Abuse and real use of the first drafts of history (liberalism vs the exception 3)

There are two ironies running through Ethan Gach’s two pieces on Michael Lewis’ widely read Vanity Fair article “Obama’s Way.”

The first and most obvious irony is the amount of space devoted to attacking someone else for failing to grapple with the supposedly most important questions of executive power in warmaking. If Lewis’ perspective is trivializing, then what can we say about, first, a mere perspective on that perspective, and, second, a defensive perspective on a perspective on that perspective? Those really most important questions are by now fragmentary ideologems dimly visible on a horizon on a horizon on a horizon.

The blogger seems to want to pretend he has the answers, but his own performance suggests the opposite, since the other irony is that Lewis’s answer or kind of answer – right in the foreground, in plain sight – will turn out to be the only answer on those really most important questions that we will ever receive.

The question of the warmaking powers of the president in constitutional role as Commander in Chief has never been settled and probably cannot be settled in its entirety. Any attempt to settle the question would imply a three-way confrontation between the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the President – a constitutional crisis, in short, and not just as an abstract problem for legal philosophers, but as a catastrophe in waiting. That was the reasoning underlying Bush v Gore, another crisis of the system and its constitution of executive power. The infirmity of that decision was in the incapacity of the majority to frame its argument other than as a pure exception: The oracle of originary liberalism, the voice of the popular sovereign meant to speak the rule of law, instead spoke lawless necessity. Whether it was mere irony or the further working of that same necessity, it put in place a presidency that, under the pressures of only apparently unrelated events, became a presidency of the exception: all-encompassing military authorization, pre-emptive war, torture and extra-legal detention, emergency economic rescue.

The successor administration has at best only partly returned to an image of normalcy, but the internal processes of governance, the essential extra-legality and illiberalism of power, have been exposed to the light. We know, though some of us struggle to suppress the recognition, that we are hostages to the decision, including our own collective decision on one “decider” as opposed to another. Articles like Lewis’, if they reinforce our confidence in the existent rather than the ideal executive, help us to accommodate ourselves to a void in the law and its effects: The existence of this void can serve our needs; or it can be hemmed in politically – which is to say partially and provisionally; or it can be survived until the day it happens to kill us – but it cannot be legislated or reasoned way.

So we can further expand our general observation on liberalism – including the liberalism that advertises its libertarian purism or its republican virtues or its partisan conservatism, with or without the tri-corner hats and Minuteman costumes: As we know, it has nothing interesting to say about these issues. It does, however, very much like to pretend that it does.


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9 comments on “Abuse and real use of the first drafts of history (liberalism vs the exception 3)

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  1. Since settling that war powers question within the current system implies a crisis that those within it would rather avoid, in a weird sort of way it *has* been settled — as with dust in a neglected corner rather than as meaning “solved”.

    As for the article that started this, a few things stick out to me in Lewis’ profile.
    -The contrast between how the actions of the Obama administration are treated by his base (that is, with kid gloves) and how he practically demands in his personal time in something as frivolous as a basketball game to be treated like everyone else. Considering his position that just strikes me as backwards: so throwin’ ‘bows on the court at the guy in the drivers seat of the global hyperpower is cool but the slightest questioning of actions taken as such both abroad and at home or the wisdom (or lack thereof) of continuing in that capacity draws fire? I can’t help but think that his insistence on no one letting up on him in basketball feeds a psychological need of some sort, maybe so he’s not reminded every second the power he’s claiming. Fat lot of good that does the rest of us though…
    -The part about joining Libya’s civil war. The idea that the countries leading the U.N. resolution “authorizing” intervention were so in the dark they assumed out of thin air the need for a no-fly zone for the purpose a no-fly-zone is actually for, when the slightest glance could disprove it, would be hilarious were it not so disturbing. I’ve long assumed that they just lied for leverage, as it makes more sense.
    -I kinda wish the extended bit about the navigator that went down in Libya could be followed up on, by talking to that guy directly. Think “humanitarian war” was his thought when signing up? Way the article leaves his portrayal makes it out like he thought nothing beyond “Jets! Cool!”.

    Actually for all the talk about it, the article isn’t as bad as I expected. Yes, it has fluff, but that’s a given with most media. I think it says something far different from what the author intended though.

    Oh yeah, about this:

    the internal processes of governance, the essential extra-legality and illiberalism of power, have been exposed to the light.

    Good. Those processes should be laid bare as much as possible.

    • Not sure how sanguine we should be about the laying bare process. If the general replacement of convenient fictions by harsh truths was painless and predictable, if the fictions never served any useful or necessary purpose, then no one would have ever preferred to believe them. It could be that the inability to sustain them corresponds to a process of decline, which is not necessarily the same as, or experienced as, progress.

        • Useful to everyone who prefers order to chaos, “us” to “them” – in other words useful to everyone who’s got anything left to lose, or who is afraid for self or others.

          The liberal faith is that it can all be held together and advanced as pure reason. Even the libertarian and anarchistic extremes embody this notion, though usually flowing from alternative premises. The arguably more radical thought in critical respects and implications more conservative notion is that we never get to public reason, or sustain it, except in the context of a much greater, deeper, and more complex web of commitments.

          • Honestly, I’m much more afraid of the consequences of trying to keep an order that requires so much falsehood to maintain. Rather its end be due to conscious effort to dismantle and move beyond it than it collapsing under the weight.

            • What if there is no order that doesn’t depend fundamentally on “falsehood,” with the only possible exception being the ones that depend on unmasked threat (though those don’t last very long)? I put “falsehood” in quotes because the fact that the self-explanation of the system is incomplete and distorted doesn’t mean that it actually runs on falsehood. Maybe it just means that its truth remains un-articulated.The actual falsehood would then lie in the discourse, shared both by the powerful and by those who claim to oppose them, that pretends to know and to explain, when in fact it knows very little, including in regard to its own limitations.

  2. Well the process resembles the previous events in Afghanistan, Najibullah was ousted by 1992, and for a time, the good guys
    typified by Massoud, won out, but not long after, the ones more directly committed to the Salafi faith, Hekmatyar who split away from the government, Younis Khalis’s ‘students’, the recruits gathered by Raisul Sayyaf, prevailed. Now for the purposes of this exercise, Jibril and Magarief, fill the first bloc, and Bel Hadj’s Al Watan, and the likes of Qumu’s Ansar al Sharia, are the other party, Stevens was regarded as one of the supporters of the former, so he had to go, That it would happen on the 25th of Shawwal and what that entails was a special type of irony

  3. I’m describing the patterns, there have been some helpful signs, as in the protests against Ansar Sharia, and the words of Magarief, whereas Morsy and Kandil have behaved exactly according to script

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