Sunday, June 27, 2010

The G20 Riots Are a Calculated Political Theatre Piece

Blogging takes a backseat to thesis writing, research, and manuscript editing, so I haven’t followed through on my promise to tell a bunch of funny and insightful stories about my conference trip to Montreal. Taco Tuesdays at NL Girl House, Rue Sherbrooke will have to be immortalized somewhere else for now. There are more pressing issues at hand.

This time last week, I was considering going to Toronto today to join the G20 protests. I’ve talked a fair game about my more radical political views before, and now I had a chance to put some of my philosophy into action, at least in terms of political theatre. Watching events unfold in that city, I’m glad I stayed home, from the perspective of my physical safety. From the perspective of my political beliefs, I’m a little regretful.

Admirable, if smug, leftist activist leaders deride militant protesters as accomplishing nothing but property destruction, violence against people, and the counter-productive public relations that depicts all leftists as thugs, morons, and arsonists. Anti-capitalist groups worthy of praise deem the Ontario and Canadian governments as needlessly provocative, the extent and secrecy of their emergency police powers showing that establishment forces were spoiling for a fight, and are glad to have struck a genuine blow against those struggling for a more fair society in which all people can prosper and live freely.

I can’t disagree with ideas like that, especially when I see video like this.

I examine this situation and perceive a clear narrative. Everyone knew that this G20 meeting would be focussed on global austerity plans for many of the world’s richest nations. These rich nations, Canada included, have long been manipulated by a piratical investment banking establishment into running their governments at massive deficits, funding enormous national debts from which global financial institutions make the most profit. There are even ways in which an investment bank can profit from the complete collapse of a well-off country’s economy: buying insurance against the collapse of a country’s economy. And those economic collapses happened because of over-reliance on financial strategies invented by investment industry chicanery anyway.

Austerity economies in the world’s richest countries would only lead to increased suffering for poor human populations inside and outside those countries. The investment industry also profits from the deregulation of capital investment that comes with austerity economies. So naturally, advoactes for the poor would protest these plans at the most visible moments to communicate their message that there must be other ways of organizing an economy. Such a moment is a G20 summit where these international arrangements are taking shape. However, there is always a militant fringe to the leftist advocacy movement (just as there is for any political movement: observe, for example, the rural militias of the United States). This militant fringe usually causes property destruction, but has lately been overwhelmed in public relations by the sane organizations. I think one of the main reasons few militant anarchists have appeared at recent summits is that these summits have been held at isolated locations, and travelling there is very expensive. Most people who don’t believe money should exist have very little money for travel, so the militant left fringe can only arrive in small numbers.

However, the downtown core of Canada’s largest city is extremely accessible, and it’s cheap to get there. Everyone in Ontario comes to Toronto. Even a hitchhiker would find it easy to get a ride to a city as central to a country’s life as Toronto. Ask a driver if she’s going to Kananaskis and she’ll ask you for directions, and whether that’s the real name of a town. Knowing that huge numbers of people will be able to assemble for protests, the government then creates an enormous security apparatus, effectively shutting down an entire city for a long weekend. Every government spokesperson justifies the expense and enormity through talking points about the ineviably violent nature of leftist protestors.

A climate of mutual provocation is created. A brutalizing government can justify its large-scale security apparatus in an absurdly conspicuous location, while using the spectacle to discredit leftists and their sympathizers as violent criminals. Meanwhile, brutalized leftist protesters can decry the inevitable government crackdown and win sympathizers for their own causes who deplore government and police overkill. Watch the video again, and you can see both narratives unfolding. The police act in a manner that’s inherently threatening, standing in a street with full riot gear. And the protesters are singing the Canadian national anthem, an act of patriotism aimed at the police, who they hope to depict as having betrayed the democratic ideals of Canada. They sing the words to ‘O Canada,’ but what they communicate is, ‘Charge! I dare you!’ And the police gladly oblige. Both government and police, peaceful and militant leftists, have set a trap for each other, and each oblige the other by walking into their enemy’s traps.

My old friend Sheena is a journalist in Toronto who’s been reporting formally and informally on the protests / riots / crackdowns. She tweeted something earlier today that I found quite insightful. She was incredulous at protesters marching down the streets of Toronto chanting ‘These are our streets!’ when most of them had travelled in from other cities around the country. Again, it’s easy to travel to Toronto.

You could hear a statement of solidarity with the people of what they consider a besieged city, as when people around the world declared themselves New Yorkers after September 11, or how sympathizers with the revolutionaries of May 1968 would delcare themselves Parisians. Or one could hear the insincerity of a group of protesters callously manipulating their audience into sympathy by means of a charismatic image.

Yes, Toronto has become a war zone, with hundreds of people imprisoned by a police force with authoritarian levels of special powers. But a leftist today is savvy, knowing that police brutalization will play directly into their larger goals of discrediting a police force and a conservative government. In order to win, sincerity must be embraced and denied. A protester who travelled from other provinces, other countries, must genuinely believe that Toronto is their city, the site of this confrontation that is a defining moment of a political movement. And that protester must provoke the security apparatus that has been built to brutalize them, must manipulate their audience into believing in their cause, that their opposition to capitalism and the police institution is genuine. That’s why a protester sings the national anthem at a line of riot police: they know the cameras are there, and they know what an amazing image that is.

The advocates for global capitalism and heavy industry have long known how to manipulate the undecided masses into believing that advocates for social justice and environmental responsibility are enemies, terrorists, evil. Nixon created the blueprint for that when his administration destroyed the liberatory movements of the United States in the 1960s. They manipulated ordinary people’s fear of change, fear of the end of the old, comfortable order (comfortable because it’s old).

But advocates of social justice and environmental responsibility have learned these techniques of manipulation as well. We manipulate ordinary people’s fear of repression by state power, fear of democracy being hijacked by corporate interests, fear of surveillance, fear of death. I say this not to discredit social justice and environmentalism. The word manipulation carries nasty connotations, but it’s the very tool of politics and society itself. Read this again and substitute persuasion for manipulation.

Tools for achieving a political end are ethically neutral: they can be employed by any advocate of any cause. The ethical worthiness of a movement should be judged on its goals, not its methods. The cause of the protestors of global capitalism is the betterment of life on Earth.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I’ve Got Reservations About These Philosophers of Mind

So it’s only now that I’m getting the chance to blog about the Congress meetings in Montreal, which went extremely well for everyone involved named Adam Riggio, as well as my companions from McMaster. Instead of attempting to yoke everything into one overarching narrative, I’ll just concentrate on some intriguing reflections and hope some linking thread establishes itself. Rather like a Robert Altman movie, I suppose.
If my professional association with my friend Dustin continues throughout our careers, we may become known as some kind of feuding odd couple. He insults the French philosophers who are central to my work, burns me constantly in public with some of the fastest put-downs I’ve experienced since eighth grade. I came late to his presentation at the conference, because I was in the afternoon session of an all-day symposium on Friedrich Nietzsche. They’re discussing pluralism about knowledge, and I make a brief comment to the effect that maybe that isn’t actualy a bad thing. His response is to say that if I might want to make a useful contribution, I could listen to the whole presentation. Dustin inadvertently made the entire room think that he hated me.

Of course, during the course of the conference, we were drinking together almost every night. Near closing time on the back patio of the Saint Elizabeth pub, I even convinced him to read Gilles Deleuze’s book on Leibniz, because it was the best summary of the aesthetics of monadology ever written. I don’t expect anyone to understand that sentence. Even I don’t, very much. And the pizza on the way back to the hotel was delicious, completely worth the $2.50/slice.
However, there is a not-so-positive element of my engagement with analytic philosophy that came up at the conference. I was enlisted to give a ten minute commentary on a paper about the colour constancy problem in perception. The paper was written quite well, with a technique that I personally find rather bothersome, but that comes up with increasing frequency in analytic philosophy of mind and knowledge: the intuition pump. The writer describes a scenario, then based on one’s intuitions about how the scenario actually functions, the writer derives various philosophical consequences. One usualy counters such a claim by modifying the scenario, or describing a new scenario, which leads to different intuitions with contrary or incompatible philosophical consequences than the first scenario.

Anyway, the paper was constructing several intuition pumps about what kind of philosophical consequences we should draw about the nature of perception and the content of experience from a particular problem in perception: that when we look at an object, we think of it as having a proper colour, even if the lighting conditions make, for example, a white object appear red. I don’t think I was quite the right person to respond to this, because I don’t actually think this is a real problem. Or at least, it’s not the kind of problem that encourages productive philosophy.

You see, that was the thrust of my commentary. The colour constancy problem is only a problem if you presuppose that every object has some property that is its proper colour, and that lighting conditions either distort to some degree or present this proper colour faithfully. And I said that if we think about colour as a relational property, a property of a field of interactions between an object, the light bouncing off the object, and a perceptual apparatus, then the whole idea of an object having one proper colour regardless of how one’s vision centres or eyes work, regardless of the nature of the ambient light – that notion just doesn’t come into play. And any philosophical problems about perception that depend on this notion just aren’t articulated, because it doesn’t make sense to do so. My commentary made the problem go away by questioning the truth of the premises that made the problem come to be in the first place.

And he had no idea what to do. I felt pretty awkward, to be honest. I had seen one of his presentations at last year’s national conference in Ottawa, and he seemed to be on top of his game when it came to philosophy of mind. He was certainly far superior to me in his knowledge of the literature and the debates. I’ve let the specifics slide as I’ve moved to work in environmental ethics.

But I thought that this sort of thing was still done in philosophy of mind. After all, it’s not a big leap to assume that they’ve read Wittgenstein. He invented most of the problems that philosophy of mind still talks about (and in my opinion, he got rid of those problems just as quickly, and the rest are still catching up). Wittgenstein invented the method of solving a problem by attacking the premises that made the problem exist in the first place. I didn’t think it would be a big deal for me to hit at the premises of the paper’s problem. But apparently, the lessons of the greats are already being forgotten.

Perhaps it’s just easier to pile one intuition pump on top of another. That way, you can get a back-and-forth argument going in the journals, and you don’t have to work that hard to produce an original idea. You can just come up with a slightly different way to interpret a scenario, or draw different intuitions from the same scenario, and you have a publishable article. It’s so much more work to declare a problem to be not worth working on, and try to make your own from scratch.

I don’t want to be that cynical, but it seems to be the most hopeful way for me to read that situation among philosophers. Because the worse idea for me is that all the self-identified analytic philosophers really believe that building intuition pumps for increasingly narrow and esoteric scenarios and problems constitutes real progress in philosophy. For me, real progress in philosophy would be doing the genuinely difficult work of questioning the presuppositions of the current dogma, coming up with new ways to understand the world instead of just following the same old patterns of your predecessors.

What I like about conferences is that I get to meet people from around the country and the continent who are kindred spirits about philosophy, people who think of philosophy as a creative act, and take this more radical activity of questioning presuppositions and turning over old dogmas as philosophy at its best. I met a couple of people in Montreal this year who were like that. But none of them were at this presentation, except me. And I felt it.