Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
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.
Peter Singer writes of the suddenly divergent attitudes toward the two greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin: “Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of all Soviet leaders.” When Putin was asked recently about his plan to erect statues of Stalin, he justified it by comparing Stalin to Oliver Cromwell: “Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in London.)” For a lesson in false analogies, read more here.
Some stories are so morally complicated and politically convoluted that they tug us this way and that as we read about them. That is how I felt reading Bethany Horne’s account of the genocidal, environmental, political, criminal, and corporate tragedy that is unfolding in Ecuador. Horne’s title, “After All the People We Killed, We Felt Dizzy” is a quotation from a member of the Huaorani tribe describing their massacre of an entire family group from the Taromenane people. A 6-year-old girl who survived the massacre has since been kidnapped twice and has now been elevated into a symbol in a political war between environmentalists and human rights activists on one side and the Ecuadoran government on the other. “Conta [the kidnapped girl] can't know that the jungle she was snatched from by those armed men in helicopters is a rallying cry for 15 million people in Ecuador. She can't know that the land rights and human rights of her people are the cause of a massive movement to force the president of Ecuador to do something he does not want to do. And last of all, Conta can't possibly comprehend the full impact of what Correa wants so badly from the Taromenane: the crude oil underneath their homes, a commodity that powers a world she does not understand that threatens to swallow her.”
In a short profile of author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Megan Garber elucidates the difference that Turkle makes between the way we talk at each other, with our machines, and the way we talk to each other, in person-to-person conversations: “Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. ‘You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,’ Turkle says. 'It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.’”
Mark Slouka remembers his recently passed father and elaborates on one of the particular things he lost: "With him gone, there’s no one to reminisce with, no one to corroborate my memories (or correct them), no one to identify the little girl smiling up from the curling photograph at the bottom of the shoebox. In 1942, in Brno, my father’s family hid a man in the rabbit hutch for a week, until he could be moved. That’s all I know of the story, and now it’s all I’ll ever know. With no one to check me, error will spread like weeds. Which is how the past is transmuted into fiction, and then the fool’s gold of history."
Thomas Streithorst, before attempt to untangle the language of finance, explains why he thinks the task is necessary: "Sometimes I think bankers earn all that money because they make what they do seem both tedious and unintelligible. Banking may be the only business where boredom is something to strive for, so its jargon both obfuscates and sends you to sleep. But six years of pain forces us to realize that economics is too important to be left to the bankers. If the rest of us keep bailing them out, we might as well know what they do. Fortunately, finance isn’t as complicated as its practitioners pretend. It does, however, have its own language, and if you don’t understand it, it sounds like gobbledygook."
This week on the Blog, Steven Tatum considers what it means to teach Arendtian thinking. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz reflects on President Vladimir Putin's recent attempt to justify statues memorializing Josef Stalin by comparing him to Oliver Cromwell.
The response has been swift and negative to the Rolling Stone Magazine cover—a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who with his now dead brother planted deadly homemade bombs near the finish-line of the Boston Marathon. The cover features a picture Tsarnaev himself posted on his Facebook page before the bombing. It shows him as he wanted himself to be seen—that itself has offended many, who ask why he is not pictured as a suspect or convict. In the photo he is young, hip, handsome, and cool. He could be a rock star, and given the context of the Rolling Stone cover, that is how he appears.
The cover is jarring, and that is intended. It is controversial, and that was probably also intended. Hundreds of thousands of comments on Facebook and around the web are critical and angry, asking how Rolling Stone could portray the bomber as a rock-star. They overlook or ignore the text accompanying the photo on the cover, which reads: “The Bomber. How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.” CVS and other retailers have announced they will not sell the magazine in their stores.
That is unfortunate, for the story written by Janet Reitman is exceptionally good and deserves to be read.
Controversies like this have a perverse effect. Just as the furor over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem resulted in the viral dissemination of her claims about the Jewish leaders, so too will this Rolling Stone cover be seen by millions of people who otherwise would never have heard of Rolling Stone. What is more, such publicity makes it ever less likely that the story itself will be read seriously, just as Arendt’s book was criticized by everyone, but read by few.
Reitman’s narrative itself is unexceptional. It is a common story line: young, normal kid becomes radicalized and does something none of his old friends can believe he could do. This is a now familiar narrative that we hear in the wake of the tragedies in Newtown (Adam Lanza was described as a nice quiet kid) and Columbine (Time’s cover announced “The Monsters Next Door.”)
This is also the narrative that Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana embraced to defend the Cover on NPR arguing it was an "apt image because part of what the story is about is what an incredibly normal kid [Tsarnaev] seemed like to those who knew him best back in Cambridge.” It was echoed too by Erin Burnett, on CNN, who recently invoked Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil.” In the easy frame the story offers, Tsarnaev was a good kid, part of a striving immigrant family, someone who loved multi-racial America. And then something went wrong. He found Islam; his family fell apart; and he became a monster.
This story is too simple. And yet within the Rolling Stone story, there is a wealth of information and reporting that does give a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of Tsarnaev’s journey into the heart of evil.
One fact that is important to note is that Tsarnaev is not Eichmann. Eichmann was a member of the SS, a nationalist security service engaged in world war and dedicated to wiping certain races of peoples off the face of the earth. He committed genocide as part of a system of extermination, something both worse than and yet less messy than murder itself. It is Tsarnaev, who had no state apparatus behind him, who become a cold-blooded murderer. The problems that Hannah Arendt thought that the court in Jerusalem faced with Eichmann—that he was a new type of criminal—do not apply in Tsarnaev’s case. He is a murderer. To understand him is not to understand a new type of criminal. And yet it is a worthy endeavor to try to understand why more and more young men like Tsarnaev are so easily radicalized and drawn to murdering innocent people in the name of a cause.
Both Eichmann and Tsarnaev were from upwardly striving bourgeois families that struggled with economic setbacks. Eichmann was white and Austrian, Tsarnaev an immigrant in Cambridge, but both were economically disaffected. Tsarnaev wanted to make money and, like his parents, dreamed of a better life.
Tsarnaev’s family had difficulty fitting in with U.S. culture. His father was ill and could not work. His mother sought to earn money. And his older brother, whom he idolized, saw his dreams of Olympic boxing dashed partly because he was not a citizen. He increasingly turned to a radical version of Islam. When Tsarnaev’s parents both returned to Dagestan, he fell increasingly under the influence of his older brother.
Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev appears to have adopted an ideology that provided a coherent and meaningful narrative that gave his life significance. One can see this in a number of tweets and statements that are quoted in the article. For example, just before the bombing, he tweeted:
"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing."
"If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that's left is to take action."
"Most of you are conditioned by the media."
Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev came to see himself as a hero, someone willing to suffer and even die for a noble cause. His cause was different—anti-American jihad instead of anti-Semitic Nazism—but he was an ideological idealist, a joiner, someone who found meaning and importance in belonging to a movement. A smart and talented and by most accounts good young man, he was lost and adrift, searching for someone and something to give his life purpose. He found that someone in his brother and that something in jihad against America, the land that previously he had so embraced. And he became someone who believed that what he was doing was right and necessary, even if he understood also that it was wrong.
We see clearly this ambivalent understanding of right and wrong in the note Tsarnaev apparently scrawled while he was hiding in a boat before he was captured. Here is how Reitman’s article describes what he wrote:
When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jihad [Tsarnaev's nickname] appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But "the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians," he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all," he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliché. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: "Fuck America."
Eichmann too spoke of his shock and disapproval of killing innocent Jews, but he justified doing so for the higher Nazi cause. He also said that when he found out about the sufferings of Germans at the hands of the allies, it made it easier for him to justify what he had done, because he saw it as equivalent. The fact that the Germans were aggressors, that they had started the war, and that they were killing and torturing innocent people simply did not register for Eichmann, just as it did not register for Tsarnaev that the people in the Boston marathon were innocent. There are, of course, innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan who have died at the hands of U.S. bombs. Even for those of us who were against the wars and question their sense and justification, however, there is a difference between death in a war zone and terrorism.
The Rolling Stone article does a good job of chronicling Tsarnaev's slide into a radical jihadist ideology, one mixed with conspiracy theories.
The Prophet Muhammad, he noted on Twitter, was now his role model. "For me to know that I am FREE from HYPOCRISY is more dear to me than the weight of the ENTIRE world in GOLD," he posted, quoting an early Islamic scholar. He began following Islamic Twitter accounts. "Never underestimate the rebel with a cause," he declared.
His rebellious cause was to awaken Americans to their complicity both in the bombing of innocent Muslims and also to his belief in the common conspiracy theory that America was behind the 9/11 attacks. In one Tweet he wrote: "Idk [I don’t know] why it's hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job, I mean I guess fuck the facts y'all are some real #patriots #gethip."
Besides these tweets that offer a provocative insight into Tsarnaev's emergent ideological convictions, the real virtue of the article is its focus on Tsarnaev's friends, his school, and his place in American youth culture. While his friends certainly do not support or condone what Tsarnaev did, many share some of his conspiratorial and anti-American beliefs. Here are two descriptions of the mainstream nature of many of his beliefs:
To be fair, Will and others note, Jahar's perspective on U.S. foreign policy wasn't all that dissimilar from a lot of other people they knew. "In terms of politics, I'd say he's just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge," says Theo.
This is not an uncommon belief. Payack, who [was Tsarnaev's wrestling coach and mentor and] also teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music, says that a fair amount of his students, notably those born in other countries, believe 9/11 was an "inside job." Aaronson tells me he's shocked by the number of kids he knows who believe the Jews were behind 9/11. "The problem with this demographic is that they do not know the basic narratives of their histories – or really any narratives," he says. "They're blazed on pot and searching the Internet for any 'factoids' that they believe fit their highly de-historicized and decontextualized ideologies. And the adult world totally misunderstands them and dismisses them – and does so at our collective peril," he adds.
The article presents a sad portrait of youth culture, and not just because all these “normal” kids are smoking “a copious amount of weed.” The jarring realization is that these talented and intelligent young people at a good school in a storied neighborhood come off so disaffected. What is more, their beliefs in conspiracies are accepted by the adults in their lives as commonplaces; their anti-Americanism is simply a noted fact; and their idolization of slacking (Tsarnaev's favorite word, his friends say, “was "sherm," Cambridge slang for ‘slacker’”) is seen as cute. There is painfully little concern by adults to insist that the young people face facts and confront unserious opinions.
In short, the young people in Tsarnaev's story appear to be abandoned by adults to their own youthful and quite fanciful views of reality. Youth culture dominates, and adult supervision seems absent. There is seemingly no one who, in Arendt’s language from “The Crisis in Education”, takes responsibility for teaching them to love the world as it is.
The Rolling Stone article and cover do not glorify a monster; but they do play on two dangerous trends in modern culture that Hannah Arendt worried about in her writing: First, the rise of youth culture and the abandonment of adult authority in education; and second, the fascination bourgeois culture has for vice and the short distance that separates an acceptance of vice from an acceptance of monstrosity. If only all the people who are so concerned about a magazine cover today were more concerned about the delusions and fantasies of Tsarnaev, his friends, and others like them.
Taking responsibility for teaching young people to love the world is the very essence of what Arendt understands education to be. It will be the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center upcoming conference “Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen.” Registration for the conference opened this week. For now, ignore the controversy and read Reitman’s article “Jahar’s World.” It is your weekend read. It is as good an argument for thinking seriously about the failure of our approach to education as one can find.
"There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance – poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness instead of regeneration, or great riches and an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death – ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive."
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
A great deal has been written about Hannah Arendt’s philosophical and political thinking, but as the academic year draws to a close, it is important to remember that she urges her readers to think about and appreciate all aspects of human existence, including the life of the body. The passage quoted above comes from the Labor chapter of The Human Condition, in which Arendt traces the worrisome trend in the modern world where human activity is more and more dominated by a concern for the cyclical process of production and consumption. It is safe to say that ours is the kind of “waste economy” she speaks of, in which all objects become consumed and used up rather than used and re-used over time. Even highly technologically advanced devices such as our mobile phones are manufactured and treated as more or less disposable, made to last for a few years before they become obsolete and need to be replaced. The threat that a laboring and consuming society poses to a stable and durable human world has potentially disastrous consequences not only for political life, but also more generally for our ability to feel at home in our condition as earthly beings. In light of Arendt’s critique of labor as a human activity, it is remarkable that she pauses to acknowledge that this essentially worldless cycle of production and consumption with the aim of merely preserving our biological existence is the only activity that holds the key to “lasting” and “elemental” happiness in our lives.
The need to labor is “prescribed” by our condition as living beings most obviously in the case of needing to eat. In one way or another, all of us must continually expend energy in order to have food on the table. Happiness is found in this cycle of exhaustion and regeneration when each side balances the other, when pain and pleasure each contribute to feeling fully alive.
For most Americans this cycle is somewhat indirect since the number of people working on farms or growing food remains a minority. As the expenditure of energy through labor is abstracted (usually through the medium of money) from the regenerative act of consumption, it becomes more difficult to find happiness in the endless cycle of necessity. Furthermore, Arendt points out that the balance of exhaustion and regeneration can only be found in a middle-class life that is harder to come by today given the ever widening gap in income distribution. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, life itself becomes a burden for both extremes – a source of misery on one hand and a sign of impotence on the other – rather than a source of sustaining fulfillment.
How might we seek to reclaim this balance?
While many students and teachers (myself included) may be feeling the need for a pleasurable regeneration in the form of a vacation after a long season of schoolwork, Arendt is clear that “intellectual labor” shares few characteristics of manual labor related to maintaining our biological existence. However, there is also a pervasive notion that summer vacation from school was not designed to give students a break from thinking, but rather out of the necessity for young people to work on their families’ farms. Summer vacation is often thought of as a remnant of America’s agrarian past. Despite the fact that this interpretation of summer vacation is in fact historically erroneous, its persistence in the American mind suggests a collective nostalgia for a time when there was a balance of work, labor, and leisure in our lives.
Many educators and politicians today are questioning the wisdom of taking two or more consecutive months off from school, citing the educational demands that the 21st century economy places on individuals trying to earn a living. Summer vacation has been shown to negatively impact those students who are most in need of academic support since they are the least likely to have the privilege of enriching summer experiences at home or in summer programs. Many charter schools have turned to extended school days and extended school years to improve test scores of historically failing (usually urban) populations. It would be wrong to oppose eliminating summer vacation on the grounds that it takes away regenerative time for students, because summer is only regenerative for a privileged segment of the population. But perhaps a case can be made for the present relevance of the historical misconception that summer vacation is a time for young people to learn by laboring for food.
Although the local food movement has largely been the preoccupation of the upper-middle class, it has the potential to change how people in communities across the country participate in cycles of production and consumption. Community based agricultural opportunities are popping up in urban and rural areas, many of which seek to involve as many young people as possible through schools and other community organizations. These farming programs have the potential to teach young people that happiness comes through painful laboring while reaping the direct benefits for oneself and one’s own community. These kinds of work opportunities could begin to shift the imbalance of human activity in our society and reclaim a more direct and fulfilling form of laborer than the mere “jobholder.”
Insofar as education aspires to be more than training in how to make a living in the modern economy – a task made nearly impossible given the rapid technological and societal changes that make it very difficult for teachers to predict what the world may be like when their students are adults – it can open opportunities for young people to reflect on and make meaning of the various aspects of human living on earth. Schools must stand apart from the economic life process long enough to foster a free appreciation for, rather than enslavement to, the cycles of being alive. Participating in the growing of one’s own food during the summer months – whether at home, in a community garden, or on an urban farm – is a good way to learn gratitude for the bodily pain and pleasure that define the life that we have been given.
Thomas Levin of Princeton came to Bard Tuesday to give a lecture to the Drones Seminar, a weekly class I am participating in, led by my colleague Thomas Keenan and conceived by two of our students Arthur Holland and Dan Gettinger. Levin has studied surveillance techniques for years and he came to think with us about how the present obsession with drones will transform our landscape and our imaginations. At a time when the obsession with drones in the media is focused on their offensive capacities, it is important to recall that drones were originally developed as a surveillance technology. If drones are to become omnipresent in our lives, what will that mean?
Levin began by reminding us of the embrace of other surveillance devices in mass culture, like recording devices at the turn of the 20th century. He offered old postcards and cartoons in which unsuspecting servants or children were caught goofing off or insulting their superiors with newfangled recording devices like the cylinder phonograph and, later, hidden cameras and spy satellites. The realization emerges that we are being watched, and this sense pervades the popular consciousness. In looking to these representations from mass culture of the fear, awareness, and even expectation that we will be watched and listened to, Levin finds the emergence of what he calls “rhetoric of surveillance.”
In short, we talk and think constantly about the fact that we are or may be being watched. This cannot but change the way we behave and act. Levin poses this question. What, he asks, is the emerging drone imaginary?
To answer that question it is helpful to revisit an uncannily prescient imagination of the rise of drones in a text written over half a century ago, Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees. Originally published in 1957 and recently reissued in translation with an introduction by science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, Jünger’s text centers around a job interview between an unnamed former light cavalry officer and Giacomo Zapparoni, secretive, filthy rich, and powerful proprietor of The Zapparoni Works that “manufactured robots for every imaginable purpose.” Zapparoni’s secret, however, is that he instead of big and hulking robots, he specialized in Lilliputian robots that gave “the impression of intelligent ants.”
The robots were not powerful in themselves, but they worked together. Like drone bees and drone ants—that exist only for procreation and then die—the small robots, or drones, serve specific purposes in industry or business. Zapparoni’s tiny robots “could count, weigh, sort gems or paper money….” Their power came from their coordination.
The robots “worked in dangerous locations, handling explosives, dangerous viruses, and even radioactive materials. Swarms of selectors could not only detect the faintest smell of smoke but could also extinguish a fire at an early stage; others repaired defective wiring, and still others fed upon filth and became indispensable in all jobs where cleanliness was essential.” Dispensable and efficient, Zapparoni’s little robots could do the most dangerous and least desirable tasks.
In The Glass Bees, we are introduced to Zapparoni’s latest invention: flying glass bees that can pollinate flowers much more efficiently and quickly than natural bees. The bees “were about the size of a walnut still encased in its green shell.” They were completely transparent and they were an improvement upon nature, at least insofar as the pollination of flowers was concerned. If a true or natural bee “sucked first on the calyx, at least a dessert remained.” But Zapparoni’s glass bees “proceeded more economically; that is, they drained the flower more thoroughly.” What is more, the bees were a marvel of agility and skill: “Given the flying speed, the fact that no collisions occurred during these flights back and forth was a masterly feat.” According to the cavalry officer, “It was evident that the natural procedure had been simplified, cut short, and standardized.”
Before our hero is introduced to Zapparoni’s bees, he is given a warning: “Beware of the bees!” And yet he forgets this warning. Watching the glass bees, the cavalry officer is fascinated. He felt himself “come under the spell of the deeper domain of techniques,” which like a spectacle “both enthralled and mesmerized.” His mind, he writes, went to sleep and he “forgot time” and “also entirely forgot the possibility of danger.”
Jünger’s book tells, in part, the story of our fascination and subjection to technologies of surveillance. On Facebook or Words with Friends, or even using our smart phones or GPS systems, we allow our fascination with technology to dull our sense of its danger. As Jünger writes: “Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms—around which, therefore, stands an uncanny but fascinating halo of brilliance—evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe.”
The protagonist of The Glass Bees, a former member of the Light Cavalry and later a tank inspector, had once been fascinated by the “succession of ever new models becoming obsolete at an ever increasing speed, this cunning question-and-answer game between overbred brains.” What he came to see is that “the struggle for power had reached a new stage; it was fought with scientific formulas. The weapons vanished in the abyss like fleeting images, like pictures one throws into the fire. New ones were produced in protean succession.” Victory ceased to be about physical battle; it became, instead, a contest of technical mastery and knowledge.
The danger drones pose is not necessarily military. As General Stanley McChrystal rightly said when I asked him about this last week at the New York Historical Society, drones are simply another military tool that can be used for good or ill. Many fret today about collateral damage by drones and forget that if we had to send in armies to do these tasks the collateral damage would be much greater. Others worry about assassination, but drones are simply the tool, not the person pulling the trigger. It may be true that having drones when others don’t offers an enormous military advantage and makes the decision to go to kill easier, but when both sides have drones, we will all think heavily between beginning a cycle of illegal assassinations.
Rather, the danger of drones is how they change us as humans. As we humans interact more regularly with drones and machines and computers, we will inevitably come to expect ourselves and our friends and our colleagues and our lovers to act with the efficiency and selflessness of drones. Sherry Turkle worries that mechanical companions offer such fascination and unquestionable love that humans are beginning to prefer spending time with their machines than with other humans—who make demands, get tired, act cranky, and disappoint us. Ron Arkin has argued that robot soldiers will be more humane at war than human soldiers, who often act rashly out of exhaustion, anger, or revenge. Doctors are learning to rely on Watson and artificially intelligent medical machines, who can bring databases of knowledge to bear on diagnoses with the speed and objectivity that humans can only dream of. In every area of human life where humans once were thought to be necessary, drones and machines are proving more reliable, more capable, and more desirable.
The danger drones represent is not what they do better than humans, but that they do it better than humans. They are a further step in the human dream of self-improvement—the desire to overcome our shame at our all-too-human limitations.
The incredible popularity of drones today is partly a result of their freeing us to fight wars with ever-reduced human and economic costs. But drones are popular also because they appeal to the human desire for perfection. The question is, however, how perfect we humans can be before we begin to lose our humanity. That is, of course, the force of Jünger’s warning: Beware of the bees!
As drones appear everywhere around us, you would do well to put down the newspaper and turn off You Tube and, instead, revisit Ernst Jünger’s classic tale of drones. The Glass Bees is your weekend read. You can read Bruce Sterling’s introduction to The Glass Bees here.
Governor Mitt Romney released his taxes for the last two years today. He refused to release earlier records. These two years of records are from the years when he knew he was running for President for the second time.
We can assume they are to some degree cleansed of the most egregious of offenses. That said: Wow!
As my friend John Drabinski just wrote:
Romney has Cayman Island, Luxembourg, and Swiss bank accounts (I'm sure that's patriotic), made over $20 million and paid a 13.9% rate (wtf?!), and I'm telling you, if folks don't flip out over this, then we deserve what we get in this country.
Romney's tax rate is below 15%! That is even below the capital gains rate and the unjustifiable carried interest rate for hedge fund investors. Why? Because he has tax havens and secret Swiss bank accounts that he uses to reduce his taxes. He just closed a Swiss bank account (not fast enough I guess).
This is disgrace. Someone who uses the gray zone of tax haven law to hide his income is not simply playing by the rules. Money in tax havens is protected from taxes, but also from regulations and disclosure rules. I am not saying Romney broke laws. But he wants to be President, the personification of the public spiritedness of the nation. To hide money around the world in tax dodges and secret accounts sends a clear message: protecting my money is more important than paying my fair share to the country. While this may be legal, it is hardly a recommendation for public service.
Unfortunately, Romney's approach to financial secrecy is all too common amongst the people in his elite circle. It is one thing to have a low capital gains rate tax for investment in equipment and factories. That does spur investment. I would favor a low 5% or so capital gains tax—but only if it were limited to actual capital investment. However, to tax investment in stocks at that low rate makes no economic sense. And the idea that carried interest (the profit a hedge fund manager or private equity manager makes on their investments) should be taxed at 15% is ludicrous, as every hedge fund manager I know admits in private.
Tax havens and tax policies are not simply economic questions. A just system of taxation is essential to preserve our democracy. You simply cannot have a country that puts the common interest above the private interests of its members when the wealthiest of its citizens are employing armies of lawyers and consultants to hide their money and assets.
The best account of these tax havens is found in Nicholas Shaxson's book Treasure Island: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. Here are a few key quotes:
It is essential to understand from the outset that the offshore system is ultimately not about celebrity tax exiles and mobsters.... The offshore system is also about a more generalized subversion of democracy by our increasingly unaccountable elites. "Taxes are for the little people," The New York millionaire Leona Helmsley once famously said.
Much of what happens offshore is technically legal. A lot of it is plainly illegal and often criminal. And there is a vast gray area in between. All of it is profoundly dangerous, corrosive to democracy, and morally indefensible.
The Offshore World is All Around Us. Over half of world trade passes, at least on paper, through tax havens. Over half of all bank assets, and a third of foreign direct investment by multinational corporations, are routed offshore. Some 85 percent of international banking and bond issuance takes place in the so-called Euromarkets, a stateless offshore zone that we shall soon explore. Nearly every multinational corporation uses tax havens, and their largest users—by far—are on Wall Street.
Tax havens don't just offer an escape from tax. They also provide wealthy and powerful elites with secrecy and all manner of ways to shrug off the laws and duties that come along with living in and obtaining benefits from society—taxes, prudent financial regulation, criminal laws, inheritance rules, and many others. offering these escape routes is the tax havens' core line of business. It is what they do.
Just last week, the watchdog Global Financial Integrity revealed that the developing world suffered nearly $1 trillion in illicit financial outflows in 2009, "a number that is almost 10 times larger than the official development assistance they receive each year from Western economies like the United States, United Kingdom and Norway." As Raymond Baker writes:
A shadow financial system consisting of tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions and anonymous corporate vehicles makes it easy for corrupt dictators, terrorists, drug traffickers and tax evaders to quietly shepherd their funds out of the developing world and around the planet without notice.
Again, I don't know if Governor Romney broke laws. I imagine he stayed just this side of illegality.
But we have a moral and ethical problem in this country. A republic, as Montesquieu saw, runs on the fuel of the virtue of its citizens, which Montesquieu defined as their willingness to put the public interest above their private interests. We are a nation in need of renewal, and that demands leadership that inspires us to re-commit ourselves to the American dream and the American story. It is a great story, one worthy of being re-imagined. But how can someone lead us to that promised land when he has, by his actions, shown himself to care more about protecting his money in offshore tax havens than doing his duty as a citizen? He can't.
Andrew Sullivan calls for President Obama to go big and make tax reform a central priority in the State of the Union tonight. I agree. He also says:
It seems to me that this is not about Romney and shouldn't be about Romney. He broke no laws; he seems admirably charitable; his massive wealth is not a marker against him. The issue is the system. My basic view has long been for a flat, simple tax code, in which everyone pays either the same rate, or two or three clear rates, and all deductions are removed. You tax income and dividends at the same rate. You get government out of the way of an economy's market decisions, by not tilting the playing field.
I agree that Romney's tax write is not a marker against him. It is one thing to play by the rules and pay the required capital gains tax rate. And yes, he did give $7.1 Million to charity which comes to something like 17% of his income. But the issue is that he also seems to have taken aggressive measures to hide and protect that money offshore. While this is not technically illegal, it is not simply playing by the rules of the tax system. It is employing accountants and lawyers to seek loopholes and avoid the intent of those rules. And that is wrong, even it is not illegal.
Sullivan gets the main point right on:
To put it more bluntly: The president and the Democrats should not be piling on Romney because he's rich. They should be piling on the tax code because it is so insane. This issue is populist and good economics. With a full-scale Bowles-Simpson attack on deductions, reform could keep taxation simple and low and easier to understand. And that restrains lobbyists, who suddenly have far less to lobby for; and it restrains taxation. If you have three simple rates - say, 10, 20, 30 - then any increase in them is very, very visible. You want a government that can be monitored and controlled by the people? Simplify the tax code!
Read Andrew Sullivan here