The response has been swift and negative to the Rolling Stone Magazine cover—a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who with his now dead brother planted deadly homemade bombs near the finish-line of the Boston Marathon. The cover features a picture Tsarnaev himself posted on his Facebook page before the bombing. It shows him as he wanted himself to be seen—that itself has offended many, who ask why he is not pictured as a suspect or convict. In the photo he is young, hip, handsome, and cool. He could be a rock star, and given the context of the Rolling Stone cover, that is how he appears.
The cover is jarring, and that is intended. It is controversial, and that was probably also intended. Hundreds of thousands of comments on Facebook and around the web are critical and angry, asking how Rolling Stone could portray the bomber as a rock-star. They overlook or ignore the text accompanying the photo on the cover, which reads: “The Bomber. How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.” CVS and other retailers have announced they will not sell the magazine in their stores.
That is unfortunate, for the story written by Janet Reitman is exceptionally good and deserves to be read.
Controversies like this have a perverse effect. Just as the furor over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem resulted in the viral dissemination of her claims about the Jewish leaders, so too will this Rolling Stone cover be seen by millions of people who otherwise would never have heard of Rolling Stone. What is more, such publicity makes it ever less likely that the story itself will be read seriously, just as Arendt’s book was criticized by everyone, but read by few.
Reitman’s narrative itself is unexceptional. It is a common story line: young, normal kid becomes radicalized and does something none of his old friends can believe he could do. This is a now familiar narrative that we hear in the wake of the tragedies in Newtown (Adam Lanza was described as a nice quiet kid) and Columbine (Time’s cover announced “The Monsters Next Door.”)
This is also the narrative that Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana embraced to defend the Cover on NPR arguing it was an "apt image because part of what the story is about is what an incredibly normal kid [Tsarnaev] seemed like to those who knew him best back in Cambridge.” It was echoed too by Erin Burnett, on CNN, who recently invoked Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil.” In the easy frame the story offers, Tsarnaev was a good kid, part of a striving immigrant family, someone who loved multi-racial America. And then something went wrong. He found Islam; his family fell apart; and he became a monster.
This story is too simple. And yet within the Rolling Stone story, there is a wealth of information and reporting that does give a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of Tsarnaev’s journey into the heart of evil.
One fact that is important to note is that Tsarnaev is not Eichmann. Eichmann was a member of the SS, a nationalist security service engaged in world war and dedicated to wiping certain races of peoples off the face of the earth. He committed genocide as part of a system of extermination, something both worse than and yet less messy than murder itself. It is Tsarnaev, who had no state apparatus behind him, who become a cold-blooded murderer. The problems that Hannah Arendt thought that the court in Jerusalem faced with Eichmann—that he was a new type of criminal—do not apply in Tsarnaev’s case. He is a murderer. To understand him is not to understand a new type of criminal. And yet it is a worthy endeavor to try to understand why more and more young men like Tsarnaev are so easily radicalized and drawn to murdering innocent people in the name of a cause.
Both Eichmann and Tsarnaev were from upwardly striving bourgeois families that struggled with economic setbacks. Eichmann was white and Austrian, Tsarnaev an immigrant in Cambridge, but both were economically disaffected. Tsarnaev wanted to make money and, like his parents, dreamed of a better life.
Tsarnaev’s family had difficulty fitting in with U.S. culture. His father was ill and could not work. His mother sought to earn money. And his older brother, whom he idolized, saw his dreams of Olympic boxing dashed partly because he was not a citizen. He increasingly turned to a radical version of Islam. When Tsarnaev’s parents both returned to Dagestan, he fell increasingly under the influence of his older brother.
Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev appears to have adopted an ideology that provided a coherent and meaningful narrative that gave his life significance. One can see this in a number of tweets and statements that are quoted in the article. For example, just before the bombing, he tweeted:
"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing."
"If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that's left is to take action."
"Most of you are conditioned by the media."
Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev came to see himself as a hero, someone willing to suffer and even die for a noble cause. His cause was different—anti-American jihad instead of anti-Semitic Nazism—but he was an ideological idealist, a joiner, someone who found meaning and importance in belonging to a movement. A smart and talented and by most accounts good young man, he was lost and adrift, searching for someone and something to give his life purpose. He found that someone in his brother and that something in jihad against America, the land that previously he had so embraced. And he became someone who believed that what he was doing was right and necessary, even if he understood also that it was wrong.
We see clearly this ambivalent understanding of right and wrong in the note Tsarnaev apparently scrawled while he was hiding in a boat before he was captured. Here is how Reitman’s article describes what he wrote:
When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jihad [Tsarnaev's nickname] appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But "the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians," he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all," he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliché. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: "Fuck America."
Eichmann too spoke of his shock and disapproval of killing innocent Jews, but he justified doing so for the higher Nazi cause. He also said that when he found out about the sufferings of Germans at the hands of the allies, it made it easier for him to justify what he had done, because he saw it as equivalent. The fact that the Germans were aggressors, that they had started the war, and that they were killing and torturing innocent people simply did not register for Eichmann, just as it did not register for Tsarnaev that the people in the Boston marathon were innocent. There are, of course, innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan who have died at the hands of U.S. bombs. Even for those of us who were against the wars and question their sense and justification, however, there is a difference between death in a war zone and terrorism.
The Rolling Stone article does a good job of chronicling Tsarnaev's slide into a radical jihadist ideology, one mixed with conspiracy theories.
The Prophet Muhammad, he noted on Twitter, was now his role model. "For me to know that I am FREE from HYPOCRISY is more dear to me than the weight of the ENTIRE world in GOLD," he posted, quoting an early Islamic scholar. He began following Islamic Twitter accounts. "Never underestimate the rebel with a cause," he declared.
His rebellious cause was to awaken Americans to their complicity both in the bombing of innocent Muslims and also to his belief in the common conspiracy theory that America was behind the 9/11 attacks. In one Tweet he wrote: "Idk [I don’t know] why it's hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job, I mean I guess fuck the facts y'all are some real #patriots #gethip."
Besides these tweets that offer a provocative insight into Tsarnaev's emergent ideological convictions, the real virtue of the article is its focus on Tsarnaev's friends, his school, and his place in American youth culture. While his friends certainly do not support or condone what Tsarnaev did, many share some of his conspiratorial and anti-American beliefs. Here are two descriptions of the mainstream nature of many of his beliefs:
To be fair, Will and others note, Jahar's perspective on U.S. foreign policy wasn't all that dissimilar from a lot of other people they knew. "In terms of politics, I'd say he's just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge," says Theo.
This is not an uncommon belief. Payack, who [was Tsarnaev's wrestling coach and mentor and] also teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music, says that a fair amount of his students, notably those born in other countries, believe 9/11 was an "inside job." Aaronson tells me he's shocked by the number of kids he knows who believe the Jews were behind 9/11. "The problem with this demographic is that they do not know the basic narratives of their histories – or really any narratives," he says. "They're blazed on pot and searching the Internet for any 'factoids' that they believe fit their highly de-historicized and decontextualized ideologies. And the adult world totally misunderstands them and dismisses them – and does so at our collective peril," he adds.
The article presents a sad portrait of youth culture, and not just because all these “normal” kids are smoking “a copious amount of weed.” The jarring realization is that these talented and intelligent young people at a good school in a storied neighborhood come off so disaffected. What is more, their beliefs in conspiracies are accepted by the adults in their lives as commonplaces; their anti-Americanism is simply a noted fact; and their idolization of slacking (Tsarnaev's favorite word, his friends say, “was "sherm," Cambridge slang for ‘slacker’”) is seen as cute. There is painfully little concern by adults to insist that the young people face facts and confront unserious opinions.
In short, the young people in Tsarnaev's story appear to be abandoned by adults to their own youthful and quite fanciful views of reality. Youth culture dominates, and adult supervision seems absent. There is seemingly no one who, in Arendt’s language from “The Crisis in Education”, takes responsibility for teaching them to love the world as it is.
The Rolling Stone article and cover do not glorify a monster; but they do play on two dangerous trends in modern culture that Hannah Arendt worried about in her writing: First, the rise of youth culture and the abandonment of adult authority in education; and second, the fascination bourgeois culture has for vice and the short distance that separates an acceptance of vice from an acceptance of monstrosity. If only all the people who are so concerned about a magazine cover today were more concerned about the delusions and fantasies of Tsarnaev, his friends, and others like them.
Taking responsibility for teaching young people to love the world is the very essence of what Arendt understands education to be. It will be the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center upcoming conference “Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen.” Registration for the conference opened this week. For now, ignore the controversy and read Reitman’s article “Jahar’s World.” It is your weekend read. It is as good an argument for thinking seriously about the failure of our approach to education as one can find.
"It is better for you to suffer than to do wrong because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even a murderer. What kind of dialogue could you lead with him? Precisely the dialogue which Shakespeare let Richard III lead with himself after a great number of crimes had been committed:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What from myself?"
-Hannah Arendt, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’
‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ is one of the most perfect examples of Arendt’s late writing. A distillation of her career-long thinking on thinking, the essay performs what it so elegantly urges: it is an essay on thinking that thinks.
For Arendt, the moral considerations that follow from thinking and, more grievously, from not thinking are profound. Adolf Eichmann’s “quite authentic inability to think” demonstrated to Arendt the arrival of new kind of evil in the world when she attended his trial in 1961. The airy emptiness of his speech was not the stupidity of a loathsome toad: his jabbering of cliché falling upon cliché sounded totalitarianism’s evil in a chorus of thoughtlessness. Shallowness as exemplified by Eichmann cannot be fixed or given depth by reason; no doctrine will argue the thoughtless into righteousness. Only through the experience of thinking, Arendt insisted, of being in dialogue with oneself, can conscience again be breathed into life. Thinking may be useless in itself; it may be a solitary activity that can often feel a little bit mad. Yet thinking is the precondition for the return of judgment, of knowing and saying: “this is not right.” By 1971, Arendt saw no evidence of a resurgence of thinking in the wake of atrocity.
Writing an essay on thinking that thinks and thus performing the experience of thinking is itself an act of defiance. Performing is the right verb here: Arendt knows she is staging her argument as a public spectacle. Her hero is Socrates: gadfly, midwife, stingray, provoker, deliverer and galvaniser of thinking in others. Socrates democratises perplexity. And when he has finished chatting with others, he carries on talking at home, with his quizzical, critical companion, that ‘obnoxious fellow’ with whom we are forever in dialogue -- the two with whom we make a thinking one. Arendt is fully aware that she is making a character out of Socrates. His inveterate dialogism is a model. Just as Dante’s characters conserve as much historical reality as the poet needs to make them representative, so too, she says, with her Socrates. Against the vacant image of Eichmann inanely mouthing his own eulogy in front of the hangman’s noose which opens the essay, we have Socrates: thoughtlessness versus thoughtfulness.
But what of the third character in Arendt’s essay—Shakespeare’s Richard III? The murderer who nobody wants to befriend? The villain who despite his best efforts cannot stop talking to himself?
Richard plays an odd, yet pivotal, role in Arendt’s performance of thinking. On the one hand, he is Socrates’ evil twin. Richard rejects conscience. ‘Every man that means to live well endeavours … to live without it’, he says. This is easy enough to do, says Arendt, because ‘all he has to do is never go home and examine things.’ Except, in Richard’s case, this proves difficult. He may try to avoid going home, but eventually he runs into himself at midnight; and in solitude, like Socrates, Richard cannot help but have intercourse with himself. Alone he speaks with himself in soliliquoys (from the Latin solus – alone and loqui –to speak; Arendt’s beloved Augustine is believed to have first conceived the compound). And this is what makes this villain—one who many have wanted to claim for the calculating murderousness of the twentieth century—much more like Socrates than Eichmann.
Both Socrates and Richard have the capacity to think. True, Richard thinks himself into villainy—he ‘proves himself a villain’—but this is precisely his pathos in Arendt’s drama. If it is better to suffer than to do harm, it is also better to have suffered at the hands of Richard who at least thought about what he was doing, than suffered as a number in one of Eichmann’s filing cards, the pathetic loner who joins a murderous movement not because he’s frightened of who might await him at home, but because he doesn’t even suspect anyone might be there in the first place. For all the ham-fisted productions that want him to be, Richard is not a Nazi villain in early modern disguise. Better that he could have been, of course, because then we wouldn’t have to contemplate the particular thoughtlessness of contemporary evil.
Richard is no Osama Bin Laden, Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein either, despite comparable violent last stands (and the corpse lust that attended them). This is well understood by Mark Rylance’s recent performance of Richard in the Globe Theater production that played in London last year and that is rumoured to open on Broadway soon. Rylance’s performance of Richard is like no other. It is also a performance that makes Arendt’s thinking more relevant than ever.
Rylance understands that since the War on Terror, post 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, after Guantanamo, rendition and drone wars, it would be a travesty to play Richard’s villainy as safely and exotically other (by contrast, in 1995 it was entirely possible to set the play in a 1930s Nazi context, and have Ian McKellen play the role for its cruel humour with a knowing nod to Brecht). Rylance’s Richard is plausible, pathetic even; he is compelling not in his all-too-evident evil but in his clumsy vulnerability. His creepy teeth sucking, and ever-twisting body mark a silent but persistent cogitation; he is a restless, needy, villain. Like a child, Rylance’s Richard grabs at his conscience— he thinks—and then chucks it away as one more ‘obstacle’, just as he spits in his mother’s face at the very moment he most desires she recognise him. In a neat echo of Arendt’s analysis of how the loneliness of totalitarianism feeds thoughtless evil, the loveless hunchback fights solitude in an effort to avoid the midnight hour; orchestrating collective murder is his defence against being alone with his thoughts. (This was observed by my theater companion who, being ten years old—and a British schoolboy—understands the connection between feeling left out and group violence well). Richard’s tragedy is that circumstances turned him into a serial killer, to this extent he is a conventional villain; his pathos, however, as this production shows, is to be poised between thinking and thoughtlessness, between Socrates and Eichmann.
‘No. Yes, I am/Then fly. What from myself?’ When Rylance speaks this soliloquy he stutters slightly, giggles and looks—as Arendt might have anticipated—a little perplexed. This is not a knowing perplexity; Richard does not master his conscience, nothing is done with the solitary dialogue, but the thinking is there even if Richard himself seems unsettled by its presence. In refusing to play Richard simply as one of the ‘negative heroes in literature’ who, Arendt argues, are often played as such ‘out of envy and resentment’, Rylance brilliantly captures the last moment before evil becomes banal.
To play Richard’s cruelty alongside his vulnerability is not to fail to recognise his villainy, as some have complained; rather, it is to dramatize the experience of thinking in the process of being painfully and violently lost. With pathos, we might think, is the only way to play Richard III today. The Globe’s production is a late, but utterly timely, companion to Arendt’s essay.
Of late there has been no shortage of commentary on the ten years that have passed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much of it has focused on the justifications for the war provided by members of the Bush administration, the lingering consequences of the invasion for President Obama and other policymakers, and the often harrowing experiences of American soldiers. These are certainly matters that should be discussed at length.
But U.S. public discourse continues to say little about the impact of the war on Iraqis themselves or about their efforts to survive and interpret it.
Much of it also remains tightly focused on the era after 9/11, as if those day’s events rendered the longer arc of Iraqi history—including the part that the U.S. has played in it—more or less irrelevant. To the extent that the country’s past is addressed at all, it commonly reduces “sectarianism,” “tribalism,” and other shibboleths to intrinsic and timeless features of Iraqi (and wider Arab and Islamic) life.
Two recent contributions on Jadaliyya (www.jadaliyya.com), a blog and e-zine published by the Arab Studies Institute, offer a counterpoint to these prevailing trends. The first is an interview with historian Dina Rizk Khoury related to the publication of her recent book, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Resistance (Cambridge, 2013). As Khoury rightly notes, most of the discussion in the U.S. has failed to recognize the fact that Iraqis spent the last twenty-three years of Baathist rule in a state of nearly continuous military conflict. First there was the Iran-Iraq War, then the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait, then the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuring embargo, and finally the most recent American invasion and occupation.
Under such conditions, Khoury argues, war became a matter of normalcy and bureaucratic governance that insinuated violence into the fabric of everyday life in Iraq. At the same time, it created recurring crises and ruptures that reshaped the structures of state authority and citizenship. And it enabled the Iraqi state to fabricate a myth of soldiering and martyrdom that, in the long run, helped to recalibrate Iraqis’ notions of national belonging along ethnic and sectarian lines. Wittingly or unwittingly, the actions of U.S. policymakers after the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion have reinforced Iraq’s societal divisions and the prevalence of violence as a mode of political action.
The second contribution is a commentary from Orit Bashkin, “The Forgotten Protagonists: The Invasion and the Historian.” Bashkin has written extensively on the politics of pluralism (The Other Iraq, Stanford, 2010) and Jewish displacement (New Babylonians, Stanford, 2012) in twentieth-century Iraq, but here she focuses on the present and future conditions of historical scholarship. She contends that our knowledge of the Iraqi past has grown in significant ways over the past decade. (If we take Melani McAlister’s book Epic Encounters seriously, this outcome should hardly surprise us: American cultural, scholarly, and geopolitical interests in the Middle East have long been tightly intertwined.) Such expansion has been facilitated in no small part by the relocation of the Baath Party archives to the U.S. in 2008. This move has allowed professional historians ready access to a crucial corpus of texts on Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Yet Bashkin also worries that the prospects for historical knowledge production will be decidedly less rosy in the years to come. In particular, many of the other materials on which historians of Iraq rely—Ottoman records, collections of poetic and theological writings, museums, archaeological sites, and so on—have been or are being destroyed in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
As a result, it will be considerably more difficult for scholars not simply to reconstruct the Iraqi past, but also to comprehend how Iraqi citizens relate to it. In particular, we will be less able to grasp the imperial and colonial practices, post-independence state policies, and other forces that have forged the country’s current ethnic and religious cleavages. And we will be less able to understand the multiple and competing nostalgias that now proliferate among Iraqi citizens. Such nostalgias include the ambivalent and paradoxical longing for the days of Saddam Hussein, when (in Bashkin’s words) “at least there was some sense of law and order.”
American public discourse is in desperate need of commentary that positions present-day Iraqis as complex actors who both shape and are shaped by the flow of local, regional, and global histories. As Khoury and Bashkin suggest, the current focus on the past ten years is both literally and metaphorically short-sighted. And yet, for a variety of reasons, lengthening our gaze will be easier said than done.
What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”
But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?
Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered: ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.
Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.
Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]
For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.
Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.
The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'
It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.
No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.
Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”
Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.
Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.
The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.
What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.
When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.
During a conference organized in her honor in Toronto, Hannah Arendt was asked by Hans Morgenthau, to categorize herself as such: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position in the contemporary possibilities?”
Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”
It is precisely in this spirit that one should read Jens Hanssen’s recent paper “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East: Preliminary Observations on Totalitarianism, Revolution and Dissent”.
Hanssen offers in his paper a rather detailed survey of how Arendt has been read – and misread – by the Middle East, beginning with Kanan Makiya’s World Policy Journal article (2006) “An Iraqi Discovers Arendt”, all the way to Israeli revisionist (and evidently critical of Israel) scholars such as Idith Zertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.
The particular examples he brings up are paradigmatic of this already established tradition of appropriations of Hannah Arendt that though emerging from her political thought, have much to do with politics and little with thinking.
For example, the case of Kanan Makiya is interesting if only because of his controversial – and rather maverick – position in the landscape of Iraqi politics. This Marxist engineer-turned-neo-conservative political advisor (in Hanssen's telling) is apparently credited with being the first Arab author to apply Arendt’s phenomenology of totalitarianism to Baathist Iraq.
Makiya makes a case for Iraq as a totalitarian regime in Arendt’s terms, drawing a straight line from anti-Semitism and intellectual support for Saddam Hussein to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Though his book The Republic of Fear stands for many Iraqis as the greatest testimony to the sad state of affairs under Hussein, the analysis is at best a misappropriation in many respects and seems to fall within the line of warmongering that Arendt so vehemently criticized as McCarthyism: To use totalitarian means to fight – real or imagined – totalitarian enemies.
The most interesting reading he brings up however is Vince Dolan’s course at the American University in Beirut, “Contemporary Philosophical Reflections on the Use of Political Violence”, in the spring of 1983. Dolan tailored the course to polemicize Arendt’s distinction between power and violence – perhaps the most difficult in all of her thought – by first exposing students to Habermas’ evaluation of Arendt’s project and then bringing her into conversation with Popper, Adorno and Horkheimer.
While this practice is common among liberal academics, the integration of Arendt into the corpus of critical theory has been time and again debunked by serious Arendt scholars, of which I might bring only two salient examples:
First, Dana Villa (Arendt and Heidegger, 1996, p. 3-4) argues that although Habermas called Arendt’s theory of political action “the systematic renewal of the Aristotelian concept of praxis”, there is no one that would argue more vehemently against Aristotle (and the whole project of critical theory) than Arendt.
According to Villa, critical theory has immensely profited from Arendt’s renewal of Aristotelian praxis as opposed to the instrumentalization of action in order to highlight the intersubjective nature of political action, when in fact this renewal is a radical reconceptualization whose renewal is nothing but a renewal in order to overcome rather than to restore the tradition of political thought of and since Aristotle.
Second, Fina Birulés insisted in an interview from 2001 that there is a wide gap between Arendt’s radical theory of democracy and Habermas. According to Birulés, though Habermas is deeply indebted to Arendt, his theory of communicative action is hardly political at all and he reduces the concept of plurality to some sort of ideal community of dialogue.
Doubtless Hanssen is correct in pointing out that Arendt did not provide a concise definition of totalitarianism. Definition is a privilege of theory that Arendt’s story-telling didn’t embrace and she “merely” listed phenomenological elements. However he also indicates how Arendt insisted that only two forms of totalitarianism existed: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This distinction is crucial to understand the rest of his paper.
Nowadays totalitarianism – as much as the banality of evil – is a slogan in newspapers and politics, often lacking in meaning and intention and this brings to mind the whole post 9-11 discourse in philosophy and politics in which Islam and Islamism – among other things – take the place of the “old” totalitarian movements.
While it is true that in phenomenological and structural terms nothing since the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called strictly totalitarian, there is no doubt that there are totalitarian elements in many movements and policies not only in the Middle East today, but also in the democratic West.
Among other – far less influential readings of Arendt – Hanssen lists the translations into Arabic and Persian, providing crucial information about how and why Arendt informed certain – mostly – Arab authors.
Lastly there is an elaborate discussion on the use – and again, abuse – of Arendt by Israeli scholars since her “rehabilitation” in Israel that coincided with the rise to prominence of certain revisionist scholars.
Though Hannah Arendt wasn’t exclusively concerned with Zionism or the Jewish question, it is undeniable that her entire work was informed by her status and experience as a Jew in the Europe of the early 20th century.
There are many Hannah Arendts and to this effect Jerome Kohn writes in the introduction to her “Jewish Writings”: “In 1975, the year she died, she spoke of a voice that comes from behind the masks she wears to suit the occasions and the various roles that world offers her. That voice is identical to none of the masks, but she hopes it is identifiable, sounding through all of them”.
Something that is identifiable in her entire work – but not identical anywhere, is her concern with the young State of Israel in spite of the controversies into which she became trapped later on.
While it is true that Arendt was very critical of the Zionist establishment and of the course that Israel had taken, it is also important to remember that her writings (“The Crisis of Zionism” and “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East”) were anchored in an intense anxiety over the Jewish people regaining control of their own destinies and entering the realm of politics.
Julia Kristeva expressed this best in her speech upon receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize in 2006, making it clear how for Arendt the survival of Israel and the refoundation of politics in the West was part of one and the same task:
Thirty years after her death, added to the danger she tries to confront through a refoundation of political authority and which, as they get worse, make this refoundation increasingly improbable, is the new threat that weighs on Israel and the world. Arendt had a premonition about it as she warned against underestimating the Arab world and, while giving the State of Israel her unconditional support as the only remedy to the acosmism of the Jewish people, and as a way to return to the “world” and “politics” of which history has deprived, she also voiced criticism.
But Jerome Kohn writes also in the introduction to the Jewish Writings, “Already in 1948 Arendt foresaw what now perhaps has come to pass, that Israel would become a militaristic state behind closed but threatened borders, a “semi-sovereign” state from which Jewish culture would gradually vanish” (paraphrased from her “To Save the Jewish homeland”).
In her piece “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East,” Arendt laid out what is in my opinion a foundation for what could be the ideal of Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East – including even a surprisingly rare background on Arab personalities that had lent support to the possibility of a Jewish settlement from Lebanon and Egypt – but the element of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism that have crystallized now in the Middle East couldn’t be foreseen by Arendt, or at least not to the extent that they were articulated by Kristeva:
Although many of her analyses and advances seem to us more prophetic than ever, Arendt could not foresee the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the havoc it is wreaking in a world faced with the powerlessness of politics to respond, and the apolitia, the indifference created by the omnipresent society of the spectacle.
Hanssen concludes from reading Arendt on totalitarianism, revolution and dissent in the Middle East that “one of the most powerful (in Arendt’s sense of power as consent-based), non-violent movements coming out of the Arab World today is the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments campaign that Palestinian civil society groups have called for in 2005 and has now become a global counter-hegemonic phenomenon” and raises the question whether Hannah Arendt would have supported Palestinian BDS movement to bring about the end of Israeli occupation.
On the one hand he argues that “the intellectual merit of BDS campaign from an Arendtian standpoint is that it is not based on old and invalid hyperbolic equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.” On the other hand, he also says:
There is certainly ample room for this kind of non-violent action in her writings. For one, she supported the economic boycott of German businesses in the 1930’s and was furious when Zionist Organization in Palestine broke it.
Leaving the associations with Nazi Germany asides, it is vital to recall that it was Arendt who said that not even in the moon is one safe from anti-Semitism and that the State of Israel alone wouldn’t come to solve the Jewish question.
It is clear by now that BDS campaign has blended elements no doubt altruistic of non-violent struggle with elements from the old anti-Semitism, in which there’s little distinction made between Israelis and Jews.
BDS has come to include not only boycott to the settlements (as has been articulated with great intelligence by Peter Beinart and his book “The Crisis of Zionism”) but also academic and cultural boycott. In extreme cases, there have been boycotts of products not for being Israeli or produced in the settlements, but merely out of being kosher products produced in Britain and the United States.
While it is more than clear that Arendt saw and foresaw the risks and dangers to which Israel polity was exposed by its leaders, she also articulated with clarity that it wasn’t the Jews alone who were responsible for this sad state of affairs and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s ideal of a binational state is at all realizable at this point – bearing in mind the complexities of Arab Spring – what is clear is that an ideology fed on old anti-Semitism and prejudice as much as on uncritical views of Arab and Palestinian history is very unlikely to produce the Arab-Jewish councils (at the heart of her theorizing on revolutions) upon the basis of which a secular and democratic state might be founded.
"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
- Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times
According to Arendt, it is through action – and all action is but acts of speech – that human beings disclose themselves in their whoness rather than merely on the basis of their whatness. Her indebtedness for storytelling comes from a two-fold source: The Greek world on the one hand - the poets and the historians, and on the other the writings of Isak Dinesen.
Arendt devoted no theoretical effort to pass Dinesen under the lens of theory, other than some occasional mention and a literary profile in the book that Auden called her most German book – because of the form of epic legends in which the stories of the anti-heroes, under the shadow of dark times, are told.
Herself a talented storyteller, her books can be read better against this background of storytelling than on theoretical impetus; this is not because Arendt wasn’t a vehement defender of the life of the mind but because of her insight about the inability of intellectual traditions and history to understand and comprehend the events of her century.
Her reading of Dinesen conforms to the difficulties of understanding Totalitarianism. Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés puts in the following words: “While storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s”.
The relationship between storytelling and reconciliation is laid out by Arendt through Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.
Arendt writes the story of this anxiety and melancholy of her own through Dinesen: “That grief of having lost her life and lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and “God loves a joke” became her maxim in the latter part of her life”.
Agnes Heller writes that Arendt knows in advance what it is that she wants to find in her storytelling, in spite of – often – finding something unexpected.
Dinesen becomes a reflection of mirrors for Arendt who in writing about Dinesen’s own storytelling that seems artificial and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, finds the detachment necessary to comprehend the world, temporarily: “To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heavy, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the born artist can manage in the midst of living.”
The flight into imaginary worlds at the hand of Dinesen’s pen isn’t simply a performance and re-enactment of the Gothic – as is for example William Beckford’s “Vathek” – but rather a coming to terms with the present by telling a story about its burdens.
It is nothing but an anchoring on the present at a time when the foundation of the present itself – the past – seems irrevocably lost. A similar example of storytelling through mirrors would be, for example, Susan Sontag’s review of Anna Banti’s “Artemisia” for The London Review of Books in 2003.
“Artemisia” is a novel written late in the Second World War about the life of Artemisia Gentilenschi, a 17th century Italian painter: Banti, trained as an art historian, is meticulously careful about her treatment of sources on Gentilenschi’s life and writes in what Sontag calls “a double destiny”; according to her, Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia and is careful enough to write in the detachment of the third person, only available to the truly committed storyteller in a game of hide and seek: “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”.
More than a biography or a historical novel, Artemisia is a deeply emotional but sober and detached portrait of a woman in the early 17th century, tainted by the scandal of a rape that disgraced her family and haunted no more by her total commitment to art, than by the immense loneliness of living as an artist in a male-dominated world – but told with more grace than resentment.
The story about Banti and Artemisia that Sontag is telling is one of permanent displacement and loss; not only because of the female story being told but because the original novel was lost under the ruins of Banti’s house in Borgo San Jacopo when the mines detonated by the Germans wrecked the houses near the river, including hers.
Without knowing as much, Susan Sontag is writing about Banti in the same way that Arendt is writing about Dinesen: Behind a story of loss and womanhood, there is an affirmative and rather reckless anchoring in the present – in Sontag’s case, the world after Totalitarianism: The Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. It is against this background that she is writing about a “phoenix of a novel”, which is in itself a testimony to Sontag’s own work.
What both writers learnt from their own writers is a bitter lesson in contemporary history, as eloquently put by Arendt about Dinesen:
Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems about life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an “idea”. Life might contain the “essence” (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the “elixir”; and eventually you may even be privileged to “make” something out of it, “to compound the story”. But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you.
When Lebanese writer Mira Baz left Yemen in 2011, in the course of the revolution and just before the deadly “Friday of Dignity” massacre, after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the mysterious land – similar to Dinesen’s Africa seen through Arendt and Banti’s Florence seen through Sontag, a sort of paradise lost and not without heavy taxes levied by the status of paradise, she was to become displaced and would turn her poetic travelogue of Yemen into a vast vault of memory.
In March 2012 she wrote – exactly a year after the massacre – about the experience of the displacement, invoking the following lines from Dinesen:
“If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
Of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
Does Africa know a song of me?”
After which she writes:
The house and the garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.
Through reading and writing, life cannot be changed, but it can be made understandable and livable, after the same fashion of John Updike when he described the prose of Bruno Schulz: “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster”. The disaster is always the turbulence of history and the unnamable is the loss, but here storytelling becomes a privilege, a sign of truth, and the burden of a presence – entering the world once again, even if it had been lost once.
Fina Birulés concludes her timely meditation on Arendt and Dinesen: “The political function of the narrator – historian or novelist – is to teach the acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, that might be called as well veracity, is born the faculty of judgment, by means of which, in words of Isak Dinesen, in the end we will have the privilege to see and to see again, and that is what is called Day of Judgment.”
“[O]ur newest experiences and our most recent fears…[are] a matter of thought and thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – [This] seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Not thinking was, for Arendt, the increasingly dominant quality of the world in which we live. Thoughtlessness is the negative mirror image of what she called for as the only form of thinking appropriate to period of crisis (indeed, in a strict sense, perhaps to any time) – thinking “without a banister.”
Inherent in this conception is that in ages and at times like our own, when one must think without support, many, perhaps most, will not think, or rather will avoid thinking. They will thus be left without that voice of conscience – like Socrates' daimon who appears at moments of judgment and keeps Socrates from justifying, or even engaging in acts that are evil. Importantly, that something is “true,” means nothing by itself unless it is the subject of thinking.
One might consider here the thoughtlessness that reigned in the general reaction in the United States to the attacks of 9/11, 2001. The analogy was immediately drawn to Pearl Harbor. From this analogy it followed that our response should be analogous to that after Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda, unlike Japan, was not a nation-state. Furthermore this enemy was linked to an Axis of Evil against which one was to fight a “war on terror.” Osama Bin laden was Hitler or at least Tojo; Saddam Hussein another totalitarian, linked by an Axis of Evil to the other totalitarians. Yet one cannot fight against terror, only against an enemy – Carl Schmitt had warned of forgetting this.
The result of not thinking about what one has done – whether as a policy maker or a member of the population -- has been a war that has now gone on for ten years with neither goal nor end in sight. Thoughtlessness has consequences: people die as a result of thoughtlessness.
(I discovered similar thoughts in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters on pages 12-13 after writing this passage and modified my words, as hers are much better: I join others in mourning her passing).
Leading up to the Hannah Arendt Center’s fall conference “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts,” the Center is screening a series of feature length documentaries that examine the current state of truthfulness. On Wednesday September 21st the Center hosted the first screening in the series: “Loose Change,” which was made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists who claim the attacks were orchestrated by officials inside the U.S. Government.
Journalist Jonathan Kay, who will be speaking at this year’s conference, has immersed himself in these conspiracy subcultures. His book Among the Truthers, chronicles his encounters with those who challenge the veracity of the official 9/11 story. You can listen to or read an interview with Jonathan Kay about his fascinating work on Radio Free Europe here.
As Hannah Arendt reminds us, and as Kay’s work reinforces, facts possess an inherent fragility in our day and age, becoming increasingly susceptible to adulteration or erasure that rents the realm of human affairs. For Arendt the ability to “say what is” was a basic precondition for the endurance of the human world. In its absence we fall into a risky zone of non-reality that has politically perilous consequences.
The group of students, faculty, and staff gathered for the viewing Wednesday night attempted, in a post-screening discussion, to grapple with the contentious claims made in the film, the immense popularity of the movie (Vanity Fair called it possibly the first “internet blockbuster”), and why its conspiracies are so seductive to Americans.
Some of the assertions the film makes include the following: The cell phone calls made from Flight 93 were manufactured since cellular communication is improbable at such altitudes. Given their design the Twin Towers could not have collapsed in the manner they did. Flight 77 could not have been the aircraft that flew into the Pentagon, since the aeronautics of the specific model meant if it was traveling at the reported speed it would have “fallen out of the sky.”
While the viewing public lacks the scientific expertise needed to assess many of these claims there is still the sense that, though the film can quote Newton’s formulas all it likes, its arguments remains dubious. Many may dismiss such theories as harmless or at worst a nuisance to reasoned reflection. However, Arendt warned us that this kind of commitment to the uncorroborated kills off a healthy political space by breeding cynicism. If everything is a hoax and no one is to be trusted then there is effectively no way to have a viable relationship amongst and between citizens and their governments.
The filmmaker’s explanation of the 9/11 conspiracy is that it emerged out of the neo-conservative think-tank, the Project for the New American Century. PNAC was explicit about their desire to reshape the world to secure American might, and many of its members came to form Bush’s inner circle. While the country was given good reason to doubt the intentions of the Bush administration and the doctrine that infused post-9/11 policy, there is a distinction between engineering an event and exploiting it that “Loose Change” contorts. The economic and political profiteering that occurred after 9/11 does not mean we can rearrange the facts to explain away Bush’s taking advantage of atrocity. As Arendt highlighted, the quality of facts that makes them both politically pertinent and problematic is that they cannot in fact be explained away.
It is this very effort to explain away the day as it unfolded that is perhaps most staggering about the film. “Facts,” Arendt writes, “have no conclusive reason whatever for being what they are; they could have always been otherwise, and this annoying contingency is literally unlimited.” The way in which events occurred on 9/11 is simply too confounding, too “haphazard,” as Arendt would say for things to be neatly stitched together the way the filmmakers have tried to. The Truthers are after a certainty about the circumstances of 9/11 that in reality does not exist. As one Bard student astutely commented there is a sense the film’s treatment of factual material is an attempt to salvage all that disappeared so starkly and inexplicably that September day. The strange stubbornness and contingency of facts Arendt knew means no theory, whether it be conspiratorial or official, can alter or reverse the temperatures at which steel melts or flesh burns.
As emerged in the discussion after the film we have come to use the metaphor of ‘hunting’ to describe the process of getting at the truth. From an Arendtian perspective this is, I would argue, the wrong analogy to use, and one that exacerbates the tension she articulated between truth and politics. One of the gaps the film highlights is that the last three minutes of the recording from Flight 93 are mysteriously missing; where they went is one of the countless questions the filmmakers demand “need to be answered.” This is a stance shared by many regardless of whether one is sympathetic or not to specific claims the film makes or its mission as a whole. It is worth asking whether such a stance is sound. Do such questions truly need to be answered, even if they could, or is it possible that all our truth-hunting has become a poor substitute for the messier but often more accurate, not to mention rehabilitative, process of truthtelling?
The way we have come to prey upon the past is a reminder of the inherent violence Arendt saw accompanying our search for truth and its opposite in this day and age. “The difference between the traditional and the modern lie,” she tells us, “is the difference between hiding and destroying.” It would likely come as no surprise to her then that we insist on harassing the facts as we try to stalk the truth through to every forgotten fuselage.
Cori Ellison’s September 2nd piece in The New York Times on the premier of a new opera commemorating the inspirational life of Rick Rescorla begins with an invocation of one of Hannah Arendt’s most famous observations. Ellison writes:
“Having coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt went on to suggest that the most heinous crimes have often been committed by morally desensitized ordinary people. The inverse may be equally true: that “ordinary” heroes like Rick Rescorla who saved almost 2,700 lives on Sept. 11, 2001, only to lose his own, are the yang to Arendt’s yin, demonstrating what you might call the profundity of virtue.”
Ellison’s comments beg two main questions about the continued usage of Arendt’s term. Alfred Kazin notes the frequent conceptual carelessness with which the phrase is bandied about. Kazin comments in his essay Hannah Arendt: The Burden of our Time, “many a journalist and television commentator refers to the “banality of evil” with a confidence that makes one sick.” Devoted to Arendt, Kazin feared her categorization of Eichmann as banal could in fact be “injurious to thinking.” Given the ubiquity of Arendt’s phrase it is perhaps worth asking if the confidence with which it is used is at times misplaced?
Ellison use of the term in the context of the willingness or failure to act in the case of an emergency such as September 11th appears, in this light, largely correct. She is right to note that, underlying the principle of banal evil is a sense of moral anaesthetization. The Eichmanns of the world certainly demonstrate the muting of the impulse towards human decency that the Rescorlas of the world show to be elemental in the field of action. In this sense it is true that an alertness both to the fragility of individual life and the ethical webs that sustain it, is crucial in confronting and overcoming forces of destruction. For Arendt this basic moral attunement to one’s fellow man was cultivated and kept in check by the principles of religion and tradition, which ceased to be binding with the rise of modernity. In these times being awake to the circumstances and the sufferings of others is indeed no small virtue.
Ellison rightly praises this moral sensitivity, and the impulse towards the good that Rescorla bravely demonstrated. However, following through on such an impulse does not necessarily involve engaging in the activity of thinking, which is the true subject of Arendt’s theorem on Eichmann. What the “banality of evil” articulates is the atrophying of the ability to engage in thought--the dialogical process through which individuals come to consider the very conditions and demands of goodness and justice—rather than the absence of any instinct towards goodness or justice in the world.
For Arendt this activity is fundamentally distinct from the mind’s other jobs, such as deducing, selecting, or deciding. To think is not to “choose.” While undoubtedly heroic, acts of rescue do not commonly represent an Arendtian experience of thought, since, as Rescorla’s and others’ extraordinary efforts show, they are often performed without the mind being transformed into a field for debate. A more appropriate context to consider the inverse of banal evil is perhaps not an act of unmeditated courage, but rather premeditated resistance.
Wolfgang Heuer discusses such an instance in his recent book Courageous Action (Couragiertes Handeln). Heuer examines the resistance effort among East German’s asking with and through Arendt what qualities of character and mind are needed to face bureaucratic evil. Wolfgang Heuer will be speaking about this work and the significance of thinking in action at the upcoming conference at the Hannah Arendt Center.
Returning to the question of the use of Arendt’s term, where Ellison and others make the error is in mistaking the two senses of ‘banal.’ It would likely be no great surprise to Arendt the wordsmith that our misapplication is rooted in a semantic imprecision. And yet it is no minor point since Arendt’s famous observation on Eichmann is of course based on her analysis of Eichmann’s own neat playing of “language-games,” and, as Kazin notes, is itself susceptible to the very distortions it describes.
In the context of her musings on the Eichmann trial Arendt’s banality does not chiefly refer to the ‘quotidian,’ the prosaic lives of men, for which she had utmost respect and no reason to believe couldn’t be concomitant with a depth of thought. Rather the banality she noted in Eichmann is an explanation of the ‘trite,’ of the stock slogans and phony logic of terror and totalitarianism that deform both the rules of reason and man’s moral sense when they claim that if you grant A, so too must you grant B and C, all the way down what Arendt calls, “the murderous alphabet.” Regimes that systematically devalue human lives depend on thought formulas that make thinking insincere. How the mind is able to step outside of these is what Arendt’s observation on Eichmann asks us to contend with.
Therefore, the second question Ellison’s piece raises is what is in fact an adequate, positive counterpart to the “banality of evil”? Her suggestion of the “profundity of virtue” is a fair one in that it captures the notion that the institution of the good is inherently linked to a process of reflection. How else might we phrase this crucial idea? We invite others to consider this question and submit possible terms. Given both the ubiquity and the misunderstanding of Arendt’s original phrase, it is fitting that we now search for the best language through which to articulate the association she saw between man’s capacity for genuine thought and his capacity for moral action.