Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
14Jun/150

Amor Mundi 6/14/15

Arendtamormundi

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upAlgorithmic Politics

fb algorithmZeynep Tufekci takes a critical look at a recent study (by Facebook) showing that the social media's algorithm reduces the number of "cross-cutting" posts that we see, posts that challenge our political beliefs. In other words, if you're liberal, Facebook highlights liberal posts, and vice versa for conservatives. It gives the people what they want, or what they think you want. "Here's the key finding: Facebook researchers conclusively show that Facebook's newsfeed algorithm decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content people see from their social networks on Facebook by a measurable amount. The researchers report that exposure to diverse content is suppressed by Facebook's algorithm by 8% for self-identified liberals and by 5% for self-identified conservatives. Or, as Christian Sandvig puts it, 'the algorithm filters out 1 in 20 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified conservative sees (or 5%) and 1 in 13 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified liberal sees (8%).' You are seeing fewer news items that you'd disagree with which are shared by your friends because the algorithm is not showing them to you.... Overall, from all aspects, this study confirms that for this slice of politically-engaged sub-population, Facebook's algorithm is a modest suppressor of diversity of content people see on Facebook, and that newsfeed placement is a profoundly powerful gatekeeper for click-through rates. This, not all the roundabout conversation about people's choices, is the news." The censoring of oppositional content is subtle and minor, and yet it persists. All of this means that people with different politics will actually see different posts, making them susceptible to meaningfully different realities.

What Is Code?

codeBusiness Week asked Paul Ford a simple question: "We are here because the editor of this magazine asked me, 'Can you tell me what code is?' 'No,' I said. 'First of all, I'm not good at the math. I'm a programmer, yes, but I'm an East Coast programmer, not one of these serious platform people from the Bay Area.'" 31,000 words and hours later, you realize Ford is telling the truth but answering like a coder. You can't read his long essay--interspersed with video explanations and offers to learn basic coding ("We can't teach you to code, but we can hold your hand through a live-fire exercise. It will be dry, because code is dry until it 'clicks,' and often even then. Want to give it a shot?") without gaining some insight into the beauty, chaos, complexity, and importance of answering the unanswerable question. "A computer is a clock with benefits. They all work the same, doing second-grade math, one step at a time: Tick, take a number and put it in box one. Tick, take another number, put it in box two. Tick, operate (an operation might be addition or subtraction) on those two numbers and put the resulting number in box one. Tick, check if the result is zero, and if it is, go to some other box and follow a new set of instructions. You, using a pen and paper, can do anything a computer can; you just can't do those things billions of times per second. And those billions of tiny operations add up. They can cause a phone to boop, elevate an elevator, or redirect a missile. That raw speed makes it possible to pull off not one but multiple sleights of hand, card tricks on top of card tricks. Take a bunch of pulses of light reflected from an optical disc, apply some math to unsqueeze them, and copy the resulting pile of expanded impulses into some memory cells--then read from those cells to paint light on the screen. Millions of pulses, 60 times a second. That's how you make the rubes believe they're watching a movie.... You can make computers do wonderful things, but you need to understand their limits. They're not all-powerful, not conscious in the least. They're fast, but some parts--the processor, the RAM--are faster than others--like the hard drive or the network connection. Making them seem infinite takes a great deal of work from a lot of programmers and a lot of marketers. The turn-of-last-century British artist William Morris once said you can't have art without resistance in the materials. The computer and its multifarious peripherals are the materials. The code is the art."

An Indictment

kalief browderJennifer Gonnerman's eulogy for Kalief Browder, a young New Yorker who spent three years in jail without being charged with a crime, is an indictment of the whole criminal justice system and specifically of the cruel and unusual technique of solitary confinement: "He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times. Once, in February 2012, he ripped his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to create a noose, and tried to hang himself from the light fixture in his cell. In November of 2013, six months after he left Rikers, Browder attempted suicide again. This time, he tried to hang himself at home, from a bannister, and he was taken to the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas Hospital, not far from his home, in the Bronx. When I met him, in the spring of 2014, he appeared to be more stable. Then, late last year, about two months after my story about him appeared, he stopped going to classes at Bronx Community College. During the week of Christmas, he was confined in the psych ward at Harlem Hospital. One day after his release, he was hospitalized again, this time back at St. Barnabas. When I visited him there on January 9th, he did not seem like himself. He was gaunt, restless, and deeply paranoid. He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he explained, 'because it was watching me.'" Ta-Nehisi Coates further contextualizes Browder's short life in terms of the way the criminal justice system treats African American men.

Living a Coherent Fantasy

rachel dolezalJosh Marshall wonders at the crazy complexities of Rachel Dolezal's existence, including the fantastic levels at which she, born white, made up a past and present life for herself as a black woman. Against criticism that she may have claimed blackness only when it suited her or that she embraced blackness to get a job at the NAACP, Marshall writes, "Maybe Dolezal had a separate life as a white person or put herself down as a white on a home loan application. (Obviously whatever her intentions she had the freedom which dark-skinned African-Americans lack to just become white again whenever she wanted.) But that's not at all the impression I get of this woman by reading her story. I get the impression that in her mind Dolezal actually had at some level become black, possibly even to the level of some aspect of body dysmorphia. (The counter to that perception, though not necessarily invalidating it, is that according to her adopted brother she warned or perhaps even threatened family members not to expose her.)" Her embrace of her blackness even led to hate crimes being committed against her (at least some of which she fabricated). But the basic point that Marshall insists on is that Dolezal is simply a liar living in an increasingly fictional reality: "I read the Rachel Dolezal story before it got picked up by any national outlets in the original story in the Coeur d'Alene Press on Thursday (yes, epic aggregation fail ... what can I say I was traveling). If you've only read pick-ups or follow-ups, read the original if you get a chance. It's an amazing piece of reporting and will make you appreciate what a great thing small paper journalism is--just an amazingly detailed piece of shoe-leather reporting. Since I read it I've been trying to think what if anything there is to add beyond the peristaltic WTF that seems to be the near universal response. So let me just go with bullet points. Point 1: The one simple thing is the online debate about whether Dolezal is simply 'transracial' like Caitlyn Jenner is transgender. No. It's not like that. In fact, I think we can dispense with this entirely because I have not seen anyone suggesting this anywhere online who wasn't just some wingnut concern-trolling transgenderism and frankly racial identity itself. You can dress yourself up however you want and identify however you want. But when you start making up black parents and all the rest that went into this story, you're just lying. Full stop." Dolezal's story may raise fascinating questions about race and identity. But let's remember that making up coherent fantasies that one holds to in the face of facts is dangerous, demonstrating a disdain for reality. To rewrite history, even one's personal history, diminishes the power of factual truth and habituates one to living in coherent fictions, which Hannah Arendt argues is one of the root causes of totalitarianism.

amor_mundi_sign-upGood and Good For You

eggs cholesterolAnne Fausto-Sterling wonders how we're supposed to know what's good for us, especially in light of "new government guidelines released in February" that reverse a long-standing view that cholesterol should be limited. Suddenly, she writes, "It seems I am free to eat eggs, lobster, and oysters without fear for my life. How, in a mere five years, could our ideas about nutrition do such an about-face? There are several possible explanations. First, it may be really hard to do a good study linking cholesterol intake to ill health. Over time scientists may have designed better and better study methods, until, finally, a more justified truth has emerged. Second, vested interests--giant agribusinesses (purveyors of lobster, eggs, and well-larded beef) and pharmaceutical companies (purveyors of cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins)--may have influenced the guidelines. Third, foods have changed. Perhaps newer studies differ from older ones because an egg circa 1960 is not an egg circa 2000. Today's chickens are more inbred. Their own food intake has changed, possibly altering the cholesterol in their eggs. Fourth, we have started to focus on human metabolism at the level of multi-organ interactions. Instead of treating diabetes as a disease of the pancreas and obesity as a problem of fat storage, we now talk about a metabolic syndrome, which links high blood sugar, high blood pressure, excess midriff fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. As conceptions of disease change, so do ideas about the sources of disease. And fifth, the tried-and-true 'all of the above.'"

Alive and Dead

meursault investigationZach Pontz considers Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation, a retelling of Albert Camus's The Stranger: "Meursault has divorced himself from history, has, as he tells the investigator tasked with questioning him following his crime, given up analyzing himself. Assigning meaning to the world is something he has lost the energy to do. Harun, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to impose form on a lifetime of quasi-intelligible incidents, the foremost of which is the murder of his brother and its aftermath, which has sentenced its victims--Musa, Harun, their mother--to anonymity. 'There's not a trace of our loss or of what became of us afterward,' Harun tells his interlocutor. 'The whole world eternally witnesses the same murder in the blazing sun, but no one saw anything, and no one watched us recede into the distance.' If Meursault is the stranger, Harun's brother is the invisible man. But the tragedy here is that Harun understands he can't will his brother into being, that he's forever been written out of history by Meursault, in whose book 'The word "Arab" appears twenty-five times but not a single name, not once.' In this way does Daoud, a popular columnist in Algeria who has become a vocal critic of the government, set up one of his main theses: that both the French colonial system, the French Algerian population of which (known as pied-noirs) populated Algeria for a century and a half, and Algerians themselves are complicit in the country's current state of affairs."

The New PLOTUS

jual felipe herreraDwight Garner shares the work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the newly appointed US poet laureate: "Mostly, though, you'd like to hear him at the National Mall because his work is built to be spoken aloud. His best poems are polyrhythmic and streaked with a nettling wit. He puts you in mind of something the writer Dagoberto Gilb once said: 'My favorite ethnic group is smart.' Witness Mr. Herrera's long poem, '187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border (Remix),' for example. In it, he flies a freak flag, in a manner that resembles a blend of Oscar Zeta Acosta and Allen Ginsberg, on behalf of his determined politics. Among those reasons Mexicanos can't cross: 'Because it's better to be rootless, unconscious & rapeable'; 'Because the pesticides on our skin are still glowing'; 'Because pan dulce feels sexual, especially conchas & the elotes'; 'Because we'll build a sweat lodge in front of Bank of America'; 'Because we're locked into Magical Realism'; and 'Because Freddy Fender wasn't Baldemar Huerta's real name.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #10

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Jurgens uses the protests in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD to understand both the differences and the relations between violence and power in the Quote of the Week. Military strategist Carl von Clausewitz discusses the effect that rules and principles have on a thinking man in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate an image of a graduate student's personal "shelf library" of Arendt in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
20Oct/140

The Alternative to Forgiveness

fogiveness punishment

**This post was originally published on June 11th, 2012**

"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable."

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

George Zimmerman returned to jail in 2012 two days after his bond was revoked for intentionally deceiving the court about his financial situation. The speed and promptness of this re-incarceration stands in marked contrast to the six weeks that passed between Zimmerman's lethal shooting of Trayvon Martin and his arrest and arraignment on charges of second-degree murder.

Andrew T. Dilts
Andrew Dilts is a political theorist whose work focuses broadly on the history of political thought, and in particular, the discursive relationships between political membership, subjectivity, sovereignty, and punishment. He is especially interested in the connections between penal policy, race, and “identity” in the United States.
22Jan/133

The House We All Live in

This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.

Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.

In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.

Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.

At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?

Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.

I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.

Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Jun/120

The Alternative to Forgiveness

"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable."

- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

George Zimmerman returned to jail last week, two days after his bond was revoked for intentionally deceiving the court about his financial situation. The speed and promptness of this re-incarceration stands in marked contrast to the six weeks that passed between Zimmerman's lethal shooting of  Trayvon Martin, and his arrest and arraignment on charges of second-degree murder.

During these six weeks, it was astonishing to many people that given the Sanford Police department’s astonishing failure to investigate the case properly, and the application of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense, Zimmerman was apparently immune to prosecution (even as similar cases produced vastly different outcomes). Troubled by not simply this fact, but also the explicitly and implicitly racialized context of the case, I found myself deeply invested in seeing Zimmerman arrested, tried, and ultimately punished.

And yet at the same time, as a scholar of punishment in the United States, I hold a deep distrust in a broken criminal justice system that has historically been an instrument in the foundation and maintenance of white supremacy as a political system. As put eloquently at the blog, Low End Theory, "[I]n appealing to the power of the police to arrest, and to the power of the courts to sentence Zimmerman, we also make heard a message that we might otherwise hesitate to send: namely, that we believe that these institutions—the police, the courts, the law—are institutions capable of delivering the justice we want."

Even if we assume that these are institutions capable of delivering such justice, they are nevertheless predicated on the idea that justice can be delivered through punishing. If we are to "think what we are doing" in terms of punishment and our desire to achieve justice through it, we might do well to revisit Arendt's account of the relationship between punishment and forgiveness.

In The Human Condition, Arendt positions punishment as an alternative to forgiveness, which in turn is defined as similar to promising and the opposite of vengeance. All actions, Arendt argues, are necessarily unpredictable and irreversible. We cannot know with certainty what will happen as a result of our actions, nor can we undo them. These two uncomfortable facts about action might otherwise paralyze us from doing anything, but thankfully we have the ability to make promises about the uncertain future and to both seek and grant forgiveness, absolving past harms. Were it not for these faculties we would be unable to reconcile our own finite existence with the fundamental plurality of the human condition. Without forgiveness in particular, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell" (237). 

Forgiveness can resolve the fact of irreversibility because, Arendt succinctly notes, it is able to put "an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly" (241). This is what distinguishes forgiveness from vengeance. Vengeance is nothing more than the "re-acting against an original trespassing" (240). It is predictable and certain, a “natural” and “automatic reaction.” It cannot be a new action, but only the continuation of the original transgression. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an action par excellence, done freely rather than necessarily. Forgiveness is unpredictable and uncertain. If forgiveness is forced, it doesn't really count. One can only ask for forgiveness; one can never demand it. As such, forgiveness can allow us to begin anew in the face of a transgression because it is "the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven" (241).

But what does it mean for punishment to be “the alternative” to this? Can punishment possibly do the same transcendent work for us? If we seek justice through punishment, can such punitive justice ever be the grounds for natality and freedom?

While we typically affirm the justness of punishment by its distinction from vengeance, it nevertheless must be intimately tied to the specific transgression if it is to be justified. Just punishments must "fit" the specific transgression and excessive, cruel, or unusual punishments are thought to be transgressions themselves. Unlike forgiveness, just punishment must be predictable and certain, applied automatically and universally if it is to be effective and non-arbitrary.  Moreover, if our desire for punishment itself becomes automatic and mechanical, this too marks punishment as reactive rather than free. When we find ourselves automatically turning to punishment in response to transgressions, we not only signal a belief that some set of punitive institutions can render justice, but we also reveal a desire similar to the desire for vengeance: a continuation of the transgression.

For punishment to do the same work as forgiveness–stepping outside and beyond the logic of the original transgression and starting something new–it would seemingly have to be arbitrary rather than regular, and therefore lose a key part of its character as just punishment. For punishment to be both predictable and also capable of starting something new, it would have to be as difficult to embrace as forgiveness, such that it, like forgiveness, might be able to free both the punished and the punisher from the past transgression.

The heart of the difficulty is that we remain caught between the act and the actor, of the task of responding to the unpredictability and irreversibility of actions, when the subject of either forgiveness or punishment is the actor. In this sense, forgiving and punishing both publicly declare that some particular action belongs to a particular actor. For Arendt, we must remember that there is nothing self-evident or automatic about the authorship of actions. In so far as an action "reveals" an agent, Arendt writes, "this agent is not an author or a producer" in isolation from others (184). Punishing and forgiving do not simply "hold" a person responsible for their actions, but rather, in concert with their actions, they produce them as responsible subjects for those actions. Forgiveness, Arendt insists, is thus "always an eminently personal ... affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it" (241). If forgiveness is able to bring an end to the transgression and free both the forgiver and the forgiven by beginning something new, it is because it establishes a new relationship between those persons.

But forgiveness is only able to "undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing," because of this translation from action to agent. When a specific agent is assigned responsibility (or takes responsibility for an action that has turned out badly), one need not forgive the bad act, but rather the person. Forgiveness produces responsible subjects on both sides of the exchange. But when punishment makes this same translation, as Michel Foucault demonstrates, it has historically done so through producing a kind of criminal subjectivity that on the one hand treats the agent as a free subject (responsible for their bad acts) and on the other hand, as a pathological object (irresponsible and thus in need of incarceration and discipline). The relationship established between persons through punishment is neither symmetrical, novel, nor personal. Instead, it purchases the punisher’s freedom through condemning the other to unfreedom. Where forgiveness is a productive success, punishment is a productive failure.

What Arendt seems to recognize in the paradoxical relationship between punishment and forgiveness is that even if punishment is an "alternative" to forgiveness, it nevertheless cannot be a substitute for it. What does it mean, then, that we find ourselves unable to forgive that which we cannot punish, and that we cannot punish that which is unforgivable? In part, it means that we might require institutions of punishment if we have any hope of being able to choose forgiveness. And our desire for punishment might be, in part, a desire for the possibility of forgiveness. Punishment, even as it might fail to resolve the predicament of action, might be the condition of possibility of that resolution. But to exercise it would be fall into the trap of vengeance and unfreedom.

That George Zimmerman appeared, for six long weeks, to be not simply unpunished but immune from punishment carries the mark of a kind of immunity from responsibility that serves as the "hallmark" of "radical evil" (241). In the face of such immunity for the killing of another human–to find ourselves powerless to act–is to be confronted not simply with a bad action, but with an offense that "transcends the realm of human affairs" (241). As Robert Gooding-Williams notes, the evil of this automatic immunity afforded to Zimmerman is neither accidental or novel in the U.S., but is deeply connected to who Trayvon Martin was: a young black man living in a nation that historically deputized all non-black persons as executors of the federal fugitive slave law. For Zimmerman to be automatically deputized to kill Trayvon Martin–to be unpunishable for Martin’s death–would affirm the persistence of the radical evil of chattel slavery in a new form.

But even if our desire for punishment reflects a desire toward forgiveness, the danger of punishment as vengeance follows as well. The same punitive institutions, in order to be just, push us toward the logic of simple reaction, rather than action, of predictability and necessity, rather than natality and freedom. It is worth noting that there are currently more black men supervised by the criminal justice system than were held in slavery in 1850. Our regular and automated reliance on punishment to do the work of justice might itself be both necessary for justice, and yet also itself a radical evil, masked by the notion that it can do the same work as forgiveness.

-Andrew T. Dilts

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.