What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”
But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?
Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered: ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.
Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.
Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]
For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.
Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.
The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'
It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.
No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.
Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”
Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.
Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.
The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.
What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.
When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.
How do our understandings of democracy shape how we imagine racial equality and the means by which it might be achieved? That was the question posed by Maribel Morey at the most recent lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. Morey is currently a fellow at the New York University School of Law, and she has recently completed her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. Building upon her research on the Swedish economist and social theorist Gunnar Myrdal, Morey offered an incisive comparative reading of Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944) and Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959).
As became evident in the course of her talk, these texts posit different visions of democracy in the U.S., and they come to different conclusions about a central feature of the civil rights era: the federally enforced integration of public schools in the segregated South.
Myrdal was a strong advocate of such government intervention. In his argument, the premises and principles of American democracy effectively demand the racial integration of schools and other institutions, and it is legitimate for the federal government to enforce such integration for the sake of America’s ongoing democratic life. This position insists that education constitutes a crucial public resource provided by the state, and it proposes that inequitable access to this resource limits individual and collective participation in the political realm. Indeed, Myrdal goes even further by contending that discrimination and segregation violate the very “American creed”—the liberal commitment to equality and fair treatment—that makes national co-existence possible. Since its initial publication, Myrdal’s position has exerted a deep influence on U.S. public discourse: it played a key role in civil rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it figured prominently in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Arendt was also committed to the project of political equality in the U.S., but she parts ways with Myrdal by sharply questioning the legitimacy of federally enforced integration. On the one hand, she objects to this form of intervention because it “burden[s] children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve”. Government-mandated integration thereby inserts young people into a political struggle for which they are not prepared and to which they do not properly belong. On the other hand, Arendt takes issue with the way that federally mandated integration transgresses the boundaries that ought to be maintained between the realms of political, social, and private life.
These boundaries are necessary, in Arendt’s argument, because polity, society, and privacy are defined by different animating principles. Politics is defined by the principle of equality: all adult citizens enjoy the same right to vote and be voted into office, and no differences should exist in their ability to participate in the polity. By contrast, the social realm is characterized by the principle of discrimination: social relations follow the adage “like attracts like,” according to Arendt, and individuals are therefore entitled to associate—and not associate—with others along the lines of profession, class origin, ethnicity, level of education, and other vectors of difference. Finally, the private realm is defined by the principle of exclusiveness: individuals choose the people with whom they will spend their lives on the basis of those people’s unique qualities, and the government should and indeed must assure “the rights of every person to do as he pleases within the four wall of his own home.”
Arendt charges that state action in the service of racial integration is acceptable when it attacks the legal enforcement of discrimination in the political realm. One of her key differences with Myrdal, however, lies in the fact that she does not regard the education provided by the school as necessary for political participation. Indeed, she does not ultimately consider the school to be a “political” institution at all. To be sure, the state has the right to prescribe educational content that will prepare children for future work and citizenship. But in Arendt’s argument government cannot dictate the forms of association and social life that emerge in school, and it cannot infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children as they deem appropriate. These points lead her to a rather provocative conclusion: “to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies—the private right over their children and the social right to free association.”
As Roger Berkowitz writes in his essay "Solitude and the Activity of Thinking," Arendt's argument is grounded on her belief that a vibrant private realm is a constitutive need of a free political society. Without a strong protection of the private realm where people can grow to be different, unique, and self-thinkers, there will be no true plurality, which is the condition for action and politics. The price for plurality, she writes, is that we allow for people to live freely in private. It is for this reason that Arendt argues against anti-miscegenation law and why she would insist on the right to gay marriage. For Arendt, there is nothing more constitutive of privacy than the right to raise one's children as one wishes. For the state to forcefully require parents to send their children to a specific kinds of school means, she writes, that there would be no meaningful realm of privacy left—which would endanger the plurality she understands is the pre-condition of politics. As Berkowitz writes:
What offends Arendt in the Little Rock case is not the ideal of desegregation, but the danger that well-intentioned governmental attacks on social discrimination will erode the walls of privacy that nourish the possibility of thinking and of acting—and thus of plurality. Since the space for solitary thought depends on the protection of a vibrant private realm, the protection of privacy is a necessary first step in the cultivation of thoughtful political action.
Given the controversial nature of Arendt’s position, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion turned on the questions her essay leaves unanswered. For example, many audience members wondered about the connections between private upbringing, social discrimination, and political equality. What is it that enables or requires citizens to forego the discrimination they practice in social life so that they might recognize other citizens as equals?
For that matter, how is it possible for people to transcend those aspects of their familial socialization that might hinder them from participating in politics without prejudice?
Other listeners focused on the two writers’ divergent intellectual predilections. As several of them noted, Myrdal’s work reveals a basic confidence in the ability of government, working in tandem with enlightened social science, to conceive and implement policies that further democratic freedoms. Arendt, on the other hand, betrays a much more skeptical stance not only on power of the state, but also on the capacity of social scientists (like Myrdal) to guide productive social and political interventions.
Finally, discussion turned to one point where Arendt, despite the contentious nature of her remarks, might be developing a more interesting view of democratic societies than Myrdal. As Morey noted in the Q and A, Myrdal’s reflections on democracy are ultimately premised on the existence of a national Volk defined by broad moral and cultural commonality. Prejudice and discrimination are pernicious, in his reading, because they prevent racial minorities from complete integration into the nation and its defining sense of peoplehood. Arendt’s vision, by contrast, adopts a much more guarded stance toward “conformism” of this sort. Indeed, “Reflections on Little Rock” proposes that people have a strong right to their opinions and sentiments in the private and social realms, even when those opinions and sentiments are deeply unpalatable in the wider public sphere and polity. As a result, Arendt’s notion of democracy appears to allow much greater room for the existence and maintenance of difference.
On the whole, then, Morey’s talk cast thoughtful light on the work of these two thinkers. It sought neither to venerate nor to dismiss their claims wholesale, but instead probed the many differences in their starting points and claims. In the end, Myrdal and Arendt’s positions seemed so divergent that it was hard not to regard them as “two ships passing in the night”—despite their common abhorrence of racial segregation.
You can view Maribel Morey's talk and the ensuing discussion on the Hannah Arendt Center website, here.
Maribel Morey's essay, "Reassessing Hannah Arendt's 'Reflections on Little Rock' (1959)" was published in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. You can sign in with a password to read the article here.
“The Origin and Character of Hannah Arendt's Theory of Judgment”
David L. Marshall
Political Theory 2010 38 (3) 367-393
Drawing chiefly on entries between 1952 and 1957 in Arendt's recently published Denktagebuch, David Marshall proposes an account of the origin of Arendt's theory of judgment based on her early readings of Hegel, Aristotle, and Kant. Marshall sets the broader frame of his argument in terms of the shift between Arendt's negative appraisal of Kant's philosophy in the second Critique as recorded in her (unpublished) Berkeley lecture of 1955 and her embrace of the third Critique in 1970 (in Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy). Arendt saw the categorical imperative as concerning only the individual and thus ignoring the plurality of the world. Kant's aesthetics offers her the resources for a bold shift in political thinking but critics argue that too much emphasis on the individual's subjective decision (for example in the idea of taste) potentially undermines an eventual group judgment.
One of Marshall's strongest contributions helps explain how these group judgments develop in Arendt's view. Taking up an entry from December 1952 in the Denktagebuch on Hegel's Logic, he argues that Arendt's early understanding of judgment involves a move from particular to general characterized by “continuity” rather than “subsumption” (Hegel, cited by Marshall, 373). As an example, the judgment “Cicero is great” would not place Cicero under the already existing definition of greatness, but lead to a reconsideration of both terms. For Arendt this reconsideration points the way to a discussion about the shifts in meaning involved. Thus “in an Arendtian gloss, Hegel's emphasis on reflective judgment is a commitment to worldliness, to history, and to the particular” (375). From a broader perspective, Marshall's reading complicates Hegel's influence on Arendt by showing how he positively impacted her thought. Further work in this direction (drawing on the Denktagebuch) will be of great value in drawing a contrast with her general use of him in her published work to indicate an automatic development of history that threatens freedom.
The following section focuses on Aristotle's use of the term krinein in the Rhetoric and Arendt's double translation of the term as urteilen and entscheiden (judging and deciding). Marshall points out that the judge in Aristotle's text is not merely a spectator but also at least potentially and actor. As in the section on Hegel, Marshall sees this in terms of a turn away from the general and towards “a logic of the example” (379). One intriguing point for future research mentioned briefly relates to the connection between Arendt's reading of the Rhetoric and that of Heidegger in the summer semester of 1924 (published as Grundbegriffe der Aristotelischen Philosophie).
The remainder of the article places these specific engagements with Hegel and Aristotle in the context of Arendt's 1957 notes in the Denktagebuch that document her careful rereading of the Critique of Judgment. While Marshall sees these notes as being largely in line with the published 1970 Kant lectures, he employs the specifications made in his exegesis to respond to five criticisms of Arendt's theory of judgment from contemporary scholars broadly related to the supposed danger of the aesthetic dimension of her thought. Some readers may find this aspect of the article to be posturing and others may think that he sets himself too large a task, since each criticism could be explicated and parsed at much greater length. However, with his pointers to key sections of the Denktagebuch, Marshall offers a key contribution to growing work on the importance of this text and opens a number of lines of future inquiry.
-Review by Jeffrey Champlin
“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
Beyond all the silliness attached to the Todd Akin case this week, the only meaningful comment came from Rachel Riederer. In an essay in Guernica, Riederer writes:
The content of [Akin's] statements was, of course, ridiculous and offensive. But the comments struck me most as a rhetorical move, one that’s in wide usage but rarely gets this kind of attention. When asked to defend a difficult and extreme position—his opposition to abortion in all cases, even rape—Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position, but to push aside the question with a bogus fact.
The Hannah Arendt Center has been highlighting the ever-increasing tendency of politicians—not to mention academics and others—to replace argument with an attack on the facts. At last Fall's Conference on "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts," we began with the premise that:
We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
In essays like "Truth and Politics" and "Lying and Politics," as well as in many of her books, Arendt argued that the modern era is particularly vulnerable to attacks on the facts. This is because we live at a time when people have lost the traditions and customs that are the pillars and foundations of their lives. Adrift, people seek certainties that give sense to their world. In such a situation of spiritual homelessness and rootlessness, it is easy to latch onto an ideology that gives clear and simple expressions of a communal truth. And when facts counteract that truth, it is easier to simply deny the fact than to rethink one's intellectual identity.
It is hard not to think about Arendt's analysis of the desire for ideological coherence at the expense of facts as we suffer through the 2012 presidential campaign. The patent lies on both sides feed ideologically driven "bases" that watch the same TV, listen to the same radio, read the same blogs, and live in the same fantasy worlds. Akin's remarks speak to the power of those worlds, but also to their vulnerability. There are limits to fiction in the real world, and that is important to remember as well.
The Wall Street Journal, The New York times, and Guernica—it seems everyone is excoriating John Roberts' opinion upholding the health insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The WSJ calls the precedent Roberts set "grim." The Journal, in another editorial, writes that Roberts' decision is "is far more dangerous, and far more political, even than it first appeared last week." Roberts has, the WSJ argues, substituted "one unconstitutional expansion of government power [the commerce clause] for another [the taxing power]," and, in doing so, rearranged "the constitutional architecture of the U.S. political system."
In Guernica, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, argues that "Closer inspection of the actual written opinion shows Roberts gave those who want to hem in Congress’s power everything they wanted." Torres-Spelliscy agrees with the WSJ that, in her words, Roberts "provided the blueprint for a radical rebalancing of powers among the three branches." But while the WSJ thinks Roberts is expanding governmental power, Torres-Spelliscy argues he is radically constricting it.
What both sides in this debate get right is that Roberts' opinion is deeply important and that it will likely change the way that the U.S. Federal Government interacts with citizens. That said, for those concerned with freedom within a constitutional government, as was Hannah Arendt, Roberts' opinion offers much to be excited about. It deserves greater and more serious consideration than it has so far been given.
Roberts' opinion begins with an eminently sensible manifesto for judicial restraint. Like his hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Roberts believes the Court should defer to Congress except in those cases where the legislation cannot be squared with the Constitution. The devil is always in the details of such a squaring, but at a time of ideological posturing, Roberts' opinion is a welcome read:
Our permissive reading of [Congress' enumerated powers] is explained in part by a general reticence to invalidate the acts of the Nation's elected leaders. "Proper respect for a co-ordinate branch of the government" requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if "the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated." Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgment. those decision are entrusted to our Nation's elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.
Whatever one thinks of Roberts' actual legal opinion, the statesmanship he evinces is welcome. In the most politically sensitive case since Bush v. Gore, Roberts defused a potential explosion threatening to undermine the Supreme Court's legitimacy. As the Arendt Center's Bard colleague Walter Russell Mead writes, "in form and execution this was a decision that will reinforce the Court’s position in the country while, so far as I can see, avoiding the possibility of harm based on the faulty constitutional theories that the health care law’s backers put forward." The introductory pages of the Roberts opinion offer a balanced and at times inspired primer in Constitutional interpretation and U.S. Constitutional history.
Beyond the near pitch-perfect tone, Roberts' opinion offers much to be thankful for. It is one of the most legally important opinion the Court has handed down in decades. It seems worth making a few points.
1. Many have derided Roberts for considering the mandate payment a tax when the legislation called it penalty. Let's give him credit for speaking frankly. It really was a tax. The Congress simply didn't want to call it a tax for political reasons. The mandate is a payment required to be made to the Treasury, collected by the IRS, with no Criminal or Social Stigma of wrongdoing attached to it. Roberts did not have to call it a tax, but he did so on the principle of judicial restraint, interpreting the statute in a way most likely to maintain its constitutionality. That is the role of a Supreme Court in a constitutional republic.
The distinction Roberts employs to call the mandate a tax makes total sense. He says that a payment is a penalty when non-payment is considered a wrong. If you speed and pay a ticket, you have committed a misdemeanor. That is a penalty, not a tax. But when the payment is simply made without any claim that the action generating the payment is wrong, that is a tax. So, if you purchase cigarettes or a speed boat, you pay a special tax. It is your choice.
In the case of the mandate, the Affordable Care Act says that if you don't purchase insurance, you pay a certain amount to the treasury. That amount is less than you would normally pay for insurance in many circumstances. Thus the legislation expects and imagines people for whom the payment is lower than purchasing insurance to actually pay the payment rather than purchase insurance. This is evidence for Roberts that there is no stigma associated with the payment and that it really is functioning as a tax rather than as a penalty. There is no sense of a wrong. Despite what Congress said for political purposes, Roberts is on good grounds to call the mandate payment a tax.
2. Roberts blazes a new path on which the federal government can continue to regulate the actions of citizens. The Congress must now increasingly justify its regulatory initiatives by appeal to the power to tax rather than the power to regulate commerce. While this may seem merely a semantic distinction, it is not a meaningless difference. And this is the heart of the real importance of Roberts' opinion.
If the mandate payment had been upheld under the commerce clause (as Justice Ginsburg's dissent advocated), then the government would have been permitted to do anything it wanted or needed to do in order to achieve its ends of creating a health care system. For example, Congress could have simply required people to purchase health care. You may think that is what Congress did. But according to Roberts, such a requirement is no longer constitutional. Instead, what the Congress did was say: "You have a choice. You can buy health insurance or you can forego buying health insurance and pay a tax to support the health insurance market."
What is the difference? Under the commerce clause, the government can tell you what to do (buy insurance) and it can punish you if you do not do so. Under the taxing power, all the government can do is require people to pay money into the treasury. This is not a meaningless difference.
While the power to tax can be terrible and the power to tax is also in certain cases the power to destroy, this is not usually the case. When taxes are reasonable and not destructive, an individual charged with buying insurance or paying a tax can always choose to pay the tax and not buy insurance.
This is the emancipatory thrust of Roberts' opinion. By shifting the Congressional authorization from Commerce to Taxation, he has struck a surprising balance between freedom and the government's power to influence behavior. On the one hand, it is now significantly harder to justify congressional authority over individuals that will compel them to act in a certain way. On the other hand, Congress can pursue its ends by taxation rather than by regulation.
3. To make it clear just what it is that Roberts allowed, he offers an example that I think is helpful.
Suppose Congress enacted a statute providing that every taxpayer who owns a house without energy efficient windows must pay $50 to the IRS. The amount due is adjusted based on factors such as taxable income and joint filing status, and is paid along with the taxpayer’s income tax return. Those whose income is below the filing threshold need not pay. The required payment is not called a “tax,” a “penalty,” or anything else. No one would doubt that this law imposed a tax, and was within Congress’s power to tax. That conclusion should not change simply because Congress used the word “penalty” to describe the payment. Interpreting such a law to be a tax would hardly “[i]mpos[e] a tax through judicial legislation.”
Roberts is right here. The real reason to like his opinion is that by shifting the authorization from commerce to taxation, Roberts affirms the federal government's right to influence behavior but weakens the federal government's authority to compel citizen behavior. His argument is that it is more consistent with federal limits and the protection of freedom to allow the government to tax us then to regulate us.
There are still many unanswered questions here. It is unclear how impactful Roberts opinion will be in the future. But he has offered an alternative to the ever-expanding use of the commerce power to justify intrusive federal regulations, while still asserting that the federal government does have the power to motivate and behavior through its power to tax.
It is rare to read a Supreme Court opinion that is as surprising as it is thoughtful. It is also worth doing so. Robert's opinion is your weekend read.
In the aftermath of the recent presidential elections and the sentencing of Hosni Mubarak, the attention of many observers within and outside Egypt has turned to the complexities of the country’s immediate future. This focus is entirely understandable given Egypt’s prominent place in the wider Arab world and the intractable challenges it now confronts. But it has also entailed a certain emotional and intellectual distance from the transformative events that transfixed the world in January and February 2011. The uprising that took most visible form in the Tahrir Square protests is already retreating into the twilit realm of history and memory.
This process is inevitable, and there is little point in attempting to arrest it. But we would still do well to recall the urgency and enormity of Egypt’s transformation before it recedes even further into the maelstrom of our twenty-four-hour news cycles and day-to-day cares. One occasion for such reflection is the “Egypt Forum” that recently appeared in American Ethnologist, one of the world’s most prominent journals in my field, cultural anthropology. Composed of nine short essays from some of the discipline’s foremost scholars, the Forum illustrates anthropology’s capacity to bring vivid lived experience into conversation with larger processes and forces. Taken together, the assembled contributions remind us that the 2011 uprising was not an inevitable triumph of popular sovereignty, but a tense and even disorienting moment of uncertainty, one in which the very nature of politics was up for grabs.
The “Egypt Forum” makes three notable contributions to our understanding of Mubarak’s ouster from power. First, it underscores how many Egyptian citizens drew on local moral categories, not just the liberal language of rights and democracy, to interpret the uprising. Farha Ghannam examines how residents of one Cairo neighborhood relied on notions of “thuggery” (baltagiyya) to condemn violent attacks against protesters and more general corruption among state officials. Sherine Hamdy describes how her Egyptian acquaintances imagined themselves as resilient in the face of obstacles, but also physically and spiritually enfeebled by years of state-sponsored injustice and brutality. And as Lila Abu-Lughod details, the protests prompted young men and women in one Upper Egyptian village to establish a popular committee to solve problems of resource distribution, build homes for indigent neighbors, and collect funds for displaced families. Rather than couching their efforts in overtly “political” language, however, they dubbed their committee the “Youth of Good Works” (shabab al-khayr).
Second, the Forum highlights the extent to which the protests against Mubarak’s regime defied the commonplace distinction between “religious” and “secular.” Indeed, as Hussein Ali Agrama contends, the protests constituted a moment of “asecular” power not merely because they drew a variety of liberal, left-leaning, and devout participants, but because the protesters were not particularly concerned with characterizing their efforts in “secular” or “religious” terms—or with drawing boundaries between the two realms. Charles Hirschkind is also struck by the accommodating spirit of the uprising, and he traces its guiding sensibility to the careers of three public intellectuals who have reflected in innovative ways on the place of Islam in Egyptian life. For all of these commentators, the Islamic tradition is not an impediment to national independence and democracy, but rather a resource and frame of reference for “an open, nondogmatic style of political engagement.”
Third, the Forum draws attention to the forms of marginalization that the revolution and its aftermath have not entirely overcome. Although women were conspicuous among the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square, Sherine Hafez notes that they have been largely excluded from Egyptian politics after the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. Perhaps most notably, they played no role in the “Council of Wise Men” (note the name) that initially negotiated with the Supreme Military Council, and they were entirely absent from the committee charged with reforming the constitution. (Hafez also observes, with biting irony, that it did not take long for Tahrir Square to regain its reputation as a zone of routine sexual harassment.) For her part, Jessica Winegar highlights the ongoing domestic duties that prevented many women from participating in the protests, and she emphasizes the economic realities that made work more pressing than revolution for many of Cairo’s poorer residents. Indeed, many of the young women Winegar knew were only too happy to see the end of the protests, since it meant that they could once more move about the city and return to their jobs.
All in all, these essays are worth reading because they illuminate facets of the Egyptian uprising that have eluded many pundits and other “expert commentators.” They thereby demonstrate the value of intimate and sustained social inquiry, even—and perhaps especially—when the revolution is televised.
“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.
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.”
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.
Cultural memory is a concept – albeit in vogue always in periods of amnesia – that is deeply intertwined with identity. The link between the two is something as simple as what Agnes Heller observed in 2001: “Without shared cultural memory there is no identity”.
She says elsewhere in “Cultural Memory, Identity and Civil Society”: “Cultural memory is rather embodied in objectivations which store meanings in a concentrated manner, meanings shared by a group of people who take them for granted.”
Heller makes the argument that civil society has no cultural memory. The explanation is plausible and clear: Civil society is a heterogeneous mosaic of sometimes conflicting cultural memories and activities or institutions that are in no need of cultural memory.
Civil society – unlike the old community – can smoothly operate through clashes of interest and cooperation limited to short term future and without utopia. The question of identity then is nowhere raised with more rigor than when the cultural memory is challenged.
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) remains a textbook case of this challenge. My contention is that the preoccupation with the actual content of the Lebanese identity arose only when the shared cultural memory – once taken for the granted – was eroded through the war.
Of course many would challenge this view arguing that the ground was fertile for the war since the 1860’s under Ottoman rule and that only intensified in the years leading into the war. But in the realm of history, as moderns know well, theory is but a realm of consolations.
Every postwar society is faced with the enormous challenge of re-writing its own history and this is particularly difficult in the case of civil wars in which different cultural memories, often hostile to teach other share a legacy that came to them without a testament.
Over twenty years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War – in which neighboring countries, Western powers and Israel were at some point involved – the actual challenge of the memory in general remains a tense battleground of ideological and political conflict.
It is precisely this challenge that the interactive exhibition “Another Memory” has come to tackle: An open archive of Lebanese memory throughout the war years that aimed to confront the public with narratives about the war other than their own.
A number of key dates of the civil war were selected and front pages of the newspapers An-Nahar and As-Safir reprinted and juxtaposed in large displays. The public was encouraged to interact with the exhibit by adding their own footnotes to the articles in post-it notes.
An interesting article published in NOW Lebanon has pointed out how the exhibit – organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in partnership with Danish Rakidal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) – has gone where few others have:
While plenty of noise is made by Lebanese civil society groups and NGOs about the need for national post-civil war reconciliation, the issue is rarely tackled in concrete initiatives by political parties themselves.
The question of post-war reconciliation brings up a number of issues that were addressed in a dialogue between Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida established by Cláudia Perrone-Moisés in her “Forgiveness and Crimes Against Humanity: A Dialogue between Hannah Arendt & Jacques Derrida”, providing us with a framework to understand why initiatives like “Another Memory” are issues of the first order of relevance for Lebanon and any post-war society.
Derrida’s argument on forgiveness is that in the “globalized” market of human suffering that emerged after the horrors of the world wars, it is institutions and governments who are asking for forgiveness.
In this sense the spectacle of forgiveness is nothing but a simulacrum and he brings up the example of a South African woman whose husband had been imprisoned and tortured, who, before the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, said: “A commission or a government cannot forgive. Perhaps only I could do it. But I am not ready to forgive.”
Derrida and Arendt agree that forgiveness has the power to interrupt the flow of events and to create new beginnings – a paradox of cultural memory: how to begin anew with and in spite of the past?
But they differ in that what for Derrida is an essentially divine gesture, for Arendt remains a purely human experience.
Yet to forgive the unforgivable (and here we are dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity) it seems, is something that remains outside the limits of the law, and this is what the poet W.H. Auden articulates in a letter to Arendt: “The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged; only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish”.
Arendt replies to Auden saying that he’s right (and she was wrong) in that punishment is only an alternative to judicial pardon, but that accordingly, not everything is punishable. Derrida stays here at the level of forgiveness merely in the service of noble or spiritual ends.
Hannah Arendt goes further to establish a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation: In her journal entries from June 1950 – at a time when she was probably still working on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – she writes that “forgiveness and revenge are a unity of opposites that correspond to each other”.
According to her, forgiving takes place only among those who are “infinitely unequal” and that the mere act of forgiveness actually destroys the human relationship:
“Forgiveness, or what is normally understood as such, is in reality only an apparent success; in it one takes a higher ground and the other demands something that men cannot grant each other… Reconciliation instead has its origin in being averted with the mission that has been given to us.”
Reconciliation – beyond forgiveness and judicial pardon – isn’t based on the understanding that I could have done this as well, a quintessentially religious mistrust of human nature, but on the acute realization that “this should have never happened”.
Forgiveness breaks the relationship in its adamant refusal to share the burden for what has happened and rather prefers to “look the other way”. Arendt better articulated this several years later:
This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty per excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.
What “Another Memory” tried to do – even though it was open only from May 12th to 14th and with a rather limited attendance – was to open the vaults of memory not in order to sit in judgment but the afford the possibility of the antinomies in cultural memories; those probably are not to be overcome but rather accepted and understood. It is a facing up and resisting of reality.
Its enormous success in rehabilitating the public sphere isn’t necessarily something quantitative but the sheer quality of opening a space in which the past isn’t closed off – as the many postwar courts and tribunals often assume in many countries the world over.
It was a space of hope without promise since promises can only be delivered between one man and another; the living proof of what Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui remarked to me in a conversation:
For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.
(*) Hannah Arendt’s “Denktagebuch” is not translated into English. Excerpts above I translated from the original German. Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my own. For an essay on Arendt's idea of reconciliation as opposed to revenge and forgiveness, click here.
"We need to learn ‘simplicity’ and to unlearn ‘the simplification of abstract thinking’, to become fluent in the art and the language of ‘concrete’ thoughts and feelings, and thus to comprehend that both abstract notions and abstract emotions are not merely false to what actually happens but are viciously interconnected.”
-Hannah Arendt: Introduction to J. Glenn Gray: The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle, New York: Harcourt 1970, p. viii
This is not a declaration of intent: passions and emotions play an essential role in Arendt’s work.
In her book about totalitarianism Arendt described the “Eiseskälte”, the ice-cold reasoning (Hitler), of the totalitarian ideology withdrawing itself from each concrete earthly world into the self-motion of the logic of abstract ideas, where no concrete feelings towards others existed anymore but only abstract feeling towards the own people, the nation or the enemy.
When there still existed any concrete feelings, then they were feelings of impotence, loneliness and of fear not to conform oneself in the right way to the coercive force of logicality but to contradict it. This fear according to Arendt can be compared with the fear of death.
The totalitarian ice-cold reasoning was already germinating in the early part of the 20th century after the catastrophe of WWI by "behavioral theories of coldness" (Helmuth Lethen), noticeable in the "Neue Sachlichkeit" (the New Objectivity) and the writings of Ernst Jünger, Gottfried Benn and Carl Schmitt, but also of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.
Hannah Arendt criticized the coldness and addressed the warmth. She spoke of the impartial but not indifferent spectator of our common world which only appears through interpersonal relationships, and of passions accompanying the right use of reason: the critical attitude to the world, laughter as an emotion of thinking and friendship being more important than truth. Reading the police interrogations of Eichmann, Arendt had to laugh several times, “but loud!”, because of the discrepancy between his words and deeds. At another occasion she highlighted Brecht’s remarks about Arturo Ui in 1948 portraying Hitler: “The great political criminals must certainly be exposed, and preferably through ridicule. Because above all, they are not great political criminals, but the perpetrators of great political crimes, which is something utterly different.” Very moved, in her book about the Eichmann trial, Arendt described the scene when the story of the rescuer Anton Schmidt was told: “A hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence … which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of the impenetrable, unfathomable darkness”.
In her sympathetic characterization of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Arendt shows that critical thinking can go along with passions.
Lessing “never made his peace with the world in which he lived. He enjoyed 'challenging prejudices’ and 'telling the truth to the court missions.’ Dearly though he paid for these pleasures, they were literally pleasures. Once when he was attempting to explain to himself the source of 'tragic pleasure’, he said that 'all passions, even the most unpleasant, are as passions pleasant’ because, they make us ... more conscious of our existence, they make us feel more real."
More real were also the feelings of the French resistance fighters during WWII, the insurgents in Budapest in 1956 and all those spontaneously acting persons, whom Arendt always mentioned. To act, to dare the risk of entering the public space means to feel the reality more intensively, to be more alive. Her book Men in Dark Times deals with examples of this liveliness. In her ‘Thought Diaries’ Arendt wrote down: “An excess of reason is indifference: the created space makes an unbridgeable distance; the relation breaks off. An excess of feeling is destructiveness, together with the in-between, the object is being destroyed, even and particularly the loved object’.“ (1968)
In 1967 during the Vietnam War, Arendt wrote the introduction cited above for the new edition of her friend’s book, The Warrior. Jesse Glenn Gray was a professor of philosophy at Colorado College and in 1957 published for the first time his memories of being a US agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps during WWII in Italy, France, and Germany. For Arendt it was a ”singularly earnest and beautiful book”, talking about “life and death, love, friendship, and comradeship, about courage and recklessness, about sensuality and the ‘surge of vitality’, about ‘inhuman cruelty’ and ‘superhuman kindness’, not as stereotypical opposites but as being simultaneously present in the same person.” Especially moving, also for Arendt, is the description of the friendly encounter J. Glenn Gray had with an illiterate hermit in the Italian mountains who did not even know that there was a war going on. Glenn Gray was dismayed with himself after the encounter, for though he held a PhD in philosophy, he was left wondering what he actually knew about life?
You know that the problem of inequality has gone mainstream when even Charles Murray has written a book about it. Not only the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, but also Murray—the conservative force between The Bell Curve and other controversial contributions to the culture wars—is now loudly screaming about the dangers of inequality in America. But with Murray, there is a difference.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on the vast income inequality that divides the country into haves, have nots, and have-it-alls, and if the Tea Party divides the country into the self-sufficient and the governmental dependents, Murray points to yet another divide: the Cultural Divide.
Murray begins with a point that I take to be essential:
Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting.
Americans (Murray means by this term always white Americans) are living increasingly amongst those like themselves. Murray means by this that American elites (both Republican and Democrat) have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Specifically, he is worried that wealthy white Americans live apart from and are ignorant of poor white Americans. And vice versa.
In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Murray argues that an enormous cultural divide has separated white Americans into classes that don't mix. While many liberals might welcome Murray's voice pointing to the rise of inequality in America, his analysis and prescriptions are radically different from those usually suggested by the left. For one thing, Murray focuses on white Americans between 30-49. Part of this focus is to support his argument that "Cultural inequality is not grounded in race or ethnicity." This itself will strike many on the left as an evasion, which it is. And yet, Murray's focus on the increasingly vast class divisions amongst white Americans points to the profound depths of the rising class and income inequality that pervades and divides American society.
Murray does not only point out the vast class divide in the United States. He points to solutions as well. His book is a call to action, but one that has little if nothing to say about the need for government to help the poor. No, for Murray, what both the lower and upper classes need are better values. The lower classes must learn from the upper classes the values of hard work, marriage, and family. The upper classes must learn from the lower classes the value of community, patriotism, and religion.
Whatever one thinks of Murray's analysis, he is right that we all need to do more to read and think and interact with others with whom we don't always agree. Those interested in and concerned by inequality in American can learn from Murray's book, and they should, even as they should wonder at his single-minded concern with white people. Problematic books can teach us much. Thus, for this week's weekend read, I suggest you take a look at Murray's latest essay on "The New American Divide."
“There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Seventy years ago, on January 20, 1942, a group of leading Nazi officials met at a conference in a posh residence in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the Nazi's euphemism for their planned physical extermination of the Jews. What was perhaps most startling about the meeting is that there was no real deliberation about whether such a policy should be carried out, but only how. No one objected to the program of mass extermination, which S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich announced as the Fuhrer’s command.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, her masterful exploration of the rise of Nazism, Hannah Arendt outlined the social and political factors that drove “the Jewish people into the storm center of events” and made “the Jewish question and antisemitism…the catalytic agent..for the rise of the Nazi movement,…for a World War of unparalleled ferocity, and finally for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide in the midst of Occidental civilization.” (OT, with a new introduction by Samantha Power, 2004, p. 7) That “this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem…had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion” was, in her words, an “outrage [to] our common sense.” (OT, p. 11) Despite the outrage, Arendt took seriously the fact that antisemitism formed the core of Nazi ideology. She thought its widespread acceptance set the stage for the extermination of the Jews becoming the legitimated purpose of Nazi policy.
As she sought ways to understand the rise of antisemitism and its enshrinement at the core of Nazi ideology, Arendt rejected certain explanations, including the scapegoat theory. Not only refusing to accept the idea that the choice of victims was accidental or arbitrary, she also resisted explanations, such as “eternal antisemitism,” that absolved the Jewish people of any responsibility for the development of those disastrous circumstances in which they found themselves in the middle of Europe in the 1930s.
To Arendt, the idea of “eternal antisemitism” as an unbroken continuity of persecution of Jews beginning at the end of the Roman Empire and continuing into the twentieth century was a dangerous fallacy. To the question of why the Jews of all people were the target of such genocidal enmity the idea of eternal antisemitism offered what Arendt labeled the “question begging reply: Eternal hostility.” She would have none of it. “Comprehension,” Arendt wrote, “does not mean…deducing the unprecedented from precedents.” (OT, p. xxvi ) To interpret the virulent form of antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology as only a more modern variant of “eternal antisemitism” would, she contended, inherently negate “the significance of human behavior” and “bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the very possibility of human activity.” (OT, p. 18.) Instead, she argued, we must bear consciously the burden that the horrific events of the twentieth century placed on us and examine the behavior of both the perpetrators and their chosen victims in historical perspective. (OT, p. 7.) And for the next several hundred pages of Origins, that is exactly what she set out to do.
It’s not so difficult to imagine that perpetrators of murderous crimes have the choice to behave differently and are responsible for their actions. In fact, we are used to accepting the reasoning that if someone’s actions cause another harm the one who did the harming is fully responsible for the damage done. So used to this logic, in fact, that we become reluctant to excuse the perpetrator simply because her life’s circumstances gave her few options, and especially not just because everyone around her was behaving equally badly. What’s harder to swallow is the notion that the actions or attitudes of the chosen victim might have contributed in any way to their initial selection. So if someone contests the victim’s absolute innocence we are likely to recoil in horror and accuse the person putting forth such an idea of blaming the victim.
When Arendt turned to Jewish history she found there “certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries” that, for her, contained “elementary clues to the growing hostility between certain groups of society and the Jews,” (OT, p. 19.) clues she thought Jews had ignored or misread to their increasing peril.
What actually happened was that great parts of the Jewish people were at the same time threatened with physical extinction from without and dissolution from within. In this situation, Jews concerned with the survival of their people would, in a curious desperate misinterpretation, hit on the consoling idea that antisemitism, after all, might be an excellent means for keeping the people together, so that the assumption of eternal antisemitism would even imply an eternal guarantee of Jewish existence. (OT, p. 16-17)
Not stopping at this biting observation, Arendt carried her indictment of the concept of “eternal antisemitism” even further:
The more surprising aspect of this explanation…is that it has been adopted by a great many unbiased historians and by an even greater number of Jews. It is this odd coincidence which makes the theory so very dangerous and confusing. Its escapist bias is in both instances the same: just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility. (OT, p. 16.)
“Modern anti-Semitism,” she wrote, “must be seen in the more general framework of the development of the nation-state, and at the same time its source must be found in certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries.” (OT, p. 17.) To put it bluntly, Arendt criticized the actions and inactions of specific groups of Jews in the centuries preceding the twentieth for contributing to the development of the constellation of events that crystallized in the rise of Nazism and the extermination of six million Jews. Was her theory, then, nothing more than a textbook case of blaming the victim? Or were her ideas about individual and collective responsibility bound to a theory of human agency and action necessary features of her anti-fatalistic view of history?
We’ll discuss these and other questions in the 2012 NEH Summer Seminar on Arendt’s political theory. Applications now being accepted. The Seminar will be held at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
-Kathleen B. Jones
“For the idea of humanity, when purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight”
-- Hannah Arendt, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”
The twin themes of guilt and responsibility, and the differentiation between them, were key issues for Hannah Arendt in this essay. As Arendt notes, the leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was “neither a Bohemian like Goebbels, nor a sex criminal like Streicher, nor a perverted fanatic like Hitler, nor an adventurer like Goering.” Himmler was an outwardly “respectable” bourgeois who implemented a policy that compelled ordinary bourgeois paterfamilias to act as cogs in the infernal machinery of the “final solution.” While many Germans had strong ideological reasons to participate in the final solution, many a German husband did so without thinking, simply “for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children [and thus] was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity.” By involving millions of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, and by giving the fullest expression to the human capacity for barbarity, the German bureaucratic machine rendered questionable the traditional juridical differentiations between guilt and responsibility.
What struck Arendt in this early text was that the fact of bureaucratic involvement in the Holocaust did not automatically generate a feeling of guilt, or of responsibility in the participants. Arendt provides a snippet of an interview with an ordinary German, in which, after listing the types of activities he undertook and things he saw in his role as a paymaster at an extermination camp, the officer expresses shock when he learns that the Russians might put him to death. All he can do is break down and ask, “What have I done?”
What is it that allowed this officer to participate in and witness the most horrific crimes and yet remain free of any sense of guilt or responsibility? Arendt’s answer is that he lacked a feeling for the idea of humanity. Arendt is clear about what this idea of humanity is. “Purged of all sentimentality”, the idea of humanity is an awareness of the human capacity for evil. Without an awareness of one’s capacity for evil, a human being is incapable of experiencing shame. Shame, for Arendt, is an important indicator of human ethical awareness.
Rather than corrode the experience of politics, shame provides a model for post-Holocaust politics. Interestingly, Arendt invokes the Jewish prayer of atonement (“Our Father and King, we have sinned before you”) as an example of the kind of response that the Holocaust demands from us. Shame itself is not political – like religious sentiment, shame is non-political because it is the concern of an individual. A future politics, however, must be able to address at a political level – that is, in the space of plurality – what shame accomplishes in the individual. We need to develop a politics that fosters the collective awareness of our capacity for evil, just as shame inspires individuals to face their own responsibility. Politically, the development of shame can allow us to recognize that even if the guilt of a criminal act is limited to a particular individual, we must all be vigilant against our human propensity to participate in evil.
Arendt ‘s comments have resonance for the recently concluded war in Iraq. A New York Times correspondent recently discovered classified testimonies of U.S. soldiers under investigation for committing war crimes in Iraq. These testimonies confirm what critics of the wars in Iraq (and Afghanistan) have long alleged: that the real number of abuses committed by U.S. troops far exceeds those that were eventually disclosed to the public. Some of the (officially classified) images depicting these crimes have been leaked into the media – although they have not found a venue in the U.S. mainstream press. Many of these images are pornographic mementos celebrating the wanton destruction of human lives, much like the assortment of fingers and skulls of Iraqi and Afghani civilians discovered to have been collected as war trophies.
Given the existence of photographic records of these crimes, it seems that the guilty might be clearly identifiable. However, the guilt of those who actively participated in these crimes shades into the responsibility of those who abetted them or, at the very least, turned a blind eye to them. The willingness to equate the presence of these criminals to the statistically unavoidable appearance of “a few bad apples” was perhaps all too readily accepted by those unwilling to undermine their own economic security. Which is another way of saying that the responsibility of the crimes committed has been left unaddressed, even as the guilt of the criminal acts is still being established. “Shame at being a human being” might be for us today at the conclusion of the war in Iraq, as it seemed to Arendt upon the conclusion of the Second World War, both the affective record of an attempt to face the crimes of the war and the realization of “how great a burden mankind is for man- Manu Samnotra
“The vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty par excellence, can be actualized only as one of the many and manifold forces of human community.”
-Hannah Arendt , Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt
The concepts of guilt and responsibility are often confused. Who is to be considered guilty in a political system that systematically violates human rights or intends to annihilate whole groups or entire peoples? Is it the perpetrators, the helpers, the bystanders or the whole population? “Only those who gave the orders” assert the helpers and bystanders. “Only the whole population” asserts the later born. In the first instance, we see an attempt to absolve oneself of complicity; in the second, to find a blanket cause. But where all are guilty nobody is guilty, declared Arendt, because this opinion obliterates any juridical distinction between perpetrators and non-perpetrators.
The confusion of guilt and responsibility is the result of a liberal equalization that talks about responsibility only in the case of guilt and maintains that only he who bears responsibility can become guilty.
Arendt instead distinguishes between juridical and moral guilt and a general responsibility for our actions. Literally, we all are always ‘answering’ questions posed by everyday life: how to judge a case, how to act under certain conditions?
Arendt replaces an old image by a new one. In opposition to what neoliberals of all persuasions claim today, our social and political sphere is not yet the place of egoistic individuals caring only for their own well being who primarily regard others as objects of their actions. Rather Arendt sees them as citizens filling in a political space with a net of relationships. These citizens do not wait to take responsible some day for their common world. Rather they make a free decision to consider the consequences of their actions for theirs neighbors, colleagues, partners or employees. She asserts it is not the human subject in the singular which must stand at the beginning of all our thoughts but rather the plurality of men and women in a shared world.
“Freedom” therefore, must be considered jointly with “responsibility”. Freedom, according to Arendt, is neither the free will of the subject nor based on its sovereignty. Rather freedom exists only in the space between those who are acting and suffering and those who are doing the judging. Therefore, we are responsible not just for ourselves but for our common world and what our common world has become. As John F. Kennedy famously said:
“In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘holds office’; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities.”
Responsibility understood in this way is much more than to respect the law. This idea underlies the UN Global Compact established in 2000 creating a global movement to encourage social responsibility in a deregulated world-economy. More than 3.000 companies and NGOs as well as states have joined this movement. It aims at protecting human rights, establishing good labor conditions, respecting the environment and preventing corruption. All members are asked to do more than only to respect the law. By taking social responsibility companies are starting to become corporate citizens and members of civil society.
Under this perspective the irresponsibility of the main actors of the housing crisis in 2008 as described in detail by Michael Lewis in his book (The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (New York 2010)) appears as even more scandalous. It is why standards of social responsibility for financial institutions and commercial actions at the stock exchanges are more necessary than ever.
But Arendt’s notion of taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of has a further aspect. As citizens of a political community we are all responsible for the actions of its members. This does not only apply to the question of which government and politics we prefer but also to our responsibility as consumers. Do we concede the temptation to buy cheap clothes fabricated in sweatshops or not, do we invest our money in dubious papers with high interest rates or not? To take such responsibility is the starting point of the republican tradition and of citizens’ power.
I first encountered Vaclav Havel's work in college. Later, he was a constant presence during my trip through the former states of Eastern Europe in the summer of 1990. The Velvet Revolution was our inspiration, not only for what it achieved in Czechoslovakia, but also for what it promised in the West: a restoration of hope and utopian dreams to politics.
When Havel became President of the Czechoslovakia Assembly and then of the Czech Republic, I, like many, let hope take root. Here was a President who could speak of the soul and of the human needs of his citizens. Here is Havel speaking in 1990, as President of the Czech Republic:
But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous.
This was not a President speaking in platitudes. Havel of course criticized the communists. But his critique was universal, aimed at our entire civilization:
When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere … I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extremes — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators.
Politicians simply don't talk this way, and it was thrilling for those of us following what was happening in the center of Europe. Could it be that he was a new type of politician for our times? Might we finally have found a philosopher king, one who could rejuvenate politics both in the former Soviet bloc and also in the West? It was a time for grand dreams, dreams that reach from the post-communist revolutions of 1989 to the Arab Spring of 2011.
In the week since I heard that Havel had died, I have thought much about what he has given me and those of us who were touched by his politics and his writing. Havel wrote not simply about the horrors of totalitarianism, but as movingly about the horror of living in a world in which people have stopped meaning what they say. The true evil of our time is not simply repression—although we should never ignore or accept the horrors of repression—but soul-destroying meaninglessness, the loss of a politics of purpose, and the absence of higher truths that might inspire human greatness. In such a world, individuals retreat into their private lives, focus on themselves and their careers, and abandon the political aspect of human being: the need to live in public together with others as part of a common world. Havel did not only identify and write about this problem; his Velvet Revolution is, along with recent movements like the Arab Spring, a shining example of the power of people to reassert human meaning in an inhuman world.
I have also since Havel's death been thinking about his essay, "The Power of the Powerless." Hannah Pitkin had me re-read Havel's essays in a course on Hannah Arendt, and "The Power of the Powerless" stands out as one of the all time classic works of political thinking. I teach it frequently and often recommend it to my students. In memory of Vaclav Havel, and as a present to you all, we have laid out a version for you. Enjoy your Holiday Read. But do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a gift that will enthrall you for years.
In "The Power of the Powerless," Havel makes famous the story of the green grocer. Every year the grocer receives from the Communist Party a sign that reads: "Workers of the World, Unite!" He is told to display the sign in his shop window. He does so year after year, thoughtlessly, because the Party tells him to and doing so harms nobody. It is easier to comply than to resist. There seems to be no point in refusing, since what can one individual do against the Party machine.
Years such as 1989 and 2011 remind us of the power of one. So too does Vaclav Havel. Such reminders are well worth heeding. For what the green grocer does not realize is that he is not as powerless as he thinks. If he were simply to refuse to put the sign up in his window, that one act of resistance will speak volumes. For his refusal shows both the weakness of the state and the power of the one—a power embodied in Havel's life and, perhaps, most nobly expressed by Henry David Thoreau:
I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name--if ten honest men only--ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.
What Thoreau knew and Havel showed is that man is a beginner, someone whose actions can have surprising and spontaneous reactions. Simply acting when others behave is a clarion call to return to our human potential to act and to take up our own freedom.
To act, to tell the truth, to upend expectations and be surprising, is difficult, especially since today nearly all actions are easily dismissed as simply the expected behavior of some political, social, or economic group. Occupy Wall Street is too easily dismissed as a fringe of the left just as the Tea Party is too easily written off as a bunch of right wing Republicans. In both movements, real anger and passion and humanity have striven to rise above the efforts of the spectators to reduce the calls for change to recognizable political programs. It is rare for an action today to truly surprise and force the world to take notice, as happened in Tunisia this Spring when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and ignited the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
Beginning something has always been hard, but it gets more challenging when all action is knowingly set within sociological and behavioral categories, thus rendered rational and unsurprising. And yet, even when it seems impossible to begin something new, the new breaks out in the world. It is this profoundly Arendtian insight that Havel teaches: that tired and meaningless political systems are always vulnerable to those who think and act. The power to think and to act can expose the lies upon which any totalitarian or post-totalitarian system must be based.
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.
*Please note: Our initial posting of this blog entry mistakenly identified Michael Ignatieff as Michael Walzer. Our apologies to both parties for the mix-up.
A talk given at the German Consulate in Toronto on October 24, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an installation of “The Hannah Arendt Denkraum” brought to Toronto from Berlin.
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
es ist mir eine grosse Freude mit Ihnen hier bei der Eroeffnung des Hannah Arendt Denkraums zu sein und ich bin insbesondere Frau Consul Sabine Sparwasser sehr dankbar dafür, mich eingeladen zu haben. Um über Hannah Arendt zu sprechen -- erst recht in einem Denkraum! -- ist es nötig, zu denken, und deshalb werde ich jetzt aufhoeren, auf Deutsch zu Ihnen zu sprechen und in der einzigen Sprache fortfahren, in der ich denken kann: in meiner Muttersprache.
So, let me begin again, in English, by saying that Frau Sparwasser has asked me to reflect on the relevance of Arendt’s thinking for today. To do that, I must first say something about today. It is obvious to all of us, I think, that we live in a time of intense, world-wide anxiety, an anxiety that is spread through the human world like a toxic mist, like a pollution, like a global warming.
Every corner of the world is connected to every other by the various media of news reporting and the various forms of electronic networking, so whatever happens somewhere is transmitted to some degree everywhere –degrees of truth and distortion and spin being more or less equal in the process. In this atmosphere, which is over-stimulating, full of excitements both upsetting and exhilarating, it is very difficult to think at all –one can feel like one of those experimental animals wrapped in electrodes and shocked continuously until exhausted and spent. Overloaded. Even the torrential events of the Arab Spring strike us in one moment as world-transformational and in the next not. And Occupy Wall Street –a new youth revolt?
A recent issue of the rather sober establishment British journal The Economist featured a cover on which there was an ominous-looking black hole with the imperative “BE AFRAID “ in its dense center. “Until politicians actually do something about the world economy” the cover said: “BE AFRAID.” Be afraid you are going to be sucked right down into this black hole as the world that was created with a bang is destroyed with a whimpering suction noise. The whole metaphor is apocalyptic. Is it not something to wonder at that a journal with enormous world-wide circulation and influence is charging its readership to be afraid, to move from anxiety, which everyone feels to some extent, to fear?
The first thing that I would like to say about Hannah Arendt is that she was not afraid; that her anxieties simply did not go over into fear. She lived through a time which was even more frightening than our own, but which was, also, like our own, defined by a combination of economic disaster –the Great Depression—followed by a prolonged political crisis in which some regimes went in the direction of a new form of government, totalitarianism, and some in the direction of trying to save their half-formed democracies and their political freedom. She thought and wrote as the division of the world into totalitarian regimes –chiefly in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—on the one side and struggling democracies on the other, turned into the Second World War, a war novel in its extent and in the technologies used to carry it on, including technologies used in what Arendt called “factories of death.” But she did not become fearful, or write out of fear.
I think it is chiefly this that compelled attention to her writing then and again today and that marks its relevance for today. Her courage was certainly not based on failure to grasp what was frightening in the world during and after the Second World War. Indeed, her courage came from her deep understanding of that frightfulness and her ability to describe it as unprecedented. She grasped that there were factors and forces in the world that were unprecedented in their potentiality to be lethal, for the world and for all individuals.
Courage is a virtue that actualizes in a crisis, that actualizes –or fails to actualize--when a person realizes that courage is called for, summoned by the state of the world. A courageous person is able to call forth courage from within herself, from within her inner world, where, I think she must feel the courage of others, internalized in herself by identification. A courageous person must have, in herself, both the latent virtue and the inner company and companionship of courageous individuals. If she is lucky, she will have these companions as comrades in the present as well. To say the same thing in cultural terms: a person being courageous must have the virtue of courage ready and must have examples of courage in others to draw upon as part of her culture, existing in her memory and in the legacy she has internally. Otherwise, there is only fear in a frightening situation. There is only fright or flight.
How is courage manifest in thinking and writing? First of all, I think, by independence of thought, by Selbst-denken (thinking for your self ) and in conversation with those internal others whom the independently thinking person has judged independent. The thinking is a conversation of independents. This is the very opposite of group-thinking or herd thinking –which is, really, a contradiction in terms. There is really no thinking in group-thinking or herd-thinking; there is only obedient reacting.
Reacting to imperatives like BE AFRAID, or run away, or run away from thinking.
Such imperatives –BE AFRAID or RUN AWAY—when they are widely promulgated and widely accepted become what are known as ideologies. An ideology is an elaborate formulation that carries the charge DO NOT THINK. An ideology supplies answers to questions in advance. It supplies the elementary answer to questions about history, telling which people, which political group will inevitably triumph in history and telling what direction the train of history is taking and is going to take. Or it supplies elementary answers to questions about nature and human nature, telling which racial or religious group is innately destined to be superior and exercise its natural or divine right to dominate over others or all others. The first was the ideology of Stalinists, the second of the Nazi Party of Germany. Hannah Arendt’s masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was an analysis of these ideologies and how they came to imprison the minds of those who walked into the prison of them and to determine their actions, which in both cases were actions that had the paradoxical effect of eliminating the space for political action –the space for politics. They were actions against action. In both cases, mass movements brought the ideological subscribers together and turned them, acquiescently, into citizens of totalitarian states.
Arendt wrote her book (and many shorter newspaper pieces related to it as well) while she was a stateless person, cast out of her homeland while it was turning into a totalitarian state because she was a member of one group, the Jews, deemed inferior and eventually almost completely eliminated in Germany and the German Reich. The position, Arendt understood, of the pariah is the position of the clear-sighted, the far-sighted, the illusionless; the position of those who can raise the most thoughtful alarm and warning. Later, she could show in her report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem how persons who subscribe to an ideology –no matter how they lived before signing up to the ideology—become thoughtless persons. She wrote a biography of a state mass murderer.
Her courage in writing these books was clear in the controversies they aroused. For the ideologies she wrote about survived the defeats of both the Nazis and the Stalinists –who quite naturally became allies during the Second World War—and continued after the War, in the long period that is known as the Cold War. These ideologies survived both in the defeated countries and in the countries, the struggling democracies, that defeated them but, in the process, assimilated to some of their tenets and methods. (This was so obvious in the American McCarthy period, but secret police forces, for example, became a normal feature of democracies in the 1950s.) Ideologists of the Nature and History sorts, not surprisingly, made war on her and her writings, which were fundamental critiques of these ideologies and the anti-political movements that continued to support them.
The Cold War went on longer than Hannah Arendt lived. It was the context for all her later writings, of the 1960s and early 1970s. These writings inspired many in the generation born after the Second World War to understand as she did the world their parents had made, as they inspired the young readers to be suspicious of ideologies of all known sorts: the ones dictating how history is unfolding and the ones dictating which peoples are intrinsically superior and fitted for dominance. But she also alerted them to beware of any new ones that would be particularly compelling in the post-War world, which was so shaped by the existence of lethal technologies –nuclear weapons. In “Ideology and Terror,” an essay included in The Origins of Totalitarianism’s later editions, she wrote: “It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form –though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”
Hannah Arendt died in 1975, just as such a new ideology was, in my estimation, forming while the post-War variants of the old ideologies of History and Nature were reforming and deforming with the break-ups of the mid-20th century imperial states. Both the totalitarian Soviet Union and its hostile imitator in China were breaking up, as were the non-totalitarian but imperial British Commonwealth and the American Empire. The liniments of that new ideology were becoming clear to her, and she spoke out about them, most pointedly in the speech she made in 1975 on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the American republic, which was in 1976.
That speech, entitled “Home To Roost,” focused on how America, with its defeat in the Vietnam War, was coming into a period of asserting itself around the world in reaction to its defeat and the loosening of its grip on its empire. People in the country were developing an ideology of self-justification for its imperialism and blindness to the aspirations for freedom of the world’s peoples struggling –as the North Vietnamese had--to overcome their histories of being subjugated by imperial powers. And the whole mindless self-assertion was being aggravated by the sudden turn toward recession, even possibly depression, that the American and the world economy had taken since the 1973 OPEC crisis.
She could see that this new, assertive ideology included elements from the mid-century ideologies of History and Nature, for it anticipated the triumph of superior peoples. But the superior peoples were not nations or nation-states in the 20th century sense. They were people living all over the earth but linked by their dedication to growing wealthy and powerful in societies no longer based on manufacturing but based on consumption, societies that, in her words, “could keep going only by changing into a huge economy of waste.” Americans took the lead in formulating this assertive Economic Progress ideology, but it appealed to capitalists everywhere and to not a few socialists and communists –particularly in China--as well.
Those benefitting from the consumer society and its waste economy were and are devote believers in Progress framed more purely in economic terms than historical or natural historical. These international or supernational ideologists invoked and served limitless growth economies that “went on at the expense of the world we live in, and of the objects with their built-in obsolescence which we no longer use but abuse, misuse and throw away.” She noted that: “The recent sudden awakening to the threats to our environment is the first ray of hope in this development, although nobody, as far as I can see, has yet found a means to stop this runaway economy without causing a really major breakdown.”
In the decades since Arendt wrote those words in 1975, the runaway economy has only run more away, because to the engines of its development have been added financial and banking means to fuel it with risky debt, with money instruments that have gotten more and more detached from the world we live in and objects of any sort. The banking and financial means –derivatives upon derivatives--are themselves consumables. And the dynamic of the runaway economy, advertised as a great good by public relations people serving the new ideologists, has worn away at the public realm in all nations and internationally. Key decision makers are no longer elected representatives of citizens in states; governments are hardly making economic decisions, economic institutions are (so the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are demonstrating in the right place symbolically, if not politically). With a shrinking public realm--one not even receptive to the ray of hope coming from the environmental awakening, now grown to a movement—Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth. Untramelled economic growth might take longer, but its results could be as lethal as those that can be caused in an instant by nuclear weapons. Like their totalitarian predecessors, the ideologists of Economic Progress rationalize destroying the very habitat in which they are to be the triumphant group, that is, they rationalize destroying everything and everybody they hoped to rule over.
No one since 1975 has written The Origins of EconomicTotalitarianism, but that may be as much from lack of a pariah position in a world where it is impossible to escape being an accomplice to consumerism as it is from lack of courage. Even the wretched of the earth in a time of runaway economic inequality are deeply trapped in the system that oppresses them. The intelligentsia is easily corrupted. But this probably means that the people who understand what has happened and offer their insights, as she did, to the public, will have to be even more courageous for not having the advantage of a parish position to look out from and pariah company to keep. Sheer courage will be required.
But in such a time, her example, as one of the most courageous of her émigré generation, her diaspora generation, is nonetheless needed in order for the thoughtful to have conversation with her in their thinking minds.
To read more by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, click here to visit her blog.
Benjamin Stevens . firstname.lastname@example.org
Ethical and political thinking means thinking realistically: thinking about how things are actually done, about process or practices, and so about ideas only as they take shape in, and are shaped by, those practices. In other words, it means attending to how intellectual and, as it were, spiritual life are constrained by material conditions.
For thinking realistically today must begin with the fact that thought about something is always a something, a thing, in its own right: that thought is located in thinkers who live in spaces and times, in societies and cultures, and is mediated by their physical beings. In a word, thought is 'embodied'.
What are we to make of this fact, that thinking is something made? That thinking is, literally, a 'fiction'?
In this series, I try to answer that question by thinking realistically about fiction. I focus on those 'popular fictions' thought -- or made -- to have figured precisely the relationships between thinking and material being: fictions that figure what it means to be human (a seemingly 'rational animal' who 'thinks, therefore he (?) is') in a non-human, not to say unthinking, world.
Take Christopher Nolan's science fiction (sf) film Inception (2010). [At the time of this writing, the film is in wide mainstream release, and has been #1 at the box office two weekends running. Earlier versions of portions of this post appeared on facebook; special thanks are due to interlocutors there, especially Matt Emery, Jim Keller, and Deke Sharon, and in real life, especially Clark Frankel, Lucy Schmid, Roland Obedin-Schwartz, and Cameron Ogg.]
Sf films, whether or not they speculate about other technologies, draw special attention to the cinematic technology that makes them possible. In this way superficially resembling older 'cinema of attraction', they are also newly distracting: at least since Star Wars (Lucas 1977), which indissolubly associated them with 'blockbuster moviemaking' of a nostalgic or escapist sort, they can draw attention away from the deeper and grosser sociocultural structures and material conditions that allow for such fine-grained special effects.
(This is all the more true since The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski 1999), to whose literal vision, its mise-en-scène, many subsequent films, including Inception, owe a great deal; but whose figurative vision, of the particular dehumanizing effects of particular technology, most such imitators have failed to critique or even recreate. Like them, Inception seems to classify The Matrix more with the superficially brighter tradition begun by Star Wars than with the darker and more investigative tradition represented by Blade Runner (Scott 1982), whose vision of postnational society isn't neutral. What if The Matrix had been surpassed in popularity by Dark City (Proyas 1998)?)
Inception is a case in point, and disappointing. Especially -- intentionally -- astonishing is its quadruplicated 'inception' sequence, in which we're asked to follow four plots, worlds, and overlapping sets of physical laws simultaneously. The sequence is tightly constructed and, from the film's point of view, climactic. But it isn't show-stopping, as it could have been and, as I want to argue, as it should have been. A film from precisely so capable and intelligent a director as Nolan had the opportunity not only to tell its story but also to consider the conditions that make its very storytelling possible: to consider how it is that changing technologies have changed our stories and, alongside them, changed us.
In other words, Inception, like all sf, had the opportunity to self-ironize and therefore to criticize, developing an especially conscious perspective on the human effects of (storytelling) technology. Instead, it is technically accomplished but, conceptually, only clever: 'self-conscious' in only the most pervasively contemporary sense of wearing its love of genre knowledge on its sleeve. Inception is an example of how 'high-concept', high-budget sf risks merely crystallizing faded popular fictions about science and technology instead of critiquing how a technoscientific ideology vividly and consequentially fictionalizes 'human being'.
In that long 'inception' scene, for example, something as modern as nested relativistic physics is squandered in the service of a groaningly old-fashioned visual pun on 'climactic' and 'climatic'. At the high point of drama, the characters are subjected to low temperatures and wintry weather, bundled up indistinguishably to be trundled around an excessively video-gamey "level". The film seems confused by its own pun between "level" as "vertical or hierarchical stage" and "level" as "horizontal or sequential stage", the former allowing for exploration of interpenetrating causes and effects, the latter allowing only forward motion, as in a linear video game. As a result, while the scene isn't senseless -- there is a narrative logic to its literalizations of unconscious defense mechanisms -- it's pointless.
One measure of its being pointless is its being, surprisingly, sexless. Surprisingly indeed in a film drinking so deeply at the Dick-ian spring, one level's literal buttoning-down (natty French cuffs in a posh hotel whose high-class escort is a supporting character in Pythonesque psychic drag) giving way to puffy white snowpeople rolling about in mere alliance of convenience, only clockwork frantic, in place of what a better, more dangerous film would almost automatically have given: good old-fashioned Oedipal psychodrama. Part of the point, to be fair, is that the particular psyche's drama is centered around his repression of his own desires to adopt the image of his father, replacing instead of overtly killing: a textbook complex indeed. But the father in question was a captain of industry, on the verge of transforming his energy company into "a new superpower": there's a man who desired with all of his being to be master of all he surveyed, and the film responds by consigning him to deathbed mumblings.
Treated similarly sexlessly are the main character's dead wife "Mal" ('bad', whose refrain to the main character is, however, nothing more objectionable than that he'd promised they'd grow old together) and a potential but unrealized new interest, "Ariadne", whose mythic-psychic depths just don't exist: she's clean, good at mazes, and dutiful, made to comment that her "subconscious seems polite enough". No cannibalistic half-brother in the closet, no complicit survivor's guilt?
No, since in Inception's view all that matters is one man's emotional response to his own memory. Everyone else -- indeed, everything else, from soup to nuts -- is suppressed, made to act as if they were repressed, for his benefit alone.
All of that repression is, then, to speak figuratively, only one of the film's neuroses, lesser in comparison to another that is more pervasive and pernicious. For as Inception asks us to track the interaction of multiple fictional worlds simultaneously, and so in theory to consider whether different conceptual systems might influence each other so as to effect cognition, in practice it emphatically does not stop the show even to show, much less to critique, the factual machinery that makes that fictional sequence possible: the global technology and industry of film that allows for this local example. With the sequence representing the movie in miniature, the problem is not that the dream relates uncertainly to reality; for such is the film's own glossy enthusiasm, alongside its lack of consideration for other options, that we accept that old sf conceit without question.
The problem, rather, is that the dream is related uncertainly to any dreamer. The mood is repressive and suppressive both. Attention paid to drugs, including sedatives, that smooth the science fictional technology's operation; to the 'projections' -- really: decorative schemes -- supplied by individual dreamers; and to the operating assumption that the dreaming mind, as a way into the preconscious, can have permanent effect on the person as a whole: none of this takes proper account of dream as something that happens through and to a body. Not that the film doesn't deal with physical interaction; it does, for example in the 'inception' sequence, when physical effects like inertia and contact with water are transmitted analogously from level to nested lower level.
But in thus depicting only the most individual, personal conditions; in insisting however that the dreams are "shared"; and in the admonition that dreams ought not to be built out of memories: in all of this, Inception figures bodies as belonging to individuals, as matter (literally, figuratively) of individual minds, and therefore emphatically not as belonging to systems that make individuals possible, as material shaped by what the film itself depends on but depicts only in first-class passing: an international -- not postnational, not postindustrial -- system of technologies interlocking in ways almost incomprehensibly complex to the individual whose being is shaped by it.
Beyond being surprisingly sexless, then, the film's image of dreams is disembodied to the point of depicting bodies as apolitical. As a result, any questions it might seem to ask us in turn must end up floating free of any serious mooring: without any awareness of how human bodies and therefore minds are made by an international system of interlocking technologies, Inception is appallingly apolitical.
This is the problem of the film, and its moment of greatest missed opportunity for irony and critique: for thinking realistically, for thinking ethically and politically, about how the fact that there can be this sort of fiction must affect us.
The film wants us to wonder whether its plastic dream-logic might apply to our own (only apparently?) waking life.
But how could an answer matter when the question itself is imagined not as a political or ethical imperative but as a personal issue, a question posed not for us all as committed -- like it or not -- altogether to political interaction but for each of us as consumers, imagined as making decisions in response to what we like?
What in the world is at stake in a question that mistakes the world for a personal preference or lifestyle choice?
Looking back, we may notice that blithely disembodied machinery operating from the opening sequence onward. In a word, it is an apolitical postcolonialism, disappointingly toothless and neutered, allowing -- as it shouldn't -- the film to develop a starstruck vision of the world, of the world as it is figured almost exclusively in earlier films, at the expense and to the exclusion of the world as it is beyond such self-congratulatorily clever fare: as it is, precisely, to have made such a film possible.
Treating us, for example, to cameos from Batman's butler (Michael Caine, the British empire never wiser or more charming), a simulacrum of Batman's immortal enemy Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, Japan reconfigured to defuse incipient superpowers), another Batman enemy -- the one most closely associated with the film's own thing, hallucinatory mental manipulation -- (Cillian Murphy, his cheekboned creep utterly wasted); and to a scene in which the kid from 3rd Rock sneaks just the most glumly chaste kiss one can imagine from "Juno" (winkingly but, as I've noted, inconsequentially renamed Ariadne), Inception would distract us from -- as it has deluded itself about -- the world in which it is set.
It imagines a postnational, information-economic world in which former colonies and imperial competitors are alleged to have accepted American cultural superimposition so peaceably it is just as if it had been their idea all along. The film flubs its chance to draw to this, its most destabilizing suggestion of pre- or co-conditioning 'inception', in fact even the flimsy sort of psychoanalytical attention it draws to its main character in fiction. Much less does it muster the truly probing attention such an unethically apolitical vision of global affairs demands.
For what, in the end, is the product of all this global machinery in glossily spectacular motion? No prizes for guessing: a wealthy, even patrician white American man who helps another, even wealthier, even more patrician man find himself and, so, finds himself. Once he does, he gets to live in the exceedingly well-photographed and tastefully furnished world of his fondest dreams, where he'll raise his soft-focused, towheaded children free from any influence of their darkly witchy mother, who paid for her only 'mistake' (viz., wanting to live in the world of her fondest dreams) by being consigned in her husband's mind to the classic category of "batshit crazy". What can she do or, rather, what can she be figured in memory as having done, in her husband's memory, other than to take her own life?
At least that way it's not his fault, you see.
(Nolan didn't let Batman keep his brunette, either -- too idealistic -- although he allowed him to seduce her from a healthier relationship with an actual public official, a person with a political consciousness. Also delimited in this way is Ariadne, whose scattering through this post is one indication of how little the film is interested in her: without a half-brother to betray, she can compromise only her own artistic instincts as she must learn to be, first, less creative -- as she puts it: "reproductive" -- and, then, not to build dreams based on her memories … like Cobb, who, again, is rewarded precisely for having shown no such scruple.)
What the film imagines, then, is a world whose complexly interlocking systems of industrial technological production, obviously but unexaminedly dependent on the labor of thousands, if not millions, and inevitably resulting in the transformation of natural and cultural locales, may -- of course! -- be configured to help one American man feel better about himself.
Worse -- per the film's tedious ending (Was it all a dream? No, it's a film.) -- it doesn't even matter if that any of it is real as long as he gets to feel better.
Far from thinking realistically about, let's say, facts of individual or social responsibility, the film thus focuses on a lesser personal feeling of guilt. It has no awareness of the multi-dimensional problems inherent in the local effects of a global economy: imagining its characters and settings as postnational, it ignores ongoing problems caused by technologies mediating the destabilizing transition from imperialism and colonialism to late capitalism and beyond.
What is to be done?
In my favorite scene, a café owner in Mombasa knows better than the film itself, and tries but tellingly fails to make his concerns understood to the only character, Cobb, whose opinion is allowed to matter. Cobb, on the run from shadowy multinational corporate forces -- later, the international audience is insulted by being asked to question whether such forces, too, are only paranoid delusions --, seeks refuge in a bustling café, seating himself at a table whose other occupants are rightly non-plussed by his graceless arrival. When the owner confronts him -- 'no', 'get out' -- he tries to defuse his gross disruption of the setting by ordering a coffee. The owner refuses and, again, tries to make his concerns understood. Cobb, of course, can't understand him but, more importantly, doesn't want to hear him: he has own problems, you see. And besides, everything will be fine, we're only able to assume, once the gunfire that follows him has died down and we're off to the next exotic setting.
There is no mention of the local name for 'Mombasa', Kisiwa Cha Mvita, "Island of War".
Inception thus figures, despite its lack of consciousness, how what is still treated as an empire can but isn't allowed to "write back". Outside of a glossy cadré whose facility with imaginary technology is figured as daringly 'underground', even 'revolutionary', but in reality is merely self-congratulatory first-world consumerism; and whose characters are acted by actors famous already for their roles in other glibly nerdgasmic media, nobody has anything meaningful to say, certainly no African, lacking even reliable electricity and, so, who may conceivably have wanted to consider whether or not he might benefit from the energy "superpower" the heroes of the film are trying to scuttle.
Worse, the film's concluding suggestion that this might all be a dream actually confirms that this is how Cobb sees Africa: an erasure of postcolonial identity, just as if these Mombasan characters are, in the film's own terms, 'projections' of the white man's subconscious mind.
What about a version in which supporting characters are actual people, seeking to protect the integrity of their polity's being from violent intrusion: only metaphorically is a white virus vigorously rejected by the scene's immune system, figured tellingly as 'black blood cells'.
I started by mentioning a similarity between much contemporary sf film and an older 'cinema of attraction'. The similarity is, as I called it, "superficial" because, while cinema of attraction is famously, even excessively conscious of its novelty, to the point of subordinating or eliminating story, the problem with a more recent sf film like Inception is that, since the time of cinema of attraction, film including sf has been proven a capably narrative form. As a result, to tell no story must be judged a failure not of technique or of the medium's possibility but of imagination. In a sf film in particular, not to tell a story that is truly about the consequences of technology and technoscientific ideology on human being is to misunderstand the genre.
With its accomplished pastiche of earlier films, Inception parades just that kind of misunderstanding glossily, which is bad enough, and, what is worse, globally: it hits all the marks of the genre but misses its critical point. There is no ghost to creak its meaningful chains in this well-oiled machine. (A special, contemporary problem may be that the most widely-available technologies, e.g., smart phones, are orders of magnitude more difficult to tinker with than the consumer technology of a generation ago.)
For these reasons, a more charitable reading might conclude that Inception is simply not a sf film. But then what is it?
An in-flight magazine, gushing instead of reporting. (The reference to "Lost", the international flight to L.A., is clever, but what does it mean? That show, too, was filmed primarily in a place taken and retained unfairly from its rightful inhabitants.)
A callow glance and wink to oneself in the mirror, scope the frosted tips, eyebrows carefully slicked, ready with the roofie: when only your own memory matters, you can get away with murder.
In future posts in this series, I'll consider counterexamples and other examples of sf as the popular fiction most repaying consideration in terms of thinking realistically about how fictions envision being human in an inhuman age. I'll start with the image used to advertise the Center's upcoming conference.
In the meantime, a suggestion: District 9, in which the embodied individual and local is properly contextualized -- meaning, at this moment, complicated and problematized -- by the impersonal and global, a more realistic image than Inception's fantastic daydream of purely individual will to redemptive power.