Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
21Apr/140

Amor Mundi 4/20/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Is Capitalism a Social Good?

421A book captures the Zeitgeist rarely in the 21st century, especially a book written by an empirical economist, published by a University Press, and translated from French. And yet Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published by Harvard University Press, is suddenly everywhere. Andrew Hussey at The Guardian interviews Piketty, who argues that capitalism does not improve the quality of life for everyone. Piketty seeks to prove that capitalism is rigged in favor of the wealthy. In other words, the wealth of the wealthy increases faster than the income of the workers. His main contention is that over the centuries since the emergence of capitalism, return on capital tends to be greater than the growth of the economy. Which leads to Piketty’s final conclusion that increasing inequality is inevitable within capitalism – and will only get worse: “When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic well-being of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector. You only have to look at what Obama's administration wants to do – which is to erode inequality in healthcare and so on – and how difficult it is to achieve that, to understand how important this is. There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn't so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.” That the wealthy get wealthier in capitalism may seem obvious to some; but capitalism is widely embraced by the poor as well as the rich because it increases productivity and supposedly makes everybody better off. Capitalism may make some filthy rich, so the story goes, but it also allows more mobility of status and income than pre-capitalist economies, thus opening possibilities to everyone. Piketty argues against these truisms. In the end, however, whether inequality is good or bad is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research can tell us whether capitalism is good or bad. What Piketty does show convincingly, is that capitalism will not lead to equality. For more on Piketty, see Roger Berkowitz’s essay at The American Interest.

Is Capitalist Inequality Really So Bad?

422Perhaps the best review of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is by Martin Wolf, the Financial Times columnist. Wolf gives an excellent summary of Piketty’s four “remarkable achievements” and then considers what they mean. He makes clear the importance of Piketty’s book. But he also raises the question Piketty leaves unasked: “Yet the book also has clear weaknesses. The most important is that it does not deal with why soaring inequality – while more than adequately demonstrated – matters. Essentially, Piketty simply assumes that it does. One argument for inequality is that it is a spur to (or product of) innovation. The contrary evidence is clear: contemporary inequality and, above all, inherited wealth are unnecessary for this purpose. Another argument is that the product of just processes must be just. Yet even if the processes driving inequality were themselves just (which is doubtful), this is not the only principle of distributive justice. Another – to me more plausible – argument against Piketty’s is that inequality is less important in an economy that is now 20 times as productive as those of two centuries ago: even the poor enjoy goods and services unavailable to the richest a few decades ago.” This does not mean that Wolf thinks increasing inequality is unimportant. Rightly, he turns to Aristotle to make this most-important point: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realization, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it.” You can read Eduardo Porter’s excellent review of the literature on the impact of wealth inequality on economic growth here. Of course, you should all read Piketty’s book for yourselves.

Fixed Records

423In an online interactive feature from The New York Times, an excellent example of what internet journalism can do well, John Jeremiah Sullivan recounts his recent search for 1930s blueswomen Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. Among his sources for the project was the blues scholar Mack McCormick, who has a mountain of blues material, photos and interviews as well as tracks, collected over several decades, and now organized into something called “The Monster.” McCormick has been largely unable to produce writing from his collection; as he's sitting on sources that no one else has, and that few have access to, this failure represents an extraordinary series of lacunas in blues history. Sullivan notes, however, that McCormick is still as significant a figure as the field has: “He is on record (in one of two or three notably good profiles done on him over the years) as saying that the subject of [blues guitarist Robert] Johnson has gone dead on him. And he has said since that part of him wishes he hadn’t let that one singer, that riddle of a man, consume him. Which is a human thing to feel . . . except for when you happen to know more than anyone on earth about a subject that loads of people in several countries want to know more about. Then your inability to produce becomes not just a personal problem but a cultural one. It’s plausible that the scope of research finally got too large for any one mind, even a uniquely brilliant one, to hold in orbit. The point here is not to accuse or defend him, but rather to point out that even his footnotes, even the fragments from his research that have landed in other scholars’ pages, have been enough to place him among the two or three most important figures in this field. He’s one of those people whose influence starts to show up everywhere, once you’re sensitized to it.” Sullivan’s essay is an excellent walk through the historian's craft, a peak into how the record is made, as it were. Although Arendt described the job of the historian as describing the world as it was, that task is more or less difficult depending on the preservation or availability of certain sources. Through a combination of resources and luck, Sullivan and his research assistant were able to piece together a little more than half the story he set out to tell; the rest is still absent, awaiting another curious investigator and another stroke of good fortune.

The Sacred and the Profane

Simonos Petra is a greek Orthodox monastery built on XIV century , in 1364 was enlarged by a serbian king ,, three times burned last time in 1891 with his library. Its located at the base of the Mount Athos with 2000 altitude . Agion Oros or Mount Athos iThere's a Greek mountain, Athos, home to a number of Orthodox monasteries, and no females; no women, no female animals. In a short profile of the space, Tom Whipple notes that it is both sacred and profane: “Athos is a place where a bearded octogenarian who has not seen a woman in 60 years can venerate the bones of a two-millennia-dead saint, then pull out a mobile phone to speak to his abbot. Where a pilgrim with a wooden staff in one hand can have a digital camera in the other. And where, in the dim light of dawn matins, I can look on a church interior that would be instantly recognizable to a pilgrim from five centuries ago. Maybe this is part of the reason I come: to play the time-traveler?” Elsewhere on the peninsula is a monastery under siege for having broken with the Orthodox Patriarch, and another that is believed to be in part responsible for Greece's financial crash more than half a decade ago. Even here, men who have repudiated the world find that they live within it.

Get To Work

425In an interview that covers his views on Ireland as a post-colonial site and the importance of gay themes in the Canon, Colm Toibin gives some advice to young writers: “I suppose the thing really is, you could suggest they might finish everything that they start. And the reason for that is, certainly with me, what happens is that something—an image, a memory, or something known, or something half thought of—stays in our mind, at some point or other it becomes a rhythm, and you write it down. Part of that is, you know it; you sort of know what you want to do. The chances are high of wanting to abandon it halfway through on the basis of, it really ceases to interest you because you know it already. And then you have to really push yourself to realize that other people don't know it. And that you're writing for communication, and that is not a private activity. Therefore you have to go on working—that's what the real work is maybe. But if you're young and starting off, it's so easy to abandon something at that point thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm not sure there's any more I can gain from the writing of this.' And the answer is: You don't matter anymore. Get to work.”

Seeing The World Through God

426Rod Dreher, who picked up Dante during a midlife crisis, suggests that the Divine Comedy is about learning to see the world as it is through the mediation of the divine: “Beatrice, a Florentine woman young Dante had loved from afar, and who died early, serves as a representation of Divine Revelation. What the poet says here is that on Earth she represented to him a theophany, a disclosure of the divine. When she died, Dante forgot about the vision of divine reality she stood for. He allowed his eyes to be turned from faith—the hope in ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,’ as Scripture says—to a misdirected love for the transitory and worldly. This is how Dante ended up in the dark and savage wood. This is how I did, too. This is how many of us find ourselves there in the middle of the journey of our life. Dante’s pilgrimage, and the one we readers have taken with him, teaches us to see the world and ourselves as they really are and to cleanse through repentance and ascesis our own darkened vision through reordering the will. By learning to want for ourselves and for others what God wants, we become more like Him, and we come to see all things as He does."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Second Opportunity on Earth

427Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died. It is worth revisiting “The Solitude of Latin America,” Marquez’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The speech ends with these words: “On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, ‘I decline to accept the end of man.’ I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

Is it Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?

428In Haaretz (subscription required), sociologist Eva Illouz reprints her 2014 Andrea and Charles Bronfman Lecture in Israeli Studies, at the University of Toronto. Illouz considers Gershom Scholem’s accusation that Hannah Arendt had no lover for the Jewish people and her response, “How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: First, I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective – not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I am Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know that belongs to the substance of my being … [T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God – that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself? In this sense I don’t love the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them.” Illouz writes: “To better grasp what should strike us here, let me refer to another debate, one that had taken place just a few years earlier in France, where another intellectual’s position had also generated a storm. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm in 1957, Albert Camus was interviewed by an Arab student about his positions on the Algerian war. He famously answered, ‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’ Camus’ statement provoked a ruckus in French intellectual circles. As Norman Podhoretz wrote, “When he declared that he chose his mother above justice, he was, as [Conor Cruise] O’Brien puts it, choosing ‘his own tribe’ against an abstract ideal of universal justice. A greater heresy against the dogmas of the left is hard to imagine.” Indeed, since the Dreyfus affair, at the end of the 19th century, intellectuals’ intervention in the public sphere had been defined by their claim to universality, a position that remained unchanged throughout the 20th century.… I evoke here Camus’ example only to better highlight how the position of the contemporary Jewish intellectual differs from what we may call the position of the intellectual in Europe. What was anathema to the European intellectual – to defend one’s group and family against competing universal claims – is, in fact, what is routinely expected from the Jewish intellectual – by which I mean not only the intellectual of Jewish origins, but the one who engages in a dialogue with his/her community…. Arendt’s refusal to respond to the needs of her group and the fury her positions generated is only one of the many occurrences in a long list of hostile reactions by the organized Jewish community to critique, defined here as a sustained questioning of a group’s beliefs and practices. (For a superb discussion of these issues, see Idith Zertal’s 2005 book Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.) In fact, over the last 30 years, one of the favorite exercises of various representatives of Jewish and Israeli communities has been to unmask the hidden anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish tenets of critique. I am not saying some of the critiques of Israel may not be motivated by anti-Semitism. I simply note that the suspicion of critique has become an elaborate cultural and intellectual genre in the Jewish world.

From The Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Lance Strate considers Arendt’s quotation, "The end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new." And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz looks at Timothy Shenk’s review of millennial Marxism and Thomas Piketty.

 

20Apr/140

Inequality and Democracy: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

ArendtWeekendReading

 

A book captures the Zeitgeist rarely in the 21st century, especially a book written by an empirical economist, published by a University Press, and translated from French. And yet Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published by Harvard University Press, is suddenly everywhere. Andrew Hussey at The Guardian interviews Piketty, who argues that capitalism does not improve the quality of life for everyone. Piketty seeks to prove that capitalism is rigged in favor of the wealthy. In other words, the wealth of the wealthy increases faster than the income of the workers. His main contention is that over the centuries since the emergence of capitalism, return on capital tends to be greater than the growth of the economy. Which leads to Piketty’s final conclusion that increasing inequality is inevitable within capitalism – and will only get worse:

 “When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic well-being of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector. You only have to look at what Obama's administration wants to do – which is to erode inequality in healthcare and so on – and how difficult it is to achieve that, to understand how important this is. There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn't so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.”

That the wealthy get wealthier in capitalism may seem obvious; but capitalism is widely embraced by the poor as well as the rich because it increases productivity and supposedly makes everybody better off. Capitalism may make some filthy rich, so the story goes, but it also allows more mobility of status and income than pre-capitalist economies, thus opening possibilities to everyone. Piketty argues against these truisms:

"When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. There are nevertheless ways democracy can regain control over capitalism and ensure that the general interest takes precedence over private interests, while preserving economic openness and avoiding protectionist and nationalist reactions. The policy recommendations I propose later in the book tend in this direction. They are based on lessons derived from historical experience, of which what follows is essentially a narrative."

Over in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf applauds the importance of Piketty’s book, but he also raises the question Piketty leaves unasked: Is inequality really a bad thing?

“Yet the book also has clear weaknesses. The most important is that it does not deal with why soaring inequality – while more than adequately demonstrated – matters. Essentially, Piketty simply assumes that it does. One argument for inequality is that it is a spur to (or product of) innovation. The contrary evidence is clear: contemporary inequality and, above all, inherited wealth are unnecessary for this purpose. Another argument is that the product of just processes must be just. Yet even if the processes driving inequality were themselves just (which is doubtful), this is not the only principle of distributive justice. Another – to me more plausible – argument against Piketty’s is that inequality is less important in an economy that is now 20 times as productive as those of two centuries ago: even the poor enjoy goods and services unavailable to the richest a few decades ago.”

And in The Nation, Timothy Shenk has penned a long, wandering, but insightful essay setting Piketty’s book within and against a burgeoning neo-Marxist revival. Shenk begins with an introduction questioning what capitalism really means and suggesting that capitalism has always been defined in its negation, largely by Marxists. He then turns to the new interest in Marxism today.

His story begins with the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street that, together, have spawned a new generation of young writers, largely congregated in New York, who have returned to Marx for ammunition in fighting against the perceived ill of rising inequality. Shenk traces this revival in a series of recent books including: Cubed: 
A Secret History of the Workplace.
By Nikil Saval; Utopia or Bust: 
A Guide to the Present Crisis.
By Benjamin Kunkel; and the magazine Jacobin
: A Magazine of Culture and Polemic. Clearly intrigued by these millennial Marxists, Shenk is also highly critical. “In good Marxist tradition, the millennials are best when they’re on the attack.” And the new Marxists “seem more inclined to recite Marx than to rethink Marxism, or move beyond it.” Above all, Shenk sees them as overly interested in political ideology and uninterested in meaningful inquiry:

“Searching for conceptual breakthroughs in the journals of the newest left, however, misunderstands their project. They aim not just to transform the world of ideas but also to advance a political agenda, a point that’s made especially clear in Jacobin. Here, politics does not mean an endless conversation open to ambiguity, uncertainty and difference. No, politics is a war—specifically, a class war—and the only hope an embattled left has is to organize. The inspiration derives from a mash-up of the greatest hits of European Marxism and the history of the American right from Barry Goldwater to Ted Cruz. Allies will be taken, even sought out, wherever they can be found. But the purpose is to teach (and preach), not to learn.”

This Marxist revival is, as Shenk writes, largely stillborn, more social media project than political movement: “the rebirth of Marxism that have become a minor genre in the last year. Like a puffer fish temporarily ballooning to vastly larger sizes, the Marxist revival can seem more imposing than it is. For a certain type of reader, however, it’s easy to forget the illusion when there are so many withering tweets to skim.”

More interesting than Shenk’s review of the millennial Marxists is his account of the “good timing” that gives Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century a “fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century.” What follows is the most revelatory of the reviews of Piketty’s book published to date.

“Much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, essentially, a history of the modern world viewed through the relationship between two factors: economic growth, with all its promises, and the return on capital, a reward that goes to the small fraction of the population that has mastered what Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock referred to as “that thing that rich people do where they turn money into more money.”

“The rich perfected that art a long time ago. According to Piketty, the average return on capital, after adjusting for inflation, has hovered around 5 percent throughout history, with a slight decline after World War II. Whatever problems capitalists will face in the future, he suggests, a crisis generated by falling profits is not likely to be among them. Economic growth, by contrast, has a far more abbreviated chronology. According to the most reliable estimates—sketchy, but better than nothing—for most of human history, economic growth was on the order of 0.1 percent a year, provided there were no famines, plagues or natural disasters. This gloomy record began to change for part of the world during the Industrial Revolution. Judged by later standards, “revolution” might seem too generous a phrase for growth rates in per capita output that ran to under 1.5 percent in both Western Europe and the United States; but compared with the entire earlier history of human existence, those rates were astonishing.”

The empirical and research driven conclusion is that over long periods of time beginning in the 1800s and continuing through till today, rates of invested return on capital rise faster than economic growth. This means that the rich get richer and capitalism breeds ever greater inequality. Piketty thus attacks the common-sense version of economic history that understand the 20th century to be proof that capitalism can yield increasing equality and higher than average economic growth. For him, the decline of inequality in the 20th century is an aberration caused by the catastrophes of WWI and WWII. Here is how Shenk summarizes Piketty’s argument:

 “Piketty uses a simple formula to illuminate the dynamics at work. Inequality tends to rise, he argues, when the average rate of return on capital exceeds the economy’s growth rate (or, as he puts it, when r > g). That ratio worked in capital’s favor throughout the nineteenth century, and at the dawn of the twentieth, there was little reason to believe it would change without a revolution by the proletariat. Then 1914 inaugurated three decades of catastrophe.

The wealth of Europe’s elite was one of the era’s casualties: outright destruction, high inflation, confiscatory taxation, and governments that began catering to labor’s demands all combined to obliterate vast swaths of capital. By 1950, economic inequality had plummeted, not because of the welfare state’s rational evolution, but through some of history’s greatest tragedies. What amounted to the collective suicide of capitalist Europe coincided with astounding growth rates produced by recovery from the war. With capital reeling and growth rocketing ahead, the conditions were set for unprecedented egalitarian advances, including the birth of a property-owning middle class, all because of an extraordinary inversion: for the first time, g > r.”

Although the 50 years after the end of WWII brought optimism that “economic growth automatically reduced income inequality,” Piketty shows that “time soon deflated this optimism.” Growth of global GDP has accelerated; but not only does Piketty believe that growth is unsustainable, it is also true that “the link between rising GDP and falling inequality was severed, with the largest gains from diminished growth flowing to the richest of the rich—not even to the 1 percent, but to the one-tenth of 1 percent and higher.” In short, Piketty argues that the iron rule of rising inequality in capitalist economies is reasserting itself.

“Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, given the tendency for the returns on capital to outpace growth. Unfortunately for us, he concludes, “the inequality r > g has clearly been true throughout most of human history, right up to the eve of World War I, and it will probably be true again in the twenty-first century.”

Shenk seems to have little interest in Piketty’s proposal for a global progressive tax on capital. What he values in Piketty’s book is the drive to build “a social state for the twenty-first century.” Piketty’s book might be most valuable neither as a work of economics nor as a call for revolution, but as a spur to political reform.

The real danger of inequality is not economic, but political. Piketty has shown us that capitalism breeds inequality. But whether inequality is good or bad is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research can tell us whether capitalism is good or bad. What Piketty does show convincingly, is that capitalism will not lead to equality. The question the book raises is: What does this mean for our democracy?

We are in the midst of an experiment that will reveal what the influx of unfathomable amounts of money will mean for a democratic political system. This is a new political experiment because for most of the history of the United States—with exception of the period at the very end of the 19th century—the dollars of the wealthy could not and did not dominate our democratic system. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizen United and McCutcheon, however, we are about to experience what the unlimited access of money in politics can mean at a time of unprecedented concentration of wealth. It likely does not mean that the richest candidate always wins. Nor will all well-financed candidates be conservative. But it does mean that no candidate who cannot raise money from the wealthy has a real chance of winning. And that means that politics is captured by those with money and largely seen as inaccessible to those without.

For a country identified with the spirit of government by the people, for the people, and of the people, unprecedented inequality combined judicial invalidation of democratic attempts to limit the impact of money in politics threatens to radically undo our democratic tradition. Even democracy, however, is not an argument against inequality, so much as for the need for democratic patrolling of the integrity of the democratic system.

Piketty's book should definitely be on your list. For now, here is the introduction. It is your weekend read.

—RB

7Mar/142

Why the Jews?

ArendtWeekendReading

Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?

[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.

The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism:  “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”

origins

The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:

 Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.

Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.

The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.

Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.

The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.

As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.

Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”

The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:

His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”

anti

The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”

Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.

If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.

-RB

6Jan/140

Amor Mundi 1/5/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Missing NSA Debate About Capitalism

nsaHero or traitor? That is the debate The New York Times wants about Edward Snowden. But the deeper question is what, if anything, will change? Evgeny Morozov has a strong essay in The Financial Times: "Mr. Snowden created an opening for a much-needed global debate that could have highlighted many of these issues. Alas, it has never arrived. The revelations of the US's surveillance addiction were met with a rather lacklustre, one-dimensional response. Much of this overheated rhetoric - tinged with anti-Americanism and channelled into unproductive forms of reform - has been useless." The basic truth is that "No laws and tools will protect citizens who, inspired by the empowerment fairy tales of Silicon Valley, are rushing to become data entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for new, quicker, more profitable ways to monetise their own data - be it information about their shopping or copies of their genome. These citizens want tools for disclosing their data, not guarding it.... What eludes Mr. Snowden - along with most of his detractors and supporters - is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities - with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession. So to remain relevant and have some political teeth, the surveillance debate must be linked to debates about capitalism - or risk obscurity in the highly legalistic ghetto of the privacy debate."

The Non-Private World Today

worldConsidering the Fourth Amendment implications of the recent Federal injunction on the NSA's domestic spying program, David Cole notes something important about the world we're living in: "The reality of life in the digital age is that virtually everything you do leaves a trace that is shared with a third party-your Internet service provider, phone company, credit card company, or bank. Short of living off the grid, you don't have a choice in the matter. If you use a smartphone, you are signaling your whereabouts at all times, and sharing with your phone provider a track record of your thoughts, interests, and desires. Technological innovations have made it possible for all of this information to be collected, stored, and analyzed by computers in ways that were impossible even a decade ago. Should the mere existence of this information make it freely searchable by the NSA, without any basis for suspicion?"

The End of the Blog

blogJason Kottke thinks that the blog is no longer the most important new media form: "The primary mode for the distribution of links has moved from the loosely connected network of blogs to tightly integrated services like Facebook and Twitter. If you look at the incoming referers to a site like BuzzFeed, you'll see tons of traffic from Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Stumbleupon, and Pinterest but not a whole lot from blogs, even in the aggregate. For the past month at kottke.org, 14 percent of the traffic came from referrals compared to 30 percent from social, and I don't even work that hard on optimizing for social media. Sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy aren't seeking traffic from blogs anymore. Even the publicists clogging my inbox with promotional material urge me to 'share this on my social media channels' rather than post it to my blog." Of course, it may be the case that the blog form remains deeply important, but only for those blogs that people visit regularly and then distribute through social media. The major blogs are more powerful and popular than ever. What we are learning is that not everyone is a blogger.

Against Daddy Days

daddyTa-Nehisi Coates explains why he's frustrated about the way we're having the conversation about paternity leave: "So rather than hear about the stigma men feel in terms of taking care of kids, I'd like for men to think more about the stigma that women feel when they're trying to build a career and a family. And then measure whatever angst they're feeling against the real systemic forces that devalue the labor of women. I think that's what's at the root of much of this: When some people do certain work we cheer. When others do it we yawn. I appreciated the hosannas when I was strolling down Flatbush, but I doubt the female electrician walking down the same street got the same treatment."

The Professional Palate Unmasked

nyBreaking a tradition of his profession, New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt has decided to reveal his face. During his explanation, he stakes a claim for the continued importance of the critic in the digital age: "So is there still room for the steady (and, yes, sometimes weary) voice of the professional in a world where everyone's a critic? Of course there is. This is especially true in the theatrical realm of restaurants, where the quality and enjoyment of your dinner can vary dramatically depending on where you sit, what time of day you eat, how long the restaurant has been open, and what you happened to order. Anonymity would be nice, but it's always been less important than a sturdy gut and a settled palate. Most important of all, however, is a healthy expense account, because if a critic's employer allows for enough paid visits to a particular restaurant, even the most elaborately simpering treatment won't change his or her point of view."

 

11Jan/130

Infinitely Intoxicating

Louis Pasteur once wrote:

I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.

It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.

All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.

The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.

David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? 

Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.

What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.

Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do?  Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.

The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.””  And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.

 Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.

Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.

I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.

As Birkirts writes:

For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.

Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.

Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.

Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.

And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.

-RB

24Aug/121

Redefining “Liberal”

I am not usually hanging out on the Archbishop of Canterbury's website, but a former student and current Arendt Center Intern alerted me to his Reverence's recent review of Marilynne Robinson's newest book, When I Was A Child I Read Books. It turns out the Archbishop and I share a fondness in brilliant contemporary authors:

These essays are pure gold. Written with all her usual elegance, economy, and intellectual ruthlessness, they constitute a plea for recovering the use of "liberal" as an adjective, and, what is more, an adjective whose central meaning is specified by its use in scripture. "The word occurs [in the Geneva Bible] in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity" - and not a generosity of "tolerating viewpoints" alone, but of literal and practical dispersal of goods to those who need them.

Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.

Two points jump out here, besides the Archbishop's excellent taste. First, the Archbishop's desire to defend an old-fashioned ideal of liberality, one that has little to do with political partisanship. The liberalism Archbishop Rowan Williams defends has its secular antecedent in the philosophy of Aristotle. In his Ethics, Aristotle defines the liberal man as one who is praised with regard to "the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving." The liberal man knows how to give to the right people and how much. And such liberality, especially when directed toward the public, is an essential part of public virtue. In giving to the public, freely, the liberal man offers an example of public spirit and generosity that, more so than paying required taxes, affirms a belonging to something bigger and more meaningful than just himself. This is one reason for the importance of a culture of philanthropy.

The question of liberalism is much in the air today. Not only do Republicans deride liberals, but since Paul Ryan's selection there has been a raging debate about the tradition of liberal Christianity. Many Catholics have argued that Ryan's calls for austerity violate the Catholic ideals of social justice. In response, Bill McGurn argued this week in the Wall Street Journal that social justice is an optional requirement for Catholics, whereas support for human life is non-negotiable. McGurn writes:

Mr. Ryan's own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, addressed the subject with his most recent column in the diocesan paper for Madison, Wis. The church, he wrote, regards abortion as an "intrinsic evil" (meaning always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances). In sharp contrast, he said, on issues such as how best to create jobs or help the poor, "there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the church offers."

It is hard not to see the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Robinson's book as a contribution to this debate over the requirements of liberal Chistianity. For Archbishop Rowen, and unlike McGurn and Ryan's own bishop, liberality is biblical in origin and demands an ethic of "non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity." What that means is, of course, open for debate. But the requirement of liberal Catholic generosity itself is, pace the Archbishop, indisputable.

A second point to glean from the Archbishop's review is his interest in Robinson's "striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism." The difference between thinking and rationalizing is that thinking refuses to sacrifice reality to the coherence of theory. Rationalism as Robinson has described it in so many of her essays and novels, elevates logical coherence above the factual messiness of reality.  Rationalism  "is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic."

Where thinkers shine is in their responsiveness to individuals and singular events, and few writers today are more attentive to particulars than Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has spent the last few decades showing up the world's leading scientists and theorists, exposing the leaps of faith upon which their scientific rationalizations are predicated. The effort is not to diminish science, but to warn us against denigrating the complexity of scientific knowing to simple faiths that offer easy answers to life's perplexing questions.

You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Marilynne Robinson's essays here. Better yet, download and read Marilynne Robinson's 'When I Was a Child I Read Books'.  You can also read past discussions of Robinson's work here and here.

 -RB

23May/120

Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?

“The Garden of the Prophet”, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s posthumous book, included the poem “Pity the Nation”, his most famous and that ends with the following stanza: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”

“Pity the Nation” might well be an eight-stanza history of Lebanon: Fullness of beliefs and emptiness of religion, acclaiming the bully as hero, not raising its voice except in funerals, boasting not except among ruins, welcoming rulers with trumpeting only in order to farewell them with hooting and welcome another with more trumpeting; more than anything stands out the division into fragments, each one acting as a nation or in the name of the nation.

Already in 1860’s geopolitical conflicts in the region were translated into bitter sectarian conflicts that continued throughout independence, only to be further marred by the creation of the neighboring State of Israel. The weak political leadership of the different sects looked elsewhere than Lebanon to enter larger alliances that could further consolidate their power and quickly enough the central government began to lose control and the sectarian violence deteriorated into a civil war lasting nearly twenty years.

The history of the Lebanese civil war is rather well known, and though remarkable it was in terms of the actors involved, what is even more remarkable is the ways that the Lebanese found to negotiate their former conflicts and rehabilitate the public sphere in order to move on from a turbulent past into a future plagued by open wounds and uncertainties.

Nowhere is the legacy of the war more visible than in the city of Beirut, whose status as a cosmopolitan regional hub wasn’t born out of planning but rather the obvious accidental consequence of a very troubled past.

Craig Larkin outlined in his paper “Reconstructing and Deconstructing Beirut: Space, Memory and Lebanese Youth” some of the reasons behind Lebanon’s dynamism: A mountain refugee for religious minorities; a forged compromise of colonial powers and indigenous elites; a republic of tribes and villages; a cosmopolitan mercantile power-sharing enclave; a playground for the rich; a battle ground for religious and political ideologies; a fusion and combustion of the Arab East and the Christian West; an improbable, precarious, fragmented, shattered, torn nation.

All of these elements convened at once in Beirut in pre-war times: The city grew along the lines of quarters – usually of different religious communities – that developed an inclusive space for all after 1879 when a public garden was launched in the “bourj” (Martyrs’ Square) and the area evolved into a urban hub for all types of public activities.

During the civil war it was precisely this area what split the city in two and along the lines of which militia fighting was drawn, separating the city between East and West Beirut, and shifting the once mixed population. The end of the war, with its permanent calls for dialogue and reconciliation, surprisingly, did nothing to change the demographic status quo of the war.

The reconstruction of Beirut, and particularly of its historical downtown, was taken up in 1994 by private venture Solidere (Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth), established by then prime minister Rafik Hariri – later assassinated – at a time when the Lebanese state was still too weak and could not appropriately pass strong judgments in order to punish war criminals and effect a true social reconciliation in Lebanese society.

The solution then – as aptly described by Sune Haugbolle in his book “War and Memory in Lebanon”- was a vision of national unity, imagined or imaginary, through which Hariri’s capitalism seized the day with a state-sponsored amnesia in which reconciliation was limited to the private sphere and a vision reigned in which the most important thing was to leave the past behind.

The price that Beirut had to pay for this nominally was the actual destruction of what had been formerly the sole equivalent of a physical public realm. The obvious lack of interest in social reconciliation eliminated the possibility of true interaction between the different communities and this was further consolidated by the total absence of shared public areas. The forces and powers of the state were incorporated into Hariri’s capital and became identical with it.

The reconstruction of Beirut wasn’t so much an exercise in reconstruction as it was the total remaking of a symbolic part of the city that closed off the vaults of the past to interpretation in order to replace the immediate past with two equally disturbing symptoms of amnesia: The absolute past and the absolute future. The motto “Beirut: Ancient City of the Future” was coined and before the reconstruction even began, a large part of the area was demolished; in fact, much more than had been destroyed during the entire war.

The futuristic landscape entirely absent of public spaces – consisting mostly of prohibitively expensive residential towers and an exclusive shopping district – was coupled with an interest to preserve Beirut’s ancient heritage – ruins from Roman and Phoenician times – in order to create a model of a city that was entirely disconnected, even physically, from the vast majority of Beirut and created yet new sources of segregation and division.

Solidere’s concept envisioned a “Beirut reborn” in which the past informs the future, doing precisely what prominent Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury expressed: “It completely bypasses the present. It evokes and links the past and the future, but shrugs off any notion of the present.”

But Beirut shows a different picture in which the present rises as it self-destructs: The ambitiously wealthy downtown is contrasted to a city with poverty looming close to 35% and where news of buildings collapsing because of inadequate infrastructure is not uncommon.

At the same time the ghost of sectarianism is a living reality: What had been checkpoints and militia roadblocks during the civil war have now been replaced by subtle division lines that can be experienced by anyone who travels through the city: Posters of different sect leaders, graffiti and other religious and political icons serve the exact same function and give the unavoidable impression of a city deeply divided that echoes Lebanon’s political landscape.

Acts of memory have become commonplace in response not only to Hariri’s capitalism but to the entire political establishment, however they remain at the level of demanding what no Lebanese movement or faction has ever done: To step up to the challenge of opening public spaces in which there can be social reconciliation; namely, the acceptance that a court of justice cannot punish an entire country in which all groups involved bear responsibility.

Artists on the other hand have remained trapped in two narratives that equally defy the gist of the present: Either the total view of Lebanon through the eyes of the war or the Oriental Romanticism of the pre-republican Lebanon that is identical with the Western fantasies about the Middle East. Khoury says elsewhere: “Beirut has a false relationship with its past, characterized by a superficially Arabocentric kind of nostalgia.” What is remarkable here is the absence of the present.

Recently, I elaborated in “War and Memory in Lebanon” about the challenges posed by Hannah Arendt’s ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in postwar Lebanon in the context of Tajaddod’s interactive exhibit “Another Memory”, however I want to turn my attention now to Beirut’s relationship to the public space.

Arendt conceived of the public realm as a space produced by particular forms of citizen interaction, where citizens engage in the unpredictable self-disclosure typical of political action, properly conceived, and strengthen the bonds between them in order to sustain this selfsame space.

She writes in The Human Condition:

The term public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. This world, however, is not identical with the earth or with nature, and the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.

She continues:

Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.

This common world which Arendt discusses is a man-made phenomenon that occurs in between men naturally rather than dictated by one man alone, and this variety of “crafted” worlds is typical not only of totalitarian regimes but of any situation – political or otherwise – in which the spontaneity of human action is taken away in order to be replaced with an ideal situation in which the unpredictability of action is traded for calculations.

One of those situations in which human action is calculated is the privatization of the public realm, as has been elaborated by Mark Willson in his paper “Enacting public space: Arendt, citizenship and the city” where he makes the case for the importance of citizenship practices within the shared space of the city and how the political implications of the privatization of the public space always result in the weakening of participatory democracy.

Willson brings up recent work of Margaret Kohn (2004) which is immediately relevant to the case of Beirut: “Even when members of different groups do not engage in formal political discussion, expose to others may help offset the mutual fear and suspicion fostered by segregation. It is difficult to feel solidarity with strangers if we never inhabit places that are shared with people who are different.”

The privatization of downtown Beirut and the area surrounding Martyrs’ Square isn’t simply a question of neo-liberal economy but an attempt to dovetail and manipulate the public space into an artificial arena of consumption.

On the other hand, alternative public spaces have existed in Beirut through the war years and not limited to downtown; Larkin for example brings up the case of Hamra, home to the prestigious American University in Beirut and where the lack of urban planning and official governance enabled the development of a creative environment, allowing greater room for contested post-war visions and plural identities.

Cross-sectarian platforms do exist in Lebanese society (among them, Tajaddod is but one example) and there has been something of a resurrection of a secular movement, however at the level of the state, representation remains largely sectarian as it was from the times of French edict of 1936, after which people had to declare membership in one of the religious communities to receive the right to citizenship. Many aspects of life are still largely determined by sect.

But the consequence of this is that the fragile balance remains in spite of the official narrative of reconciliation between past and future, and without present; proof of the above is that recent clashes in the north of the country quickly spread to Beirut and brought up the anxiety of the civil war years in an environment in which people are acutely aware that the balance may break at the slightest disturbance.

It is highly unlikely that the current political leadership will be able to resolve the sectarian conflict at the heart of Lebanon’s turbulent history since they rose – against all odds – out of the sectarian conflicts and are indebted to the status quo for their power and authority in representing large sections of the Lebanese population.

A public space reinvented on a policy of amnesia isn’t only a limited public realm but also the gentrification of an entire location of memory into an elitist museum, closing not only the past but also the future. A student interviewed by Larkin expressed it best: “The redevelopment involved a covering or hiding of the memory of the war, and in this sense it’s unreal. You can’t talk just of Romans and Phoenicians and our great heritage, without mentioning militias, kidnapping and bombs.”

Catherine Wants to Know - Bernard Khoury

Even though the historical downtown isn’t the only of Solidere’s ventures (that include also the failed Elyssar plan in southern Beirut) it would be of course an unfair assessment to say that Solidere alone is responsible for the gap in the Lebanese memory. Bernard Khoury comes to mind again when he says the obvious: “Could anything more be demanded of a private company when the country as a whole is incapable of writing its own history? It’s very sad now that in school books history stops in 1975.”

Lourdes Martinez-Garrido articulated it very well in her “Beirut Reconstruction: A Missed Opportunity for Conflict Resolution” (Al Nakhlah, Fall 2008): The Lebanese civil war resolved none of the conditions that generated the initial confrontation. Like any other type of violence, it generated fear, suffering and destruction. In the process of recovery, there was no political plan for social reconstruction.

Finally, the attempted reconstruction of Beirut – though an apparent success – has decidedly turned its own heritage and culture into a “product”, usually a product of entertainment for everyone but those who suffered the war, into a touristic souvenir. This is what Hannah Arendt warned about in “The Crisis in Culture”:

Mass culture comes into being when mass society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the life process of society (which like all biological processes insatiably draws everything available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume cultural objects, eat them up, and destroy them.

The Lebanese heritage that has survived millennia of wars might yet not survive a couple of decades of amnesia and disappear altogether with the public realm. As these risks loom close, the proponents of doom will seek shelter in the past and the proponents of progress will seek shelter in the future, all while the present will continue, unfortunately, to pity the nation.

-Arie Amaya-Akkermans

 

6Apr/122

A Common Faith

Academics ignore novelists at their peril. Especially in the case of Marilynne Robinson. Robinson's novels are extraordinary (my favorite is Gilead) but her essays are equally illuminating. Take for instance her most recent offering "A Common Faith" published by Guernica.

One hazards to simplify an essay whose essential thrust is to oppose simplification.  Robinson begins with the common yet startling observation that "the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe." She then proceeds to show how scientists and academics, not to mention columnists and commentators, set out to simplify human life and explain it in accordance with theories such as capitalism and Darwinism.

Both capitalism and Darwinism are examples of what Robinson calls "simple faiths:" truths that we are so attracted to that we hold to their veracity and power even in the face of facts to the contrary. The capitalist, for example, assumes that human beings are driven by a desire for wealth, profit, and efficiency. This in spite of thousands of years of human history filled with examples of altruism and non-capitalist motivations. And Darwinists insist that human beings are essentially animals, adapted for relative advantages in survival. In doing so, they ignore or downplay all those aspects of humanity like art, religion, and the human spirit that seem to have only tenuous contributions to human survival and yet are nevertheless part of human being.

Both capitalism and Darwinism are part of what Robinson calls Simple Faiths, common faiths we embrace with a moralistic devotion even in the face of evidence to the contrary. There is, she writes, an "urge, driven by righteousness and indignation, to conform reality to theory."  Later Robinson adds:

My point is that our civilization has recently chosen to identify itself with a wildly oversimple model of human nature and behavior and then is stymied or infuriated by evidence that the models don't fit.

The demand for a consistent worldview in the face of facts to the contrary is one of the central features of totalitarianism. A mendacious consistency is, in Arendt's telling, a product of the homelessness and loneliness of the modern age and the desire to find meaning in belonging to a movement, an ideology, that gives our lives sense and significance.

If one wants to find examples of the ways that the deep desire for simple coherency continues to operate in our world, reading Marilynne Robinson's "A Common Faith" is a great place to start. As the sun shines and spring springs, print out this essay and make it your weekend read.

-RB

19Jan/121

Smart Guys on Wall Street

Nicholas Kristof asks the profound question today in his column: Is banking bad? He gives the equally enlightening answer: no. Only if you read down to the end of the column filled with such nuggets do you find the one truly revealing fact:

In 2007, on the eve of the financial crisis, 47 percent of Harvard's graduating class  headed for consulting firms and the financial sector — a huge misallocation of human capital.

In a NY Times op-ed essay in the midst of the financial crisis, Calvin Trillin presented the thesis that the origin of the financial crisis is that smart guys began working on Wall Street. There is no doubt truth to this and it goes hand in hand with the extraordinary rise of the entire financial and banking industries in the world. What needs to be seen, however, is that the reason smart guys have come to Wall Street is not simply because they wanted or needed that second ocean-faring yacht. Rather, it is that in an era of unbridled capitalism, self-worth and purpose are determined above all by one’s standing in the game of workplace success.

When all higher culture and spiritual values have been devalued, the one way that a person can secure meaning and sense to life is through the objective measurement of success that capitalism offers. In such a world, the pursuit of wealth, as Max Weber saw, is stripped of all need for spiritual justification, and emerges simply as a sport, a game in which not only the spoils, but also the sense of significance and wholeness, go to the winners.

-RB