“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. This is the true hallmark of those offenses, which, since Kant, we call a ‘radical evil’ and about whose nature so little is known, even to us who have been exposed to one of their rare outbursts on the public scene. All we know is that we can neither punish nor forgive such offenses and that they therefore transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance.”
— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Last Friday afternoon, Dylann Roof appeared in court for arraignment through a closed-circuit television, all the while flanked by law enforcement officers. The protection of the blue screen seemed a testament to the degree of his offence: murdering 9 people during a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The scene was made more surreal for viewers who listened to the disembodied voices of the victims’ family members address Roof directly, confronting him with their suffering and pain and offering their forgiveness. The daughter of one victim, Ethel Lance, said: “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me and I will never talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” The words of forgiveness were so remarkable even President Obama tweeted: “In the midst of darkest tragedy, the decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families.”
“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
-Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship"
It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.
Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.
Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”
In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ " And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.
It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.
Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:
Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.
The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?
Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.
But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?
“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.
[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.
Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
Drones are everywhere; everywhere, however, drones are poorly understood. One reason is the confusion of drones with targeted killings in the war on terror. Much of the commentary about drones concerns the legitimacy of extrajudicial killing as well as the civilian casualties that accompany such attacks. Such killings are hardly new, as warring states and clandestine operations have been eliminating high-value targets by sniper fire, mail bombs, IEDs, and other means for centuries. UAVs are powerful weapons, but they are just that, a new tools improving upon a long-standing practice. To the extent discussions about drones get lost in questions of the morality or legality of targeted killing, we are not actually talking about drones.
Debates about targeted killing are important, but as drones are popping up everywhere around us, we need also to ask: What is the drone? And how does the omnipresence of drones impact the world in which we live? I’ve written a fair bit about this question here and here, and I’ll have more to say soon in a longer essay. But for now, it is quite helpful to take a look at Nasser Hussain’s recent essay in The Boston Review: The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike.
It is not irrelevant to note that the editors of the Boston Review chose to focus the headline “The Sound of Terror” on the experience of drones from the perspective of the victims. Hussain’s describes how drones dominate life in areas where they are in use, creating a low pitched humming sound that reminds inhabitants that at any moment a missile might pierce their daily routines.
To read Hussain’s essay, however, is to see that the vast majority of his analysis concerns how drones are changing the way those who operate see and experience war and also the way drones impact the culture of those nations or groups that employ and deploy drones in their name. That the editors focus on the short section on the experience of victims is telling of the way that the debate about drones continues to be driven by a concern for human rights of the victims rather than a worry about what drones and the use of drones are doing to the people and societies that employ them.
The victims’ perspective on drone strikes is important; but Hussain’s essay is noteworthy because of the way it explores the impact of drones on the very society that is increasingly dependent upon drones. The first change Hussain notes is that drones are part of the reason “we have become too accustomed to seeing from the air, which violates all the familiar geometry and perspective of our mundane, grounded vision.” Of course planes and satellites have given us aerial views for nearly a century. But whether or not the omnipresence of drone imagery and its increased utility in maps, videos, and on the web is truly revolutionary, it has an impact.
Aerial vision at once expands the range of view and hones in on a perceived target. But this focus inwards, this claim of precise aim, is not just one among other ways of looking. Rather, the accuracy of the drone’s eye structures more than vision; it shapes the way we think about, talk about, and evaluate a bombing. We focus in on the target, the moment of impact. We dispute how contained or collateral the damage was, how many civilians died alongside the chosen target. These questions begin to eclipse all other questions about the global military apparatus that makes the strike possible or about civilian injury that goes beyond body counts.
I take seriously the claim that looking through the lens of a drone camera produces a partial visual construction. At the same time, I wonder whether it is true that we focus on the target and impact and thus forget the civilians who die. Indeed, the choice of headline and the way that questions about civilian casualties dominate the debate about drones suggest the opposite.
A second insight Hussain offers argues that the rise of drones turns war from a battle amongst antagonistic forces into a practice of policing. Building upon an analysis of air power by Carl Schmitt in The Nomos of the Earth (1950), Hussain writes,
the technological imbalance inherent in the use of air power transforms conflicts by adding an element of policing. The introduction of air power combined specific spatial transformations within a global nomos with changes in the technology of weaponry. Schmitt saw with prescient clarity that air war would not only create an “intensification of the technical means of destruction” and the “disorientation of space,” but also intensify the problem of unequal sides, and allow the dominant side to re-label enemies as criminals. Schmitt understood that air power would create a world in which those who command the sky could police and punish those who do not. For Schmitt, this widening gap is both the cause and result of a juridification of war, a shift towards conceptualizing war as a policing activity of criminals:
Air power allows for unimpeded surveillance, giving the drone operator the ability to both watch and punish. What is more, the airborne perspective intensifies the feeling of power, as one literally looks down on others, intrudes into their daily lives, and holds the power of both arrest and execution. Such a viewpoint of power cannot but change the way those who see the world through drone lenses or surveillance cameras. As more Americans are employed in positions that view others secretly over video, it is likely that the policing perspective on the world becomes ever more vivid and present.
A final way that Hussain sees drones to be changing the way we see and experience the world is through the popularity of videos of drone strikes that are proliferating on YouTube and other video sharing sites.
For Hussain, these videos are akin to “drone porn.” And similar to the real thing, this technological porn satisfies deep desires in those who watch it.
With over ten million hits online, the clips are consumed voraciously, and attract a community of viewers (judging from the comment profiles, mostly men) who comment on what they portray and inform each other of new postings. Given the distinct action in these clips and the obsessive interest in them, some commentators have called the phenomenon “drone porn.” This offensive moniker does not so much equate the subject matter with that of a snuff film as offer a clue to the structure of the videos. Just as pornography caters to masculine desire, and the so-called money shot or male orgasm structures the film and retrospectively casts the action leading up to it as anticipation, so the experience of watching the drone strike footage is characterized by anticipation of the coming explosion, the moment of the strike.
That drone strikes play to fantasies of power, domination, and mastery is not unimportant. The cultural fascination with drones at this moment is intense. Even when drones are outfitted with cameras rather than explosives, drones carry with them the promise of power. With drones, we can fly. We can spy on others. And we can in some way feel ourselves empowered in a world of near constant surveillance.
The impact of drones on those who use them pales, of course, when set against their impact on victims. As Hussain writes, “While drone strike footage has entered our culture as fantasy, drones have entered these regions as psychological trauma.” The trauma of populations under surveillance by drones and even more of those at risk of drone strikes is real, and Hussain does a good job exploring it. You can read more about it here. The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike is your weekend read.
“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
- Hannah Arendt, Thinking
In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t). There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall. The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it. There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction. Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use? Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine? What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not? There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.
The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether. I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason). Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult. But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought. Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.
One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time). The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself. A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.
If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.
There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself). But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work. Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.
Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can. That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation. When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.” In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought. We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.
It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility. On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power. On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved. It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).
What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live. Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it. Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us. If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse. This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond. In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself. When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap. And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.
Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers. Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible. When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task. It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.
The new Hannah Arendt bio picture by Margarethe von Trotta has been released in Europe. It will hit theatres in the US in May, although it is making the rounds of festivals now. The good news: “Hannah Arendt” the film is really wonderful. I’ll have more to say about the film at some point soon, but until then we’ll be passing along the most interesting reviews. To get us started, here is a write up by David Owen, who teaches political theory at the University of Southampton. If you see the film and have some thoughts, pass them our way and we’ll post them on the blog.
The opening scene of the film shows the organised abduction of an ordinary-looking older man on a country road before cutting to a woman, obviously European in her movements, listening to classical music in a room whose decor is clearly American. These people are, of course, Adolf Eichmann and Hannah Arendt – and thus the film signals its central focus, namely, Arendt’s relationship to the event of Eichmann’s Trial in Jerusalem and the questions that Arendt’s report and the reactions to it raise concerning the relations of the private and the public, the personal and the political, and, more specifically, the conditions (and wisdom) of a philosopher speaking philosophically about politics in public.
The film’s portrayal of Arendt is unfolded through her relationships, most notably with her husband Heinrich Blücher, her friend Mary McCarthy, her once class-mate and now friend and colleague Hans Jonas, her old political mentor and friend the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, the editor of the New Yorker William Shawn, and her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger. All except the last of these are played out within a linear dramatic narrative that tracks Arendt’s circle from the capture of Eichmann through the trail in Jerusalem to the composition and publication of, and reaction to, Arendt’s New Yorker articles. The relationship to Heidegger is interspersed into the narrative through flashback’s that are Arendt’s memories of her relationship with Heidegger and his disastrous foray into public political speech in the Rectoral Address of May 27th 1933, a public act which he later spoke of privately as ‘die größte Dummheit seines Lebens’ but which he never publically renounced. This figuring of her relationship to Heidegger within the dramatic structure of the film is unfortunate in a number of ways, not least the portrayal of Heidegger as a clownish naïf, but primarily because through the use and positioning of these flashbacks within the film, von Trotta offers an open-ended analogy between Heidegger’s and Arendt’s acts of public speech. Even if von Trotta means only to raise the suggestion, since these flashbacks are Arendt’s, that Arendt reflects on her Report on the Eichmann Trial through the prism of her personal relationship to Heidegger and his own abrogated stress on the necessity of thinking, it gets in the way of the rest of the film which is a beautifully shot and compelling piece of narrative drama with a strong ensemble cast, not least in the sensitive use of documentary footage in the reconstruction of the Eichmann trial.
In different respects, Blücher and McCarthy are presented as Arendt’s supports. Blücher’s wandering eye and philandering (which Arendt is portrayed as accepting as a fact about which it would be hopeless to rail) are offset by his role as loving companion and sounding board for her thoughts. McCarthy is the female confidant, a blousy American whose insecurity in her personal life and work contrasts with and highlights Arendt’s European roots and location in an older tradition.
By contrast, the relationships with Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld are offered as both deep but also, finally broken, by Arendt’s writing on Eichmann. This is given early expression in, first, an argument between Jonas and Blücher about Eichmann’s abduction to be placed on trial in Israel which foreshadows the more dramatic rupture between Jonas and Arendt – and, second, Arendt’s visit to Blumenfeld’s family in Jerusalem (on her way to cover the Eichmann trial) in awkwardness and already emerging disagreement are covered over by the depth of their friendship. Later, after the report is published, Arendt will dash to Jerusalem to visit a seriously ill Blumenfeld in his sickbed only for him to turn his back to her. The issue von Trotta raises here concerns not so much whether Arendt’s arguments are right or wrong but rather how much one can reasonably ask one’s friends to bear in respect of one’s own commitment to intellectual integrity. For Blumenfeld, Arendt’s remarks on the role of the Jewish leaders in co-operating with the Nazi organization run by Eichmann and hence facilitating the Shoah are a betrayal of the Jewish people. Arendt’s response — that she does not think of herself as having such an obligation — adds only insult to injury. For Jonas, Arendt’s fault is arrogance — and certainly the portrayal of her relationship to William Shawn, an editor overwhelmed by awe at Arendt which she shows no compunction in exploiting, is given as testimony to this side of her character. This issue is raised for us acutely by the climax of the film to which I’ll come shortly but there are two other features that deserve comment first.
The first is the presentation of the charge made against Arendt by her public critics that she is cold, without feeling, and McCarthy’s defense of her as simply having a courage that her critics lack, in the context of a portrayal of Arendt among students and friends as a caring and humorous person who, at one point, privately breaks down in the face of the reaction to her report. The second is the portrayal of the process of composing her writing of Eichmann which combines two elements: the engagement with a vast mass of empirical material, piles of folders of paper (court transcripts, etc.) are arranged around the study and apartment, and the difficulty of writing: Arendt sits reading and is haunted by voices from the trial, she spends a lot of time lying down on a divan smoking endless cigarettes, she types in a controlled frenzy. Here it seems to me that the film is linking these features in a way that is insightful and important, namely, that Arendt had to steel herself to write her report at all, that she had to set aside her own feelings and relationships to others in order to be able to try to serve truth, that intellectual conscience (redlichkeit) makes demands that are hard to bear. In this sense, the film suggests that the critics (who remind me of Martha Nussbaum on tragedy) are right to see her writing as cold and without feeling but quite wrong in their judgment of the significance of this fact and the courage that the writing required of her. At the same time, her response to William Shawn that her writing about the Jewish leaders was purely factual raises for the viewer the question of whether she has lost the ability to discriminate between her judgment and facts in this process. In making this point, the film does not attempt to adjudicate the question of whether Arendt was right or wrong to write the report that she composed, rather it tries, I think compellingly, to make intelligible how she could come to speak in the way that she did (it may also explain why she was entirely unconcerned that Eichmann was hanged).
Let me now turn to the climax. As the drama following the publication of her report unfolds, Arendt is presented as treating from public space and, against McCarthy’s advice, refusing to engage publically with the criticisms directed at her work by critics for whom she has no intellectual respect (echoes of Heidegger’s postwar silence are raised here). When she returns to The New School, at that time almost entirely a Jewish institution, her colleagues shun her and she is asked to resign from teaching her classes which she refuses to do — but she does acknowledge an obligation to the students, who have supported her (and whom the film portrays her as feeling responsible to, for example, in the scene where McCarthy arrives at her class to tell her that Blücher has had a heart attack and is in hospital, and her first shocked reaction is to return to finish her class). When she has offered her explanation to a lecture hall packed with students and the three staff before whom she was hauled for dressing down and discipline, she rebuts – albeit not wholly convincingly — the charge by a staff member that she is blaming the victims for their own victimhood and is given rapturous applause by the students. As they leave, she sees that Hans Jonas is also in the audience. His face, in a bravura piece of acting by Ulrich Noethen, gives us no clue as to what is to come next but seems to express a process of internal struggle. Arendt goes to him, hopeful that her explanation will have healed the rupture of their friendship, but far from it — Jonas rejects her account, she has gone too far, and, in a bitter expression of the end of their friendship, refers to her as “Heidegger’s little darling”.
The question raised by this film is that of ‘thoughtlessness’. Arendt presents Eichmann as a creature who cannot think, for has abdicated the realm of thinking, and at the same time she sees Heidegger as a philosopher whose movement into the public realm is marked by a shift to thoughtlessness (a view that allows her to continue to engage Heidegger’s philosophical work after 1933 in contrast to Jonas). Is Arendt similarly ‘thoughtless’ is her reflections on the Jewish leaders? The film asks us to consider this question but not, I think, quite in Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness but in the broader sense that underlies it. Her commitment to understanding, to making intelligible, to truthfulness is given clear expression as too are the demands this makes on her — but what about the demands that this makes on her friends, is there not a kind of thoughtlessness here? Is there not a kind of thoughtlessness in her failure to anticipate the entirely predictable response to her moralized interpretation of the role of the Jewish leaders, whose cooperation with the Nazis, she writes, should strike Jews as the darkest episode of a dark chapter of human action?
I don’t think that the film ultimately takes a stance on this issue – rather it raises for us the question of the relationship of Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness to our ordinary sense of that word. And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews. The film is composed in a context in which we, and von Trotta, know this — and I think the film’s refusal to resolve the issues that it raises is precisely an acknowledgement of this context. In this respect, Thomas Assheuer’s review in Die Zeit which suggests that Arendt’s reading of Eichmann was directed against that of the Israeli Prime Minster David Ben Gurion who represented him as a monster of evil for ideological purposes may have some force but not against the film. Rather the film leaves us with questions concerning the relationship between friendship and the service of truth, of emotional life and the conditions of writing truthfully, and of the conditions and costs of public speech.
Doron Rabionvici is an eclectic figure, an Israeli-born novelist who lives in Vienna; he did his Ph.D. thesis in history on the collaboration of Austrian Jews with the Nazis during WWII. In a recent lecture at the Burg Theatre in Vienna, Rabinovici brilliantly evokes the nostalgia of Viennese and European Jews who return to Austria in search of never-existent and yet glorious past, a time in which people of many languages and nationalities met daily at a crossroads of cultures and tongues. His fascination with the past is evident as well in Instanzen der Ohnmacht (roughly Administration of the Powerless), his Ph.D. thesis that was published in 2000. Now twelve years later this thesis has been translated with the much more inflammatory title: Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938–1945. The title, and the book, refer of course to Hannah Arendt's insistence upon holding the Jewish leaders of Europe accountable for their collaboration with the Nazis.
I haven't read Rabinovici's book, but Christopher Browning has a fascinating review in the latest NYRB. Here is Browning's description of the opening:
The book begins with a telling prologue in which we encounter two Jews, Wilhelm Reisz and Oscar Reich, who were tried and convicted after the war for zealous collaboration. The former, sentenced to fifteen years, immediately hanged himself; the latter was executed. Both men, under real and imminent threat of death, had survived by making themselves useful to the Nazis and doing terrible things to other Jews. But in comparison their Nazi superiors—those with real decision-making power and not subject to lethal coercion—received much lighter sentences. The courts in question, Rabinovici notes, simply could not grasp how “victims” became “involved in the crime under coercion” and “threat of death,” and thus found their behavior more “reprehensible and disgraceful” than that of the Nazis who were the ones truly responsible.
Despite the provocative reference to Eichmann in the title of his book, Rabinovici is concerned to largely defend Jewish officials who collaborated during the war. He writes: “The study of the attitudes of Jewish victims under the destructive regime is always in danger of turning into a complacently moralizing reproach, shifting the blame for the crimes to the victims.” He insists that “a clear distinction must always be made between perpetrators and victims, between the power of authority…and the powerless.” His book is, it seems, an effort to bring factual nuance to bear on the question of Jewish collaboration; he seeks to defend and exculpate Jewish leaders from what is often, wrongly, considered to be the single-minded force of Arendt's condemnation.
Browning rightly sets Rabinovici's book in the context of Hannah Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial. Above all Browning focuses on what Arendt calls the darkest chapter of the Holocaust, the “role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people.” For Browning,
Perhaps the single most infamous sentence in her provocative book, she wrote: “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.
Arendt's account is often subjected to oversimplification. Peter Gordon has called Arendt's speculation "absurd" and "wildly irresponsible." Deborah Lipstadt has recently argued that Arendt wrongly describes Jewish leaders without distinction. And yet Arendt does make distinctions, praising "Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, who was not a rabbi but an unbeliever, a Polish-speaking Jewish engineer, but who must still have remembered the rabbinical saying: 'Let them kill you, but don't cross the line." Too frequently forgotten is the fact that Arendt's claim is not that all Jewish leaders collaborated, but that those who did so in such a way as to help themselves and their family and friends, and those who thought that they had the right or the duty to select other Jews to be killed in the hope of some greater good, crossed a line that must not be crossed. One can argue that Arendt's tone is too strident. One can disagree with Arendt's moral belief that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong; and surely she made factual mistakes. But it is hard to sustain the argument that she summarily blames all Jews or Jewish leaders. Instead, she calls for honest judgment in each particular instance.
Browning is a voice of reason amidst the extremists who alternatively condemn and defend Arendt's moral judgment of Jewish collaborationists. He insists upon the "historical and moral complexities of the response of Jewish leaders and functionaries." And he points to necessary accounts by two, Primo Levi and Lawrence Langer. Levi warned against "the “simplification” of reducing the “network of human relations” in the camps to “two blocs of victims and perpetrators.” He writes that “An infernal system such as National Socialism ... degrades [its enemies], it makes them resemble itself.” And Langer gives us the "indispensable notion" of "“choiceless choices” to capture another infernal aspect of Nazi rule, in which the absolute asymmetry of power meant that the Germans could insidiously and consciously design situations in which Jewish leaders never had the choice between good and bad or even lesser and greater evil, but only between catastrophically disastrous alternatives."
Rabionvici's book starts in 1938 when the Nazis enter Vienna and a young Adolf Eichmann
restructured the Jewish community organization (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde or IKG) to facilitate expelling the Jews of Austria. Jewish authorities who could have left but stayed to serve their community were transformed from elected representatives into Nazi appointees and charged with accelerating Jewish expulsion, especially through finding ways to fund those Jews without the means to emigrate, while the Austrian Jews were simultaneously being systematically plundered and impoverished.
The book follows Eichmann's efforts but focuses on those Jewish leaders who served him. Rabionvici describes how the Nazis ordered Jewish "marshals" to help "in rounding up recalcitrant Jews, bringing them to the collection points, and guarding against any escape." As Browning summarizes,
Initially, Josef Löwenherz, the head of the IKG, refused to submit to this Nazi demand in November 1941, but the Nazis then recruited their own thugs to conduct the roundups in the most brutal manner, and Löwenherz relented so that “decent” people could be assigned to the task. As the continued exemption of the so-called “lifters” (Ausheber) depended upon total compliance and fulfillment of their assigned quotas, not surprisingly those being deported did not think their actions “decent.”Löwenharz, as much as he may have sought to help others, also helped himself as both he and his deputy, Benjamin Murmelstein, survived the war in Vienna.
For Browning, the need in any book on Jewish leadership during the Holocaust is to "navigate the treacherous waters between the Scylla of blanket condemnation and the Charybdis of apologia." He lauds Rabionvici's effort to understand the complexities of the situation. And yet Rabionvici fails, Browning writes, because he "veers ever closer to apologia as his arguments take on an increasingly exculpatory tone on the one hand or are simply bizarre and contradictory on the other."
Browning's essay is essential reading. It should also make you want to read Rabionvici's book. As I sit on the beach in Westport, Ma, I am ordering my copy today. The book and the essay are, together, your weekend reads.
There has been much attention paid to the arguments before the Supreme Court concerning the 2010 health care law. And such attention is entirely justified, for the upcoming decision will have a decisive impact on the availability and quality of medical care for millions of Americans. But we should not forget another question that has recently come before the Court: whether it is constitutional for states to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole.
This case raises important questions not only about the purpose of criminal prosecution and incarceration, but also about our conceptions of personhood and the legal, moral, and other boundaries we construct between youth and adulthood. These issues have been on my mind a great deal these days: as part of my work with the Bard Prison Initiative, I am currently teaching a writing-oriented anthropology course entitled “Youth and Youth Politics” to two groups of incarcerated students. But they came even more pointedly to the fore as I was listening to the March 24th edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” This broadcast reported on a recent gathering that brought families of victims together with families of offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. Significantly, all those in attendance hope that the Supreme Court would declare such sentences unconstitutional.
If you have not already heard the report, I would recommend that you take a listen (and not merely read the text available on the NPR website). Aside from the power of the emotions expressed, I appreciate the way it neatly outlines and complicates the terms of debate. On the one hand, it presents the viewpoint of Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association, who sketches the potential reasons for long criminal sentences in starkly dichotomous terms. “Is it the goal [of prosecution and incarceration] to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is the goal to do justice for the victims and others?” He inclines to the latter position, as is evident in the brief he filed that urged the Court not to overturn life sentences without parole.
On the other hand, the NPR report also includes the perspective of people like Mary Johnson, a mother whose son was shot and killed at a party by a sixteen-year-old boy. In the immediate aftermath, she regarded her son’s killer as an “animal”: “I wanted him charged with first-degree murder, imprisoned for the rest of his life.” But she now contends that retribution and rehabilitation cannot be easily separated from one another, and she suggests that offenders should not be defined for the entirety of their lives by the crimes they committed as young people.
This report does not offer nuanced arguments for one position or another on the constitutionality of life sentences without parole. But by providing a vivid account of how some people have sought to work through, and live with, the conundrums of “juvenile crime,” it offers a useful starting point for reflecting on our own moral intuitions.
You can listen to the excerpt here.