President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
This post was originally published on December 2, 2011.
Eight years ago this week, Michael Ignatieff accepted the Hannah Arendt Prize in Bremen. Ignatieff's acceptance speech spoke of Hannah Arendt as an example, as an intellectual whose work and persona had inspired and guided him on his own course. As is appropriate, he praises Arendt and also challenges her, finding in his disagreements an intense respect for the provocation and courage of her thinking. Arendt inspires, Ignatieff concludes, because she is skeptical, dispassionate, and free. His speech is one of the best accounts of what makes Arendt so compelling as a thinker. I recommend it to you as this week’s Weekend read.
What most strikes Ignatieff about Arendt is her intellectual authority. He writes:
She was an example, first, because she created her own authority. She arrived in New York as a penniless refugee and by her death was widely respected as a public intellectual. She achieved authority by the power of thought. By authority, I mean that she was listened to, respected and widely regarded as a wise woman. I also mean that her influence has survived her and that the argument about her work continues a generation after her death.
Arendt's authority flows from commitment to ideas, to, in Ignatieff's words, an "intellectual life, that was free of any alliance with power, ideology, religion or coercive force." Neither a liberal nor a conservative, Arendt sought simply to think, and rethink, what we are doing. Again, Ignatieff characterizes her beautifully:
She defended a life of the mind connected to the idea of persuasion: the free changing of a mind in interaction with a logical argument or a claim about the world grounded in evident or falsifiable facts. She was attentive to facts, understood the discipline they impose on thought, appreciated the moral code of empirical scholarship, the proposition that if the theory does not fit the facts, the theory must be changed. This is a moral idea simply because it requires people to admit that they are wrong, and since nobody likes to, everyone can find a morally dubious way to avoid doing so. Facts are stubborn things, and intellectual life has no essential morality unless it submits arguments to the discipline of such facts as we can discover about ourselves and the world we live in.
Arendt's insistence on facts beyond ideology and politics made her old-fashioned to some. While everyone has a right to their opinion, she insisted that facts are sacrosanct, and no one has a right to change facts. Fidelity to facts meant for her a fidelity to living in a world with others, a shared world, one in which our disagreements cannot include disagreements over the unquestionable factual truths that make up our common world.
It is on the question of one such fact, however, that Ignatieff disagrees with Arendt. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt brought attention to the complicity of Jewish leaders who, during WWII, supplied Nazi leaders with lists of Jews and organized their fellow Jews for transport to concentration and death camps. A few resigned. Fewer committed suicide or resisted. But the majority collaborated.
These Jewish leaders often defended their actions as a lesser evil, keeping order where otherwise disorder might have reigned. But Arendt noted that they also kept themselves and their families off the transport lists. These were facts. While many Jews thought these facts should be hidden, Arendt insisted on telling the whole truth. Arendt argued that it is always right to tell the truth, no matter the consequences.
What is more, Arendt had the temerity to judge the Jewish leaders for their complicity. The Jewish leaders, she wrote, had defended their actions by the argument of the "lesser evil"— that their cooperation allowed them to save some Jews (themselves included) and was therefore a lesser evil; if they had simply handed the responsibility for selecting and organizing the Jews to the Nazis, that would have been worse.
For Arendt, this argument of the lesser evil was in form, although not in significance or import, the very same argument Eichmann employed. It was even closer to the actions of normal, average, everyday Germans who chose to work within the Nazi bureaucracy and legal system, justifying their actions by saying that if they resigned, others, even more heartless, would take their places. What unites the German civil servants and the Jewish leaders in Arendt’s telling is their willingness to justify morally suspect actions in the name of doing an unethical job as ethically as possible.
It is important to recall that Arendt did not advocate punishing the Jewish leaders. Hers was not a legal judgment. But she did insist that they should bear moral responsibility for their actions. In short, they had put their own safety and the safety of their friends and families above their obligations to those other Jews who were under their care. In short, they had valued the lives of some over others and cooperated in the selection of some for extermination.
Arendt's argument of the formal similarity between the complicity of the Jewish leader and German bureaucrats was, Ignatieff argues, a mistake. It is worth hearing his argument at length. He writes:
Arendt had assumed that the choices that Jewish leaders made under Nazi occupation ought to be judged by the same standards of accountability to be applied to the perpetrators. She quoted her friend Mary McCarthy as saying, “If somebody points a gun at you and says, “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, he is tempting you, that is all.”
Arendt maintained that while it might not be possible to resist direct coercion, it was possible to resist temptation. This standard applied equally to perpetrators and accomplices. Without holding on to such a distinction, Arendt claimed, personal responsibility would be lost altogether.
Yet while it is a temptation for the perpetrator to say: “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, the victim so compelled is under a very direct form of coercion. Arendt has elided two very different experiences: the German perpetrator who could disobey orders that entailed telling others to kill and a Jewish collaborator who knew that the choices were between everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later.
“I was told, “Arendt later said angrily, “that judging itself was wrong: no one can judge who had not been there.” But it was one thing to insist on the right to judge Eichmann and his kind, another thing to claim the equivalent right to judge—and condemn—the conduct of Jewish collaborators. The second case required a different kind of judgment, one that does not confuse understanding and forgiveness, but which does insist on empathy as a prelude to judgment. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy here means the capacity to enter into the moral world of those faced with intolerable choices and understand how these choices could be made. Empathy implies a capacity to discriminate between the condemnation appropriate to a perpetrator and that of his Jewish accomplice. The accusation here is fundamental: that in making ethical judgment the central function of intellectual life, and its chief claim of authority, Arendt had lacked the one essential feature of judgment: compassion.
There are a few things to say about Ignatieff's critique. First, he assumes that for the Jewish collaborators the choice was between "everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later." Arendt disputes that fact. She denies that Jewish collaboration saved more lives than non-collaboration would have. Indeed, she argues that if the Jews had refused to collaborate, many fewer Jews would have been killed. The ensuing chaos would have afforded many Jews the chance to escape and would have inspired others to resist. Further, the complicity of Jewish leaders eased the Nazi's job and provided labor and legitimacy that expedited the efficiency of the final solution. It is simply wrong, Arendt insists, to see the choice as one of dying now or dying later. One cannot know the results of action, which always begins anew and is unpredictable in its consequences. Jewish resistance in place of collaboration, she argues, might have saved lives. It would have required courage, however, that the leaders risk their own lives.
Second, Ignatieff argues that Arendt was wrong to judge the collaborators and that in doing so she denied them the empathy and compassion that are essential features of judgment. Here Ignatieff and Arendt have a real difference of opinion, and it is one worth thinking about.
Ignatieff insists that judgment requires compassion. We should get to know the person being judged, empathize with his plight, and make allowance for his wrongs based on the circumstances. Against this view, Arendt insists that compassion—which is an essential and praiseworthy trait in the personal realm—must be kept out of the political realm and divorced from questions of judgment.
Compassion with another requires an engagement with another in their singularity. Indeed, it is just such a lack of compassion with those Jews under their care that was absent on the part of the Jewish leaders and that allowed them to act such as they did. Instead of compassion, the Jewish leaders treated their fellow Jews with pity. The leaders eased the plight of their subjects by treating them pitifully and softly as they sent them off to die, but they were able to do so only by avoiding the true empathy of compassion that would have made such action impossible. If the Jewish leaders really had compassion, they could never have handed them over to the Nazis to be killed. In fact, it is this willingness to subordinate their compassion and singular relation to those they were responsible for, to the political logic of means-ends rationality that bothered Arendt.
What most bothered Arendt, however, was that the Jewish leaders judged it better to do wrong by sending others off to die than to suffer wrong themselves. This putting of their own self-interest above the moral requirement not to do wrong was, she argued, a violation of the fundamental moral law first announced by Socrates; that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. It is for their poor moral judgment that Arendt judges them.
While the leaders should have showed compassion for those in their care, Arendt insists that a judge should not. Judgment requires distance. It is from her distant perch as a conscious pariah—an outsider who refuses to let compassion enter her judgments—that Arendt found the moral authority with which to judge the Jewish leaders. On the need for such judgment, she and Ignatieff simply disagree.
Enjoy Ignatieff's speech. It is a shining example of how to accept an award with gratitude—appropriate for a post-Thanksgiving read. And let us know what you think.
When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.
Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.
This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”
When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.
Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.
In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.
At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.
Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.
This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”
[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.