Thursday, May 24, 2007

What is Covenant Zone?

We meet again today, as every Thursday, in the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, 7-9 pm, in front of Blenz coffee. Look for the blue scarves and the Israeli flag on the ballcap.

What is Covenant Zone? Most simply, in my view, it is an attempt to create some new form of market in which people seeking covenants, for various purposes, can come together, not around a specific dogma, platform, or manifesto, but more generally out of a desire to create new possibilities, freedoms, through shared promises to do things whose end or covenantal outcome cannot be entirely foreseen but will emerge as a negotiation among free and responsible individuals seeking personal opportunities while renewing the covenantal culture of Western civilization in opposition to those (the elite bureaucratic class and the "victims" they patronize and encourage in order to justify the rule of bureaucratic elites) who see every innovation, political departure from a status quo, and market freedom as a probable source of victimization of those who do not immediately share in the advance.

As usual, Adam Katz has some ideas on how this can work:
One of the most pernicious elements of the post-World War II, welfare state culture has been the assumption of a consensual “mainstream,” authorized to marginalize “extremes.” The deflection of American civilization during this period was toward anti-covenantal, anti-constitutional forms, toward the rule of experts in circularly self-accrediting institutions. Even conservatives play into the logic of such institutions when they complain about the “liberal bias” of the media. The very notion that the media should be unbiased is a liberal one, and unwittingly supports the association of journalism with institutions genuinely charged with disinterestedness, like scholarly activity and, more important, the judiciary. Criticizing journalists for falsifying the reality they report on is perfectly appropriate, of course, but there is nothing wrong with a newspaper or TV station primarily concerned with eviscerating one party in particular. The most healthy media environment is one in which each outlet seeks to please and increase its audience, and in which each reader therefore has access not merely to publications with widely varying political stances but publications with widely varying tolerance for error (so there would be some insisting upon very high standards of verification while others sacrifice some credibility in the interest of getting better hidden stories, or getting stories faster), with different standards for “appropriateness,” etc.—and without any one or any combination having the kind of near monopoly status that enables it to be certain that ignoring some other interest won’t cut into its own audience share. Meanwhile, newsmakers themselves would harvest their own “value” as objects of attention, and confer it upon those media markets they favor, while always needing to calculate the value they might be losing by sacrificing the attention of another audience, ultimately trying to use their “capital” to use antagonistic outlets for their own purposes.

The same is true, more problematically but therefore more exemplarily, for more entrenched institutions like our universities. In the last instance, universities provide their graduates with something employers or graduate and professional schools want; somewhere along the line it is likely that other ways of providing that, more cheaply and perhaps better, will be invented. On-line “academies,” for example, modeled on the discovery of free inquiry in ancient Greece, might hire tutors and issue certificates that such a participant has received such an evaluation from other participants in a reading group on American literature, or sociology, or a for pay apprenticeship at a blog or in a hospital or laboratory, and that, furthermore, this group including the following members and was supervised by the following tutors…in the end, one would put together a package that would have a certain value for employers and professional schools. In that case, each person and each institution will have to take responsibility for assessing value, which would, moreover, be constantly changing as such groups would most likely have far more rapid turnover than today’s universities. The day of the New York Times or Harvard “brand” would, thankfully, be over. And, rather than all of us being peppered by hysterical assertions of academic freedom or journalistic privilege, subversive and illuminating truths would come out because somewhere along the line we would find someone interested in helping the discoverer disseminate them, and we would all get in the habit of “shopping around.”

I would consider such associations products of a genuinely covenantal culture insofar as they would refer us back to the pledged reality each generates, rather than some manufactured or hyped “right” or empty references to the public good. Also, in order to “receive” and judge the results of such institutions we would need to covenant with others ourselves: enforcing an acceptable degree of transparency would require that we collaborate with others on determining norms and standards, on the distance between the reality and the pledge. We would all be gatekeepers, editors and certification boards for each other. And we can already begin to speak in these terms now, and thereby help hasten the arrival of such a reality, by examining institutions in terms of covenants between teachers and students and among faculty, between media outlets and readers and viewers and among journalists themselves: what, precisely, can we determine to be the implicit terms of any particular “covenant,” training ourselves to ignore banal invocations of journalistic “ethics” or academic “rigor” or “consensus.” There can and will, indeed, be covenants in which the participants pledge to suspend existing assumptions and arrive at a representation of reality all could contribute to, but the basis for judging such efforts will lie in the specific “devices” and “procedures” the covenant itself accounts for.

Proposing or even, at times, acting unilaterally on the assumption of a covenant with those behind enemy lines provides the most promising way of generating a pledged reality capable of displacing the viral one imposed by the Global Intifada. I mean this, first of all, in the simple sense of creating facts that can’t ignored because they in turn create webs of other facts which ultimately touch other facts that pretty much anyone would be interested in. In my most recent essay for New English Review, I proposed that the Israelis might offer citizenship to individuals (and their families) who help in substantive ways with finding kidnapped Israeli soldiers (or, let’s add, help break up the system of terror in other visible ways). The principle can be extended in many ways. We should, for example, be opening cracks in the increasingly monolithic Muslim world, by asserting Christian and liberal interests wherever we find them and introducing them where we don’t. If the Saudis can fund madrassahs throughout the world and give millions to fund chairs in Middle Eastern Studies we can surely establish Friedrich Hayek Centers for the Study of Economic and Political Liberty in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and insist that our government make permitting the existence of such institutions a condition of diplomatic relations with these countries. Not to mention supporting every single persecuted Christian we hear about, and setting in place mechanisms (like rewards and promises of asylum) to make sure that we do hear about them. Private institutions can provide funding for memorials to the victims of jihad (past and present), as Marianne Pearl called upon the Pakistani people to do for her murdered husband. In this way we would be creating realities, around which events and conflicts would coalesce, and on our terms—this would not be mere spin or disinformation, in part because we would willing concede control over the outcome. Our own position would be impeccable, in terms of both human rights principles and long term self-interest, and we would be placing ourselves (or, to be honest, some of us would be placing the rest) in situations where all we need is courage.
Even my proposal for common Israeli-American action raises no principled questions, only ones of prudence—and that a mere question of prudence has become so taboo is itself revealing. In fact, our willingness to consider such a break with an established taboo would itself be a sign of our enhanced “market value” as an ally; conversely, its “unthinkability” testifies to our sinking value. Clearly there would be a great deal to debate here, but the point would first of all to create events worthy of sparking such debate. In other words, we should first of all “seed” the world with “sites” we are ready to pledge ourselves to support and defend, and let that be our continuing source of reality.


Ypp said...

I believe, attempts to change attitudes of the media and universities are not completely useless. Institutions have much power due to their nature, and it would be good to influence them. Interesting is to know, why are they biased? Is it in their nature to be biased? Should we do better without institutions at all? Probably not - societies without institutions did not advance a lot.

truepeers said...

Yes, we cannot be human, we can have no society, without institutions. So I would suggest our challenge is sometimes to replace old, worn-out, institutions (that can no longer adapt to evolving human needs and aspirations) with new ones, and sometimes to reform existing ones. In either case, when institutions need to change they need to be challenged in a competitive atmosphere, a competition over the understanding and possibilities of human necessity and freedom. And I suggest it is the ever-present possibility of such challenges that makes powerful institutions (with their accounts of necessity and freedom) biased.

The last thing I (or Adam Katz) want is a world without something akin to universities or news media. But there is more than one way to skin a cat. And I find so many (certainly not all) of the players in these establishment institutions at present have fallen deep into the delusions of a resentful victimary culture. This delusion is deadly for humanity, for more and more of us every day (not to forget the not yet born). Thus I must attack the institutions as they exist today and ask how can their essential institutional functions be better performed by those who care more about truth and freedom, care enough at least to debate the big questions openly, honestly, intelligently, without constant recourse to the "bias" or mind trap of political crrectness, that pattern of thought that shuts up free and open discussion in favor of some putatively evident hierarchy of who is a victim and who not, who deserves to be heard, and whose free speech is really just a means of sustaining a logocentric white male hegemony, or at least a conservative American-Jewish neocon agenda.