Monday, March 22, 2010

Who Are We?

Judith Butler is a Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at University of California Berkeley.  In a recent interview she discusses her latest book, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?
 A fierce critic of war, or at least our seeming endless tolerance for it, she has harsh words for Obama, who she says has not nearly been the critic of war she would have liked him to be.  But, as a philosopher, she's more interested in getting at deeper questions, and tries to see how we end up where we do.
Along with many other people, I am trying to contest the notion that we can only value, shelter, and grieve those lives that share a common language or cultural sameness with ourselves. The point is not so much to extend our capacity for compassion, but to understand that ethical relations have to cross both cultural and geographical distance. Given that there is global interdependency in relation to the environment, food supply and distribution, and war, do we not need to understand the bonds that we have to those we do not know or have never chosen? This takes us beyond communitarianism and nationalism alike. Or so I hope.

I think before entering warfare one needs to ask oneself whether, if it were to take place in their own country, they would fight in the same way.  If the answer is yes, then there is no moral hypocrisy.  But as soon as you begin to think of the lives of inhabitants of some far off land as less meaningful than those of your countrymen, you've begun to lose your humanity.

A similar thought occurred to me today, albeit on a much different subject.  We are putting an addition on our house, which is about 2 hours from the Mexican border.  Many in our community are migrant workers, some legal, some not.  Well, a couple of Mexicans came to my door, speaking very poor English, and offered a bid to stucco the exterior walls.  I thanked them for the offer, and said I'd give their card to the contractor - who as it happens has at least one undocumented worker in his employ.

I wondered how I felt about profiting from illegal labor - certainly their wages would be a drag on those of naturalized citizens.  How would I like it if an undocumented Mexican was able to compete for my job as a teacher?  And what if that meant a substantial pay cut?

I'm not sure I would have a problem with it.  I mean, sure, I want to get paid as much as I can.  But what right do I have over anyone else, if they can the do the same job for less?  What right do I have, just because the uterus I came out of 34 years ago just happened to have been a US citizen?  We only need to go a handful of uteruses back and my family tree would have been the ones doing the displacement.

Nationalism, while a useful and nostalgic concept, can lead to the most base sort of inhumanity and objectification.  What other tendency of human thought can be so soaked in the blood of injustice than provincial arrogance and arbitrary righteousness?  Such despicable, beast-like behavior.  Every man for himself, this is my lifeboat, get out.  The post-hoc rationalizations fill endless volumes of rhetoric down through the centuries.  They trickle slowly through the days like sticky-saccharine. 

Looking back, we've come so far.  But we have so far to go still.

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