President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:
At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.
There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:
Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too," Rabbi Azman told Maariv. "I don't want to tempt fate," he added, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.
Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.
The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.
You can read the whole talk here.
This post was originally published on December 2, 2011.
Eight years ago this week, Michael Ignatieff accepted the Hannah Arendt Prize in Bremen. Ignatieff's acceptance speech spoke of Hannah Arendt as an example, as an intellectual whose work and persona had inspired and guided him on his own course. As is appropriate, he praises Arendt and also challenges her, finding in his disagreements an intense respect for the provocation and courage of her thinking. Arendt inspires, Ignatieff concludes, because she is skeptical, dispassionate, and free. His speech is one of the best accounts of what makes Arendt so compelling as a thinker. I recommend it to you as this week’s Weekend read.
What most strikes Ignatieff about Arendt is her intellectual authority. He writes:
She was an example, first, because she created her own authority. She arrived in New York as a penniless refugee and by her death was widely respected as a public intellectual. She achieved authority by the power of thought. By authority, I mean that she was listened to, respected and widely regarded as a wise woman. I also mean that her influence has survived her and that the argument about her work continues a generation after her death.
Arendt's authority flows from commitment to ideas, to, in Ignatieff's words, an "intellectual life, that was free of any alliance with power, ideology, religion or coercive force." Neither a liberal nor a conservative, Arendt sought simply to think, and rethink, what we are doing. Again, Ignatieff characterizes her beautifully:
She defended a life of the mind connected to the idea of persuasion: the free changing of a mind in interaction with a logical argument or a claim about the world grounded in evident or falsifiable facts. She was attentive to facts, understood the discipline they impose on thought, appreciated the moral code of empirical scholarship, the proposition that if the theory does not fit the facts, the theory must be changed. This is a moral idea simply because it requires people to admit that they are wrong, and since nobody likes to, everyone can find a morally dubious way to avoid doing so. Facts are stubborn things, and intellectual life has no essential morality unless it submits arguments to the discipline of such facts as we can discover about ourselves and the world we live in.
Arendt's insistence on facts beyond ideology and politics made her old-fashioned to some. While everyone has a right to their opinion, she insisted that facts are sacrosanct, and no one has a right to change facts. Fidelity to facts meant for her a fidelity to living in a world with others, a shared world, one in which our disagreements cannot include disagreements over the unquestionable factual truths that make up our common world.
It is on the question of one such fact, however, that Ignatieff disagrees with Arendt. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt brought attention to the complicity of Jewish leaders who, during WWII, supplied Nazi leaders with lists of Jews and organized their fellow Jews for transport to concentration and death camps. A few resigned. Fewer committed suicide or resisted. But the majority collaborated.
These Jewish leaders often defended their actions as a lesser evil, keeping order where otherwise disorder might have reigned. But Arendt noted that they also kept themselves and their families off the transport lists. These were facts. While many Jews thought these facts should be hidden, Arendt insisted on telling the whole truth. Arendt argued that it is always right to tell the truth, no matter the consequences.
What is more, Arendt had the temerity to judge the Jewish leaders for their complicity. The Jewish leaders, she wrote, had defended their actions by the argument of the "lesser evil"— that their cooperation allowed them to save some Jews (themselves included) and was therefore a lesser evil; if they had simply handed the responsibility for selecting and organizing the Jews to the Nazis, that would have been worse.
For Arendt, this argument of the lesser evil was in form, although not in significance or import, the very same argument Eichmann employed. It was even closer to the actions of normal, average, everyday Germans who chose to work within the Nazi bureaucracy and legal system, justifying their actions by saying that if they resigned, others, even more heartless, would take their places. What unites the German civil servants and the Jewish leaders in Arendt’s telling is their willingness to justify morally suspect actions in the name of doing an unethical job as ethically as possible.
It is important to recall that Arendt did not advocate punishing the Jewish leaders. Hers was not a legal judgment. But she did insist that they should bear moral responsibility for their actions. In short, they had put their own safety and the safety of their friends and families above their obligations to those other Jews who were under their care. In short, they had valued the lives of some over others and cooperated in the selection of some for extermination.
Arendt's argument of the formal similarity between the complicity of the Jewish leader and German bureaucrats was, Ignatieff argues, a mistake. It is worth hearing his argument at length. He writes:
Arendt had assumed that the choices that Jewish leaders made under Nazi occupation ought to be judged by the same standards of accountability to be applied to the perpetrators. She quoted her friend Mary McCarthy as saying, “If somebody points a gun at you and says, “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, he is tempting you, that is all.”
Arendt maintained that while it might not be possible to resist direct coercion, it was possible to resist temptation. This standard applied equally to perpetrators and accomplices. Without holding on to such a distinction, Arendt claimed, personal responsibility would be lost altogether.
Yet while it is a temptation for the perpetrator to say: “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, the victim so compelled is under a very direct form of coercion. Arendt has elided two very different experiences: the German perpetrator who could disobey orders that entailed telling others to kill and a Jewish collaborator who knew that the choices were between everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later.
“I was told, “Arendt later said angrily, “that judging itself was wrong: no one can judge who had not been there.” But it was one thing to insist on the right to judge Eichmann and his kind, another thing to claim the equivalent right to judge—and condemn—the conduct of Jewish collaborators. The second case required a different kind of judgment, one that does not confuse understanding and forgiveness, but which does insist on empathy as a prelude to judgment. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy here means the capacity to enter into the moral world of those faced with intolerable choices and understand how these choices could be made. Empathy implies a capacity to discriminate between the condemnation appropriate to a perpetrator and that of his Jewish accomplice. The accusation here is fundamental: that in making ethical judgment the central function of intellectual life, and its chief claim of authority, Arendt had lacked the one essential feature of judgment: compassion.
There are a few things to say about Ignatieff's critique. First, he assumes that for the Jewish collaborators the choice was between "everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later." Arendt disputes that fact. She denies that Jewish collaboration saved more lives than non-collaboration would have. Indeed, she argues that if the Jews had refused to collaborate, many fewer Jews would have been killed. The ensuing chaos would have afforded many Jews the chance to escape and would have inspired others to resist. Further, the complicity of Jewish leaders eased the Nazi's job and provided labor and legitimacy that expedited the efficiency of the final solution. It is simply wrong, Arendt insists, to see the choice as one of dying now or dying later. One cannot know the results of action, which always begins anew and is unpredictable in its consequences. Jewish resistance in place of collaboration, she argues, might have saved lives. It would have required courage, however, that the leaders risk their own lives.
Second, Ignatieff argues that Arendt was wrong to judge the collaborators and that in doing so she denied them the empathy and compassion that are essential features of judgment. Here Ignatieff and Arendt have a real difference of opinion, and it is one worth thinking about.
Ignatieff insists that judgment requires compassion. We should get to know the person being judged, empathize with his plight, and make allowance for his wrongs based on the circumstances. Against this view, Arendt insists that compassion—which is an essential and praiseworthy trait in the personal realm—must be kept out of the political realm and divorced from questions of judgment.
Compassion with another requires an engagement with another in their singularity. Indeed, it is just such a lack of compassion with those Jews under their care that was absent on the part of the Jewish leaders and that allowed them to act such as they did. Instead of compassion, the Jewish leaders treated their fellow Jews with pity. The leaders eased the plight of their subjects by treating them pitifully and softly as they sent them off to die, but they were able to do so only by avoiding the true empathy of compassion that would have made such action impossible. If the Jewish leaders really had compassion, they could never have handed them over to the Nazis to be killed. In fact, it is this willingness to subordinate their compassion and singular relation to those they were responsible for, to the political logic of means-ends rationality that bothered Arendt.
What most bothered Arendt, however, was that the Jewish leaders judged it better to do wrong by sending others off to die than to suffer wrong themselves. This putting of their own self-interest above the moral requirement not to do wrong was, she argued, a violation of the fundamental moral law first announced by Socrates; that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. It is for their poor moral judgment that Arendt judges them.
While the leaders should have showed compassion for those in their care, Arendt insists that a judge should not. Judgment requires distance. It is from her distant perch as a conscious pariah—an outsider who refuses to let compassion enter her judgments—that Arendt found the moral authority with which to judge the Jewish leaders. On the need for such judgment, she and Ignatieff simply disagree.
Enjoy Ignatieff's speech. It is a shining example of how to accept an award with gratitude—appropriate for a post-Thanksgiving read. And let us know what you think.
When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.
This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.
Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.
Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?
BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.
But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.
The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.
The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.
Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!
I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.
I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.
Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.