A talk given at the German Consulate in Toronto on October 24, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an installation of “The Hannah Arendt Denkraum” brought to Toronto from Berlin.
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
es ist mir eine grosse Freude mit Ihnen hier bei der Eroeffnung des Hannah Arendt Denkraums zu sein und ich bin insbesondere Frau Consul Sabine Sparwasser sehr dankbar dafür, mich eingeladen zu haben. Um über Hannah Arendt zu sprechen -- erst recht in einem Denkraum! -- ist es nötig, zu denken, und deshalb werde ich jetzt aufhoeren, auf Deutsch zu Ihnen zu sprechen und in der einzigen Sprache fortfahren, in der ich denken kann: in meiner Muttersprache.
So, let me begin again, in English, by saying that Frau Sparwasser has asked me to reflect on the relevance of Arendt’s thinking for today. To do that, I must first say something about today. It is obvious to all of us, I think, that we live in a time of intense, world-wide anxiety, an anxiety that is spread through the human world like a toxic mist, like a pollution, like a global warming.
Every corner of the world is connected to every other by the various media of news reporting and the various forms of electronic networking, so whatever happens somewhere is transmitted to some degree everywhere –degrees of truth and distortion and spin being more or less equal in the process. In this atmosphere, which is over-stimulating, full of excitements both upsetting and exhilarating, it is very difficult to think at all –one can feel like one of those experimental animals wrapped in electrodes and shocked continuously until exhausted and spent. Overloaded. Even the torrential events of the Arab Spring strike us in one moment as world-transformational and in the next not. And Occupy Wall Street –a new youth revolt?
A recent issue of the rather sober establishment British journal The Economist featured a cover on which there was an ominous-looking black hole with the imperative “BE AFRAID “ in its dense center. “Until politicians actually do something about the world economy” the cover said: “BE AFRAID.” Be afraid you are going to be sucked right down into this black hole as the world that was created with a bang is destroyed with a whimpering suction noise. The whole metaphor is apocalyptic. Is it not something to wonder at that a journal with enormous world-wide circulation and influence is charging its readership to be afraid, to move from anxiety, which everyone feels to some extent, to fear?
The first thing that I would like to say about Hannah Arendt is that she was not afraid; that her anxieties simply did not go over into fear. She lived through a time which was even more frightening than our own, but which was, also, like our own, defined by a combination of economic disaster –the Great Depression—followed by a prolonged political crisis in which some regimes went in the direction of a new form of government, totalitarianism, and some in the direction of trying to save their half-formed democracies and their political freedom. She thought and wrote as the division of the world into totalitarian regimes –chiefly in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—on the one side and struggling democracies on the other, turned into the Second World War, a war novel in its extent and in the technologies used to carry it on, including technologies used in what Arendt called “factories of death.” But she did not become fearful, or write out of fear.
I think it is chiefly this that compelled attention to her writing then and again today and that marks its relevance for today. Her courage was certainly not based on failure to grasp what was frightening in the world during and after the Second World War. Indeed, her courage came from her deep understanding of that frightfulness and her ability to describe it as unprecedented. She grasped that there were factors and forces in the world that were unprecedented in their potentiality to be lethal, for the world and for all individuals.
Courage is a virtue that actualizes in a crisis, that actualizes –or fails to actualize--when a person realizes that courage is called for, summoned by the state of the world. A courageous person is able to call forth courage from within herself, from within her inner world, where, I think she must feel the courage of others, internalized in herself by identification. A courageous person must have, in herself, both the latent virtue and the inner company and companionship of courageous individuals. If she is lucky, she will have these companions as comrades in the present as well. To say the same thing in cultural terms: a person being courageous must have the virtue of courage ready and must have examples of courage in others to draw upon as part of her culture, existing in her memory and in the legacy she has internally. Otherwise, there is only fear in a frightening situation. There is only fright or flight.
How is courage manifest in thinking and writing? First of all, I think, by independence of thought, by Selbst-denken (thinking for your self ) and in conversation with those internal others whom the independently thinking person has judged independent. The thinking is a conversation of independents. This is the very opposite of group-thinking or herd thinking –which is, really, a contradiction in terms. There is really no thinking in group-thinking or herd-thinking; there is only obedient reacting.
Reacting to imperatives like BE AFRAID, or run away, or run away from thinking.
Such imperatives –BE AFRAID or RUN AWAY—when they are widely promulgated and widely accepted become what are known as ideologies. An ideology is an elaborate formulation that carries the charge DO NOT THINK. An ideology supplies answers to questions in advance. It supplies the elementary answer to questions about history, telling which people, which political group will inevitably triumph in history and telling what direction the train of history is taking and is going to take. Or it supplies elementary answers to questions about nature and human nature, telling which racial or religious group is innately destined to be superior and exercise its natural or divine right to dominate over others or all others. The first was the ideology of Stalinists, the second of the Nazi Party of Germany. Hannah Arendt’s masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was an analysis of these ideologies and how they came to imprison the minds of those who walked into the prison of them and to determine their actions, which in both cases were actions that had the paradoxical effect of eliminating the space for political action –the space for politics. They were actions against action. In both cases, mass movements brought the ideological subscribers together and turned them, acquiescently, into citizens of totalitarian states.
Arendt wrote her book (and many shorter newspaper pieces related to it as well) while she was a stateless person, cast out of her homeland while it was turning into a totalitarian state because she was a member of one group, the Jews, deemed inferior and eventually almost completely eliminated in Germany and the German Reich. The position, Arendt understood, of the pariah is the position of the clear-sighted, the far-sighted, the illusionless; the position of those who can raise the most thoughtful alarm and warning. Later, she could show in her report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem how persons who subscribe to an ideology –no matter how they lived before signing up to the ideology—become thoughtless persons. She wrote a biography of a state mass murderer.
Her courage in writing these books was clear in the controversies they aroused. For the ideologies she wrote about survived the defeats of both the Nazis and the Stalinists –who quite naturally became allies during the Second World War—and continued after the War, in the long period that is known as the Cold War. These ideologies survived both in the defeated countries and in the countries, the struggling democracies, that defeated them but, in the process, assimilated to some of their tenets and methods. (This was so obvious in the American McCarthy period, but secret police forces, for example, became a normal feature of democracies in the 1950s.) Ideologists of the Nature and History sorts, not surprisingly, made war on her and her writings, which were fundamental critiques of these ideologies and the anti-political movements that continued to support them.
The Cold War went on longer than Hannah Arendt lived. It was the context for all her later writings, of the 1960s and early 1970s. These writings inspired many in the generation born after the Second World War to understand as she did the world their parents had made, as they inspired the young readers to be suspicious of ideologies of all known sorts: the ones dictating how history is unfolding and the ones dictating which peoples are intrinsically superior and fitted for dominance. But she also alerted them to beware of any new ones that would be particularly compelling in the post-War world, which was so shaped by the existence of lethal technologies –nuclear weapons. In “Ideology and Terror,” an essay included in The Origins of Totalitarianism’s later editions, she wrote: “It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form –though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”
Hannah Arendt died in 1975, just as such a new ideology was, in my estimation, forming while the post-War variants of the old ideologies of History and Nature were reforming and deforming with the break-ups of the mid-20th century imperial states. Both the totalitarian Soviet Union and its hostile imitator in China were breaking up, as were the non-totalitarian but imperial British Commonwealth and the American Empire. The liniments of that new ideology were becoming clear to her, and she spoke out about them, most pointedly in the speech she made in 1975 on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the American republic, which was in 1976.
That speech, entitled “Home To Roost,” focused on how America, with its defeat in the Vietnam War, was coming into a period of asserting itself around the world in reaction to its defeat and the loosening of its grip on its empire. People in the country were developing an ideology of self-justification for its imperialism and blindness to the aspirations for freedom of the world’s peoples struggling –as the North Vietnamese had--to overcome their histories of being subjugated by imperial powers. And the whole mindless self-assertion was being aggravated by the sudden turn toward recession, even possibly depression, that the American and the world economy had taken since the 1973 OPEC crisis.
She could see that this new, assertive ideology included elements from the mid-century ideologies of History and Nature, for it anticipated the triumph of superior peoples. But the superior peoples were not nations or nation-states in the 20th century sense. They were people living all over the earth but linked by their dedication to growing wealthy and powerful in societies no longer based on manufacturing but based on consumption, societies that, in her words, “could keep going only by changing into a huge economy of waste.” Americans took the lead in formulating this assertive Economic Progress ideology, but it appealed to capitalists everywhere and to not a few socialists and communists –particularly in China--as well.
Those benefitting from the consumer society and its waste economy were and are devote believers in Progress framed more purely in economic terms than historical or natural historical. These international or supernational ideologists invoked and served limitless growth economies that “went on at the expense of the world we live in, and of the objects with their built-in obsolescence which we no longer use but abuse, misuse and throw away.” She noted that: “The recent sudden awakening to the threats to our environment is the first ray of hope in this development, although nobody, as far as I can see, has yet found a means to stop this runaway economy without causing a really major breakdown.”
In the decades since Arendt wrote those words in 1975, the runaway economy has only run more away, because to the engines of its development have been added financial and banking means to fuel it with risky debt, with money instruments that have gotten more and more detached from the world we live in and objects of any sort. The banking and financial means –derivatives upon derivatives--are themselves consumables. And the dynamic of the runaway economy, advertised as a great good by public relations people serving the new ideologists, has worn away at the public realm in all nations and internationally. Key decision makers are no longer elected representatives of citizens in states; governments are hardly making economic decisions, economic institutions are (so the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are demonstrating in the right place symbolically, if not politically). With a shrinking public realm--one not even receptive to the ray of hope coming from the environmental awakening, now grown to a movement—Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth. Untramelled economic growth might take longer, but its results could be as lethal as those that can be caused in an instant by nuclear weapons. Like their totalitarian predecessors, the ideologists of Economic Progress rationalize destroying the very habitat in which they are to be the triumphant group, that is, they rationalize destroying everything and everybody they hoped to rule over.
No one since 1975 has written The Origins of EconomicTotalitarianism, but that may be as much from lack of a pariah position in a world where it is impossible to escape being an accomplice to consumerism as it is from lack of courage. Even the wretched of the earth in a time of runaway economic inequality are deeply trapped in the system that oppresses them. The intelligentsia is easily corrupted. But this probably means that the people who understand what has happened and offer their insights, as she did, to the public, will have to be even more courageous for not having the advantage of a parish position to look out from and pariah company to keep. Sheer courage will be required.
But in such a time, her example, as one of the most courageous of her émigré generation, her diaspora generation, is nonetheless needed in order for the thoughtful to have conversation with her in their thinking minds.
To read more by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, click here to visit her blog.
An interesting piece by Stephen L. Carter from SF Gate about the death of Qaddafi. Carter discusses the dictator's death in relation to Arendt's distinctions concerning revolution.
The Hannah Arendt Center's fourth annual conference,
"Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts"
October 28-29, 2011 10:30AM-7:00PM
Olin Hall, Bard College
On-site registration begins at 9:30 AM each morning.
Click here to watch a live simulcast of the conference.
Click here to view the conference program.
Tweet about the conference to @arendt_center.
Post a comment about the conference on Facebook here.
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, and author of The Death of Conservatism will be giving the keynote address this Saturday at the Hannah Arendt Center conference, Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. Click here to read an insightful conversation with Tanenhaus in which he discusses five books that shaped conservative culture, including the novels of Bellow and Updike.
Read the third installment here, pages 52-68.
Read the full article at The New Yorker online.
Andrew Sullivan has an excellent essay in The Daily Beast about the undeniable allure of the Occupy Wall Street protests, in spite of what he calls "the hippie problem." As much as there are elements of the protests and the protesters that sound naïve and even coarse, as much as they at times seem out of touch, there is a core truth to the Occupy Wall Street movements that is so profound that it cannot be denied. In short, we must agree with the basic idea: that our democracy and our political system are broken. Here is Sullivan:
The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a “democratic deficit” gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control.
If you have any doubt that we have lost all trust in our democratic government (and who has such doubts), read this front-page article in today's NY Times.
A healthy democracy needs at least two things.
First, a strong middle class. As thinkers from Aristotle to Arendt have emphasized, political life requires that the people share a common world. Those who are too rich or too poor are excluded from what the people share; they exist often on the fringes of that consensus of common sense. It is the middle classes that determine a strong and meaningful sense of what the people are and give depth and sense to the public world. The best Constitution, Aristotle writes in his Politics, is one that encourages the largest middle class. The loss of our middle class has weakened that common sense and threatens our political system.
Second, a healthy democracy needs a shared factual world. As Hannah Arendt has argued, without a shared factual world, we cannot talk, argue, or disagree with others; we are left with nothing to do but talk to those with whom we already agree. In a world without facts, we risk undermining the venture of politics as Arendt understood it: to create together a common world, one as unruly, disorderly, and argumentative as such togetherness demands.
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College convenes a conference exploring the loss of fact and the attack on common sense that have corroded our political world and fed our unprecedented distrust of politics. The conference—Truthtellng: Democracy in an Age Without Facts—is this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28-29. You can watch the conference via live web simulcast by going to the Arendt Center website on Friday, beginning at 10:30 am.
To read more of Andrew Sullivan's article, click here.
Novelist and critic Zadie Smith will be speaking Friday at the Hannah Arendt Center conference “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts.” In her Rules for Writers published last year in The Guardian, Smith declares, “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
We are excitedly preparing for the start of the Arendt Center's conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts" which begins on Friday. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt and the truth, we thought we would revisit Arendt's "Truth and Politics", which appeared in The New Yorker in 1967. We'll be providing you with an installment a day for the next four days. Enjoy!
Click here to read pages 49-50.
The piece can be read in its entirety at The New Yorker online.
In light of the Occupy Wall Street protests the word “revolution” is being bandied about all over the press. We might, however, pause and ask if we have lost a sense of its true significance. Read “The Meaning of Revolution", the first chapter of Hannah Arendt’s stellar On Revolution to grasp what is really at play on Wall Street, as well as what is at stake. “Crucial,” Arendt writes, “to any understanding of revolutions in the modern age is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a beginning should coincide.” Revisiting Arendt’s classic promises to thoughtfully stoke discussion about our current political climate.
Then read “The Power and Paradox of Revolutions” in which Seyla Benhabib provides an important critique of the revolutionary movements in the Arab world. We invite readers to also consider these reflections with reference to Occupy Wall Street and the shift underway in the United States. Benhabib, thinking with Arendt writes, “revolutionary power that destroys the old order must do so in the name of another, higher kind of authority. But where does this authority derive from?” While the OWS protesters seek to abolish what they deem a withered way of governance their aim is to bring about what they consider a sounder political process. What is the legitimizing force in the revolutionary movement underway today in this country?
Occupy Wall Street has been looking for issues to coalesce around. Now the Canadian group Adbusters—the group that issued the initial call that began the protests—has proposed that Occupy Wall Street adopt a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions as its first issue. Here is their call to action.
The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) is an idea that has lots of support amongst some economists. My friend David Callahan has been arguing for the FTT for a while now. By far the best and most balanced analysis of an FTT is by the IMF, here. On the positive side, the FTT has the advantage of being simple and intuitively attractive. But is a Financial Transaction Tax really a good issue for Occupy Wall Street to coalesce around?
The main problem is that the FTT employs a sawed off shot-gun approach to a real but specific problem and unintended consequences. Thus, the IMF study cited above concluded that a FTT would not clearly target financial excesses:
Where the goal is to curb financial market excesses, [FTT] offer a less specific remedy for the excessive leverage that is believed to cause them than other tax and/or regulatory solutions. Financial complexity does not derive solely or even primarily from trading activity. The buildup of hidden financial risks in the recent crisis resulted predominantly from excess leverage, risk concentration, and product innovation such as asset securitization, which would have been largely unaffected by a transactions tax. An [FTT] also does not directly address systemic risk.
The point is that the real problem in speculation is leverage and volatility. The FTT doesn't address leverage, and it doesn't target the high frequency traders who drive volatility. Instead, the FTT taxes ALL transactions.
What is more, the FTT will penalize smaller and retail investors—precisely those in the 99%. As the chart below shows, most stock in the U.S. is held by middle-class investors—those between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile. They are responsible for the vast majority of financial transactions (this is especially true since a large percentage of the equity holdings of the 1% in the chart are enormous trusts containing dividend paying stocks that have been held for generations and which never trade). Thus, the FTT falls most heavily on the people who own the most stock in the country and depend on that stock for our retirements and investments.
Another problem is that if the Financial Transaction Tax is not adopted globally, it may well drive trading off shore to even less well-regulated markets than our own. The U.S. tried a similar tax in the 1960s and repealed it when trading moved to London. Sweden tried a FTT tax in the 1980s and 1990s and repealed it later when trading fled to other countries.
Finally, the IMF concludes that the FTT would increase consumption and reduce savings by lowering the returns of investment and savings—a result directly opposite to at least some of the goals of Occupy Wall Street. In addition, the FTT discourages the rebalancing of portfolios, thus depressing total returns on mutual funds investments and 401ks.
So what might be some other ideas for Occupy Wall Street—and also our political leaders (such as they are)—to consider? Here are a few ideas that a number of professionals I spoke with mentioned:
1. Ban all High Frequency Trading. It has no purpose except to make some very big and wealthy firms money while increasing volatility for the rest of us. High frequency traders justify the practice as increasing market efficiency. But there is no economic justification to prefer a system that makes 1000 trades per second to one that makes 10 trades per second. Such trading is disruptive and very profitable. Ban it outright. Doing so would be much easier than getting the global cooperation needed to make a Financial Transaction Tax workable. And doing so would also make the U.S. markets more stable and thus give them a competitive advantage over other markets worldwide.
2. A Cancelled Order Tax. It turns out nearly 99% of the orders placed on Wall Street are never filled, but cancelled. A small percentage of these cancellations are just people changing their minds. But the vast majority of cancelled orders are used to manipulate prices by tricking other traders into thinking that a stock is moving in a particular direction. According to one study on an average trading day in 2010, only 1% of all the 89.7 billion orders were executed, which means that nearly 99% of all orders placed can be attributed to high frequency traders trying to manipulate stock prices. A tax on cancelled-orders has distinct advantages over a tax on all financial transactions. First, it will fall primarily on hedge funds and large high-frequency traders, and will not affect retail investors. Second, it will specifically target the casino-like aspect of Wall Street. A cancelled-order tax is not as simple or sexy as a financial transaction tax. Less has been written on it. But it actually seems like a better idea. Read more about the idea here and here.
3. Reinstate the Uptick Rule. Nearly every market professional I polled supports the re-instatement of the "Uptick Rule," a rule that was imposed in 1938 during the Depression and repealed in 2007—just before the market crash and the financial crisis. The Uptick Rule prevents hedge funds and traders from betting on falling stock prices when the markets are already falling, thus reducing volatility and reducing the ability of traders to make money by encouraging market panics. There is a debate about how effective the Uptick Rule is, but there seems to be little or no downside to reinstating it. The only people who oppose doing so are traders.
4. Taxing Corporate Debt and Leverage and Raising Margins. The IMF proposes taxing not financial transactions but corporate debt, thus discouraging corporations from using debt and leverage to finance their activities. As part of this approach, it would be wise to raise margin requirements, the amount of money that someone has to put up before buying a stock or financial instrument on credit.
While Hannah Arendt may not have been much interested in the minutiae of Wall Street regulation, she did care deeply about the importance of facts in thoughtful and reasoned argument. In just one week, on Friday Oct. 28, the Hannah Arendt Center will open our two-day conference on Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. When facts and opinions blur, reasoned argument falls prey to spin and deception. Politics is a realm of conflicting opinions, Arendt argued, but the opinions must necessarily be grounded on facts.
Whether or not the Financial Transaction Tax is a good idea, the debate around it should be based on solid knowledge of the financial system, the affects of such a tax, and also the alternatives. These are very complex issues and, in all honesty, much of the debate so far has traded in simplifications, soundbites, and falsehoods.
If Occupy Wall Street really wants to distinguish itself from the Tea Party and change our political culture, let's use this first foray into politics as an opportunity to model adult argument, something that has been absent from our public life for far too long. If they do want to model a future of fact-based decision making, they will do well to look deeply into the cons as well as the pros of a financial transaction tax. They would also do well to consult those people who work in financial markets daily. Many of these people—both those in the 99% and the 1%—want to eliminate market excesses and reign in the speculation and insanity that helped lead to the recent financial crisis. In the name of common sense and a way forward, let's have a real debate based in both fact and expertise.
A piece by the Arendt Center's Roger Berkowitz which appeared in "Arguments", the blog of "Democracy, a Journal of Ideas" on October 20, 2011.
“Consensus” is the title of a video flying around the web. With chants and crowd noise in the background, the video begins with a voiceover by a young woman who says:
People ask all the time, well, who are the leaders. Well, none of us are leaders and we are all leaders. We're all the same.
This idea of a leaderless movement is often mentioned in connection with the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ lack of demands. What’s overlooked is the deep conviction that many in the movement have about the idea of consensus and the practice of direct and leaderless democracy. What are we to make of the experiment with direct and leaderless democracy going on in Zuccotti Park?
1. The protesters are enjoying themselves. For some critics, this is evidence of the lack of seriousness of the protesters and evidence that they are spoiled and naïve elites with nothing better to do with their time. But what is wrong with bringing joy into politics? Politics, as Hannah Arendt never tired of saying, is an activity of public happiness, of the joyful acting together in public. Those who criticize public happiness have another view, namely, that serious things require working or raising one’s family. We thus have here two opposed views of the world, one prioritizing private life, the other focusing on public life. I give the protesters credit for resisting the self-centered narcissism of modern politics. As did the original Tea Party activists, they have rejuvenated the political discourse.
Click here to read the rest of the piece.
Read Hannah Arendt's seminal 1963 essay, "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man".
Several years ago a friend spent a year studying in Tokyo. Upon her return, in the midst of relaying stories from her time there, she--a modest and reserved young woman--confided that to earn a little extra money she had done something she would never have considered in her native city: modeled nude for a drawing class. She had done this work not in Tokyo, but rather in a small village, Iitate, a few hours away. Her description of its marvels left me ready to depart for a land I had never had a great curiosity about or particular desire to visit. She was a trained dancer and, though retired, had retained both her suppleness and strength. As she spoke I imagined light stretching past the mountains and into the studio full of artists. Their hands steady and serene as they rendered on canvas the shape of stillness my friend had choreographed before them.
That village, Iitate, once one of the country’s greatest wonders is now almost emptied after an evacuation order was handed down in May. Evan Osnos takes us back to the town in his excellent report on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the October 17th issue of The New Yorker. Twenty five miles from Fukushima, the village’s six-thousand residents have been driven from their homes by the emissions released during the March disaster at the nearby plant. The radiation levels are scored on a large meter in the village, and Osnos helps read the numbers for us. “Being there,” he writes “was equivalent to receiving a chest X-ray every twelve hours.”
The crisis last spring in Japan, and the country’s sordid history with nuclear technology that led up to it, weaves together two strands of Hannah Arendt’s thought. The first, of particular interest to us at the Arendt Center this fall, is her understanding of truthtelling, and the frail existence of the fact in the political sphere. The second is of course the rise of nuclear power in the twentieth century and the influence it had upon Arendt's work. The detonation of nuclear weapons, Arendt writes in the first pages of The Human Condition, marked the inauguration of modern politics that separates humanity from its earthly essence. Fukushima reveals the relation between these two phenomena: the ways in which the modern parodying of truth is itself born of and bound to the modern desire to ‘untether,’ as Arendt would say, from the earth.
Osnos' report details the nuclear fables and fibs that precipitated March’s meltdown, as well as those that were used to try to swathe it. In the decades after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese were forced to prove they could muster an appetite for nuclear technology, both for the sake of diplomacy and because the geography of the country meant, with limited natural reserves of fossil fuels, they needed to turn to nuclear sources to meet their energy needs.
The term appetite is not used merely metaphorically. Osnos brings to the reader’s attention videos run at nuclear plant exhibitions in the early 1990’s, when the country was trying to convince the public to embrace nuclear energy. The videos featured the cartoon character Little Pluto Boy; in one reel he is encouraging a child to drink down a glassful of his noxious namesake claiming, “It is unthinkable that I could cause any effects on the human body!” Plants were increasingly made to resemble amusement parks in order to mollify anxious mothers. Women, the government realized, would be the arbiters of the country’s nuclear future, and an aggressive effort was underway to persuade them there was no harm in bathing their newborn in a tub of uranium or letting their youngster quaff a pint of plutonium.
The misinformation campaigns crafted to buttress the “myth of total safety” around nuclear facilities was carried out, as Osnos discusses, in concert with the aggressive de-regulation of the industry. An uncanny intimacy developed between government regulators and those in the business of fission. Tokyo Electric’s practice of doctoring Fukushima records, came to light in the early 2000’s, followed five years later by the admission that their initial gesture to come clean about the forgeries had itself been a lie, obscuring half a dozen other “emergencies” at Fukushima that had gone unreported.
This nuclear history is certainly a version of both the manipulation of facts that Arendt warned us against, as well as truth’s strange resistance to it. She writes of truth:
“Whatever those in power may contrive, they are unable to discover or invent a viable substitute for it. Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it.”
The simple obstinacy of the factual world means that while an un-repaired reactor, or the faulty handling of fuelrods, may be camouflaged, such truths will eventually erupt—in this case literally and catastrophically—back into the realm of affairs.
What is both clear and crucial here is that this obstinate quality of facts, essentially the symptom of the immanence of the human world, stands in direct opposition to our attempted flight from it that Arendt takes up in her writing. The physical wish to transcend our earthly home and its limitations, through space voyage and cellular vivisection, is often accompanied by the attempt to denigrate and deny facts; the earth’s epistemological furniture. A falsehood as blatant as that plutonium is potable, is not just industry spin, rather it is part of the ethos that says the greater the kilowatts the better the chance that we will accomplish that twentieth century feat of finally busting out of our bodies.
Nuclear power, like its nefarious cousin the bomb, both represents and trades on this desire to collapse the distance between man and the heavens. On January 1st 1954, the Japanese daily Yomiuri, ran a series of articles announcing the benefits of nuclear energy: “Finally, The Sun Has Been Captured” the headline sang.
Less than a decade after Little Boy seared shadows onto Hiroshima sidewalks, recovery from the phosphorescent wreckage involved not disowning but ratifying the notion that the best way to proctor prosaic events is to attempt to invigilate cosmic ones. We want nothing more than to arrest the very star on whose charity our orphan planet necessarily depends and owes its very existence.
Nuclear technology is therefore such an important pivot in Arendt’s thinking since what it articulates is a fundamental shift in the ontology of the human condition: the moment at which the species acquired the ability to erase itself. For a thinker who took natality, “the fact that we have entered the world through birth,” as the axiom of her theory, finding ourselves in a state in which the principle of beginning is itself extinguished is both a philosophical and political colossus. Nuclear disaster has the ability to vaporize not just persons but their very origins, meaning its message is ultimately not “you will be gone,” but rather, “you were never here.” That man is a creature, his arrival and departure from the earth unbidden, is part of the quintessence, the truth, of human being. The development of nuclear capabilities marks the threshold of modernity for Arendt because it warps this, not only by dictating man’s departure, as all warfare does, but by expunging the evidence of man’s very arrival.
Iitate’s were only six of the eighty thousand “nuclear refugees” that Japan had on their hands in the aftermath of Fukushima. The government has predicted it will be two years before the village is habitable again. I wonder whether the artists my friend stood for—fastened to the earth by nothing more or less than her own bare flesh—will ever return to their studios. The image of such a class there again seems to me at once both deeply sorrowful and yet also one of the few visions of hope available. From the other side of the globe I can picture the easels encircling the body of a beautiful woman; cool, and lithe, and flecked with light, as she orbits gently in a silence hollowed out by the heat of the world’s worst kind of radiance.
The second installment of a two part blog post about Occupy Wall Street by Hannah Arendt Center Associate Fellow, Kieran Bonner.
On the website of Occupytogether is the following statement:
“The beauty of this new formula, and what makes this novel tactic exciting, is its pragmatic simplicity: we talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies … we zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future … and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen.”
There is much in this statement that coheres with the spirit of Arendt’s work and mission, the focus on talking to each other, a demand that awakens imagination.
While she would welcome the interest in radical democracy, she would be very suspicious of the language of ‘propelling,’ as though moving forward was subject to an inhuman force rather than the result of persuasion through human speech. My Arendtian ambivalence is located in the need to separate social concerns from political concerns and economic matters from matters of democracy.
If the focus of the protest is primarily on economic inequality and not on reviving democracy, on political economy and not politics itself, then it is in danger of being absorbed by the social. Arendt distinguished between life concerns and political concerns and said that politics, and therefore democracy, become at best corrupt and at worst disappears when dominated by urgent life concerns.
It is precisely for this reason that Arendt saw the American Revolution as politically far more successful than either the Russian or French. She admired the American Revolution because it put political matters, especially democracy, first. An act of citizenship, in Arendt’s sense, is more than voting for someone else to act and speak on one’s behalf. It requires the full experience of acting and speaking; it is this criterion that Arendt would use to assess whether acts were either social or political and so acts of citizenship.
The Boston Tea Party was not a rebellion against taxation per se, as the contemporary Tea Party tends to emphasize. It was not a movement to ‘get government of the backs of the people.
It was against taxation without representation. It was against government without participation and not government per se. That the American Revolution led not to a completely fair taxation system but rather to the first modern democracy is its great achievement. The promise in OWS, therefore, is not just whether correct economic legislation is enacted, but whether a re-invigorated democracy can be re-imagined. This is the hard work of envisioning alternatives, a work that has become unimaginable despite a consumer culture that always invites us to imagine the impossible. Is it not paradoxical that today we can easily imagine the end of the world but not the end of capitalism, as Slavoj Zizek stated to the occupiers last Sunday. That is the promise of the OWS initiative, the beginning of the hard struggle to restore a lived experience of political freedom to America and to the world.
“The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them. And one can debate long and profitably on the rule of Nobody, which is what the political form known as bureau-cracy truly is….we have become very much accustomed by modern psychology and sociology, not to speak of modern bureaucracy, to explaining away the responsibility of the doer for his deed in terms of this or that kind of determinism” (Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem, Essay on the Banality of Evil).
Hannah Arendt here expresses a fundamental problem of the ethics of administration. Can we say that a public administrator or business manager is responsible for actions they have done when they were following the orders given by their superiors? Arendt emphasizes that there is a dangerous inclination to regard such bureaucrats as insignificant ordinary people who are nothing but elements of a system or a larger whole. In this way bureaucratic evildoers may argue–as Eichmann did—that they were only “following orders” and therefore they cannot really be held responsible in a legal sense because as officials they are only administering the rules and regulations of the legal or bureaucratic system. Or, in case of a corporation, the rules and values that are implemented as strategy from the top.
Yet this passage expresses our fundamental unease with such an understanding of bureaucratic or administrative responsibility. As Arendt says further in her work, we should never submit ourselves to this kind of determinism where the doer is not really responsible for his deeds. Eichmann – like every bureaucrat, administrator or middle manager—is always fundamentally responsible for his actions, even if he is not thinking about what he is doing and even if he is not responsible in a legal or institutional sense. Instead, Arendt suggests we must think through in fundamental ethical and moral sense of bureaucratic responsibility. This is the existential condition of the bureaucrat who never becomes totally a part of the system but always must try to consider his or her actions from outside the organization, institution, or bureaucracy. It is from this perspective that he or she is able to make the critical judgment and evaluation of whether such actions would be justifiable from the point of view of universal morality and principles of justice.
-Jacob Dahl Rendtorff
A friend of mine posted this sign and asked for responses:
Images like these provoke strong emotional responses. As much as I share this student's point of view, it is crucial to remember the larger context of consumerism, excess, and irresponsibility that forms the background for these protests. Instead of understanding Occupy Wall Street divisively as the 99% against the 1%, we should see it as a common sense movement opposed to the rampant greed and selfishness of the last 10 years.
I remember where I was on Dec. 29th, 2009. I was on vacation with my extended family. We were having a great time. And I was fuming.
The cause of the steam emanating from my ears was Steven Brill's superb cover story of that weekend's NY Times Magazine, What's a Bailed-Out Banker Really Worth? This article made me livid—I can remember grabbing a red pen and underlining it, commenting on it, and then forcing everyone in my family to read it. When I look at the Occupy Wall Street protests now, what I think about is Steven Brill's article.
Brill exposes the corruption and hubris of what might be called a pervasive if not ubiquitous Wall Street mentality. His window into that moral morass into which parts of Wall Street sank was Ken Feinberg, the man in charge of reigning in excessive compensation at the companies that we—the United States tax payers—bailed out. He cites evidence from Feinberg to show that when calculating their bonuses in 2009, the year after they were saved from bankruptcy by American taxpayers, the big banks decided that every single one of their executives had performed above average and deserved extravagant bonuses:
To take a near-comic example, the firms did not present a single executive as meriting a pay grade below the 50th percentile of their supposed peer group.... In fact, all 136 of the executives (the 25 top earners for each of the seven companies, less 39 who left during the year) were depicted as well above average, typically in the 75th percentile or higher. And the peer groups they were supposed to be in were often inflated; for example, someone running a unit might be portrayed as a chief executive because, the argument went, he ran a really big unit.
Citigroup and Bank of America, Brill writes, "concluded that everyone in their executive suites was above average when compared with peers at other giant banks that didn’t need a bailout." The banks then proposed that their average executives deserved bonuses of between $10-$21 million. After months of negotiating and cajoling, Feinberg talked them down, so that in the end, the average banker received a year-end bonus of $6.5 million at Bank of America and $6.2 million at Citigroup.
Where was the young student above in 2009? Where were the bankers who didn't use leverage, who didn't reward themselves with million dollar commodes? Where were the responsible people on Wall Street and off? It would have been nice if someone might have said:
I currently have cash in the bank and live comfortably in my nice house or apartment, send my kids to public school, take vacations, enjoy my family, and have everything I want. I don't pay $49,000 for each of my three kids to attend tony private schools, I don't have a private jet or four houses or 5 babysitters and two chefs. My bank is solvent and so am I. I would not blame "the financial system" for my own bad decisions. I live within my means and my company makes money without greedily seeking to maximize profits by taking outsized risks. I expect nothing to be handed to me and I expect to work my @$$ off for every dollar. That is how it is supposed to work. I am not the 1% who expects to reap astronomical profits in good times and get bailed out and reap astronomical profits in the bad times too.
Where was such anger at the time of the bailouts? Possibly it was submersed in fear. But the bald truth is too many good people were silent.
Now, it seems, everybody is angry. Many people who are in the 1% are angry as well—and they are not only angry at having to pay more in taxes. Many, many people who are in the 1% are angry at the corporate bailouts, and not only Warren Buffet. This fight is not between the 99% and the 1%. I think that is a mistake. It is between those who understand that capitalism for profits and socialism for losses is wrongheaded, for the wealthy as well as for the middle class. In other words, the fight really is between all of those with common sense and those without it—at least if we understand common sense as Hannah Arendt does, as that shared concern with what is common.
While I have sympathy for the young person who expressed the sentiment above and while I agree we all need to take responsibility for our actions, we cannot simply ignore the fact that we have in the last four years bailed out some of the richest Americans and let the poorest Americans suffer. Why do the wealthy get bailed out while the middle class gets locked out? Why is it that in a country famous for its patriotism, public feeling, and pursuit of the common good, we have somehow lost touch with our sense of what we share in common?
The worst of the worst offenders during the last decade was the giant insurance company A.I.G.
Brill tells the story of one trader at A.I.G., "a mild-mannered math whiz who worked at a unit of A.I.G. Financial Products that, he says, had nothing to do with the small London-based credit-default-swaps group that sank the company." In the 1990's and 2000's, this trader made millions, even tens of millions of dollars, every year—bonuses based on a bonus pool that was artificially inflated because of the outsized risks and profits from the Financial Products group that eventually lost hundreds of billions of dollars. When the crisis hit, he and his colleagues negotiated "retention contracts" that would guarantee them large bonuses even though the firm was losing hundreds of billions of dollars and was only being kept alive by, in the end, $180 billion of tax payer bailouts. When word leaked that taxpayers were paying for multi-million dollar bonuses, these executives defended themselves.
"Why should I simply walk away from a contract?” he now argues. “I earned that money, and I had nothing to do with all of the bad things that happened at A.I.G.
The arrogance and deafness of such arguments is hard to believe. These contracts would be worthless if we taxpayers didn't save this man's company. We came to the rescue. The least these bankers could have done was to thank us and renegotiate their contracts. If they had any decency or common sense, they would gladly offer to cut their pay today in solidarity with people who have lost their jobs or are being foreclosed upon and losing their homes. But no, they insist that when these people make bad decisions, they should suffer the consequences.
Compare the defense of contractual integrity by bankers to the current debates over public employee pensions. As with the bankers' bonuses, the pension deals signed between policemen, fireman, and teachers with municipalities through the 1990's and 2000's were based on inflated expectations and irresponsible risk assessments. Many of these municipalities are now currently being bailed out by the Federal Government, which is subsidizing their poor choices. No serious economist thinks that these pensions will ever be fully paid. And on Wall Street, the assumption is that these contractually guaranteed pensions will be reduced. They may be right, but what hubris! When bankers have contracts guaranteeing them a 7 or 8 figure bonus, the taxpayers should pay it, but when public employees who teach our children and protect us have contracts guaranteeing a comfortable retirement, we should tell them we are broke and can't honor those contracts? This is risible arrogance and self-centeredness. It is a total abandonment of common sense.
The point is, people are angry. They are angry partly because they are realizing their dreams for a comfortable life are collapsing around them. But also because they see that the dreams of many of the super wealthy (mostly in the financial industry) are being held together by taxpayer-funded bailouts. And they are angry because the super wealthy—not the 1% but the .1% who make on average $5.5 million every year or the .01% who make on average $24 million every year—are so wealthy that they seem to be divorced from the reality most Americans face.
It is true that not all wealthy Americans were bailed out. It is not an accident that the protesters aren't picketing at Apple or Microsoft and they are not picketing Alcoa or Johnson & Johnson. I am sure we can complain about the tax strategies, outsourcing, and off-shore accounts such companies use, but they are running businesses that have not failed. These companies produce products. Their executives live well, often very well, but they don't ask for bailouts when they lose. Similarly, hedge fund investors did not take bailouts in 2008. These managers should pay income taxes on their income rather than the much lower capital gains rates, and Occupy Wall Street should make this a core of its message. But most hedge fund managers have large parts of their personal fortune in their funds, giving them a huge incentive to manage risk well, and thus distinguishing them from bankers who typically risk only other people's money. It is a mistake to lump the wealthy into one boat, just as it is a mistake to personally target individuals simply because they are wealthy.
It is also true that many of the so-called 99% are guilty of irresponsibility. Many middle class people bought houses they couldn't afford, put two gas-guzzling SUVs in the driveways of their McMansions, and sent their kids to private colleges by borrowing upwards of $50,000/year. It is hard to have sympathy for these folks. That is why the student above has a point. To bail out all those who are suffering is clearly unfair to those who did not partake in the narcotic of easy credit. The student is right.
Finally, it is true that the problems we now face do not all stem from the failings of the 1% or the 99%. Middle-class jobs are threatened by globalization, which provides millions of educated workers willing to do the same jobs for significantly less money. Middle-class jobs are also threatened by automation and intelligent robots that can work faster, longer, and often better than humans can. The problems facing our nation's future are profound and persistent, and no amount of protest will make them go away.
But to ignore the justifiable anger at the hypocrisy and entitlement of many in the wealthiest classes is simply to ignore fundamental facts about what has happened in the last 4 years. We are in danger of losing our common sense, and if that goes, the country will be in trouble. For how can people live, sacrifice, and celebrate together if they do not share a common world?
As long as bankers and other representatives of the wealthiest classes continue to say that asking them to pay more in taxes is class warfare, the anger against them will only grow. This is the anger that fuels the Occupy Wall Street protesters. I have problems with their tactics and with the fuzziness of their message. I have questioned their thoughtfulness and worried about their scapegoating. But boy do I understand their anger.
The winners for the Arendt Center's first thinking challenge have been chosen. The competition was fierce and we received a large number of high quality entries from many countries on four continents. But, these entries stood out to our judges:
WINNERS (in alphabetical order):
Jacqueline Bao - Click here to read Jackie's entry, "Whistle-Blowers as Truth Tellers".
J.P. Lawrence- Click here to watch J.P.'s entry, "Weaponized Words".
Katya Lebedev - Click here to read Katya's entry.
Our three winners will each be awarded $500, and have the opportunity to participate on a panel at our upcoming conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in a Time Without Facts" being held on October 28-29, 2011. They will also receive a signed copy of Thinking in Dark Times.
SPECIAL JURY PRIZE
Rezarta Seferi - Click here to watch Rezarta's submission, "Who was Josip Broz Tito, and why?"
Steven Tatum - Click here to read Steven's entry.
EARLY BIRD WINNERS (in alphabetical order)_
KELLY MCLAUGHLIN - Click here to read Kelly's entry, "So Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes".
EMILY PASCUAL - Click here to read Emily's entry, "The Voiceless Generation".
Our early bird winners will each receive $50.
Congratulations to our winners as well as all those who submitted entries. You should all be proud of the wonderful and thought-provoking work you produced.
Click here to see all of the entries.
The first installment of a two part blog post about Occupy Wall Street by Hannah Arendt Center Associate Fellow, Kieran Bonner.
“Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain an answer to the question asked of every newcomer: ‘Who are you?’ This disclosure of who somebody is, is implicit in both his words and his deeds; yet obviously the affinity between speech and revelation is much closer that that between action and revelation, just as the affinity between action and beginning is closer than that between speech and beginning, although many, and even most acts, are performed in the manner of speech.” (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition)
I went down to check out the Occupy Wall Street Protest on the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend. I was surprised by how small the group was, the casual and diverse activities being engaged in, and the relatively open way one could move through the square. As a child of the sixties, the similarities between the relaxed and ‘do your own thing’ atmosphere of many demonstrations back then and the diverse activities going on in Zuccotti park were apparent to me. I was also struck by the interest in cardboard sign politics, or as is posted on the occupywallst.com, ‘sign language.’ The criteria for participation seemed to be the possession of a grievance that points in some way to the top 1% of the socio-economic elite, a marker and a piece of cardboard. Aesthetics seemed secondary to having a sign that visitors could read and the media could pick up on. There was a note of reflexivity in the relaxed melee with one cardboard sign reading: “This is a sign.”
The protesters are being compared to the Tea Party in their challenge to the elites, as well as to the ‘Arab Spring’ movement in terms of its use and reliance on social media. There is truth here, for all of these different movements espouse is the need for a better democracy.
Hannah Arendt advocated a conception of democracy invented by the ancient Greeks, in which humans could come together for the sole purpose of speaking and acting with each other - without being driven by needs, and without being mediated by things. Provocatively, the true essence and purpose of politics was neither security nor justice, but rather the opportunity for unique human identity to appear in a shared and common world:
“Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behaviour, if [humans] were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model,.. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”
So we should ask: who are the OWS protesters? How do they appear in the world? There can be no simple answer. Above all, however, the protesters have acted and begun something new. Their deed is not a brute violent deed that seeks to terrorize. It is a peaceful protest and the activists in all their diversity are explicitly encouraged to speak their concerns. Yet, the fact that they seem more interested in the deed itself (the occupation) than in words speaks to Arendt’s nuanced distinction that the emphasis is more on beginning than in revelation.
There are complaints about their lack of specific demands. Many on the right and left say, “What do you want to change”? And the replies are varied, vague or suspiciously utopian. In a sense, this initiative highlights what Arendt says about the affinity of action with new beginnings.
Their most persistent refrain in response to ‘who are you’ is, “We are the 99%.” What does this answer reveal? Clearly this slogan has identified a grievance that the struggling poor and middle class can identify with.
Others have defended the protesters. An otherwise critical New York Times editorial last weekend argues that specific demands are “the job of the nation’s leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies.” The editorial quickly summarizes what action is needed to respond to the situation OWS is protesting. “There are plenty of policy goals to address the grievances of the protesters – including lasting foreclosure relief, a financial transactions tax, greater legal protections for workers rights, and more progressive taxation.” (Link to NYT piece)
Many in the political center and left of center can easily agree with this response to the OWS act. On Tuesday night at a ProPublica talk at the Tenement Museum, Eliot Spitzer more or less said the same – the protesters are doing what protesters do and it is up to the politicians to develop policy. While this is a response to which I am very sympathetic, I am also aware that it buries or renders superfluous the fundamental question “who are you?’ That is, it treats the act of occupation as solely about the economic crisis. Does such a response, sensible as it is, not risk undermining the action OWS began?
It is crucial to bear in mind two essential elements of action that Arendt draws our attention to and that humans need to come to terms with: irreversibility and unpredictability. It is of the essence of an act, she tells us, that once it is begun it cannot be reversed. It also cannot be fully controlled. Just as the OWS initiative was not predicted, neither can the response to the initiative be predicted. The experience of irreversibility and unpredictability (a lived reality for most contemporary parents) is the experience of human limitation: of what we cannot undo and what we cannot control. The OWS action is a beginning and many note that it is not clear where this beginning will go. It is precisely the response to the action that will determine whether it is a beginning that is a true establishment, like the Founding Fathers actions in the 1770s, or one that will suffer the fate of most human initiatives and fade into oblivion in the midst of time.
Take a look at Arendt scholar Bonnie Honig’s syllabus for her recent class, Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Modernity. Honig’s course work offers a rich examination of the breadth of Arendt’s thought, as well as the ways in which her political theory is brought to bear on contemporary issues.
I recall Hannah Pitkin, one of my teachers at UC Berkeley, once describing her own experience at a protest. She arrived with a sign, upon which she had taped a multi-page dissertation announcing her well-considered views. Amidst the slogans around her, she realized that the simplifications that are the oil of a well-functioning protest were just not for her.
I share Professor Pitkin's visceral aversion to sloganeering, which is why I sometimes get frustrated with the culture of Occupy Wall Street, a movement whose basic goals I share. I am convinced that the Occupy Wall Street protests are important—we are at a crossroads in the country and the world, and it is absolutely necessary that we take back the future. Simple slogans, I fear, risk de-legitimizing and neutralizing the protests. If you want to see why, let's look at two documents. The first, a pull from the gut. Take a look at this sign:
It is hard to argue with the sentiment that this man expresses—that what is going on in the world, in our economy, and in our political system, is deeply unjust. He is right. He expresses important ideals. He played by the rules, and he got steamrolled. That is not right.
As justified as this man's complaint may be, there has never been a promise that the world is or will be fair. What is wrong, in the end, with living with one's daughter and grandson? When one compares that to how most of the world lives, it sounds downright luxurious. It is, I think, sad, that we as a country are cutting off home-heating-oils subsidies to people who otherwise cannot afford to heat their homes. I wonder at times what life was like before home-heating subsidies. It seems a better world to have them. And while having your own home is a luxury, it is one that many of us value. But it has never been a right. Indeed, one of the basic problems of the last ten to twenty years was the policy to incentivize people to buy homes they could not afford. While I certainly sympathize with this man's disappointment with where his life ended up, justice does not mean a big house with two cars out front. And justice is not a right, something to be given to one.
We aspire to achieve justice, and revolution, as Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution, is the striving to restore ancient liberties. The protests at Wall Street are torn between conflicting goals. First, a legitimate anger at the corruption of our political and economic systems that has led to an unconscionable distribution of income and a radical distortion of the political process. To me, this is the core of the protests.
If anyone doubts that Occupy Wall Street has legitimate gripes, check out these charts assembled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, and put together into a story by Henry Blodget. These charts are worth a real read, and this last one (below) tells a big part of the story: it shows that wages now make up a smaller percentage of our economy than ever before. In other words, hard work doesn't get you as far. This leads to anger, although it is not at all clear how this trend can be stopped or reversed. The point is not to say: "We need jobs that pay more!" That may or may not be possible in our current economy. But it does make sense to demand that if the workers are suffering, we should, out of patriotism, show solidarity and as a country all make sacrifices to help out, pull together, and do what we can to improve our collective lot.
As a whole, these charts tell a story of the extraordinary transformation of our society that goes by the name of the hollowing out of the middle class. We are becoming a "barbell" society, with a powerful class of wealthy power brokers on one side and a mass of underemployed and unemployed workers on the other, connected by a sliver of those trying desperately to hold onto the ideals of middle class life. Being middle class is not a right. And yet, any society that normalizes such radical divergences in living experiences as we now have is doomed. A political system, as Aristotle argues, requires the cohesion of liberality as well as moderation, and when such a gulf separates the wealthy and the poor, the social bonds fray. The protesters are rightly incensed at the failure of our political system to address these problems. As Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri write in Foreign Affairs,
"As protests have spread from Lower Manhattan to cities and towns across the country, they have made clear that indignation against corporate greed and economic inequality is real and deep. But at least equally important is the protest against the lack -- or failure -- of political representation. It is not so much a question of whether this or that politician, or this or that party is ineffective or corrupt (although that, too, is true) but whether the representational political system more generally is inadequate. This protest movement could, and perhaps must, transform into a genuine democratic constituent process."
Take a look at a second document, a report out from the New America Foundation by Daniel Alpert, Robert Hockett, and Nouriel Roubini. Joe Nocera outlines the report in his column Tuesday, and points you to the report itself, well worth a look. It is technocratic, written by economists. It lacks the passion of Occupy Wall Street. It has none of the anger and none of the calls for justice. Yet it addresses the reality of how difficult it will be to save the American middle class. A few highlights:
More than 25 million working-age Americans remain unemployed or underemployed, the employment-to-population ratio lingers at an historic low of 58.3 percent, business investment continues at historically weak levels, and consumption expenditure remains weighed down by massive private sector debt overhang left by the bursting of the housing and credit bubble a bit over three years ago.
The bad news continues. Wages and salaries have fallen from 60% of personal income in 1980 to 51% in 2010. Government redistribution of income has risen from 11.7% of personal income in 1980 to 18.4% in 2010, a post-war high. What this means is that as the private economy has ceased to provide for our standard of living, the government has stepped in to cushion the blow. The problem is that the current debt crisis means this must come to an end. Our standards of living are simply higher than our economy can support.
Regrettably, in our view, there seems to be a pronounced tendency on the part of most policymakers worldwide to view the current situation as, substantially, no more than an extreme business cyclical decline.
The worry is that policy makers simply don't understand the depth of the challenges we face. Nor, I fear, do many of the protesters. They continue to demand jobs and fixes, as if these were to be manufactured, when we need to address fundamental underlying problems.
In short, while we must not give up our aspirations for justice, we need a strong dose of reality. We (both rich and middle class) have had a good run at the luxurious life, but we are at the end of our gold-plaited rope. If we don't change the direction of the country, we will all (rich, middle class, and poor) fall precariously and with a collective thud. And it is not enough to say that this debt crisis is caused by "a distracting consumer culture and risky bank practices and we have a national debt crises brought about by wars and corporate well-fare"—as one commentator on my last essay wrote. There were personal decisions made by people to sell other people mortgages they couldn't afford and by others to purchase such mortgages and car loans. We need to be honest here and not pull punches on all sides.
There is plenty of blame here to go around, which does not mean that no one is at fault. It is wrong to say that where all are guilty, none are guilty. And it is thus important to say that many, many people in our country and elsewhere are at fault. They did things that were wrong: took seven and eight figure bonuses for moving money around or selling non-existent assets, moved money through off-shore accounts, lived in ways that they couldn't afford and shouldn't have. Fine. The first step to restoring our moral and economic values is being honest.
In many ways, the economists at the New America Foundation are being more honest, and thus more revolutionary, than the revolutionaries in Zuccotti Park. The economists are proposing massive reform to our economic system, proposals that would radically change our economy. What they lack is the sense of moral outrage and a commitment to fundamental democracy that Occupy Wall Street brings to the table. Thus they lack the sense that this is a political problem as much as it is an economic problem. What is desperately needed is a marriage of honesty about our situation with a conviction for a revolution, which, as Hannah Arendt wrote, is actually a restoration of ancient liberties. What is sought today by Occupy Wall Street must be a return to fundamental values of democracy and justice.
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries."
The success or failure of a revolutionary moment in becoming a real transformation hinges on a lack of real revolutionaries. Revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives. I seriously hope that the Occupy Wall Street protesters turns themselves into just such revolutionaries.
You can also see some very helpful charts on our Fiscal situation by the Peterson Institute here.
Just picturing, imagining realistically the future of "democracy in an age without fact”, two strong, surging, upwelling feelings come to me. The first is an anxiety provoking grief, the feeling of being lost. The second, coming from under the first, behind it but driven more powerfully, is a complex vision of a better world, an enthusiastic hope.
This essay will first examine the institution of fact, as a failed one; it will move on to see how this failure can bring about a positive change in ethics; and finally a project of thought will be proposed around the notion of personal interest.
'Fact', taken in its common usage of 'scientific i.e. immutable', aside from being a great human institution, through science has taken a particularly strong importance in the modern era. It connotes an unquestionable, certain truth entirely justified on a human level – religion, chance or fate are not called on to justify this type of truth; it is a self-sufficient rock of man made creation on which we can found our conception of the world. Hence the blow, the grief felt, when this reliance on fact can be thought of as coming to an end. The foundations are taken away, a world is turned upside down, and we are thrown back into an ether of lack of conception. Thought relying on 'fact' will eventually end up in this state.
Indisputable fact, surely enough, is not what it seems: in the vast majority of cases it is most definitely fallible, and at its best it can be said to be highly probable. Scientific facts are relative to context and can always be refined, and even mathematical certainties are not at the safety of being overthrown come a revolutionary discovery (such has happened a few times the last hundred years), or the invalidation of an axiom. David Hume proved this over 200 years ago when he said that the only reason we think we know that the sun will definitely rise tomorrow morning is our habit of it doing so, nothing guarantees that it will. [necessary? If so explain better] So taking scientific fact as an unshakable base of thought, when it comes down to it, is a mistake, and also a bad move on the human level. Surely enough, when statements are pushed to this level of infallibility, when they become 'fact,' they are unquestionable laws, a modern type of dogma. Such dogma cannot be questioned or argued, it is oppressive, and going against it will provoke social punishments. Even the highest level intellectuals and scientists (the high priests of fact), must take the greatest care when questioning it, going slowly, and most definitely avoiding certain essential ones. Transfer this pattern to the life of an individual, and while fact may give him solid beliefs (and maybe a useful sense of security) it also closes his thinking, making him doomed to make certain mistakes over and over, and to missing the classes of truth in life that his facts have rendered improbable. This greatly hinders an individual's liberty of judgment, a capacity not only needed to a happy life, but absolutely necessary if one wishes to satisfy more subtle needs and wants, the ones which mainstream wisdom does not know how to address.
In short, the loss of the illusive fact, though disorienting, could also be a step towards a better life. Not to mention it is a step towards the truth, and just so in this aspect, desirable. It leaves us much freer to intellectual exploration; ideas and truths can be sought without the fear of outstepping accepted-as-indubitable facts. In a world with issues such as ours, this could prove essential. But still, as people, to be able to think effectively we do need a certain frame of thought. Fact has fulfilled this role, but if we are approaching “an age without fact,” we need a new, more solid and less oppressive, frame of thought. The dangers of not having one would be utter intellectual erring, or worse, the choice by default of an even worse frame of thinking.
In the light of our new freedom of thought, and to fulfill the conditions of a new frame of thought, I would like to see a habilitation of human facts as the center of our thinking. For the sake of explanation we can lump these into two categories, private and interpersonal truths. The first can be true for a person and not for another, they are private, and respectively can only have a corresponding level of validity, but which should nonetheless be respected. The second are true for pretty much everyone, but only in a human and non-scientific way. Interpersonal truths should have about the same validity as scientific truths do today, but of course, due to their interpersonal nature, would be prescribed in a different way. They are not strictly objective. These are the truths dictated by human nature, of human needs and desires. They include positive ones, like empathy and self-fulfillment, but also the negative ones, like hate and greed.
This implies that greater trust must be given to individual judgment, as well as to the human intelligences which are usually repressed or hidden rather than understood. These include the various intuitions, emotions, spirituality etc; the capacities which as living beings are often our greatest source of intelligence. This is a re-centering of ethics around the individual, and not the fact. Though the fact is important, its prominence over the individual has attained a level of absurdity and so should be re-contextualized, and in any case, if a fact is truly important to us, it is because it is somehow linked to certain human values. We implicitly function around human values today, but in too much of an indirect manner.
To prescribe the project I just described seems quasi-impossible, or at least incredibly vague. And I'm pretty sure that it is impossible to create a systematic implementation of it, even if it were clearly defined, because of its very human and non objective nature. It would have to respect each person's individual freedom. In the mean time, in spite of this, I would like to attempt a step forward. We cannot aim directly towards a more human society, but we can make ourselves think in a more human way. Since such a human-centered system would emerge through the free choice of the collectivity of individuals, I think it would surely be beneficial to rethink a big element in the directing of this choice, our private and collective notions of “personal interest.”
This notion which guides our actions and shapes the courses of our lives is generally misunderstood today, and thus wreaks havoc on our world. Thinking about it is easy enough and accessible to anybody, and its practical concreteness makes it a much more approachable project than the abstract human-centered society referred to earlier. In an idealist perspective, we can justify that if the greater good follows from everyone pursuing their profoundly best interest, logically, a project of clarifying these interests would be key to this greater good. In a practical sense, such a reflection would give people better awareness of their actions and goals, and hence the ability to choose them more carefully, and so if nothing else, greater personal awareness and freedom. The feeling of personal interest is probably the oldest guiding thought of people; with the unprecedented level of material ease possible today it deserves some attention and maybe a bit of education (because it is still centered on survival, and maybe desire as a secondary one, not the notion of living a good life).
Presently, particularly in America, this notion has been completely blurred and uniformized, and people are losing their freedom. Without a solid sense of ones personal interests, one will be misguided, attracted by empty or destructive goals, and with one's energies so misspent it will be impossibly difficult to lead an ethical life. Too many people equate a desirable life with wealth, fame, or power, when the pursuit and even obtaining of such things will lead to unhappiness and pain for most people. This goes from people taking out gigantic loans to buy things that they don't need; to wall street traders, whose intellectual capacities could probably do a good deal to make society better, but instead act as essential pivots in participating in making it more unstable; or the student chasing a career that he doesn't really want or will even be suited for (hence, perhaps, a certain proliferation of bad doctors and unhappy dentists...). To generalize a bit, within the limits of American society, personal interest is dogmatically taken to mean 'going up' whatever that entails. To have another conception of personal interest is tagged “alternative” or deviant, is frowned upon or ignored from a distance; in any case it is socially excluded. The freedom of self-definition is replaced by the freedom to social mobility, and in becoming a norm (or a necessary goal) it becomes a limit to the freedom of the self.
The pursuit of upward mobility as the guarantee of a good life (or happiness) is fundamentally flawed. First of all, individually, it will not satisfy anything more than the most basic material and social needs of a person; and second of all, collectively, the number of people at the 'top' of society never increases – and one going up generally implies another coming down: the number of people in desirable positions never actually changes, it is an empty promise for a better society. Also, more people in high profile, high paid positions, structurally implies more people in low profile and underpaid ones supporting their activity – let it be in poor parts of big cities, or on the other side of the world (behind each “Made in China” label there is a worker...).
It should be noted that this essay does not intend or desire a kind of class revolution. The proposed project lacks this controversy. It should be offensive to nobody –it is adaptable to all non-controlling systems of thought, religions, social classes etc--, and even if it does not 'solve' any of the ills of society, it is hard to see how it could be unhelpful. At its most extreme, a rethinking of personal interest would entail a shift from directing life with explicitly external values (wealth, power etc), to personal ones (self-fulfillment, happiness, empathy etc). Practically, the values that would really matter are more along the lines of personal fulfillment, pleasure, integrity, self-respect, etc. Wealth or power, etc, would only be valuable in relation to the latter values, and to the very few people suited for such positions.
I believe in the practical feasibility of this, that a person holds the notions of his fundamental personal interests inside of him, and that with proper research and guidance the individual can find them. This project requires solid guidance and education; self education at early stages of life can easily result in disaster. Guidance should be opposed to directing: to help someone find what is best for him rather than dictating it. The notion of personal interest itself has to be reconsidered for each and every person. Simply superimposing various pre-existing notions of personal interest is a mistake – a particular individual should require his very own one, and even if he doesn't, he should at least be required to make the effort to find which one is his.
I believe that society today does not function properly. The desirable system of society, the one we're looking for, is structuring but not controlling; it organizes people without preventing their well being and hindering their free will. The ability of the leading class to control its people should no longer be such an important value if we wish to attain a human-centered society. It seems like a safety net which we are stuck in. If each individual chooses what is profoundly best for him, the sum of these decisions is what can let a “better world” emerge. Controlled revolution, with its manifestos of predefined values seem like the reiteration of a bad idea. A rethinking of “personal interest,” while not a sufficient condition for a human-centered society (as opposed to economy centered, or ideology-centered ones), definitely seems to be a quasi-essential part of it. But if nothing else, if these goals are completely unrealistic, such a project would give people the added awareness of their own decisions without which they cannot be said to be free.
"Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it."
--Hannah Arendt, On Violence
As revolutionary movements take flight in the Middle East and around the world, many today look back to the 1960s with a romantic fascination. Hannah Arendt had great respect for the student protest movements—most of all she appreciated the joy they took in acting in public. And yet, she was also critical of the use of violence. Arendt approached political violence during the late 1960s as a sign of the decline in power.
In her engagement with the rhetoric of the student movement, Arendt identified what she took to be a key misunderstanding: the belief that violence could create power. In her lexicon, however, violence is not the outward manifestation of power but a sign of its decline. Power draws citizens to work for and with a government; violence, seeks to force such compliance. According to her colorful example, only perfectly obedient “robot soldiers” could overcome the basic dependence of governors on the support of their citizens.
True power depends on a strong representative link: a person is in power to the extent that others empower him. Arendt appeals to James Madison’s words “all government rests on opinion” to support this assertion. Governmental power requires citizen support.
And following the law recommits the citizen and the government to the original grant of power. Such extension sustains the decision that grounded the institution through the original action (in Arendt's sense of the ability of people to come together to create something new).
Since power relies on empowerment over time rather than a simple earlier instance of foundation or enforcement through violence, Arendt sees it as fragile. Power can be lost at any moment. In her further reflections in On Violence she addresses the complex ways in which a government’s very response to violent protest can undermine its own power in the sense of being empowered. For both supporters and challengers of a regime, only action, not violence, can create power.
In the wake of Roger Berkowitz's piece on Occupy Wall Street a few days ago, Jeff Nall's article "Hannah Arendt: The Trouble With Representative Government in the US" offers a valuable perspective on the nature of representation and the political sphere.
Nall gets to the heart of Arendt's interest in revolution:
"Before we set out to remake or even just reform our nation, let's have a clear vision of what we want it to look like when we're done. Let's not aim to bring an end to government; let's not aim to use government to care for others; let's aim to reclaim the very idea of citizenship and make each person part of the decision making process, part of a government. It's time for the American public to revolt and take back the power to decide for itself."
Last week Jews of all stripes crowded into synagogues across the country to welcome the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and will return this weekend for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For those of us living the lives of the academically vagrant the High Holidays are accompanied by the challenge of finding a congregation in a new college town. The services I attended this year were held in the basement of a dormitory in the northeast. Fifteen people attended the first day of services, three people the second, excluding the Rabbi, his wife, and their Golden Retriever.
The High Holidays never fail to remind us, me at least, that Hannah Arendt’s thought is so clearly and so elegantly embroidered with Jewish themes, including remembrance, judgment, and forgiveness, not to mention natality, the anchor of much of her writing. However there are two dimensions to the High Holidays that I would like to look at that underpin these themes, both I believe in the practice of Jewish prayer and in Arendt’s work. They help to shed light on why those of us who may not attend synagogue during the year seek both a sanctuary and a congregation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The first requirement of the reflective work that the High Holidays both affords us the chance to do and demands of us, is of course that we suspend the frenzy of life and turn ourselves over to contemplation, the realm of thought.
Human contemplating begins in many respects with a reveling. Before we can inspect the mind both Arendt and Jewish custom, ask us to marvel at it. Yet, we have in many respects abandoned the art of awe. As Marilynne Robinson argues in her 2010 book Absence of Mind we are in the midst of an era in which the mode of contemplation has been largely discredited since it is founded on the very thing, the singular human self, that threatens to contaminate that treasure of modernity: objectivity.
Robinson provides a critique of what she refers to as “parascientific” literature, faux-science, which she traces from the work of greats such as Malthus and Freud up to contemporaries such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. The chief feature uniting the multiple parascientific movements she examines is their attempt to banish what is both distinct and contingent about persons. She writes: “the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of ‘modern thought’ is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away.”
Robinson’s reference to this experience as that of the “felt mind” echoes Arendt’s account of thinking when she declares, “the only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind is the sensation of being alive. Without the breath of life the human body is a corpse; without thinking the human mind is dead.” As the Rabbi leading the services I attended this Rosh Hoshannah remarks, and as many High Holiday commentaries draw our attention to, etymologically the word “spirit” is derived in many languages, including Hebrew, from the word for “breath.” Contemplation--whether in a classroom or in a shul--rests on the capacity to treat the mind not as an instrument for computation, or even argumentation, but quite literally as a muscle. Thinking, for Robinson and Arendt is equivalent only to the pulsation of the heart’s chambers, or the inhale and exhalation of the respiring body; phenomenon so staggering and exquisite any attempt to describe them inevitably rusts even our best language.
This notion of thought is derided by the Dawkins of our age, who are suspicious of anything that invites a discourse with the divine. The musculature, and hence the majesty, of the mind threatens both the proofs and the proscriptions they are trying to draw up about the behavioral laws that govern our species, and the direction of its destiny. What could be less absolute and law-bound than individuals’ conception and experience of grace? Yet as Robinson points out this literature often contains a strange contradiction since at the same time that the mind and all its messy subjectivity is banished, it is simultaneously called up and indicted, as, what she calls, a “perjured witness.”
The attempt to oust the individual mind from the palace of objective reason is accompanied by our obsession with its alleged fraudulence. While parascientists aim to eliminate the singular self, they also insist on telescoping in on the mind’s deviations; perhaps in an effort to legitimate their ultimate censuring of it. Stretched out on the shrink’s couch we have resigned ourselves to the fact that we will never be able to decipher our true desires or our criminal cravings. Instead we have come to take our cues for self-renovation from readings of the zodiacs that manage to predict in the same paragraph both the most suitable choice for footwear, and our ultimate fortune.
These too are theses of modernity Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fundamentally refute. The High Holidays reject the claim that because we often become ensnared in the trickeries of the psyche we therefore shouldn’t hold ourselves to account for the injuries we inflict, just as they challenge the idea that the possibilities for healing are out of our human hands. Sinning and atonement, Jews recall each autumn, are inextricable from the human condition, yet, if we engage in an honest consideration of them the process of genuine renewal and rebirth is ours for the making. However this consideration can only occur when we have stilled the panting ego enough to let the mind take its deeper draws.
This first dimension of the High Holidays, that of the self’s experience of its own mind, may initially seem opposed, but is intimately related to, their second essential dimension, public worship. We tend to find that contemplation, akin as we have seen to Arendtian thinking, is generally best performed on one’s own, sheltered from the intrusion of others or from worldy interference. Yet Jewish custom states that certain prayers cannot be recited without a minyan, or ten adults.
There is a kind of thinking we are told we can’t quite do unless we are included within a greater community. Because those assembled at the services I attended this year only tallied in the single digits on the second day, significant portions of the service had to be skipped. What is important about this is less the liturgy that was lost than what it is about the High Holidays that demands we come together in order to think, to pray.
There are various religious explanations for why it is we congregate in order to face our transgressions and ask for forgiveness, however I think Arendt may in fact gives us the best explanation, when she says famously and simply that “men, not Man, inhabit the earth.” Plurality is of course the bedrock of Arendt’s work on political action and while there is a tension between the vita activa and vita contemplativa I would argue that the High Holidays in one sense comes to dissolve it. The aim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is of course not only repair of personal relations but of the world. While the work of thought is each individual’s its subject is explicitly, what Marilynne Robinson calls in an Arendtian turn of phrase, our “tenure on this planet.”
It is the sheer presence of other thinking minds that activates the transformation of self and world and renders it real. This process goes by various names depending on the context in which it’s performed: sometimes we call it prayer, sometimes we call it politics, sometimes we call it poetry. Though we keep calling—and rightly so—transcendent--each of those occasions, in which an awe-filled encounter provokes us towards greater beauty, and greater justice.
The Arendt Center's, Roger Berkowitz posted a piece yesterday about the Occupy Wall Street protests which is generating some interesting dialogue.
Steve Maslow offers:
"Reading Roger Berkowitiz’s piece saves one the trouble of going down to the protests AND having to re-read ON REVOLUTION by Hannah Arendt. In fact, watching the video clip gives me enough detail so that I can position myself as an authority, when I go back to work and “sell” my story to my colleagues and friends and maybe even seduce lovers who find it dreamy that they might be dating someone “radical” enough to join a protest and still have a table and order a bottle of Stoli Cristal at the club.
Now are you nauseated?
For this idea IS the culture of Wall Street: voyeuristic, full of puffery, semi-literate and non-accountable. Does it really sound so far from that of our own outside of Wall Street? [Full disclosure: the author is the chairman of the board of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard and a Wall Street investment banker by profession]..."
Maslow continues further on:
"As Arendt pointed out in the opening passages of ON REVOLUTION, this is the touchstone of a genuine revolution, the desire to return to where we began, to come full circle(the ‘revolve’ in revolution)–resorting to radical methods (nonviolent street protests) in order to achieve conservative ends (to go back to where we were before.) The spirit of free enterprise tempered by shared sense of purpose (what Roger called ‘the public happiness’) are the substrate of concepts such as unemployment insurance, social security and even class-action law suits, but also, at the other end, things like profit sharing, pay raises, dividends and maternity leave. Attacking the former, while keeping the latter for themselves, Wall Street and its allies have made a mockery of fairness and democracy. The protesters have not articulated this yet, but they know what they do not know: something in rotten in the United States: income inequality, and it is threatening the very foundations of our republic. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Read Maslow's full response here.
Cornell West was one of the first celebrity academics to arrive at Occupy Wall Street last week. Because amplified sound is prohibited in Zuccotti Park—the protesters have never applied for a protest permit—the speaker's words are repeated by the audience to make them audible for larger groups. Thus West's refrain issued repeatedly in the dark and across Wall Street. The protests, still small on the ground, are growing wings in cyberspace. New protests are springing up in cities across North America, from Los Angeles to Boston and from Seattle to Toronto. Seven hundred people were arrested Sunday during a peaceful crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge (including at least 20 Bard College Students). Seven hundred United/Continental airline pilots joined the demonstration over the weekend, as did 15 U.S. Marines. Unions are pledging their support, suggesting that the protests may get a real boost from traditional organizing. Clearly, "Something is happening here, Mr. Jones." "Don't be Afraid to Say Revolution.
Suddenly--very suddenly--too suddenly?---we are living through a time of revolutionary possibility. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the possibility of revolution was joined with action. Dictators were overthrown, and a sense of possibility ignited. In Syria and Bahrain, the revolutionary movements are being suppressed, violently, quashing the hopes of local revolutionaries. Still elsewhere—in Israel, Spain, Greece, and most recently in the United States—the spirit of revolutionary hope is alive as well.
Skeptics abound, for good reason. Whether these springtime Arab blossoms will grow into hearty summer stalks is still not known. Indeed, it is unlikely. The real powers in Egypt, the military, remain in control, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more liberal democracy protesters have seen their dreams thwarted. Revolutions must not only tear down, but also build up; and building revolutionary institutions takes time. And yet, something is in the air. Everyone wants to judge the protesters. Are they good or bad? Before we judge, let's ask: What does this revolutionary moment mean? There is something going on here, but it is less radical and more dismal, than many of its supporters realize. That is not an indictment of Occupy Wall Street. But some reflection is called for. And a few points are in order.
1. The Question of Hope: There is something very noble, yes even hopeful, in the fact that many hundreds and even a few thousands of people are trying to have their say and make a difference. The numbers on the interweb are much larger, but the feet on the ground are significant, especially at a time of acknowledged bourgeois narcissism. What is it that motivates pilots, marines, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—not to mention the unemployed and underemployed—to occupy city squares in the Middle East, major boulevards in Israel, and parks in New York City, all to call for political change?
In an age when most people are content to be left alone by government to pursue their own private desires and dreams, how is that people around the world are suddenly acting and participating in politics?
2. One answer is public happiness. Arendt named the joy one experiences when acting in public "public happiness." Public happiness is the great treasure of all of those who live through revolutionary times and feel the exhilaration of acting in such a way as to make a difference in the world. One sees the joy in the faces and voices of the protesters. It is similar to the joy evidenced by Tea Partiers at the beginning of that revolutionary moment, before the Tea Party was taken over by ideologues. These protesters are learning, as do all revolutionaries, that freedom is found neither in the freedom from government nor in the welfare state bureaucracy, but in the "public happiness" found in acting together with others in public.
3. Another answer is anger. Where has the anger been? Banks have been bailed out; worse, so have the bankers. It is infuriating to hear bankers who have destroyed their companies and cost investors trillions defend their right to million-dollar bonuses. These are salaried employees who invest billions of dollars with great upside potential and no downside risk. These folks are not evil. The vast majority are not criminals. But they certainly are not the geniuses they think themselves to be, and most do not merit the exorbitant paydays that they have come to view as an entitlement.
Why is it that when AIG bankers insisted their contractually mandated bonuses be upheld after AIG received $182 billion from taxpayers, everyone gave in, but when pensioners demand their contractually guaranteed pensions, talking head after talking head says we have to get real and cut the pensions. The talking heads are right: the public union contracts that mayors and governors negotiated are as un-affordable as they are overly generous. But I am aghast that the senseless and unsustainable contracts of the bankers are seen as inviolable while those of public employees are rendered mere pieces of paper.
And then there is Ken Lewis, the CEO who drove Bank of America to insolvency. Lewis was not fired, nor has he been compelled to recoup the billions in bonuses he authorized for Merrill Lynch executives in 2008, the year Bank of America acquired the all but bankrupt Merrill Lynch. Indeed, all that “Pay Czar” Ken Feinberg demanded was that Bank of America limit the average size of bonuses in 2009 to $6.5 million.
And when Lewis himself finally resigned, he left with his own $125 million golden parachute, on top of the many millions he took home while bankrupting his company during the boom years. Three years later, excessive compensation of failed executives continues, as the NY Times reported just this week.
It is not radical or revolutionary to be incensed at the unqualified entitlement that pervades certain members of the financial community. There is a great deal in the Manifesto of Grievances put out by Occupy Wall Street that, as Henry Blodget admits, is downright reasonable (although much also that is nutty). This anger has been missing from our public discourse. Because of Occupy Wall Street, it may be finally coming to the fore. This is a good thing.
Anger need not be indiscriminate. There are plenty of good people on Wall Street and excellent businessmen and women. There is no need to demonize a whole profession, nor is there a value in simply insulting the wealthy. One of the ugly aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the indiscriminate anger at all wealthy people, as if being wealthy were wrong. Let's hope that the protests can focus their irate passions at the fraud and hubris of those who have continued to pay themselves multi-million dollar bonuses when their firms would have failed and gone belly up but for the generosity of their countrymen.
4. A third reason for these protests is The Loss of Governmental Legitimacy. Without a doubt, there is a growing sense that the powers that be have lost their right to rule. This was true in Egypt and Tunisia and is also the case in Israel and the U.S. Respect for government is a record lows, and for good reason. Illegitimate is a mild word for what many Americans are feeling. As my colleague Walter Russell Mead writes:
"Watching so many second class talents struggle against first class problems is a dispiriting exercise, especially when one reflects on the costs of failure. It is no secret anywhere that our leaders are failing. The Europeans know their political class is floundering; the Japanese have despaired of their politicians for almost a generation; in the US the only people less popular than President Obama are his Democratic allies and Republican adversaries in the US Congress."
There may be no better example of utter government incompetence and malfeasance than the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fiascos. If the Occupy Wall Street Protesters want a real, live culprit, here they have one. That the Democrats are protecting Fannie and Freddie is, quite simply, just as wrong as their refusal to bring criminal or civil suits against executives who engaged in fraud.
The vacuum in leadership fanned by a global wave of anti-elite anger risks radicalizing politics in dangerous ways. Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions. These protests began with a call to action from a Canadian group called Adbusters and its embrace by an organization of hackers called Anonymous, a group closely associated with Wiki-leaks. These are groups that also were intimately engaged in protests in the Middle East and around the world and they represent, above all, a particular view of democracy. The hope, it seems, is that if you just tear down all barriers to information, allow for absolute transparency, and present citizens with the facts, a citizen democracy will emerge that ushers in a more rational and fair system of government. This is actually a technological version of the communicative rationality theories made popular by Jürgen Habermas in the 20th century—the idea that in a system of transparent and perfect communication, democratic reason will lead to rational decisions. As a result, we don't need leaders, or elite institutions. A radical horizontal democracy is enough.
The call is for a "people-powered" movement. Of course not all the protesters embrace this, but Occupy Wall Street is propelled by the belief in the power of networked individuals, as well as a profound suspicion of all traditional and institutional power centers. The dream is to replace a government by governors and politicians with a government by the collective wisdom of the masses.
It is thus no accident that the masks worn by many protesters pay tribute to Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic who was tortured and sentenced to be quartered (he killed himself instead) for his participation in the Gunpowder plot whose tagline read: “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”
The Tea party, as I noted earlier, provides us with an interesting comparison. It also began, initially, with individuals venting their anger. There was, and remains, a joy amongst the Tea Party faithful, one that comes from finding a public voice and engaging in public action. And it is a very similar joy that one can embrace amongst the protesters in Zuccatti Park. Very quickly, however, the Tea Party got directed by ideological leaders who have hijacked the Republican Party, an event that is both the source of its political strength and its intellectual incoherence.
What needs to be seen, though, is that there is a profound convergence between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. On both sides, there is deep dissatisfaction with Democratic representative government. The current zeitgeist seeks to replace democratic government with people power, to replace authority with transparency, to reject professionalism and expertise for cloud governance. Thus, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street need to be seen in connection to the extraordinary and surprising (again, to the mainstream media) success of the Pirates in Berlin. What all these movements share is a suspicion of representative democracy and traditional institutions.
5. It might be helpful to recall, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, that the fundamental elements of totalitarian governance are: 1) its disdain for government institutions and political limits; 2) its embrace of mass movements that overwhelm national boundaries as well as traditional moral and political limits; 3) its disdain for politics as usual; and 4) its susceptibility to coherent narratives rather than a confrontation with factual reality.
Let me be clear: I don't see fascist or totalitarian dangers at this point in the Occupy Wall Street or in the Tea Party movements . But that is largely because neither group has a message that is compelling to a large enough section of the population. Their marginality is at this point diminishing their threat. And yet, there are common elements to at least be aware of:
1) Opposition to the state: both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have a deep hostility to the state, as did totalitarian movements (but not fascist movements). That said, the TP is focused on state borders in a way that is closer to fascism than totalitarianism.
2) Both are MOVEMENTS, and thus to persist cannot have realizable goals, but must have goals that continue to shift and grow so that adherents always have issues to be motivated by.
3) Both display an aversion to facts and a tendency toward coherent myths at the expense of truth. The Tea Party imagines that all government spending is bad, even when confronted with the fact that it wants funding for certain entitlements, emergencies, and the military.
Occupy Wall Street wants to bring down Wall Street, empower the 99%, and eliminate student debt. They don't seem to realize that the standard of living they aspire to was possible because of the speculative boom that Wall Street's excesses made possible, and that the loss of debt-financing for students will decimate universities that depend on such funding and make a college education inaccessible to most Americans. BOTH organizations seem to believe that the solutions are clear, but neither side is actually willing to confront the depth of our economic and political problems and think about the collective sacrifice that would be required to address them. Furthermore, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have innovative and absolute readings of the U.S. Constitution. The Tea Party has somehow decided that the government regulation and taxation are unconstitutional. Occupy Wall Street has convinced itself that it has a constitutional right to protest without seeking permits. On both sides, the din of an echo-chamber of like-minded views compresses interesting opinions into unquestioned facts.
4) Both groups have bogeymen that stand in for all evils. The Tea Party excoriates immigrants and public unionists. Occupy Wall Street rails against bankers and anyone on Wall Street. Such blanket hatred can, of course, become dangerous.
6. What distinguishes Occupy Wall Street is its youthful and optimistic faith in technocratic solutions. I hope I have made my sympathies with the protesters clear; and yet, there are good reasons to ask serious questions of Occupy Wall Street.
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries." --Ms. Arendt, 1970.
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives. Is there a serious and thoughtful confrontation with reality that underlies Occupy Wall Street?
The answer to this has to be no, at least, not yet. It is simply a mistake to think that our current problems flow from a lack of transparency and elitism. On both scores, it is more likely the opposite that is the case.
We are not suffering from a secret cabal of evil masterminds who plotted to bring down the world economy. The problem was not secrecy. On the contrary, the ballooning debt of the last 20 years, the massive student levels of student debt, the internet bubble, the real-estate bubble, the rise of speculation, the replacement of pensions with market-oriented retirement investing—none of these were secrets. Plenty of smart people warned us that we were walking on thin air, but we chose, collectively, not to listen.
Nor is elitism our present problem. In fact, we might have been served better if the so-called elites had actually acted a bit more like elites, and stood apart from the madness of the crowd feeding at the trough of easy money. If we had more true elites—people who felt themselves justified to judge the thoughtless, greedy, and common behavior of our bankers, politicians, and consumers—they might have been able to better deter us from our merry way. It may very well be that we are suffering today not from the cabal of elites, but from the absence of an elite culture that might be able to meaningfully resist and question the folly of crowd behavior.
If we really want be revolutionaries, as Arendt counsels, we must first of all face our present reality. Rather than secret evil machinations, our current world crisis is the result of millions of every day people acting thoughtlessly—knowing that they could not afford that new house, but buying it anyway; knowing they were selling and buying worthless bonds, but giddy at the possibility of flipping them to someone else at a handsome profit. Of course there was greed. But that is not going away. The information was there as well, we just did not want to see it. Transparency will not solve that.
7. The media coverage of the protesters has been excoriated. Some of it has been awful, focusing on the dirty laundry, or ignoring the protests altogether. There have also been demands for demands, which are answered either by vague manifestos or claims that this is a movement without leaders, one that like a startup will find its market as it grows. As Heather Gold notes it is telling that the metaphor for the protests comes from the lingo of internet startups. The revolution is offering a new product—the disaffected anger of the left and the center, combined with the need to believe that our lives matter and that we can make a difference. It is putting that anger out into the world, mixing it with the joy of public acting, and seeking a market for that potent brew.
The protests are growing and multiplying and undoubtedly they will lead to more clashes with the police. The question of violence will emerge, whether from the protesters’ camp or from the police. We should expect mistakes to be made on both sides. That should not diminish the demonstrators or what they are fighting for. We must break a few eggs to make an omelet, as Arendt writes in her essay, The Eggs Speak Up. Politics is, as Max Weber reminded us, not like a nursery. It is a mistake to be hyper-critical of Occupy Wall Street at this point. They will make strategic errors, (like bringing down the website of the new agency designed to regulate the banks!--why that target?). Despite inevitable missteps, the protesters are succeeding, it seems, in breaking enough eggs to finally wake some people up to the terrible tragedy that is unfolding around us. In this, they are similar to the Tea Party and yet also an antidote to the ideological rigidity that the Tea Party has adopted. For this reason alone, we should welcome Occupy Wall Street.
Statement of Purpose
Mis Mentiras is a colaborative project built upon communication. Loretta wrote the poem in Spanish and as she searched for an accurate English version of her words, Andrés composed music for the Spanish version. Andrés’ music does not explain the poem, it investigates its core and expresses it as a reaction. His work captures the sentiment of Loretta ́s. It is not a translation but an invention in itself.
In the English translation of the poem, the words wrap the core predecessor. Like Andres’ music, Loretta ́s translation prioritizes the preservation of sentiment . It does not work on an entirely factual level, it chooses to understand a meaning and preserves the truth through further invention.
Mis Mentiras works on a principle of risk and creation. When we voice truth through art we engage in a simultaneous act of creation and loss because the accuracy of any medium is limiting and the extent of understanding indefinitely variable. Different understandings become part of the artwork, part of the truth, or a new truth.
-Andrés and Loretta
Song: Mis Mentiras mis+mentiras+mp3-2.mp3
Excerpt of score:
Lyrics in Spanish:
He decido decir la verdad a través de metáfora.
Mis mentiras son de leopardo,
mi lengua es de colibrí,
se extiende hacia flores y agua de azucares para que los niños se asomen de sus balcones.
Me he abierto y cerrado tres veces pero no es ahí donde uno encuentra el misterio.
Ayer en sueños, nos sentamos en el piso azul de la cocina agachados enfrente del goteo,
me dijiste que solo me entenderías hasta el final, esto nunca fue un cuento, pero siempre lo será. Entiendo que recordarme es mentir. Derive un color del color original, agregando el blanco, seguí este movimiento y cada color nuevo se convirtió en el original. No hay un ancestro, mis hijas de amapola son los ancestros.
Las semillas muertas dan flor.
Somos abuelas sin nietos y líneas rectas desvaneciendo a la ausencia de oscuridad.
Hablemos ahorita para representar el olvido,
para impregnar estos cielos de montaña,
las estrellas siempre han sido la mas grande distracción al verdadero negro.
Realmente es el vacío que se refleja en esta laguna.
Construí mis propias lagunas donde se reflejan las caras de vírgenes adornadas en piedras falsas y chucherías de hogar,
tengo la adicción de representarme con estos objetos. Reconozco la inmoralidad de una mentira y lo tristemente ordinario de la verdad.
Lyrics translated into English:
I will tell the truth through metaphor,
through leopard lies,
and my hummingbird tongue
that reaches into opening flowers and sugar water so children lean out their balconies.
I opened and closed myself three times but that is not where we find the mystery. Yesterday, in dreams, we sat on the blue kitchen tiles in front of a leak, you said you would only understand me at the end but this wasn’t a story—though it always will be.
Recalling myself is also a lie.
I painted you
deriving a color from the original color by adding white,
following this movement every new color became the original.
There are no ancestors, my amapola daughters are the ancestors and
dead seeds flower
we are the grandmothers without children and straight lines fading into the lack of darkness.
Let’s talk now to show our forgetfulness
and impregnate these mountain skies with this conversation.
Stars distract us from true blackness,
really it’s the void reflected upon the lagoon.
I built my own lagoon, it reflects the faces of virgins adorned in false gems and the knick knacks of a home.
Addicted to representing myself with these objects, I recognize the immortality of a lie and the commonplace sadness of the truth.
"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists."
Hannah Arendt, "Origins of Totalitarianism"
What is truth? Is there such a thing as a universal truth or is truth something that is based on one’s belief? I was confronted with this question recently, in my Theory of Knowledge class, and my first reaction was: yes, there is such a thing as a universal truth! But as I got to think about it more and more, I came to realize that actually truth is what one makes it to be. For an example, it was a universal truth for many societies, including the Ancient Greeks, that the Earth was the center of our solar system. It was the logical thing to assume, since everyone could see that the Sun and the Moon circled our planet. But did that make the theory true? In the early 1500s, Nicholas Copernicus realized that, while the Sun might seem to circulate the Earth, it is, in fact, the Earth was circulating the Sun and the only reason it seemed to be the other way was because Earth was making circles around itself. Today, through modern technology we have concrete proof that the Earth truly circulates the Sun - and nobody would believe if they were told the geocentric theory.
The purpose of that analogy is to show that society can quickly be convinced based on what they see on the surface. For the early people, it was very clear that the Sun moved on the sky and that the Moon did so, as well, thus the Earth had to be the center of the universe. Similarly, in history and politics, sometimes people tend to be led by their beliefs rather than what is beneath the surface. Many politicians have for years believed that lies are not harmful when trying to achieve a great cause. Yet, that is not so. Perhaps, for those leaders who chose to lie, it is indeed not harmful, for they do tend to achieve their goals. All they need is the perfect circumstances, a few wielded facts and the right words. For the society which follows them blindly, the consequences are often much greater.
One great example in history would be that of the French Revolution. The time preceding the Revolution was that of a financial crisis. More and more people struggled to survive, having lost their jobs, living under miserable conditions and often unable to buy even a loaf of bread. As in many occasions in history, one man succeeded to make the best of the situation. Maximilien Robespierre was one of the many revolutionary leaders. He used the people’s desperation, and, using a language of hatred, inspired the people to rise against the government and overthrow the monarchy. In much what he said, Robespierre was right - indeed, the royal family lived an expensive life off of the money of the people. What he did not tell, however, was that, the royal family in France had always lived in the same way Marie Antoinette and her husband did - the difference was that the previous generations did not have to face the financial crisis the last French royal family did. Thus, by twisting what is now known as a historical fact and using the desperation of the French people, Robespierre created a truth of his own, which the people accepted and turned into a universal truth. That lead to Robespierre achieving his goal - he got power and became a leader. But those who had supported him, such as his fellow revolutionaries, suffered, for almost all of them followed the royal family on the guillotine. Robespierre’s reign of terror lead France into a different kind of crisis, and it was a consequence of the people’s folly. It took generations to achieve the ultimate goal of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”.
Of course, not all political figures twist the truth to achieve a greater good for themselves - in some cases; they do it believing that they would achieve a greater good for their country or even the world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is, to this day, known as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. And, in many ways, he saved this country. But in order to do so, he had to make sacrifices. Sacrifices that cost others great pain. At the end of WWII, at the Conference at Yalta, a document known as the Declaration of Liberated Europe was signed by FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. In that document, it was declared that after the end of the war, with the liberation of the countries influenced or occupied by Germany, free elections would be held, in order to establish new order. These words sounded very promising, yet there was a problem - they were very vague. At the time, almost nobody was able to see that. The war
had caused too much damage. All people wanted was a peaceful resolution. The prospect of free elections seemed wonderful, and everyone was too eager to believe there would be such a thing. I can testify for that, using the example of the country of my birth - Bulgaria. When the Declaration of Liberated Europe became a public fact, preparations for elections began in Bulgaria. Candidates were picked out, campaigns were started. Great was the shock of the people, when the government, which had been a communist-oriented one, with a prime minister close to Stalin, arrested everyone who had been pro-democracy and executed the leaders of the opposition. Not too surprisingly, the leaderships of almost the entire Eastern Europe, with the exclusion of Greece, turned red, or pro-Soviet. There was a purpose behind the vagueness of the Declaration of Liberated Europe - free elections, as far as Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill were concerned, meant elections in which Stalin’s post-war vision of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe would become a fact. In other words, the
Big Three knew that at the Eastern European elections, there would be no governments that would turn out as pro-democratic. FDR also succeeded to achieve his goals - there was peace, but he had to lie and sacrifice Eastern Europe for it. Citizens did not know that - they believed in what they saw on the surface, in what they heard from their leader and created a universal truth, which ended up hurting the Eastern European peoples.
History often tends to repeat itself, although in different forms. Today, I can clearly see a radical new movement in the United States - a country that has always symbolized freedom, democracy, and rational thinking. I angered to hear a statement that the newly popular Tea Party had made - they accused President Obama of being a socialist. I cannot be sure if it is the atrocity of this statement, or the amount of people supporting it that bothered me more. Ever since the Cold War, in the United States the term “socialist” had ben related to the Soviet Union and its dictators. I find it funny, knowing the true meaning of the term, how correct the Tea Party leaders are. For, the initial ideal of socialism is that all people would be equal. If one sees the term in this fashion, then yes, Obama is a socialist, for he wants all Americans to have equal opportunity, and he has been fighting for that with the Universal Health Reform and the plans for job opportunities. But I know that the Tea Party does not use it in this way, nor do their supporters see it as such. No, they use the term in a Soviet-related fashion, thus offending people like my mother, who lived in a communist state, experienced the transition, and came here from a post-communist society and knows what the true meaning of a communist dictatorship is. But the Tea Party leaders have found the perfect circumstances, hitting on a nerve in a time of deep economic and financial crisis and have used a hateful language to achieve their own purpose - to have power. Perhaps it is too early for many of their followers to see, but as I personally believe, American society is dividing and the people are suffering. The problem is, they believe they suffer because of the wrong person. They have created their own truth, a truth which for them is universal, like the truth of the geocentric theory or the free-elections of post WWII Europe.
No, there is no universal truth, there is truth based on the interpretation of facts. And it is the responsibility of society, the citizens and their leaders to overcome their bias and look beneath the surface, seeing the facts as they are.
Within the context of the chronically unhinged US-Pak relationship, truth seems to have a Holy Grail-like existence, a perpetual not-being. Every aspect of this relationship seems to be based on projected motives, half-truths, distrust, covert missions, divergent interests and blatant lies.
I’ll lay out the perceived truths of the matter. America thinks: Pakistan is obsessed with India. Any weapons or military aid given to Pakistan will go to the eastern, rather than western frontier. Pakistan wants ‘strategic depth’ – it wants a friendly Afghanistan in case of war with India, in case of geographical, tactical and political maneuverability. It wants elements within the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network to be in power after the US packs up to achieve that friendly government. It is afraid of Indian influence in Afghanistan – Pakistan does not want to be flanked with hostile governments on both sides. Pakistan, hence, has an interest in fueling in the conflict in Afghanistan so that it could wield influence in ‘endgame’ negotiations. Hence, Pakistan, a supposed ally, is providing the very weapons and funds that the United States is supplying to Pakistan, to the people that the United States is fighting against.
Pakistan thinks: The United States is not to be trusted. They abandoned Pakistan in 1989, when the Soviet-Afghan war wrapped up, and this occasion will be no different. Pakistan needs to think of a post-US map of South Asia, getting as much influence, and as many concessions as it can before the withdrawal. As for Pakistan’s stance towards the militants, Pakistan is the biggest casualty in the War on Terror – a war not started by Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered thousands of military and civilian deaths at the hands of militants, and Pakistan has been stretched to the limit in fighting this menace. The Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network does not threaten or endanger Pakistan. Pakistan would be stretched even thinner, and be even more insecure if Pakistan expanded its theater of military operations. Furthermore, the United States does not respect Pakistan as an ally, expanding drone operations on Pakistani sovereign territory despite Pakistan’s continuous calls for the abandonment of the program. The United States consistently favors India over Pakistan, legitimizing, indeed enhancing, the former’s nuclear program, while constantly heckling the latter’s.
Where does this lead? Not anywhere desirable by either party. The United States assumes that the war in Afghanistan will carry on indefinitely until the security threat coming from within Pakistan’s borders is neutered. Pakistan will continue to try and muscle its way on to the negotiating table in Afghanistan and recreate a former sphere of influence. In real terms, therefore, when the matter is put in such terms, the Afghan war, drone strikes, terrorist attacks, occupation, and everything else that is ugly will continue to come out in news items, Twitter feeds and body bags – an inadvertent upholding of a status quo that nobody wants, except for militants. And like that, the interminability of it all evokes cynicism, despair, a gross acceptance of the atrocity that is war, and everything that comes with it.
There is nothing inevitable about the state of affairs between Pakistan and the United States. At the most fundamental level – and it is condescending to say so – there is a lack of empathy. The realities that Pakistan and the United States create for themselves are warped, subjective, narrow and dissimilar. They lack any objective truth, making any meaningful negotiation – even conversation – impossible. Pakistan and the United States, as political entities, are impossible to reduce to their tactical objectives. Furthermore, they both project what the other side wants rather than disclosing their own objectives. Finally, there is an expectation of deceit that renders any candor as insincere.
So why and how does truth matter? Recently, there has been a lot of academic interest in Pakistan. Journalists, authors and academics have spent time and energy to try and go deeper than simply talk across a negotiating table to better understand the dilemmas, the aspirations, the thorns in the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan. They went to search for the truth. Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven is probably the most apt manifestation of this interest, in which he travels far and wide, interviewing day laborers, bureaucrats and army generals, painting a rich and complex canvas of a nation of a hundred and eighty million. The truth, especially in a country as multi-layered and multi-dimensioned as Pakistan, is never categorical and always nuanced.
That doesn’t suit power brokers very well. Things have to be suchandsuch in order for them to do soandso. When entities such as the Pakistani military are so fractured that one wing is Islamist while the other is secular, it is difficult to characterize the Pakistani military that takes into account such contradictions. Hence, either the secular side is pretending, or there must be two separate militaries. Pakistan’s obession with India is taken as a given, and it takes Aatish Taseer, the son of a murdered Pakistani governor to try explain why even that supposedly irrational position exists. Empathy is not extended to the other side either. The United States also has a need to have itself and its allies dissociated from any form of terrorist activity. This is not as obvious as it sounds. The United States, and most countries, have supported militant non-state actors in the past to meet particular strategic and tactical objectives, whether it be the Contras in Nicaragua, or the even the rebels in Libya in the present day. But the advent of Al-Qaeda has tempered this political phenomenon, making the United State particularly averse; a sensitivity that Pakistan does not appreciate.
I speak not of morality. I am not an idealist. I understand the strategic and pragmatic motives that compel states to act with each other with the ruthlessness and trepidation that they do, and that they are a symptom of the fundamental uncertainty that exists in international relations. What is evident, however, is the elementary mismatch of two countries trying to work together when there is nothing objective for them to work on. A comic example of this would be the meetings between Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart on their respective shows. Their summits tend to be cagey and volatile, where the presenters spend most of their time in holding their own, rather than trying to seek any kind of objectivity in the current American political framework. They cognitively treat as fact the notion that there can be no agreement between rival factions. By agreement I do not mean accordance. I mean an acceptance of certain political truths. For example, Republicans think military intervention is bad when a Democratic President does it, and for Democrats, intervention is bad when a Republican President does it. There is nothing categorically ‘bad’ or ‘good’ about interventions, according to politicians.
So when Jon Stwewart and Bill O’Reilly talk to each other, there is nothing objective being discussed at all; it is, all just an articulation of their own interpretations of reality that the other chooses not to accept.
Mr Lieven’s book to me, then, is the reality that best represents the objective truth in politics. In the case of US-Pakistan relations, it is the objective reality that needs to be considered by both Pakistan and the US so that at least they can talk about the same objects, rather than simply hurl vindictive, venomous accusations at each other.
I want to make this very clear. This is not a case of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ That would be a patronizing – indeed, wrong – characterization of how international relations work. What I am calling for is the need for objective truth, an undeniable state of affairs, the undeniable object of negotiation, so that even in the case of diverging opinions, the fundamentals of what is being discussed is not in dispute. In American-Pakistani relations, and most international disputes, that is lacking. When the CIA itself says that there has not been “a single collateral death” from the drone strikes, while other reports say almost a third are civilians, then there is a fundamental need to have the truth about the drone program to assess its efficacy. Any discussion regarding the drone strikes is an exercise in futility since nobody, not even the CIA, has an idea of what reality is actually being discussed. Even if they did, it evidently is not being shared. And so, again, negotiation – discussion – becomes a tragic case of he-said-she-said - or he’ll-say-she’ll-say - that, inherently, is doomed to fail.
Strategic thinking is an integral part of politics; but when it clouds our basic fundamental interpretation of reality so much that we fail to recognize any empirical, epistemological truth, Afghanistan does indeed become a quagmire – just like it is in our heads.
Truth is a political construction. Last week, two women were fined for wearing burqas in a suburb of Paris. This was the first application of a controversial law passed in France forbidding Muslim women from covering their faces in public. Compulsory unveiling in France creates a narrative of a homogeneous French identity. In an age of mass immigration and turmoil between Islam and the West, the veil functions as a synecdoche for Muslim dissonance. Cultural battles are often fought through the form of the female body, though the conflict is much deeper than a thin layer of fabric across the face. Women are traditionally the mothers, home-keepers, and face of moral society, and therefore visually represent national ideals. A cultural battle is being fought through the body of the Muslim French woman, using her image to project political truth.
The right wing political pursuits in France have encroached on women’s right to freely practice their religion. While France claims to be in favor of women’s rights and freedoms, a woman’s right to identify with her religion, a precious freedom, is now forbidden. The choice to wear a headscarf should be personal and not legal. Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab believe that Islam liberates and empowers them, while the image of the veil challenges the Western notion of these words.
This ban is accompanied by a great ignorance that will not be recognized until the controversy is over. This shrouding of the truth must be dispelled in the name of human rights. Seeing a woman fully covered from head to toe can be discomforting. From a Western perspective the covering of ones face can be interpreted as a refusal to exist, an erasure from society, an equivalent to silence. Muslim women cover their face in order to be modest and diminish their publicly exposed sexuality, but when out of context as in France the veil intensifies sexuality in its excessiveness. It is conspicuous, and being so visible calls more attention to Muslim women rather than less. There is mystery and fear of what is under the veil, and this ban is an attempt to control women, more so than the veil is misconstrued to do so itself. Save for extreme circumstances in conservative Muslim countries, women choose to wear their head coverings and are not required to do so.
The only obligatory dress code for Muslims according to the Koran is to dress modestly. The Koran actually says in Surah XXIV Light “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only what which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosom” It goes on to describe the close relations with whom the woman can share her
adornments. There are no specifics about the hijab or burqa. There is no sketch or diagram. Covering the head is a cultural and personal choice in order to identify with faith. Muslim women wear the hijab to feel connected with their faith and with their community, as well as to distinguish themselves from Western traditions. Men are [i]not limited in their choices. This tradition is not distinctly Islamic. There are Hasidic Jews, as well as Amish men and woman who dress in a distinctive conservative style as well. A headscarf can even be as secular as a fashion statement as seen above on the lovely Grace Kelly! France especially recognizes the power of clothes, where being fashionable and beautiful is an expression of patriotism.
Despite these truths, it is difficult to know a person without seeing their face. However, there is a difference between the burqa, which covers the entirety of the face, and the hijab, which leaves the face exposed. The Muslim women in France who choose to wear the full burqa are a vast minority: about 3 thousand out of a country of 62 billion. France, the most secular country in Europe, practices a strict separation of church and state. So why should the government ban the religious choice of a small selection of their citizens?
The projected truth of what it is to be French was discussed in an official national debate on French identity led by President Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s attempt to define the national essence encourages a false ideal that all citizens must comply with the same set of values. Hannah Arendt also sees truth as something that applies to all men, a universal fact. However, the French government is trying to enforce a truth of the French image, while discounting the realistic diversity in their population.
According to the French government, the veil undermines national unity and threatens community. The French Right sites the preservation of frenchness as its primary objection to the veil. The veil has also become an issue of National Security. Muslim women must be totally visible in public. It is not safe to drive with vision obstructed by the veil. The tradeoff of these precautions is encroachment on the freedom of religion. Moreover, Muslim women have expressed the willingness to show their faces when legally necessary as in court, or at the bank.
The subject of women’s body as a form of political debate is not unprecedented. Catholic missionaries attempting to convert and assimilate Native American women cut off their long dark braids. Mini skirts in the late 60’s were measured with a ruler in schools for proper length. My mother was sent home from higschool in Austin, Texas for having yarn shoelaces that dragged on the ground. While the French claim to be protecting the equality and dignity of women, they are in fact disrespecting women’s right to choose their own religious practice.
Kenza Drider, a conservative Muslim French woman, announced her candidacy for President the same day the women were fined for wearing their veils in a town hall. She proposes to serve all women who are the subject of political discrimination, and though she has little chance to win the election she brings up the excellent point: How does controlling what women wear protect their rights?
When I was in the West Bank for three weeks I was asked to cover my hair, which I found unpleasant. Covering my latest haircut or dye job: both of which have the power to transform and reinvent self-image, felt oppressive. I wore a scarf to and from the school where I taught and quickly tore it off the moment I entered my classroom. It is part of Western culture to celebrate the beauty of the female body, which consequently means to expose it. This is something I believe in personally, and support the celebration of the female body. However, my mind was opened when my students told me why they love their hijabs, and choose to start wearing them much earlier than they needed to. Generally girls adorn themselves with hijabs when they begin menstruating. They said it makes them feel like more of a woman, and they are proud to feel that way. I had never thought of it like that, but now see that this choice is strongly cultural and connects the fashionable young ladies with their community as well as their religion. The choice is not unlike my own to begin wearing a bra and shaving my legs during those same formative years.
The choice to wear a hijab ties a young woman to their families as a representative symbol of societal values. This is not in accordance with the Western idolization of individualism, and therefore an essential difference between our cultures. By dictating how women can dress, France is dismissing differences in culture that it should tolerate rather than control.
France’s burqa ban oppresses women by banning an essential part of their religious and cultural heritage. The ultimate right for any individual, man or woman, is choice. France’s nationalist battle of the veil prohibits this right. French Muslim women should not have to choose between their religion and their country because their country doesn’t view their choices as French. Does the narrative projected by the French government ring true, or is a woman’s right to choose the universal truth? Though the collective nationalist brainwashing can be compelling, in the end there can only be one truth. Either France is right and the burqa condemns the countries sense of self, as well as oppresses women, or Muslim women who freely choose to wear their burqas are the more free and liberated citizens of France. The ban exemplifies the manipulation of truth for a political purpose, using the woman’s body as an illustrative tool for change.
 Iranian Painter: Afshin Pirhashemi
 Jananne Al-Ani, Untitled, 1996
 Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief 1995
 President Sarkozy
 Kenza Drider announcing her candidacy
 My English Class, Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative, West Bank
 Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe