In my last column, I embraced the joy of the recent presidential election. I honored those whose struggles, whose lives – and, often, deaths – made it possible for the country of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and lynching to elect a black president.
But to say that their struggle made this election possible is not to say that such an election was all they struggled for. Embracing the joy of this moment need not mean embracing a self-deceptive assumption that it brings fundamental change.
To see what this election doesn’t change, we can look at some things that President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden said over the course of the campaign:
They said that they would increase the U.S. military budget, which is already larger than that of every other country in the world put together.
They said that they would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.
They said that they would not support gay marriage. In one of the most absurdly contradictory displays in electoral history, Biden said in one breath that he and Obama support full equality for gays, and in the next that they would not support the right to marry.
Alternatively, we can look at some things that they have not said:
They have yet to denounce the viciously homophobic ballot initiatives passed on Election Day, the worst of which seeks to prevent the adoption or fostering of children by same-sex couples.
The first black man elected president has yet to respond to the problem of black incarceration, or the many obvious structural ways in which the prison-industrial complex targets black men.
The Obama campaign offered no concrete plan for eliminating wage disparities by race, ethnicity and gender once and for all.
The Obama campaign offered little insight into how to remove U.S. troops from foreign countries, to end Israeli apartheid, to confront human rights violations in maquiladoras or to provide cheap medicines and food to the billions of hungry and sick around the world.
The Obama campaign offered no plan for turning back the clock on state surveillance and civil liberty restrictions that began under President Reagan, and have continued through every administration to the present day. A serious proposal would not merely close the GuantÃ¡namo Bay detention camp, but would immediately repeal the Patriot Act and the various Clinton-era “anti-crime” bills that encouraged government spying and racial profiling. But we have heard nothing on these topics.
One could easily go on. And as any of the individuals I mentioned in my last column would tell you, these issues will be on the government’s agenda only if we demand it.
But suppose that the Obama administration somehow took all this on. Suppose they managed to gain control of Congress, resist the inevitable backlash both politically and economically and make a fundamental effort to make policy more just. It won’t happen.
Even small steps in this direction never happen without organized pressure from the people – but even if it did, I’m just radical enough that I would still not be satisfied. My dislike of monarchy – of others running my life – is so deep that I’m not satisfied by a system of serial monarchy, even serial benevolent monarchy. Even if Obama were a savior, I don’t want a better world to be handed to me through the kindness of a savior.
And I don’t think you should either. No self-respecting free person should want a system in which she petitions for decent treatment by others who make decisions for her. The goal of a free life is not to find the least damaging person to whom we might hand over our responsibility to run our collective world.
The fundamental problem with choosing between two people to run the country isn’t that either will run it badly, that they are influenced disproportionately by the wealthy, that they are naturally likely to be corrupted and that they inevitably work to gain more and more power in their office. All of these things happen, over and over.
The fundamental problem is that society should be run by everyone. That is the meaning of democracy – not voting for a ruler, whether temporary or lifelong, whether benevolent or cruel. Democracy means doing it ourselves, controlling our own decisions, building our own world without deference to the rule of anyone. It means anarchy – not in the Orwellian sense of chaos and violence, but in its literal sense of an-archy, no ruler – which is to say self-rule.
I hope that the move toward a free society, toward a society in which people have direct control over all aspects of their lives, is a bit easier under Obama than it was under President Bush. I hope and expect that fewer people will suffer and die in the Obama years, while the struggle for freedom continues around the world. But I also hope that we all remember that it is the struggle that matters, whoever is in that fancy office.
And with that, my friends, I end my tenure as a columnist for THE HOYA. If anyone thinks the ideas above are crazy, I encourage you to take one of my courses. In some of them I explain these ideas in more detail, and you are welcome and encouraged to argue against them. I’ve enjoyed writing for the last year, and much of the discussion that has resulted (some of the comments, not so much). Overall, I hope I’ve contributed to lively debate on campus and spurred some thought. I thank THE HOYA for the opportunity.
ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at lancethehoya.com. COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.
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