Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
10Jul/131

No Middle Ground

FromtheArendtCenter

David Simon, writer of “The Wire,” has a great post responding to my recent essay on the “Misreading of ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem.’” Simon writes:

Reading this essay, I began to understand that it suits no one of an ideological bent to land anywhere in the middle on the question of who the Eichmanns are and how they come to be.

This simple sentence speaks volumes of about the way ideological thinking leads away from common sense and towards artificial polarization. As one reader commented in a private email to me:

On one side there are the mostly more or less violent critics, always looking for arguments against Arendt; on the other side we have the Arendt-lovers, hating and mistrusting everyone who is naughty enough to write about her subjects. Both sides are more believers than thinkers, so one has the choice between getting simply killed or hugged to death.

Simon sums up the opposing positions quite brilliantly. On the one side, for those who “see us all as ripe for totalitarian brutality given mere circumstance, there is little to be contemplated in the human soul.” We are all controlled by our situations and cogs in larger systems. On the other side, we are free actors without constraints. “There is no narrative beyond the individual for those that see nothing systemic in the world that cannot be overtaken by the life-force of the great and vile men and women of history.”

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What Simon rightly sees is that Arendt fits in neither extreme:

Ms. Arendt had blind spots, to be sure; she at points wrote of Holocaust victims with less patience and sensitivity than their standing requires. But in finding a more truthful place between fixed, ideological points when it came to Eichmann himself, Ms. Arendt offered real, but complicated insight.

The most interesting part of Simon’s post is what follows, where he draws the lesson from the ideological response to Arendt’s book about the dangers of ideological conformism.

There is a small irony here, given that “Eichmann In Jerusalem” is itself a study in the cost of ideological purity to the human spirit.  That those on either side of a philosophical divide would go so far as to mangle and mischaracterize Ms. Arendt’s work to assert against a middle ground is a shorter journey on that same, worn road. Perhaps, this is why her report from that Jerusalem courtroom still matters.

Look around at the hyperbolic and uncivil discourse between Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, Zionists and anti-Zionists, libertarians and liberals, the religious and the secular, pro-choice and anti-abortion: If you believe in anything completely — to the point of a rigorous purity — then you will at moments behave as an intellectual cripple.

I could not agree more. In fact, I had a paragraph in my essay about the way that political movements today insist on ideological purity even at the expense of common sense and of facts, so much so that belonging to and defending the movement is more important than being right. My graph landed on the cutting room floor, but Simon draws the very same conclusion from the essay anyway.

This does not mean we should not belong to movements or to groups. Committing ourselves to causes and believing in collective enterprises is part of being human. There are some opinions and some collectives for which I would sacrifice myself. Any political leader must be ready to lead obedient soldiers into war in the defense of freedom. Politics, as Max Weber wrote, is not a nursery. There is a time for the noble commitment to nation or ideals.

But there are limits past which obedience and conviction turn from noble to execrable.  It matters both what ideals one defends and what means one uses to defend them. It thus matters that when we join a group we not abandon ourselves fully to thoughtless obedience and thoughtless and unlimited pursuit of group ideals. Politics today, on the left and the right, resembles too much a game and a battle rather than a collective pursuit of self-governance.

Read the rest of Simon’s post here. And check out the comments and his responses as well.

-RB

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