is, by the exercise of “free speech,” at least as it is construed by the dominant liberal political tradition pace John Locke.  

To be far more blunt than I was in my original post: that this system is in crisis, and that, as a result, “political discourse” is on the decline in American public life, is nothing to grieve, because the system and the speech that goes with it are all about capitalism, slavery, and genocide.  Moreover, the crisis is not new.  Workers, slaves, women, and LGBTQ people have always sought to contest the boundaries of the public sphere, to “make it their own,” and/or to create alternatives to it.  That’s why the system is in crisis.  American political discourse is on the decline because American political institutions, the institutions that make up the public sphere, are on the decline.  The public sphere is on the decline because it is being enclosed by capital and the state, and it is being enclosed in this way because those in power would rather shut down the public sphere than see it successfully inhabited by those it was originally designed to help exploit and oppress.  Nevertheless, the organized struggles for freedom being waged by those on the margins of the public sphere cannot be defeated so easily.  Alternative spaces for political discourse, whether Anarchist infoshops, punk venues, black churches, gay bars, freedom schools, or popular assemblies continue to grow, and to spawn a new form of political discourse, a new sort of public life, a commons rather than a public in any ordinary sense of the term.  Alternative institutions of this sort house a different kind of speech because they serve different people.  To be more precise, they accommodate different sorts of differences between people (politics is the negotiation of a common life in the midst of profound difference, but “difference” isn’t just one thing; the “difference” between republicans and democrats over how to run the capitalist bureaucracy of American Empire is a very different sort of difference from the disputes between poor and working class and colonized people about how to best go about smashing that Empire into as many pieces as possible).  This means that the “rules of engagement” in these spaces will be fundamentally different from those of the bourgeois public sphere.

This brings me to Dr. Heie’s gracious response.  Dr. Heie attempt to accept as valid my challenge to the original question while, at the same time, maintaining the grounds on which the question was asked.  In so doing, I am afraid that he has (unintentionally, I’m sure) domesticated my challenges to the questions posed in this forum in his attempt to summarize them, underestimating the depth of our differences in his effort to show where it is possible for us to agree.  When I say that I am not interested in rescuing US political discourse from its current state of decline, part of what I am saying is that I detect specific, partisan political commitments behind Dr. Heie’s efforts to lay out universal rules for political discourse that, he claims, can apply to any people in any context, commitments to which I stand profoundly opposed.  In attempting to sketch a granular picture of the institutional context of political discourse in late industrial capitalist America, the larger point that I am making is that there is no such thing as “political discourse” as such.  Different sorts of discourse arise in the context of different sorts of politics, as different sorts of people try to have different sorts of conversations.  

For example, queer black and black feminist authors like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde have shown that the exclusive focus on reason in enlightenment European discourse comes from the presumption that the subject of that discourse owns his body and is therefore able to control his body and, with it, his emotions (emotions, here, are construed with passions - the link between controlling the body and controlling the emotions is the commitment to disciplining sex; slavery and heteronormativity are, for both Baldwin and Lorde, inextricably linked), in order to focus on pure ideas.  The suppression of emotion in political discourse, under the guise of making that discourse “rational,” is rooted in a commitment to controlling the body, a commitment that presumes that human bodies can be owned and that the paradigmatic subject of rational discourse owns his body, among others.  In other words, enlightenment claims about the universal norms for what good comprises good discourse are not universal at all: they come from the heteronormative commitments required to reproduce a genocidal, slaveholding society.  In response, Baldwin, Lorde, and other queer black and black feminist authors have proposed different sorts of discourse, which give full play to the body, to the emotions, and, as Lorde famously argued, the power of the Erotic.  Far from being disembodied and rationalistic, good ways of thinking and speaking together are embodied and passionate - if, that is, you think that good ways of thinking and speaking together are ways of thinking and speaking that resist colonization, enslavement, and other sorts of capitalist regimes of enclosure.

This, then, is what I am afraid that Dr. Heie hasn’t fully reckoned with when he says that, while I’m right to point out that the question of who is doing the talking is important, no matter who speaks, there is a need for shared norms for how speaking is to take place.  My answer to this is NO!  NEIN!  NIET!  ABSOLUMENT PAS!  This is precisely the logic that I have painstakingly tried to deconstruct with my original post and which I am now, in this final post, ready to just reject outright.  In essence, what Dr. Heie seems to me to want is to construct a shared project of political speech, the purpose of which is to “save” US political discourse from its current state of decline, to stand it back up on itself, and then, baptizing that project as Christian, to invite different political actors to join it, including the poor and the marginalized.  He wishes, in short, to construct a normative definition of speech and then fit all sorts of different politics into it.  In this closing post, I propose to turn Dr. Heie’s proposal on its head.  Instead of starting with a normative definition of “speech” to which we can then adduce “political,” I wish to start with a normative definition of “politics” and then figure out what kinds of norms of speech go with it.




In his Come Out, My People! - God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, Wes Howard-Brook makes the claim that the biblical narrative is an ongoing argument between two religions.  These religions are not Judaism and Christianity.  Rather, they are what he calls “the religion of Empire” and “the religion of creation.”  On the one hand, there is clearly much in the Bible, from beginning to end, that justifies exploitation and oppression.  There is no part of scripture, no book, no discernable author, that is immune from this impulse.  And, yet, there is another impulse at work.  The biblical story begins with human beings living - that is, physically eating, drinking, and sleeping - freely and communally (with God, nature, and one another) in a way that does not require death for themselves or others.  Yet, by mid-way through the book of Genesis, the bulk of people are caught up in ways of meeting these basic needs that are inextricably linked up with both death and slavery.  They get their food from irrigated agricultural systems built and maintained by slave labor, under kings who protect these systems and keep the slaves in check with constant, unending violence.  This system is called “Empire,” and, for Howard-Brook, modern, capitalistic forms of production are just a reinstantiation of it, a kind of Empire-on-hyperdrive.  Human beings under late industrial capitalism still live in such a way that requires death and slavery - for themselves and their human and nonhuman fellow creatures alike.

The politics of Empire is a particular way of being human - one that, again, requires death and slavery.  But, in the biblical narrative, it is not the only way of being human.  It is not the way that God made human beings in the beginning, and God does not abandon creation to its ravages.  Rather, God calls a people out of Empire - that is, at least at first, God physically brings them outside the lands of walled cities and irrigated agriculture into “a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1) - in order to live a different way of life.  This happens again and again throughout the biblical story.  Abraham leaves Babylon (and Hagar leaves Abraham! - but that’s part of another story, buried in the canon somewhat deeper than Howard-Brook is able to reach); Lot leaves Sodom; Moses leaves Egypt; Elijah leaves Israel; the exiles leave Babylon; Jesus and the disciples go out into the wilderness.  But the paradigmatic example of this story is the Exodus.  A group of renegade slaves run away from Pharaoh, led out of Egypt by the mighty arm of a liberator God.  This move is what Jesus Christ reinstantiates in his death and resurrection, becoming “our passover from death to life,” doing for the whole, enslaved, dominated cosmos what God does for the Israelites in Egypt.  In Jesus Christ, God is perfectly faithful to God’s promise of freedom from slavery to Israel, and, precisely in that faithfulness to Israel, makes heirs to that same promise of the whole world.

These two ways of being human - towards slavery and towards freedom, towards death and towards life, towards Empire and towards the God of Israel, who has been revealed, at the end of the age, to the whole world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - are two ways of doing politics.  They are two sorts of human and creaturely society.  They are two formations of economy and ecology.  Augustine calls them two cities, formed of two opposing loves - love of God and libido dominandi or lust for domination.  What that means is that Christian theology should not accept politics “on its own terms” as if it is something neutral and universal, as if it can be subject to the same norms regardless of who is involved and what it is for.  Who is involved in politics and what goods and ends politics serves determine what its norms will be, not the other way around.  We cannot, as Dr. Heie suggests, come up with set rules for political discourse regardless of who is involved and what the goods and ends to be achieved are, and then invite various people to participate in the activity of politics as given.  No!  We need to reject politics as given, utterly, by naming it as politics according to the logic of Empire, the logic of slavery, the logic of death which our Lord Jesus Christ came to destroy by his glorious resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God the Father!  We need to hold out hope for a different sort of politics, a politics of life and freedom, a politics that is about having enough for everyone, about beating swords into ploughshares, about loosing the bonds of injustice and breaking every chain, a politics that is about the business of making every ditch and valley to be raised up and every mountain and lofty hill to be made low, the crooked paces straight and the rough places plain - a politics, in short, that is about all flesh seeing and sharing and loving the glory of the Lord together!

This is the theological background that I have in mind when I talk about a different sort of political discourse emerging in US public life.  My argument with Dr. Heie’s attempt to “save” US political discourse is that it confuses temporal things for eternal things.  It seeks to define norms for “speech” as such and “politics” as such - not speech for the Kingdom and politics for the Kingdom.  I do not necessarily believe that the new sorts of political discourse that I have described emerging from the commons, that is, from the attempts of the exploited and the oppressed to seize the bourgeois public sphere for their own and/or to create fugitive alternatives to it, is, in fact, the Kingdom of God.  Scripture is very clear that neither Israel nor the Church perfectly instantiates the Kingdom - as I said, there is no space in scripture that is free from the impulse for domination - and, if they don’t, then, certainly, neither do “secular parables” of them like modern US social movements.  But I do want to submit that, in the contemporary American context, these sorts of freedom struggles are an essential place to look for a fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom’s advent.  We may not be permitted to see God’s face in the faces of those taking the streets, rioting in the prisons, striking on the job, and locking down at pipeline construction sites all over the edifice of slavery and death sometimes called the United States of America.  But if God came to earth in the form of a slave, to fulfill the promise first made to an enslaved people - if, in other words, Jesus Christ is Black! - then this is where we should look to follow after God’s train, to see God’s glory passing in front of us on the road to life and freedom, to follow the Risen One going ahead of us into Galilee.

In short, I reaffirm my rejection of the original question and my proposal of an alternative - this time in a theological key.  We should not be asking “why has US political discourse declined and how can we stop the decline?”  We should not, to put it differently, be asking, “what are the rules of engagement for political discourse in the abstract, to which we can then invite concrete individuals?”  Rather, we should ask, “where are the politics of God taking shape in the world?  And what is political speech like in those places?”  You can’t just model respectful conversation and then ask those engaged in political struggle to join you.  You must take up the struggle, and, from that place, which is the place of Jesus Christ, you must ask what sort of speech makes sense, and build the institutions to go with it.


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Reader Comments (1)

I appreciate Greg’s forthright, yet gracious expression of concern that I have things all backwards when I start with a normative definition of “speech” that I then wish to apply to all political discourse. Rather, Greg argues, one must start with the politic situation at hand and then try to “figure out what kinds of norms of speech go with it.”

And I found Greg’s example of his position to be helpful, in which he noted that the queer black and black feminist authors James Baldwin and Audre Lorde reject “the exclusive focus on reason in enlightenment European discourse” and propose “different sorts of discourse, which give full play to the body, to the emotions, and, as Lorde famously argued, the power of the Erotic.”

But this raises a concern that I would like to explore further (despite the fact that my online conversation with Greg is officially completed). To set the context for my concern, I first remind the reader of the Christian virtues that I believe should characterize all the conversations that Christians have with those who disagree with them, both within and beyond the church.

Humility – The acknowledgement that however strongly I hold to my beliefs and express them with deep conviction (and, yes, even with deep emotion and passion), I may be wrong.

Courage – The willingness to “speak out” my understanding of the “truth” relative to the issue at hand, even if negative consequences result from my doing so.

Love – Especially that often neglected aspect of loving another that creates a safe and welcoming space for a person who disagrees with me to express her disagreement and talk with me about her disagreements after we have both “listened well.”

Recall Greg’s original concern that the “concept of love” that I put forth was “overly general” and, in this last posting, that these three virtues should not be “normative” for all political situations. On this matter, Greg and I have a fundamental disagreement that we have not resolved. I believe that these three virtues, as described above, are “normative”; by which I mean that they should characterize the way Christians always engage in conversation with those who disagree with them.

But an important qualification may be appropriate here, as hinted at by Greg’s assertion that that “When all attempts at persuasion and respectful dialogue have been exhausted, you put on a gas mask, take up a flag, a shield, or a hard banner, and prepare to stand against them [Nazis marching in the streets].” I agree with Greg’s assertion, which I read as suggesting that respectful conversation is the place to start in sorting through disagreements, but when such attempts at conversation have been “exhausted” to no avail, more overt political actions are called for (recognizing, as I do in my last posting, that there may be significant disagreement as to when attempts at conversation have indeed been “exhausted”).

This long statement of context sets the stage for my concern. Granting that the substance of a conversation may involve more than giving expression to these three virtues, I have trouble envisioning the political situations that would call for one or more of these virtues to be “suspended” during the conversational phase of political action. If I can be given some examples, I will be in a better position to reconsider my position that these virtues are “normative” for all political conversations.

But, having said that, I close with a much too belated reflection that Greg and I have not even begun to deal with the root of our disagreement about the normativity, or not, of the virtues that I have enumerated and that I have not yet come to grips with the radical nature of Greg’s position. This root disagreement may be about the very nature of my eCircle, which is an attempt to “reform” political discourse. The fact that I am seeking for “reformation” suggests that initial conversation is called for about the possible contours of such reformation prior to the more overt political actions that should take place if these conversations have been “exhausted” and have hit a dead end.

It appears to me that Greg’s contrary position is that the time for respectful dialogue about the American political system that is embedded in a capitalist political economy is already “exhausted.” Further conversation will be fruitless. The American political system is totally bankrupt beyond my hope for “reformation.” A complete uprooting and radical “reconstruction” is what is needed..

If I am wrong about the nature of this root disagreement with Greg, then I welcome his correction. But if I am understanding Greg correctly, then I will dare to suggest that even when Christians are involved in “revolutionary” movements, they must ask about the appropriate roles of the Christian virtues of humility, courage and love. I believe this suggestion is true to the spirit of the “nonviolent activism” of the revolutionary movements led by two of my heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Whether that is a suitable response, given the current state of American politics, will require much more conversation.

A reader of our successive postings may conclude that Greg and I have not identified much common ground. That is OK. As I say over and over again, “one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.” Recall that one of my guidelines for respectful conversation is that conversation partners may conclude that “for now we agree to disagree.” But I believe that Greg and I have talked about our disagreements in a manner that demonstrates respect for each other that keeps open the possibility of future conversations, both between us and the readers of our conversation.

October 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHarold Heie

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