Dan Gettinger is a student at Bard College.
Lately I've been reflecting on my activity surrounding Occupy Wall St. Remembering the minutes before I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, I wonder what I was thinking in those moments. The truth is that I was there largely by accident. I read about the Occupy movement and a friend of mine who had gone down encouraged me to go that weekend. One thing led to another and I was spending eight hours at One Police Plaza, NYC. What led me there? Why did the NYPD decide to arrest 749 people? Why are people pitted against each other in anger?
These questions flew through my mind in a nervous rush in those interminable minutes. As my friend in front of me got hauled away he told me to call his Mom. A girl next to me scribbled a phone number on my arm but, sadly, it was that of the National Lawyers Guild and not hers. I looked up to another Bard student who was safe on the pedestrian walkway and smiled. Chaos and distress and sadness were etched across the faces of those around me. As I came to the realization that I would be arrested I felt more at ease and relaxed. And alone.
All my life I've been for or against something. Growing up overseas I was for America; representing a homeland that I barely knew but swelled with pride over. In the past decade it has become starker. I despised Bush and loved Obama, protesting one and campaigning for the other. My generation is one of extremes and totalities. We grew up defined by the trespasses of the last President, and now we watch as our confidence in this one seeps away. With a crushingly uncertain future we grasp at hope, looking to fill this void with promises.
Why is this? How is that we are so empty that we must be filled with language that is distilled into slogans and ideologically transparent? Why do we allow ourselves to be categorized and set into camps against each other? I think it is because we are lonely. A generation of drifters set loose by the misdeeds of those who came before. Around us we see everything being commodified and isolated. We value the world in terms of totalities, the cold language of polls. Discussion becomes debate. Politics becomes personal. Language gives leeway to the violence of our time. Philip Cushman writes, “We are told by self psychology and object relations theory that the empty self is the natural configuration of human being... that the essence of psychological growth is consumption”. Ideas become values, a list of priorities rather than inquisitions. Instead of questioning the origin of a problem, we invest in the answer. The world becomes a sheet of cookie-cutter shapes and we, the unseeing eyes of selfish sentimentality.
Occupy Wall St. has exposed us as a generation of reactionaries. This era is one of immediate responses instigated by the ceaseless swirl of the cyber world. The Internet, modern telecommunications and globalization outline our existence. The information age confines our imagination, creating shapes in which we can mindlessly ease into. It conditions our thoughts. “The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire/ Is too difficult to tell from despair,” says the poet Wallace Stevens. The compression of information and language forces immediate reactions, instinctual expressions of sentiment. Instead of taking the time to think, our feelings gush into the abyss that is the Internet. And lost. ‘Once more into the breach!’ shouts the exhausted soldier and student alike.
The power of online reaction in the cyber world has prompted the opposite in the physical. I see it in the ease in which students are called ‘apathetic’. Apathy is the absence of pathos, the detriment of passion. Students, the supposed vanguard for intellectual pursuit, are considered to be endowed with such an extreme indifference that we are devoid of concern, excitement or motivation. This word shows the extent to which isolation has infested our campuses and social activity. It reveals how difficult it has become to really engage with politics and to create community. When the ancient Greeks entered into the public realm of life they expected to enter into discussion with each other. We’ve seen the opposite occur. As a result of the outpouring of ourselves in the cyber world we withdraw from the physical, preferring to slide into a virtual abstraction of reality and of ourselves. Our passion is put towards filling that inner void and in doing so we exhaust ourselves in chasing our own superficial creations. We live in a TV democracy, secure in our insecurity.
Hannah Arendt writes that loneliness leads to complacency, an unwillingness to judge truthfully and think. We fill ourselves with the tenets of ideology and in doing so we build walls around each other. This isolation prevents communication. It destroys dialogue and leaves us more susceptible to the shallow language of ideologues.
I'm far from regretting my experience on the bridge. It brought so much that I was feeling to the fore and was an illustration of the frustrations of a generation. But I do not revel in that act nor do I celebrate the movement as the answer anymore. The minute that we begin to consider Occupy Wall St the answer to our problems is the time to stop and think. Here is the time to re-evaluate the reasons why it's happening and why we should support it. It's when we've commodified Occupy, making the movement more about ourselves than the problems it confronts. That's when our loneliness is exposed.
The greatness of Occupy Wall St is that it gives people the opportunity to think. The absence of demands or a structured hierarchy allows the true problems that plague this nation to come first. It begins to cleanse the mind of all these barricades we've erected around ourselves by providing a space to talk about issues like class and privilege that we haven't confronted in decades. We've come to the threshold where unless we get a hard punch to the gut we'll continue to resort to phrases and slogans, packaging up our thoughts into sound bites and deluding ourselves with the belief that this is thinking.
David Graeber writes that the word revolution does not, and cannot, mean “a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression,” a storming of the Winter Palace or Bastille. It is rather exposing and de-legitimizing the origins of an oppressive system, striking down the pillar of injustice that fuels our plight. Some of those in Occupy Wall St may say that pillar is the bankers that control our democracy. I say the roots of these dark times are within us. They’re the fictitious frames, the keyholes and the kissing booths that we use to define our world. A society predicated on constant caffeinated consumption, seeking desperate deliverance in passing fashions, is a violent one. One that seduces our imagination, leaving it languishing in infomercials and Italian leather. We may not be the cause of this crisis, but our complacency leaves us complicit.
Do not expect the revolution to be televised nor even talked about immediately. Hannah Arendt says that true thought occurs in solitude, in those quiet moments of intense reflection. This follows from the Socratic notion that thinking in solitude is the “conversation one has with oneself,” a particularly active questioning and critical self-examination.
I would add that the validation of these thoughts occurs in dialogue with others, in the inter-personal connections that we form through experience. Thinking is the relentless investigation of an idea, it’s an exploration, but it’s also engaging with others in this way on a non-emotional level, allowing for a substantive discourse. To separate one self from an idea and be open to the thoughts of others is an extremely difficult process that requires patience and critical listening. But it’s here where we must begin. The lack of curiosity is the greatest symptom of being lonely and the surest way to complacency. Questioning and imagining are activities essential to our freedom.
The raids with batons and bulldozers continue to intrude on unstructured spaces across the nation. The future of Occupy Wall St is impossible to predict and the consequences even more difficult to anticipate. However, we may be certain that Liberty Square has reminded us of a far darker occupation that exists within each of us. An oppressive installment in our hearts that leaves us yearning and fighting for the illusive insoluble ‘I’. But, “sudden as a shaft of sunlight,” we are experiencing ways of thinking and acting that free us from the past and future, placing this movement in our moment.
Victor Granado is an Arendt Center Fellow, visiting from Spain.
In his introductory lecture at this year’s Arendt Center conference, “Democracy: Truthtelling in An Age Without Facts,” Roger Berkowitz reminded us that in present day, facts have been relegated to mere opinion. There has been a dissolution of the facts, in other words, a transformation of the factual truth into mere doxa; judgment versus opinion. This change illustrates the confrontation between judgments based on facts, which offer us definitive knowledge, versus unfounded opinion, which undermines the basis of this knowledge and prevents the possibility of a rational debate.
“The loss of the truth amounts to the loss of the world,” Berkowitz stated, reminding us of one of Arendt’s most crucial notions. “Truth” in this case refers to the world of events shared with other people, about which it is possible to speak, and in which it is possible to act. Thus when there is nothing to share, that commonality disappears. This seems to be our situation today, which Berkowitz summarized by noting, “dissensus is the norm and the consensus is the exception.” Perhaps most worrisome is that without the shared understanding of facts, there is no possibility of real political discourse.
Today, nobody can say or show the truth, because the truth can only be told. After the period of positivism, in which the facts were considered definite, it is no longer possible to believe that they are objective, independent and real. Facts have a social and historical context, and while many may argue that they come to be socially and historically constructed, it doesn’t mean that they in turn, do not reflect the reality of the given world.
Facts and pictures about reality may have more than one single meaning. It is possible to approach them and try to understand them from various and different perspectives. They are no longer one-dimensional but a discourse, a tale about reality. This does not eliminate the truth of facts, but it is important to bear in mind that the fictional dimension of facts is not a rejection of the truth, but rather can provide another foundation for the rational truth. What does it mean that something is true? Today, truth—the historical, political or scientific truth—means the majority of people hold it as common. Consensus plays a capital role in the actual meaning of truth.
We need to tell the truth because in this capacity, truth is narrative—truthtelling means storytelling. We can understand this process with the help of Max Weber. As we have learned, when there is no explanation of reality, the need arises for some kind of sense to be made of events. In that case we can say that the truth is a method of explanation: of accurately describing and illuminating the story that we tell of reality. The question of how to narrate the truth is the question of how to find a way to make sense of the facts. As Hannah Arendt said:
“Who says what is…always tells a story, and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire some humanly comprehensible meaning.”
At a time in which ‘being true’ means that the majority believe that such a thing occurred, it is more important to tell the truth than to say something ‘right.’
It is only then that thinking about the truth leaves the area of theories of knowledge and instead leans toward ethics. Rather than concentrating on science and correct judgments, the most important thing is to be honest and to say what you hold as true. Therefore, telling a story about reality requires one to be sincere and brave. Or as Wolfgang Heuer said in his speech:
“Truth-telling can be unpleasant when it contradicts the opinion of the majority. Telling the truth can easily lead to a minority position and expose the truth-teller to the pressure of the majority. It takes courage to resist the strain.”
Today telling the truth means telling a story. Offering a story that accurately reflects reality requires both honesty and courage.
Fifty years after the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt returns to Israel:
"Upon entering the film studio in Petah Tikva, one is hit with the sensation of time travel.
Dozens of people, most of them men, sit at a long table, dressed in suits and sporting hairstyles particularly fashioned to the 1960s, clacking away at their ancient typewriters, rummaging through the piles of documents surrounding them, or chatting softly with their wives.
The cigarette smoke rising from a plethora of ashtrays clashes with the beams of light washing over the room, accompanying the sporadic glances shot over at the television screens set up in various corners of the room.
This is the press room at Jerusalem's Beit Ha'am, 1961. Dozens of reporters from countries all over the world are here to the cover the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann."
Click here to read the full piece on the filming of Hannah Arendt.
Eichmann in Jerusalem being read in Palm Beach, FL.
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“…poetically speaking, [history’s] beginning lies…in the moment when Ulysses, at the court of the king of the Phaeacians, listened to the story of his own deeds and sufferings, to the story of his life, now a thing outside itself, an ‘object’ for all to see and to hear. What had been sheer occurrence now became ‘history.’” (“The Concept of History,” Between Past and Future, 1977, p. 45)
In the middle of text describing history as a project of historians and poets to memorialize the great deeds of actors so that these deeds can “remain in the company of the things that last forever" (p. 48), this quote about Ulysses seems out of place. It suggests that history has its origins not in the potential greatness of action, but in the almost private moment of hearing about and confronting one’s own deeds. Arendt describes this moment when Ulysses hears the story of his own life as a moment of “reconciliation with reality,” which moves Ulysses deeply (p. 45). Here, history has little to do with the greatness of his actions: Ulysses is not moved because he finds his actions glorious and worthy of eternal existence. In fact, the character of the deeds is irrelevant to Ulysses, for with respect to these deeds, he is at once “listener, actor, and sufferer” and therefore has no “curiosity” about them, nor does he have any “lust for information” (Ibid.).
Arendt’s description of the origins of history as the actor’s confrontation with his own acts is ever more puzzling because one of her main points about action and history is that the actor himself can neither realize the completion of his actions nor comprehend their significance. She writes, “…the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end, frequently when all the participants are dead” (The Human Condition, p. 192). Yet here, the founding moment of history is not the moment that others listen to the story of Ulysses’ deeds and give them meaning as a part of human history, but rather the moment that Ulysses himself hears it.
How is it that history’s origin lies in this moment when the actor confronts his own deeds? And what exactly is the reality which history forces us to reconcile ourselves to during this confrontation?
I submit that the reality Ulysses confronted in listening to the story of his deeds as an “object” outside of himself, then solidifies his presence in the everlasting timeline of history. This reconciliation is an acceptance of the fact that one is visible to all others in the world and that the world’s history—the character of its immortal existence—while not entirely a product of one’s own making, finds its origins in one’s own self and actions.
To tell a history of the world as a story of human presence, the individual as actor must give way to the individual as historian. The historian is not only an actor, but also an audience to his actions. In confronting his deeds as a part of the narrative of history, the historian appreciates that the innumerable stories that describe the world are nothing more than singular moments of the lives and actions of individuals, himself included.
Confronting this reality of one’s presence in the story of the world is not about recognizing our own greatness, be it potential or actual. In fact, when confronted with such reality, greatness becomes an external object, no longer within our control or part of our powers. It is only when viewing his greatness through a filter of detachment, that Ulysses’ deeds could move, rather than just bore him.
Reconciling ourselves to a reality in which individual human beings are its sole creative agents imposes on us a heavy responsibility.
And it should temper too great a commitment to, and love for, ourselves as actors whose potential freedom and power are boundless in their miraculous natality. History is a story not just of our greatness, but of our selves. It ensures that there is always a name and a face attached to actions. Ulysses could not help but be moved in the face of a world that, even in its vastness, appears to him as his own. He is moved—and a bit frightened—by the realization that what he does is constitutive of the reality in which he and everyone else must live.
What it is to live in a world whose history does not reflect a mirror of individual existence is dramatically illustrated in the totalitarian regime’s notion of historical progress. The Nazi and Soviet regimes conceived of history as a product of “Nature,” an inevitable progression of events in which individuals could, at most, enact a series of events whose meaning has already been determined. Totalitarian consistency requires that the past flow inexorably into the future, without any gaps created by individuals which might distract from its course. Totalitarian history thus goes beyond the dehumanization of turning men into “functionaries and mere cogs” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 289) and erases individual human presence indiscriminately and completely. History as a story of Nature might support a world of actors, but it cannot support a world of historians. And it is only as historians that we can create a space for ourselves, and not just our actions, in the world.
"Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."
On July 13 of 2011, David Graeber published an essay in the Canadian journal Adbusters called "Awaiting The Magical Spark," an essay asking what it would take to set off a revolution in the West similar to those in the Middle East. It was the same day Adbusters put out its now infamous call for a movement occupying Wall Street.
On August 2nd, Graeber attended what was advertised as a General Assembly meeting on Bowling Green. An experienced anarchist, Graeber became angry that the General Assembly was actually a traditional protest meeting not interested in hearing ideas from the protesters. With two friends, he organized a splinter group that gathered on the other side of Bowling Green Park. It was this alternate General Assembly initiated by Graeber that, over the next six weeks, organized the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is one reason that David Graeber has been called the anti-leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Beyond his actual role as the original facilitator of OWS, Graeber has claim as well to being one of the movement's intellectual torchbearers. A Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmith's University in London, he has published widely on anarchism both in the ancient world and in the contemporary west. His book Direct Action: An Ethnography, is an ethnographic account of the anarchist movement and protests at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Just this year Graeber published Debt: The First 5000 Years, a rambling and also rambunctious revisionist history, one that argues against the moral grounds for repaying our debts. A constant refrain in Debt is that the moral responsibility to repay debts is part of an inhuman commercial logic.
Both Graeber's anarchism and his calls for a universal forgiveness of consumer and international debt—a forgiveness in the spirit of a biblical jubilee—has set him at the forefront of debates that swirl around the storm that is Occupy World Street. As he writes in Debt:
“It seems to me that we’re long overdue for some kind of biblical-style jubilee, one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary, not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality. That all these things are human arrangements and, if democracy is to mean anything, it is to the ability for all to agree to arrange things in a different way.”
Graeber's views may strike fear into the heart of Wall Street and the bankers who hold all those credits, but his radical proposals are catching on amongst many in the 99%. And some in the business press are taking notice. He was recently featured in an essay in Business Week Magazine. And the investing website Minyanville just published a rich interview with Graeber. This interview, done by Kevin Depew over at Minyanville, is your read for this Thanksgiving weekend..
In the Minyanville interview, Graeber says:
And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt. I would tell stories to people, very sympathetic people, liberal lawyers, well-meaning do-gooder types, and you’d tell these stories about horrible things. You know, in Madagascar, for example, the IMF came in with these policies, you have to cut the budgets because, god knows, we can’t reduce the interest payments you owe to Citibank, they owed all this money. And they had to do things like get rid of mosquito eradication programs, as a result that malaria returned to parts of the country where it had been wiped out for a hundred years and tens of thousands of people died and you had dead babies being buried and weeping mothers. I was there, I saw this sort of thing. You described this to people and the reaction would be, well, that’s terrible, but surely people have to pay their debts. You’re not suggesting they cancel it or default, that would be outrageous. And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt.
Well just such an outrageous act is what Graeber has in mind. Read on.
Whoever is looking for a complete list of charges launched against Hannah Arendt and her book on Eichmann may turn to chapter 6 of Deborah Lipstadt’s recently published book, The Eichmann Trial. As it seems, Lipstadt assembles almost every single item of the “Arendt controversy”, telling her readers that Arendt had “a personal disdain for Israel that bordered on anti-Semitism and racism;” that she was prejudiced against Eastern European and/or Oriental Jews (while her mother “spoke German with a thick Russian accent”); that she described Eichmann as a Zionist, attacked, even “condemned” the Jewish Councils, and took aim at the Sonderkommandos. More so, Arendt got the case of Yehiel Dinur (Ka-Tzetnik), Auschwitz survivor and author, wrong; she was “contemptuous of Rabbi Baeck, […] echoing the language of the enemy.” Arendt’s statement that Eichmann was “a clown,” Lipstadt insinuates, was a conclusion that she may well have reached before coming to Israel.
Lipstadt thus takes issue at the eyewitness nature of Arendt’s report. She declares Arendt guilty of a “breach of faith with readers” because she presented herself as an observer of the trial, while she had attended it for a few weeks only. Furthermore, Arendt may have written her book “subliminally […] for her teacher and former lover,” Martin Heidegger; etc. etc.
For most of the charges and allegations Lipstadt doesn’t provide full reference as to who launched them, or where, or when. Nor does she discuss them in the context of what Arendt actually wrote or said. But, not only that. Lipstadt lets fly at Arendt’s critics as well, arguing, as may seem in Arendt’s defense, that the critics “unduly ignored” the complexity of her “analysis!” Then, coming full circle, she places herself on top of Arendt and her critics. From there the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies pronounces her verdict: Hannah Arendt “was guilty of precisely the same wrong that she derisively ascribed to Adolf Eichmann. She – the great political philosopher who claimed that careful thought and precise expression were of supreme value – did not ‘think.’”
There is no response to such Arendt-Eichmann meshugas; it rather qualifies to be met with an Arendt-Blücher inspired “Schweigen und Vorübergehen”— "say nothing and pass by."
But a reminder to Lipstadt & Co. needs to be added. Hannah Arendt’s book-length report on the Eichmann trial is left to posterity as a historical document, the evaluation of which has been and may remain controversial. Arendt also left a philosophical proposition, coined in the expression “banality of evil,” which has been and will remain worth being discussed seriously. A prerequisite for both, evaluating the book and discussing the proposition, is reading Arendt carefully. Actually, that doesn’t hurt, or does it?
Click here to read additional reviews and discussion related to Lipstadt's book, The Eichmann Trial.
Today marks the four month anniversary of the terrorist attack on Norway by one of its own, Anders Behring Breivik. Solveig Botnen Eide, an Arendt Center Fellow visiting from Norway reflects on the uncomfortable reality of truthtelling when terror strikes too close to home.
As a native of Norway, my attention was piqued when I heard Jonathan Kay’s talk at the recent Hannah Arendt Center Conference:, “Truthtelling in An Age Without Facts”. Kay began by referencing this summer’s terror attack in my home country to illustrate how conspiracy theories can evolve from unfathomable events. While I want to weigh in on Kay’s thoughts, my interest is not in the conspiracy theories themselves. I would rather reflect, on the confused sense of reality surrounding the event, the opinions that encouraged the wrongdoing, and the challenge Norway faces in acknowledging the roots of these opinions.
In brief the Norwegian terrorist has, through his 1500 page self-published manifesto, given us an insight into the conspiracies and thoughts that led him to carry out the attack. The terrorist’s worst fear is Europe being taken over by Muslims – a threat he feels that is all too real and must be battled, whatever the cost. Subsequently, he also feels the need to protect Europe as a Christian continent. Those to blame for this present threat, in his estimation, are the government and youth, whose continued indifference would lead to an almost ensured de-evolution of Norwegian purity and thus a Muslim takeover This is how he justified and explained bombing a government building and shooting 68 young people at the Labour Party summer camp on July 22nd, 2011.
The acts and mindset of the terrorist were driven by opinions with no basis in fact. However, these opinions still had the power to create a perceived, though illusionary reality. Words and meanings become dangerous when they serve to invent one’s universe and become ‘truths’ that must be substantiated whatever the price. Even though these opinions do not reflect the world as it is, websites, blogs and at times public debate, show that the roots of these opinions go deeper than the manifesto of the terrorist. Messages of hatred towards Muslims, politicians who are accused of naivety towards the “threat of Muslims”, and the fear of the de-christening of Europe are not products of just one man’s mind. The terrorist was a lone wolf in allowing his thoughts to flourish into violent action, but he is not alone in his mindset.
He and those who share his beliefs are essentially basing truth on opinions and not facts. According to Hannah Arendt, it is risky when facts become opinions and opinions become facts. The risks have many dimensions, as the case in Norway demonstrates. The image of reality is twisted and facts are left unchallenged without being subject to critical thought and debate. Yet the twisted image of reality has roots in Norwegian popular belief as it draws arguments and attitudes from the extreme right of both politics and religion. This is itself a fact that is hard to acknowledge. It would no doubt be easier if the terrorist had been a stranger and not one of Norway’s own. Yet we can only escape this fact by excluding him from the community of humanity, and declaring him a monster. That he represents opinions with roots in our community seems harder to accept.
How could this terrible event happen? In her essay “Home to Roost” (1975), Arendt considers such questions when they are raised after shocking and unbelievable events. The challenge is not to let it become an obscuring exercise that causes us to hide and allows us to forget the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are. Arendt finishes her essay with a challenge –a demanding one in light of the 22nd of July: “When the facts come home to roost, let us try at least to make them welcome.”
A student desk at the Stevenson Library at Bard College.
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“It is the function…of all action…to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Violence
Writing at a time when she perceived and worried about an increase in support for violence as a means to right wrongs on behalf of the dispossessed, Arendt wrote On Violence. In it, she argued for a clear distinction between violence and power. To Arendt, power was the “human ability to act in concert” and “it belongs to a group” and continues to exist “only as long as the group keeps together.” Rule by violence signals the absence of power. In its fullest expression such rule is sustained by terror, which depends upon social atomization, or the isolation of people from one another, to achieve domination. How can such rule be undone? Will violence be required to undo violence?
After fourteen years of civil war in her native Liberia, Leymah Gbowee had had enough conflict and violence. Helping mobilize a group of women across ethnic and religious divides, she rallied them to participate in actions of civil disobedience aimed to bring the brutal dictatorship of Charles Taylor to an end. Thousands of women descended on the capital city of Monravia, putting themselves between the Taylor government and rebel leaders. When peace talks stalled they barricaded the site of negotiations until a deal was settled. The tactics the women deployed are a clear illustration of Arendt’s concept of power. Fasting, praying, and protesting together, they demonstrated that power grows not out of the barrel of a gun but through concerted action.
In her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Gbowee described the moment when the women appeared at city hall to bring their demands for peace to the warring sides: “In the past, we were silent,” I told the crowd. “But after being killed, raped, dehumanized and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying no to violence and yes to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails!” The women erupted. “Peace! Peace!”
Where the rebels had failed to oust Taylor, Gbowee’s protests succeeded. Because she brought an end to the long war in Liberia and helped secure women’s participation in open elections that brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power, Africa’s first democratically elected woman president, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor she shared with Sirleaf, and Tawakul Karman of Yemen. The Nobel committee recognized the non-violent actions of all three women, who struggled for women’s rights and demonstrated the importance of women’s involvement in peace movements. Gbowee’s actions were featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the second of five films in the PBS series, Women, War, and Peace.
Arendt did not take an absolutist stand against violence. She acknowledged that sometimes violence was needed to “dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention.” But she cautioned that even the use of violence to achieve short term goals was dangerous. The danger lay in the ever-present possibility that the means of violence would “overwhelm the end” and become the end itself. Gbowee’s statement that her experience of war had taught her that a future was possible only by saying no to violence expresses the Arendtian principle that only action can interrupt “what otherwise would have proceeded automatically.” And even if Arendt’s worry that the capacity for action was fragile and threatened in particular by the conditions of the modern age, we need to keep such stories as those of the women of Liberia central in our imagination as reminders that power is the opposite of violence.
This weekend's suggested read is an interview with Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. For years Lessig has advocated for the freedom of information and helped to found and establish the Creative Commons. Recently, Lessig has set his sites on freeing politics from corruption, and his book has been claimed as one of the intellectual foundations of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In this vibrant conversation, Lessig discusses finance reform, the Occupy Wall Street rallies, and how to rehabilitate the public sphere.
Lessig’s recent work addresses how the corruption pervasive in modern institutions is corrosive to public confidence and hence the arena of politics. What he terms “invidious, systemic wrongs” has led to a total loss of authentic civic trust: “the financial collapse is the most astonishing of these examples, “ he states, “not so much because of what happened before 2008, but because of what happened after.” As bad as the crash was, the bailout of bankers was an unparalleled giveaway, a transfer of money from taxpayers to the wealthiest denizens of the financial world.
Lessig encourages the current Occupy Wall Street movement to tap into this exasperation, focusing not on wealth, but fraudulence: “if [OWS] can say, whether or not you believe in capitalism, nobody believes in crony capitalism, and crony capitalism is what we’ve got, it would stand a greater chance of success.” Lessig’s emphasis on corruption is a reminder that it is the perversion of the facts and the rewarding of failure at the highest levels that that is responsible for the weakened state of our political world.
A provocative thinker, Lessig proposes several solutions to restore the political space he sees as dangerously thinned in the era of C-SPAN. These include the establishment of constitutional conventions—‘citizen juries’ where people could come together to debate the issues of the hour. “It would demonstrate something that I think people forget,” Lessig remarks to David Johnson of the Boston Review, “which is that politics is the rare sport where the amateur is better than the professional.”
Click here to read the interview.
"These are the fifties, you know. The disgusting, posturing fifties."
In celebration of Hannah Arendt's love of thinking, reading and books,
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Given Mayor Bloomberg’s clearing of Zuccotti Park just shy of the OWS two-month anniversary, and the escalating tensions between police and protesters at Occupy sites across the country, a cluster of questions surrounding the meaning and uses of civil disobedience come once again to the fore. In particular the violent altercations at the University of California, Berkeley--a campus with a long legacy of civil disobedience—force us to reconsider the role of this specific form of dissent.
Hannah Arendt considered civil disobedience an essential part of the United States’ political system. By revisiting some of her main ideas on the issue we can more fully appreciate how the civil disobedience carried out by the OWS movement both harnesses and re-imbues the public realm with political energy.
Berkeley Professor Celeste Langan, participated in a civil disobedience action on the university campus, and was treated harshly, to say the least. Her description of the encounter reminds us just what can be involved in this form of protest:
"I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said "Arrest me! Arrest me!" But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor--a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp--but also unnecessary and unjustified. "
Arendt noted that the most basic, yet the most crucial quality of civil disobedience is the necessity of joining oneself to others. This political binding to one's fellow citizens often becomes physicalized through the specific tactics of demonstration, as Langan testified.
Bard College Professor Verity Smith, reminds us of the important distinction Arendt made between civil disobedience and conscientious objection, the latter the expression of individual resistance, while the former inherently a collective enterprise . “Civil disobedients,” Arendt wrote in the essay “Civil Disobedience,” “are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association…they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.” Arendt saw civil disobedience as an invigorating and hence indispensable element of the U.S. political system she so deeply admired. How though, does this type of voluntary association represent what she called an “American remedy” for “the failure of social institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertainty of the future”?
For Arendt, civil disobedience ultimately sustains the democratic process by interrupting the authority and sovereignty of the state. Arendt saw undivided sovereignty as perhaps the greatest threat to democracy. Undivided sovereignty effectively disintegrates plurality and the multiplicities within the space of appearance that are required for authentic political life. She argues that it is not conflict but stasis and homogeneity that deadens the body politic. Hence, by producing fissures in our political ground, civil disobedients, according to Arendt, are actually fortifying it.
This apparent paradox takes us closer to Arendt’s conception of politics as one in keeping with the Roman augure, which connotes a process of both restoration and of change. On Revolution provides us with a more thorough treatment of this essential dynamic, which OWS civil disobedience also serves to illustrate. The concepts of 'inherit' and 'invent' (to borrow Smith's terms), are not mutually exclusive but deeply connected and often simultaneous activities involved in the process of political renewal. The OWS civil disobedients both draw on historical precedents (such as the 1969 student protests at Berkeley that appropriated and converted university land into the ‘People’s Park’), while also attempting to inaugurate a novel moment. This is no contradiction, it is simply the truth of beginnings, political and otherwise: things are born, utterly unknown and unforeseeable, from that which is entirely established and given. This is the law of both politics and life.
This is precisely what Arendt so highly esteemed about the American Constitution and the processes it engendered, the possibility of a document whose re-visioning was not its renunciation but its perfection. Yet, it is this seemingly paradoxical principle that we still have so much trouble in grasping, especially when it comes to matters of protest and civil disobedience. Pressed between bandana and baton is it possible to appreciate that the very acts that in some sense, threaten the political nexus, are necessary for its endurance? We have become less and less able to accept the precept that both Arendt and Montesquieu found to be fundamental to a healthy political sphere, which Smith states as, “the startling notion that contestation is actually a form of reverence, and even preservation.”
While we might be ready to accept Arendt’s formulation of the role of civil disobedience theoretically, and in certain historical contexts, the present protests at Zuccotti Park and Sproul Plaza pose particular challenges to it. I would wager that, if asked, many of those engaged in these movements would state that they do not want to fortify but to dismantle the current political framework.While Arendt saw the clamor of civil disobedience as part of the grander political opera, many season ticket holders are looking to unsubscribe this season. Part of the reason Arendt’s theory of dissent doesn’t quite jive with the OWS disobedients is because the protesters, whose voices Arendt identified as being so vital, were culled from the upper crust. As Smith mentions “elites act to invigorate but not replace mass democratic politics and representative institutions, acting as a kind of supplement to constituted governments so that democratic ideals do not ossify.” The aim of many in the OWS movement is not to provide an occasion for enhancement, but rather for the overturning, of the current system.
It remains to be seen if this desire to overturn will be reabsorbed back into the existing ground or continue to expand and strengthen its outgrowths. As the pitch of protest heightens, and police begin disbanding the demonstrations, OWS still displays the energizing power of voluntary association that Arendt trumpeted. The acts of civil disobedience are inevitably a testament to, and reveling in, the capacity for the public assembly, a bedrock of the very democracy the movement seeks to disturb. As J.M Bernstein remarks in his essay “Promising and Civil Disobedience”, even those acts of dissent that aim to break away from the status quo can never unfetter from it fully. Civil disobedience, he writes, “is always dependent on the radical past it exceeds and the repressive present it repudiates.”
And yet, as Arendt saw it, implicit in acts of civil disobedience such as those at Occupy sites, is dissent’s opposite; consent. Which is to say that what the OWS disobedients are succeeding in doing is making legible the consent of those who continue to subscribe to the political process they consider malign. Their persistence in the face of police and the ensuing arrests, serve to suggest that there is an alternative to the current form of political governance that is perhaps more worthy of our authorization—and it involves what Arendt considered to be a distinctly American remedy.
Hannah Arendt feared that our unwillingness to judge and to make decisions was the great moral and political danger facing our world. In her essays and books, Arendt gave voice to what she called the “fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame—especially, alas, upon people in power and high position.” The Arendt Center has written extensively about our unwillingness to judge, here, here, and here.
Today in the NY Times, Thomas Friedman expresses his exasperation at the lack of judgment by our political leaders. Here are two core quotations from the essay:
No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone — even China’s leaders — seems more afraid of their own people than ever. One wonders whether the Internet, blogging, Twitter, texting and micro-blogging, as in China’s case, has made participatory democracy and autocracy so participatory, and leaders so finely attuned to every nuance of public opinion, that they find it hard to make any big decision that requires sacrifice. They have too many voices in their heads other than their own.
At a time when, from India to America, democracies have never had more big decisions to make, if they want to deliver better living standards for their people, this epidemic of not deciding is a troubling trend. It means that we are abdicating more and more leadership to technocrats or supercommittees — or just letting the market and Mother Nature impose on us decisions that we cannot make ourselves. The latter rarely yields optimal outcomes.
Read the whole of Friedman's column here.
You can also view a TEDx talk on the way that technology is replacing and threatening human judgment here.
Bard student, Anna Hadfield reviews a new book by Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency.
Emergency, Elaine Scarry writes in her new book Thinking in an Emergency, is a claim that shuts down thinking in favor of action. When states make the claim of emergency, they are insisting that the nature of the situation requires that all existing procedures and deliberation be bypassed so that appropriate and rapid action can be taken. “The unspoken presumption,” she writes, “is that either one can think or one can act, and given that it is absolutely mandatory that an action be performed, thinking must fall away.” Emergency, therefore, justifies the abandonment of thinking.
According to Scarry, this dichotomy we perceive between thinking and acting is false. This is because, as she writes, “the acts of thinking that go on in an emergency are not recognized by us as acts of thinking.” These acts of thinking are habits, our “internalizing regulating mechanisms.” Like deliberation, which constrains our irrational impulses and forces us to stop and think about what we are doing, habit is a limiting force; it narrows the field of possibility in an emergency because it predisposes us to particular behavior and actions. The habits that take over in an emergency are by no means necessarily arbitrary; they can be consciously learned or practiced prior to an emergency so that they can come into play should one occur. Indeed, Scarry often equates habits with laws, protocols, and procedures, regulatory measures that we deliberate in advance of when we will need them.
The American Constitutional provisions that require particular steps be taken before we resort to military action are such habits; they are structures that are meant to automatically take over in an emergency. Yet these Constitutional roadblocks, or “stop and think” procedures, have been largely ignored since the invention of nuclear weapons. “Complaints are often made that involving Congress and the population in war decisions will slow down the act of going to war because so much energy is needed to persuade them. That is precisely what the Constitution intended,” Scarry writes. This displacement of thinking is not confined to the US alone: all eight of the nuclear powers, for example, have ceded control of nuclear weapons to their presidents or prime minsters, thereby removing legislatures and citizenry from the decision-making process. The practice of public and legislative deliberation has been pushed to the side exactly when deliberation seems most crucial, when just a few quick decisions have the potential to kill tens of millions of people within several hours.
The importance of thinking in an emergency, which is at the root of the constitutional brake on war, is illuminated by Hannah Arendt in her essay Thinking and Moral Considerations. Like Scarry, Arendt comments on the dichotomy between thinking and acting. In her discussion of what she terms “thinking as such,” Arendt notes that there is in fact a paralysis that accompanies the act of thinking and writes that “thinking’s chief characteristic is that it interrupts all doing.” However, while Arendt calls thinking a “resultless enterprise,” she by no means wishes to imply it is worthless. Not only does thinking actualize the “difference within oneself” by alerting us to our own consciousness and creating a dialogue with our individual selves, thinking also liberates judgment, which is the manifestation of thinking in the world of appearances.
Both Scarry (drawing from Aristotle) and Arendt differentiate between two different types of thinking. The first is the perception/contemplation type of thinking (“thinking as such” in Arendt’s terms) which does not aim for practical answers and which will never be able to demonstrate, once and for all, what “right” is and what “wrong” is as abstract notions. The second is deliberation, or, for Arendt, judgment, which enables the taking of action and is how we decide whether to do one thing or another. Deliberation/judgment deals with tangible particulars and ends in tangible results. It is not the ability to know right and wrong abstractly but rather the ability to tell right from wrong, in a given situation.
In an emergency, Arendt writes, “thinking ceases to be a marginal affair” and instead comes to the forefront in all political matters. Thinking as such, which brings out the implications of unexamined opinions and destroys them, is suddenly of much use in dire times, because it enables judgment. When we are confronted with the possibility of war, our primary approach is not to think in terms of what is a “just war” and what is an “unjust war”, abstractly. Rather, we attempt to evaluate whether the war in question is just or unjust, right or wrong. For both Scarry and Arendt, this deliberation, this ability to think, is exactly what is called for in an emergency.
One reason we sideline deliberation in times of emergency is that we think of emergencies as exceptional instances that are necessarily disruptive. Emergencies, as times in which we are forced to confront the possibility of real danger affecting our lives, take on a fundamentally different character than ordinary life. And yet the idea of emergency as an exception, as a break from the norm, may not fit the world today. As Mark Danner writes in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, “…the very endlessness of this state of exception—a quality emphasized even as it was imposed—and the broad acceptance of that endlessness, the state of exception’s increasing normalization, are among its distinguishing marks.” While we may envision the privileging of rapid action over deliberation to be isolated to times of actual emergency, this tendency, as can be seen in the ongoing erosion of law and Constitutional procedures, has become frighteningly normal.
We may indeed be living in a chronic state of emergency, due to two distinguishing markers of our political time: the notion of torture as a legitimate means of obtaining information, as advanced by the Bush administration, and the existence of nuclear weapons. Scarry illuminates the parallels between the two: “Both torture and nuclear weapons inflict their injuries without permitting any form of self-defense, both inflict their injuries without obtaining any authorization from their own legislatures or populations; both starkly nullify even the most minimal requirements of a contractual society; both destroy the foundational concept of law.” Torture and nuclear weapons are tolerated because we believe extreme times warrant extreme responses, but these phenomena end up intensifying and perpetuating the emergency itself; they are not a means for keeping us safe, but a means of endangering our political and social freedom.
In our time of emergency, what should we take from Scarry’s determined emphasis on the role of habit in emergency action? Ultimately, what she is pointing to is that deliberation itself is a habit. It is something that must be practiced: “It could be said that all congressional deliberation during peacetime, no matter how trivial or grand the subject, is a rehearsal, a constant act of practicing, for the moment when it will be called upon to debate the gravest matter of all, the matter of going to war.” This habit of deliberation entails taking responsibility for our own governance, by both Congressmen and ordinary citizens. It is a habit that we cannot afford to lose, and one that may end up, as Arendt writes, preventing a catastrophe.
"A man who does not think for himself, does not think at all."
"The end of rebellion is liberation, while the end of revolution is the foundation of freedom."
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Physical liberty is a prerequisite for freedom, but freedom, Arendt writes, ‘is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else’. The intimate connection between acting and freedom is what animates the intense passion for revolution. At a time when freedom is reverenced, but mostly in the breach, revolutions seduce us with the hope that the "course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold’. Revolution, as the coincidence of the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning, actualizes the ‘experience of being free’.
Arendt writes that the ‘revolutionary spirit’ of freedom unites two seemingly contradictory elements. The first is the ‘act of founding the new body politic’, an act that ‘involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure’. As an act of foundation, revolutionary action strives to found new yet lasting governmental institutions. Often ignored amidst the focus on revolutionary violence, the desire to found stable structures is central to the revolutionary spirit.
The second element of the revolutionary spirit, however, is the revolutionary’s experience of the revolution. It is ‘the experience . . . which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have’, namely the experience of an ‘exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning’. Caught up in the thrall of creation, revolution gives birth to the ‘high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth’. The revolutionary spirit, therefore, includes the joy and excitement that attends all endeavoring to tear down and build up. The joy in the destruction of the old that Nietzsche reminds us of is inseparable from the joy in the creation of the new.
Arendt attributes the loss of the spirit of the revolution – what she calls the revolutionary treasure – to one overriding cause. The problem is that the republics that the revolutions created – one after another, whether in France, Russia, or America – left no space for the very freedom that constituted part of the revolutionary treasure. The question Arendt asks is: what kind of institutional spaces could, potentially, preserve a place for the revolutionary spirit of freedom within a republic?
I mention Arendt’s double characterization of the revolutionary spirit now in the shadow of the Arab Spring, the Israeli Summer, and the American Fall. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, rebellions liberated the people from oppressive regimes, and rebellions continue to seek liberation in Syria, Sudan, and Bahrain. Around the globe, however, revolutionaries are struggling with Arendt's question of how to find a revolutionary spirit of freedom within a political order. Amidst the sense of utter disenfranchisement and powerlessness that gave birth to these movements in the very heart of democratic states, we need to work to restore spaces and possibilities for the experience of freedom.
In the United States, Arendt bemoans that the US founders ‘failed to incorporate the township and the town-hall meeting into the Constitution’. The town-hall meetings were ‘spaces of freedom’; as such, they were crucial institutions of the new republic. The life of the free man, Arendt writes, needs ‘a place where people could come together.' The possibility of public freedom necessitates institutionally recognized forums for free action in which free citizens manifest themselves to others.
Arendt’s interest in these councils and town-hall meetings – and also Thomas Jefferson’s stillborn proposal for a ‘ward system’ that would divide the nation into ‘elementary republics’ – is not a nostalgic call for direct decision making. The point of these societies and councils was not necessarily to make decisions or to govern or administer a municipality. Indeed, Arendt praises one French club in particular that prohibited itself from any attempt to influence the General Assembly. The club existed only ‘to talk about [public affairs] and to exchange opinions without necessarily arriving at propositions, petitions, addresses, and the like’. The councils were a space for freedom, a space for people to gather and discuss the affairs of the day with others. Their importance was not in what they accomplished, but rather in what they nourished.
As institutional spaces of ‘organized political experience’, the clubs promoted ‘the same kind of attunement to events that had drawn the revolutionaries into action, and along its path’. In other words, the councils offered the experience of freedom that ‘is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else’.
Independent thinkers are rare. Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers than the radical independence of her thought, her identity as a "conscious pariah," one who eschews all alliances and categories and thinks for herself. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.
So who are the independent thinkers today? Painfully few. But one candidate is Paul Berman, who will be speaking on Alexis de Tocqueville as a guest of the Hannah Arendt Center on Monday, November 14th, at 7 pm (RKC 103).
In the recommended weekend read for this week, we offer an interview of Berman by Alan Johnson, published in Dissent, a journal for which Arendt herself was a contributor. Berman tells of his break with the New Left and of how he found a spur radical independence in the anarchist communities of the period.
The old Anarchists in New York were brave. Anti-Castro on one hand, and opposed to the gangsters in their own unions on the other hand. They were indifferent to the rest of the left – really, to everybody: faithful only to their own judgments and opinions – and I found this really inspiring. I learnt a habit of independence of mind, or I like to think that I did.
Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism is a classic effort to think deeply and philosophically about contemporary political events. Berman sets the 9/11 terrorist attacks within the context of an internal struggle within liberalism, one that is epitomized by Albert Camus. In the rebellion against God, tradition, and order that one witnesses in paradigmatic modern figures like Camus' Rebel and Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov discover that in the name of freedom "everything is possible." This insight that in the name of liberation struggles "everything is possible" is the motto that Hannah Arendt ascribes to the essence of totalitarian movements, movements that will do literally anything and everything in the pursuit of a single and totalizing cause. Thus Berman, very much in the spirit of Arendt, argues that Islamic terrorism behind 9/11 is to be understood as the latest version of a western ideology of rebellion and totalitarianism. In his own words:
At one level I was trying to interpret the events of September 11. At a deeper level I was proposing an interpretation of modern history. And the whole of the interpretation is really contained in the title – there is a dialectic between terror and liberalism. I offer a theory of terror – I draw some aspects of this from Camus – that sees terror as an expression of a larger idea, which can be described as totalitarianism, admittedly a vexed label. Totalitarianism, of which terror is an expression, is a rebellion against liberal civilization and the liberal idea. It is an anti- liberal rebellion which is generated by liberalism itself. Sometimes the rebellion is generated by liberalism’s strengths and sometimes by liberalism’s shortcomings. The rise of liberalism over the last few centuries and the rebellions that have been inspired by that rise can account for the rise of the great totalitarian movements of one sort or another. That’s the theoretical idea expressed in the book. It’s a pretty simple idea, in the end. I don’t think that my simple idea explains everything in the world. But it does explain some things.
Berman's book is well worth a read. But so is this wide-ranging interview. Enjoy. And we hope to see you Monday at his lecture.
Click here to read the interview with Berman.
Our guest blogger is Kristin Lane, a Professor of Psychology at Bard College. She looks at the capricious nature of our intentions. Will we blindly follow orders, no matter the consequence?
2011 marks the 50th anniversary of two crucial turning points in the understanding of human behavior. Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes committed during the Holocaust – and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in The New Yorker that later formed the basis of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil – gave rise to a new explanation for why people do terrible things. Rather than the intuitive (and comforting) notion that only awful people do awful things, the Eichmann trial offered the possibility that ordinary people, placed in or facing the right conditions, may do extraordinarily terrible things.
Inspired by his reading about the Eichmann trial, social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked, “Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?” Could he demonstrate in the lab, he wondered, that normal people, when asked to obey an authority figure, would act in ways that would horrify most of us (and, indeed, themselves)? This pattern is exactly what he found – residents of New Haven, Connecticut who believed that they were serving as a teacher in an experiment on word learning, inflicted painful – or even lethal – shocks to learners in the presence of an authority figure. Together, these events helped shift explanations for atrocities from something inherent in the individual (who may be amoral, psychologically ill, or sadistic) to the broader situation, in which someone without animus or intent could behave in deplorable ways.
With half a century elapsed since the Eichmann trial, historian Deborah Lipstadt revisits it in The Eichmann Trial. Lipstadt offers a vividly written account, especially when she describes the process of locating and capturing Eichmann. The details – a teenage romance that provided one of the first clues to his identity, an undercover operation in which Eichmann was blinded by headlights of an oncoming car, and a drugged Eichmann, wearing an El Al uniform and brought back to Israel under the guise of a drunk airline crew member – are the ingredients of a good spy novel, and Lipstadt’s writing does them justice. Her scope is expansive, and she engages with several large themes as she recounts the chronology of the trial. By making the voices of Jewish survivors and the experiences of Jewish survivors and victims so central to Eichmann’s crimes, she argues, the trial recentered Holocaust narratives around victims’ experiences rather than perpetrators’ acts. The trial is a painted as a turning point for Zionism, and Lipstadt attends to the ways in which Israel’s development informed the trial, and the reciprocal ways in which the trial itself transformed Israel. As she sets the stage for the trial by describing the anticipation leading up to it, she notes that among the central questions on trial observers’ minds was, “Would Eichmann’s defense strategy of obedience to orders hold sway?” Revisiting the plausibility of obedience as an explanation and/or excuse takes a central role in Lipstadt’s analysis. So, too, does the question of whether Eichmann’s actions were necessarily rooted in animus toward Jewish people.
One thematic issue that is not integrated into Lipstadt’s scholarship but rather merits its own chapter is Lipstadt’s treatment of Arendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial, which comprises the final chapter before the conclusion. To be sure, Arendt is far from absent from the book’s early pages (there she is, after all, pictured on the book’s cover).
Lipstadt challenges Arendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial in many areas. As a social psychologist interested in the ways in which behavior can operate without intention and as a function of our social situations, the issue that most interests me is Lipstadt’s discussion of the notion the Eichmann was “just following orders.”
Lipstadt suggests that Arendt “saw [in Eichmann] an automaton who was just passing on information and who failed to understand that what he had done was wrong.” The terror of Eichmann’s crimes was not that he was so atypical, but rather that he was exactly so typical. Arendt characterizes the import of Eichmann’s final words: “The lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil.” If Eichmann was not afflicted by psychopathology, was not driven by “fanatical anti-Semitism,” was not burdened with “insane hatred,” was not, in other words, characterized by some trait that sets him apart from “normal” folks, then there is the “fearsome” possibility that anyone around us, or even, most chillingly, ourselves, could be susceptible to similar influences. In her epilogue, Arendt expands on the notion of the banality of evil: “Eichmann was not Iago and not MacBeth …Except for an extraordinary diligence in personal advancement, he had no motives at all…. He merely, to put it colloquially, never realized what he was doing….”
For Lipstadt, Eichmann’s defenses that he was “just a ‘little cog’” and “exclusively a carrier out of orders” were feeble variations on a theme: "I was just passing along requests.” She remains unconvinced. “The more he repeated it, the less persuasive it sounded, and the less he looked like a low-level bureaucrat.” Over the course of the trial “[a] portrait emerged of a man who was proactive, energetic, and a creative master of deception...someone who was far more than just a transportation specialist.” While she recognizes that “the transformation of seemingly normal people into killers … rightfully intrigued [Arendt],” she does not accept the premise that Eichmann was a normal person. She offers evidence throughout the book – from the trial and in documents released more recently (most notably Eichmann’s memoir, released in the late 1990s) that Eichmann was no mere passive actor, but an intentional agent, motivated not just by ordinary desires for professional advancement, but by deep-seated anti-Semitism.
My goal in the rest of this piece is not to adjudicate (again) the specifics of Eichmann’s trial. Rather, it is to explore what the social psychological perspective on mind and behavior can add to the discussion of the question: Is it possible that an ordinary person, with no conscious intention, malice, or group-based animus, could behave in ways similar to Eichmann? Two classic social psychological studies hint at the answer. In the first, the Milgram studies discussed above, ordinary people administered dangerously high – even lethal – shock levels to an ostensible partner. Before the experiments began, Milgram asked fellow psychologists to predict what percent of people would administer the highest possible voltage. Polled psychologists predicted that only one in one thousand people - the most deranged, sadistic, and evil among us – would use the maximum voltage of 450 volts. In actuality, over 60% of participants obeyed the experimenter despite the obvious distress of their partner and administered the maximum voltage. Sadism is a poor explanation for these findings – participants protested and exhibited distress, but in the end, the power of the situation overwhelmed their desire to stop administering shocks. Indeed, left to their own devices without the authority figure instructing them to continue, a miniscule proportion of people administered the maximum shock.
A decade after the Milgram experiments, Phil Zimbardo and his colleagues asked a similar question: “What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” They created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University Psychology Department, and randomly physically and psychologically healthy young men to be either “guards” or “prisoners.”
Although the guards were given no explicit instructions, they quickly adapted to their new roles to an eerie extent, implementing procedures that degraded and punished the prisoners, such as requiring push-ups and waking them up in the middle of the night. Following attempts by the prisoners to “rebel,” the guards forced some prisoners to strip naked, placed others in solitary confinement, and invoked ever-stricter rules. The prison became so realistic – and damaging to the prisoners who were becoming distressed and depressed – that the planned two-week experiment was halted on its sixth day.
Why are people so susceptible to the power of the situation? Perhaps, as Arendt suggested, because of sheer thoughtlessness. Again, a classic social psychological study demonstrates this tendency. Ellen Langer and her colleagues had experimenters approach people who were working at a copy machine and ask to jump ahead. When faced with the simple request Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?, approximately 60% allowed the person to use the machine. When faced with a request asked in conjunction with a reason for it - Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush? – the percent of people who let the experimenter go ahead increased to 94%. The surprising finding is that a request with a statement that sounded like, but was not actually, a reason had almost the same effect. When people asked Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? (a completely tautological statement), 93% of them were permitted to move ahead. Participants seemed to rely on a mental script (“If someone tacks a statement onto their request it is probably a valid explanation”) and fail to evaluate the merits of the statement itself. In other words, behavior became automatic and people failed to exert the kind of controlled conscious thinking that Arendt encouraged.
Indeed, a large body of research shows that rather than being deliberative, intentional, conscious, our behavior is often– even more often than not – a function of mental processes that operate outside of conscious awareness. Many mental operations have both automatic (less conscious) and controlled (more conscious) components. Often, we are all the automatons that Arendt suggested Eichmann was, getting by on the efficiency of our automatic systems. When people were exposed to the stereotype of the elderly, for example, they walked more slowly down the hallway. Similarly, people were more likely to interrupt an experimenter after being presented with the concept of “rudeness.” In both cases, people failed to recognize exposure to the original concept, and denied that it could have possibly influenced their behavior.
It is a large leap, to be sure, to go from walking down a hallway to orchestrating the Holocaust.
The commonality among these experiments, though, is their demonstration not only of the power of the situation but also the ways in which people can fail to recognize the ways in which environments shape responses. People who do terrible things are not necessarily dispositionally terrible – in this sense, the psychological evidence comes down on Arendt’s side rather than Lipstadt’s.
But how then, do we allocate responsibility if individual will can be subordinated to larger situational forces? Arendt worried about a march toward determinism:
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. Whether such seemingly deeper explanations of human actions are right or wrong is debatable. But what is not debatable is that no judicial procedure would be possible on the basis of them, and that the administration of justice, measured by such theories, is an extremely unmodern, not to say outmoded, institution.
Situational explanations for human actions need not be excuses – not everyone obeyed orders during the Holocaust, nearly 40% of Milgram’s subjects did not go to the highest voltage, and not everyone exposed to the words “bingo, grey, and Florida” walked more slowly down the hall. The ability of some individuals to overcome (or simply ignore) the situational forces is one of social psychology’s very real, phenomena. Indeed, although people can have attitudes and stereotypes that exist outside of conscious awareness that influence behavior, the influence of those biases on behavior can be attenuated by individual and situational differences in motivation to be non-biased, working memory capacity, and executive control over cognitive functions.
In other words, although she said it in less psychological terms, Arendt accurately foresaw that when we do the hard work of bringing our controlled, conscious thoughts to bear on our behavior and situations, our automatic systems need not be our destiny. Here, Arendt (as summarized by Lipstadt) and the contemporary research – and, I believe, Lipstadt herself – are in concordance: “because ‘all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant,’ were necessary for it to operate. Eichmann’s assertion that his only alternative to following orders was to commit suicide was, according to her, a 'lie' unsupported by the evidence.”
Arendt Center Associate Fellow, Jennie Han, gives us an interesting look at the talk by Idith Zertal at the recent Arendt Center Conference. She examines how one's personal identity can sometimes interfere with our search for the truth.
I suspect that for those of us who made it to the end of the Arendt Center’s conference this past weekend, the final panel with Idith Zertal and her discussant, Norman Manea, stands out more as a heated debated about the character of Israel’s occupation and the Palestinian threat than an engagement with the theme of truthtelling. I want to put this discussion aside, however, and talk about what I took to be Professor Zertal’s main point about the nature of truthtelling. Underlying the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine question was, I think, a strong statement about what is required of us if we are to engage with one another as seekers of truth.
One might see Professors Zertal and Manea as speakers of two different “truths,” one of which is the Palestinian experience under Israeli occupation and the other, the Israeli experience of living with a terrorist threat.
As rational and fair as this opposition might seem, it does a grave injustice to the idea of truth and what it is to express a truth. Professor Zertal’s critique of the Israeli government’s use of the Holocaust as a symbol made powerfully clear that regardless of whatever a truth might be, it cannot be a personal identity. To justify, as the Israeli government does, the military occupation of the West Bank by an appeal to Israel’s identity as a nation born out of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, or to assert the authority of one’s opinion, as Norman Manea did, by invoking one’s identity as a survivor of the genocide does not tell any particular truth. Instead, it silences the truth and precludes the kind of thinking about one’s own position and ideas alongside those of others that is necessary for sound judgment and productive discussion.
Arendt locates judgment in the capacity of individuals to “think with an enlarged mentality,” which requires that one “trains one’s imagination to go visiting” (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner, p. 43). Interpreters of Arendt usually emphasize the intersubjectivity of Arendt’s understanding of judgment, which defines the faculty by its capacity to transcend the individual thinker’s own specialized knowledge or ability to think. This aspect of judgment is undoubtedly crucial, and it allows Arendt to locate in the individual and his capacity for thought a faculty for public mindedness and worldly concern. In other words, in judgment, the world becomes a part of our individual selves and we, as distinct, thinking individuals, become a part of the world.
But what is taken for granted in this focus on the intersubjectivity of judgment is that individuals possess a mentality that is open to others’ visits in the first place. To experience the enlarged mentality that judgment demands, there must be minds out there that one can actually visit. Professor Zertal’s talk was not as an exhortation to the audience to feel the depth of the suffering of the Palestinian people or to confront the absurdity of the Israeli government’s perpetuation of a people’s suffering in the name of the past sufferings of its own people. It was, at the most basic level, a warning of the dangers, political and personal, that arise when we become so colonized by a particular identity that we are no longer able to imagine ourselves as having any feelings, interests, or desires beyond those dictated by this identity. An identity that is defined by a historical event necessarily excludes the particular: under the vastness and unspeakable catastrophe of the Holocaust, the individuals who died and suffered are transformed into mere instances of a grand event. And when one occupies an identity, one is not open to the visits of others, for one is little more than a representative of an external event that is, at this point, defined as much by those who would manipulate its meaning for political gain as it is by the historical fact of the event itself.
The political dangers of seeing a past catastrophe as an incontrovertible source of authority and accepting appeals to this past as tantamount to a divine authorization to act are tragically evident in the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and the continued occupation of the West Bank. The personal dangers were evident in phenomenon much closer to home: the absence of any real engagement and debate between Professor Zertal and her discussant and her audience, despite her best efforts to have such a debate. Neither the audience nor Professor Manea could step outside of his identity as a supporter of the Israeli military or as a supporter of the Israeli state’s stance on the Holocaust to see Zertal’s critique of the Israeli state as just that—a critique of the Israeli state and not a personal attack on Norman Manea or any audience member. When one understands oneself as an identity, one reduces oneself to a collection of ideas and concepts that have been created outside oneself, and there would be as much reason to visit this mind as there would be to travel abroad if every country in the world were identical in every way.
I think that the point of Professor Zertal’s talk was that in occupying the identity of the particular sort of Israeli Jew that the government wants one to be—one who accepts the unconditional authority of any and all appeals to the Holocaust—one loses oneself as a particular source of ideas and thoughts and effaces oneself as a particular place that others might visit, get to know, and debate and disagree with. Honoring the Holocaust does not mean that one must accept as legitimate whatever action is taken in its name. This is, Zertal points out, to dishonor the individuals in whose lost lives the Holocaust is much more than an abstract event or symbol.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of Idith Zertal’s message that we must imagine ourselves and others as more than mere instances of symbols or historical facts if we are to have any real political, philosophical, or personal discussion was made most clear by way of a negative example of a persistent refusal to see her as embodying anything more than an opposing side. It is possible that Professor Zertal herself helped to create the problem by focusing so much of her talk on a critique not of Israel’s appropriation of the Holocaust as a political symbol, but of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. While her main point was that Israel undertakes these policies in the name of the past, it was at times difficult to see past her particular political position and the strong emotions and political commitments it predictably incites. To the extent that Professor Zertal wants her audience to recognize the problems that arise from the politicization of particular experiences, lives, and positions, and views, even the appearance of aligning herself with a partisan position in this debate could undermine her project. And the audience and Professor Manea’s singular focus on her political views to the exclusion of any discussion of her fundamental critique might in fact be evidence of how Zertal might have undermined herself .
But if we are to take her principal message to heart and acknowledge Professor Zertal as presenting herself as one place that we might productively go visiting, we might come to a better understanding of how at least to think about and engage with others with respect to the question of Palestine and Israel. At her best moments, Professor Zertal embodied what it could mean to tell the truth in an age without any particular truths or facts to tell: she made herself and her thoughts and opinions available to others to visit. She did not hide behind the truth of statistics or figures, relying on their coercive power to do the talking for her. Such facts are undoubtedly important, but because of their supreme importance, I am not sure how significant the bearer of these facts is in relation to them. When we cannot rely on such facts, when there is little more than our own opinions, principles, interpretations, and judgment, we can only invite others to come visit and visit others’ opinions and principles in turn. What we take from the trip and what judgment we ultimately make of another’s mental home need not be one of agreement or approval. But without making the trip, each of us would remain each his own world and identity, unable to speak to or hear anyone else.
"...you don't have to be Al Capone to transgress-you just have to think."
- From I Married a Communist
“While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (200).
To read this line from The Human Condition in the wake of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, or in the midst of the Occupations that have radiated from Zuccotti Park across the United States and beyond, might be invigorating: aren’t both of these events expressions of power in Arendt’s sense, instances of the unpredictable human capacity to break out of the daily mire of authoritarianism or of capitalism and, acting in concert, to begin something new?
It might also be depressing, since Arendt seems to remind us of the fleetingness of this kind of power, which flashes up in a moment of action but then vanishes, leaving old forces of more familiar kinds—army officers, professional politicians hungry for Wall Street money—to reassert themselves.
But wait. Let’s allow ourselves to be a little more puzzled by what Arendt says here about power and action: “Power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” On the one hand, it’s clear enough why Arendt would say this: she wants to underscore the distance between her use of the word “power” and some other, much more familiar ones. She doesn’t mean, as Weberian social scientists might, the capacity to control or influence others by virtue of the possession of some durable resource like money or guns. Perhaps she doesn’t even mean a “capacity” at all, in the sense of a state of unactualized readiness that precedes and enables an action: after all, action is supposed to be miraculous, so to think of it in Aristotelian terms simply as the actualization of a pre-existing potentiality might be, as she says much later, in The Life of the Mind, to “deny the future as an authentic tense.” She marks her distance from both of these uses of “power” by making power and action coeval. But, on the other hand, if power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse—if, as she says, seemingly echoing the Megarians whom Aristotle criticizes in the Metaphysics, power “exists only in its actualization”—then what is power but a synonym for action itself? Why has Arendt bothered to retain the term at all?
Notice, however, that Arendt does not quite say that power vanishes as soon as the action stops. Instead, she says that it vanishes the moment people disperse;
and this fact is apparently meant to distinguish power from the “space of appearance,” which, it seems, does disappear as soon as the action stops. On the preceding page of The Human Condition, Arendt had written that that “the space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action,” and added: “its peculiarity is that, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men...but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.” So the arrest of an activity is not yet the dispersal of persons. And that means that power is not quite redundantly congruent with action after all. If we look for a little bit of Arendtian power to exist in the split-second before an action starts, we won’t find it, because power in her sense does not precede and explain the moment of action’s initiation. It does, however, survive or outlast it. Power is, as she says, what “keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed.” It is what gives action duration, what draws a spontaneous flash of novelty on the part of a single agent (archein) out into a course of action in which others—some of the lingering, undispersed witnesses to the initial event—join, and which they extend and continue (prattein).
If we really wanted to look at events like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square or the Occupy movement through an Arendtian lens, then, our first step should be to stop talking about them as though they were simply moments, and as though the challenge were to find a way of prolonging or institutionalizing them without sacrificing their radical, disruptive force. Such representations falsely collapse the duration of these events into an instant, and they falsely suppose that their power lay in their momentariness.
Quite the contrary: one of the most striking things about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, after all, was simply that they continued, even when many observers thought, whether with hope or with fear, that they were sure to dissipate in the face of violence, or the threat of violence, or simple exhaustion (indeed, they lasted long enough that the demonstrators had to improvise ways of organizing the performance of the rhythmic tasks associated with the maintenance of the human body—feeding, disposing of waste—that some austere versions of Arendtianism would exclude from politics). Likewise, the Occupation in lower Manhattan is now approaching two months old; it has an infrastructure and an organization, even if it is not organization on the military model of a chain of command; and it evidently has power in Arendt’s sense: the power to sustain itself over time, to attract new participants and observers, to refuse dispersal, to resist arrest. Its power lies, in part, in the way it orients its participants and observers toward the curiously hybrid status of its little bit of territory: a privately owned but publicly accessible park, not just a symbol but an instance of the intersection of corporate and state power, put on display and put under pressure by the ongoing presence of the Occupiers, which tests the limits of that promise of publicity. By organizing the attention of its participants and observers in this way, the Occupation has already, in its very existence and duration, transformed our sense of the shape of the world to which we belong, and of what is imaginable in it. That is hardly everything; but it is not nothing. The snow is coming: will they disperse? —will we?
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago
Amos Elon presents a fair account of the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem in "The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt." He paints the controversy in vidid hues.
We don't know the outcome of this quarrel. One thing we do know: more than three years after the publication of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil first appeared in print, the civil war it had launched among intellectuals in the United States and in Europe was still seething. Describing the debate that raged through his own and other families in New York, Anthony Grafton later wrote that no subject had fascinated and aroused such concern and serious discussion as the series of articles Hannah Arendt had published in The New Yorker about the Eichmann trial, and the book that grew out of them. Three years after the publication of the book, people were still bitterly divided over it. No book within living memory had elicited similar passions. A kind of excommunication seemed to have been imposed on the author by the Jewish establishment in America. The controversy has never really been settled. Such controversies often die down, simmer, and then erupt again. It is perhaps no accident that at this time of a highly controversial war in Iraq, Arendt's books are still widely read and that, even though close to 300,000 copies of her book on Eichmann alone have so far been sold, a new edition has now been published by Penguin.
Elon lays to rest (or at least tries to) some of the canards that have plagued Arendt in the last 50 years. For example, he is clear that Arendt did not, "as was frequently maintained, make the victims responsible for their slaughter "by their failure to resist." In fact, she bitterly attacked the state prosecutor who had dared make such a heartless claim. Still, this accusation even found its way into the Encyclopedia Judaica. (4) In a similar vein she was falsely accused of having claimed that Eichmann was an enthusiastic convert to "Zionism" and even to "Judaism." Hand-me-downs from one critic to another drew on alleged references in the book which no one seemed to have checked."
It might very well be if the banality of evil simply meant that evil men are normal or look normal once put on trial, as Elon writes. But that was not Arendt's argument. The banality of evil is the thoughtlessness that allows evil to flourish, and that is something very different. Elon also writes that Arendt's sarcasm and tone left her susceptible to legitimate criticism. So too did her prejudices against Eastern-European Jews. No one should try to turn Arendt into a saint. Elon does not and he is right here. But he does recognize the importance of her book and her thinking--at least in part for the right reasons. His longer account is worth a read.
The full essay can be read here.
A week after the Arendt Center's fourth annual conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts", Arendt Center Visiting Fellow, Kieran Bonner, reflects on the lecture given by Professor Peg Birmingham.
Professor Peg Birmingham says that to fully understand Arendt’s relation to facts we must remember her distinction between moral action and political action. For Arendt, moral action is concerned with the dialogue between me and myself, and sets as its criteria for action, whether actors can live with themselves. Political action, on the other hand, is concerned with actors’ relation to the world. Political action happens between humans while moral action is a concern primarily within the human, though, as she described it in “Truth and Politics”, sometimes moral action becomes political action.
Her case for this is Socrates refusal to escape from prison and therefore to die for the truth of his position. In the Human Condition, Arendt talks about the relation between the public realm and action. “There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality.” Political action is fundamentally about public admiration, immortality and glory and the loss of these as authentic concerns points to the loss of the public realm. This loss of the public realm is interrelated with a decline in common sense and, in turn, the sense of worldly reality. “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” It is precisely this loss that is a consequence of world alienation, an alienation that the rise of the natural and social sciences have contributed to significantly.
As Peg noted, this means that while Arendt was very much concerned with facts, and the need for action to have a public realm bounded by law and history, her notion of fact was ‘neither forensic nor positivistic.’ Two questions emerge for me: What was the status of many of the presentations on the first day of the conference where factual truth was presented as a result of a forensic exercise. I am thinking in particular of Oreskes and Kay’s presentations, in particular. Second, what is ‘factual truth’ for Arendt, if it is neither forensic nor positivistic? Perhaps it is better to explore the second issue first.
Arendt’s concern with truth telling and facts, while implicit in much of her early work, became an explicit concern after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Sam Tanenhaus disputed her claim of doing ‘reportage’ in the ordinary way that is understood by journalists. She does not, as he claims, give us a living sense of what the atmosphere of the court was like. As well, few if any would claim that her presentation was neutral and detached in the way many reports are presented. Does this modify her insistence that it is a ‘report’?
As Jerome Kohn remarked in his presentation, the term banality of evil is only mentioned once at the end of the book. Despite all the historical and statistical facts that she presents in this book, might the phenomenon of Eichmann’s actions and defense point to what she means by ‘factual truth’? The reality of the fact of Eichmann’s actions is both the monstrous deeds he accomplished and the banality of the account he gave. What kind of factual truth is that? As Birmingham said also echoing Roger Berkowitz's opening remarks, this kind of report strives, following Herodotus, ‘to say what is’.
What kind of truth did presenters like Oreskes and Kay present? Both undertook and successfully accomplished a forensic investigation into their separate subjects, on the one hand the ‘merchants of doubt’ who politically undermined the scientific consensus on global warming, and on the other, an investigation of conspiracy theorists and the patterns they follow. Both supplied much documentary evidence for their claims. In Oreskes case, ‘a small handful of men’ who were otherwise respected scientists in their fields, for purely ideological reasons, sought to sow doubt in the public mind about the ‘facts’ of everything from the dangers of tobacco and second hand smoke to global warming. These ‘cold war warriors,’ for ideological reasons, deliberately misrepresented the consensus in science. What kind of fact are we dealing with here? There is first the forensic investigation by Oreskes and there is secondly the ‘fact’ of global warming. One comes about as a result of sound historical research and on the basis of how scientific facts emerge. The other is the report on the consensus of scientists on the basis of the way science works as an institution.
Are either of these ‘factual truths’ in Arendt’s sense? The fact that Germany invaded Belgium and the fact that Trotsky was a member of the Communist Party—these are historical truths that help give us bearing in the world. While these were worldly facts in Arendt’s time, in that they were witnessed and acknowledged by many people (Stalin notwithstanding), to us they are historical facts. (This is an issue worth pursuing in another context.) The facts of the merchants of doubt and the pattern behind conspiracy theories are facts that need to be taken into account if we are to be able to find our comportment. But these are not facts in the sense that they call on us to think about what our world means. They are not stories that help us bear the sorrows of the world. Rather, as forensic and scientific truths, and while extremely important, they do not, by themselves, reconcile us with ‘worldly reality’.
“At any event, while world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science.”
The knowledge gained through modern science, while it certainly adds to our knowledge of the universe, and through its alliance with technology has enabled humans to ‘act into nature’ (with dangerous irreversible and unpredictable consequences ensuing), is not a story in Arendt’s sense. It does not reconcile us to ‘what is.’ Rather, “whatever we do today in physics … we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth.” If so, then neither the facts of the sciences nor of the social sciences nor of the forensic investigators, are examples of factual truths in Arendt’s sense. The latter is concerned with meaning while the former are concerned with an accurate representation of empirical reality. Worldly reality and empirical reality are very different phenomenon.
I would argue that neither Oreskes’s nor Kay’s presentations are about meaning. They are concerned with empirical reality. The natural response they generate is whether they are accurate portrayers of empirical reality (yes). If so, Oreskes teaches us about dangers to our earth bound existence and the need to take corrective action on global warming. In Kay’s case, he points to importance of pattern recognition with regard to conspiracy theorists claims to truth telling, an important but technical skill. But what’s the story? What sorrows do we humans need to bear? What human condition meaning do we have to confront? The answers to these questions remain to emerge and this was the hunger I personally felt after many of the first day’s presentations. This longing or Eros, I should add, was engaged with many of the presentations on the second day.
Let me dramatize the difference between Arendt’s understanding of a factual truth and the positivistic understanding of factual truth. I will summarize her views on authority, as I see it. For Arendt, the factual truth about authority in the modern world is that it has disappeared. She acknowledges that conservative and liberal political scientists and functionalist social scientists not only deny this worldly fact; they have much data and research to support their conclusions. For the functional social scientist, authority has merely taken another form and for the liberal political scientists authority is inimical to the progress of freedom in modern society. Factual truth for Arendt is a phenomenon, in the phenomenological sense of that term. The reality of the disappearance of authority from the modern world is a phenomenon that we moderns have to bear. This does not mean that authority has disappeared, phenomenologically speaking. That she speaks about it, that she articulates what it is in ways that are intelligible and meaningful, speaks to its phenomenological presence, in spite of its worldly disappearance. To understand what Arendt means about factual truth, we have to understand phenomenological hermeneutics.
**Click here to watch Peg Birmingham, Naomi Oreskes, Jonathan Kay, Sam Tanenhaus, and Jerome Kohn speaking at the conference.
There is a further report on Margarethe von Trotta's highly anticipated feature film on Hannah Arendt. As reported,
Work on a major motion picture – the first to be filmed in Jerusalem – begins on Sunday, as a joint Israeli-German-French crew begin production on the film “Hannah Arendt.” The film is a portrait of the experiences of the German-Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and escaped to America when she covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 for the New Yorker. Arendt wrote her 1963 landmark work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on those experiences.
The film, with an international cast, is being directed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of Germany's most prolific filmmakers and know for her portrayal of strong female characters. Starting (sic) as Arendt is German actress Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg as her husband Heinrich Blücher, Janet McTeer as her best friend and novelist Mary McCarthy, and Julia Jentsch as her secretary and confidante, Lotte Köhler. Also starring are Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, and Victoria Trauttmansdorff...
The article in the Israel National News proves, once again, the journalism community's unwillingness or inability to read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Nowhere does Arendt say of Eichmann that he is an example of "the average German", as is noted in the piece. Click here to read the whole article.
The introductory lecture at the Arendt Center 2011 Fall Conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts" from Arendt Center director, Roger Berkowitz.
Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts
It is well known that Iraqi's participated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States; that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is not an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; and that the United States does not torture. These are acknowledged facts for millions of educated, indeed often highly educated, people.
Of course, I hope you will agree, these acknowledged facts are open to debate.
We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
Even before technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we have created multiple realities using nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.
So what? Does all this lying, this blurring of fact and opinion, this creating of and defending of alternative and opposing realities --does it really matter? Isn't that what politics has always been about?
The answer, as Hannah Arendt argues, is that the loss of factual truth in the political realm is an existential threat to politics and also to human life in general. Arendt rejects the classical maxim fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish); instead she endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus. Let Truth be done, though the world may perish.
Her point is simple: We cannot give up on truth—even if it means the end of the world! This is because the loss of truth leads to the loss of the world. Without truth, without the ability to say what is, there is no permanence, no common world. The danger is that when truth disappears, the world wobbles. We lose our bearings. We lose what holds us together—the common sense and common assumptions—that are the furniture and stability of our human world.
Arendt's worry is that when truth is impossible, when truth disappears, when the world wobbles, the result is cynicism. As she writes:
It has frequently been noticed that the surest long-term result of brainwashing is a peculiar kind of cynicism—an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established.
In other words, the danger from a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will win out—that is highly unlikely. Rather, the danger posed by the demise of factual truth is the victory of cynicism, the belief that it is simply not possible to "say what is." What cynicism means is that the sense of factual truth from which we take our bearings in the real world is wasting away.
2. Isn't this an old problem? Hasn't it always been the case that people disagree about facts and that facts are turned into opinions?
If one looks back in history, it is quickly apparent that dissensus is the norm, and consensus the exception. Many who bemoan the rise of Fox News and CNBC along with the decline of the New York Times and the Network News as arbiters of a common sense forget that for most of American history workers and elites, blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, read different newspapers and inhabited very different worlds and held often contradictory ideas of what America was. It is actually the consensual politics of Post-World War II America that is the exception, not its gradual breakdown in recent decades.
So what is different in recent times?
Arendt's answer is that only beginning in the 2nd half of the 20th century do we now routinely encounter the mass manipulation of fact. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Soviet/Stalinist effort to deny that Leon Trotsky ever played a role in the Russian Revolution, to airbrush his images out of old pictures, and to re-write communist party history books. The lie that Trotsky was never a part of the communist party was what Arendt calls a "totalitarian lie," a lie that seeks to re-create an entire reality. Already in 1950, she understood that such lies were now possible. This is only more true today, as technology affords liars extraordinary means to alter the documentary past.
The mass manipulation of fact does not always aim at such totalizing lies. For example, there has been a concerted effort by some to refute the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the earth. Others seek to disseminate an image of America as a nation that doesn't torture. To be effective, such claims do not actually need to prevail. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the brute fact that we did, in fact, employ torture as a governmentally sanctioned policy. Rather, the purpose of the mass manipulation of fact that characterizes the modern lie is to sow doubt. Based in cynicism and yielding apathy, doubt immobilizes; thus does doubt neutralize the oppositional power of truth and doubt frees those who pursue naked power stripped from limits imposed by truth.
We must recognize is how profound and prevalent the confusion of fact and opinion is today. The truth is that the utter refusal to believe established facts is not out of the ordinary today. Indeed, it is the new normal.
We need to now confront and accept the new normal: that our democracy must operate now without even the basic expectation of factual agreement. We must confront this fact that facts, today, are politicized and thus reduced to opinions. That is Arendt's point. She writes not simply to decry the decadence of politics, but to call us to face the facts about the loss of facts.
Click here to read the full essay by Roger Berkowitz.