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.
The word designating military drones comes from the word for bee. This is true all over the world, in countless languages. Partly because of this linguistic consistency, it is a common misperception that drones take their name from the buzzing sound when unmanned aircraft fill the air. More accurately, however, drones trace their etymological lineage to the male honey-bee that is called a drone. The male drone-bee is distinguished from the female worker-bees. It does no useful work and has one single function: to impregnate the queen-bee. What unites military drones with their apiary namesakes is not sound, but thoughtless purposefulness.
The beauty of the drone-bee—like the dark beauty of the military drone—is its single-minded purpose. It is a miracle of efficiency, designed to do one thing. The drone-bee is not distracted by the perfume of flowers or the contentment of labor. It is born, lives, and dies with only one task in mind. Similarly, the military drone suffers neither from hunger nor from distraction. It does what it is told. If necessary, it will sacrifice itself for its mission. It is a model of thoughtless efficiency.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Ernst Jünger’s novel The Glass Bees, in which a brilliant inventor produces tiny flying glass bees that offer limitless potential for surveillance and war. Today I turn to Jake Kosek’s recent paper “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.” Kosek does not cite Jünger’s novel, and yet his article is in many ways its non-fiction sequel. What Kosek sees is that the rise of drones in military strategy is tied deeply to their ability to mimic the activity and demeanor of male honey-bees. It is because bees can fly, swarm, change direction, alter their course, and yet achieve their single purpose absent any intentionality or thinking that bees are so useful in modern warfare.
Bees have long been associated with military endeavors, both metaphorically and literally. Kosek tells that our word bomb comes from the Greek bombos, which means bee. The first bombs were, it seems, beehives dropped or catapulted into the heart of the enemy camp. Bees are today trained to sniff out toxic chemicals; and beeswax was for generations an essential ingredient in munitions.
In the war on terror, bees have taken on a special significance. The “enemy’s lack of coherence—institutionally, ideologically, and territorially— makes the search for the enemy central to the politics of the war on terror.” War in the war on terror is ever less a contest of armies on the battlefield and is increasingly a war of knowledge. This means that surveillance—for centuries an important complement to battlefield tactics—comes to occupy the core of the modern war on terror. In this regard, drones are essential, as drones can hover in the air unseen for days, gathering essential intelligence on persons, groups, or even whole cities. All the more powerful would be miniature drones that fly through the air unseen and at ground level. That is why Kosek writes that “Intelligence gathering [is] not just limited to psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, and military planners, but [has come] to include biologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists, and even entomologists.” What the military use of bees promises is access to information and worlds not previously open to human knowledge. Bees, Kosek writes, are increasingly the model for the modern military.
The advantage of bees is not simply their thoughtlessness, but is found also in their ability to operate as part of a swarm. Current drone technology requires that each drone be controlled by a single pilot. What happens when hundreds of drones must share the airspace around a target? How can drones coordinate their activity? Kosek quotes a private contractor, John Sauter, who says:
“A central aspect of the future of warfare technology is to get networks of machines to operate as self-synchronized war fighting units that can act as complex adaptive systems. . . We want these machines to be fighting units that can operate as reconfigurable swarms that are less mechanical and more organic, less engineered and more grown.”
The point is that drones, be they large or small, must increasingly work in conjunction with each other at a speed and level of nuance that is impossible for human controllers to manage. The result is that we must model the drones of the future on bees.
The scientists working with the Pentagon to create drones that can fly and function like bees are not entomologists, but mathematicians. The DNA of the glass or silicone bees of the future will be complex algorithms inspired by but actually surpassing the ability of swarms “to coordinate and collect small bits of information that can be synchronized to make collective action by drones possible.” Once this is possible, one controller will be able to manage a single drone “and the others adapt, react, and coordinate with that drone.”
Kosek’s article is provocative and fascinating. His ruminations on empire strike me as overdone; his insights about the way our training and use of bees has transformed the bee and the ways that bees are serving as models and inspiration for our own development of new ways to fight wars and solve problems are important. So too is his imagination of the bee as the six-legged soldier of the future. Whether the drones of the future are cyborg bees (as some in Kosek’s article suggest) or mechanical bees as Jünger imagined half a century ago, it is nevertheless the case that thinking about the impact of drones on warfare and human life is enriched by the meditation on the male honeybee. For your weekend read , I offer you Jake Kosek’s “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.”
No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.
To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.
The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.
To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.
This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.
Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.
As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.
We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.
As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.
Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.
In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,
happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….
Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.
Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.
In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.
Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.
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.
Hannah Arendt Center Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason explores the wild and wonderful world of super-artist Kehinde Wiley. "Wiley, as some of you may know, is an American artist, an unusually successful one. In the decade of his career to date, he's become one of the most sought-after painters in America. Holland Cotter, of The New York Times, called Wiley "a history painter, one of the best we have.... He creates history as much as he tells it." Even if you don't know him by name, you've likely glimpsed his grand portraits of hip-hop artists-LL, Ice-T, Biggie. Maybe you've even seen his massive portrait of the King of Pop: the one of MJ in full armor, astride a prancing warhorse. If all this suggests that Wiley, a 36-year-old gay African-American man, is court painter to the black celebretariat, that misconception has been useful to promoting his brand, up to a point."
Mason is skeptical, but if you don't know the Wiley brand, the route through Wiley's world of surfaces is about as fine a reflection as you'll find of the challenges facing the artist in a consumer society.
Zainab Al-Khawaja is sitting in a Bahrani prison reading Martin Luther King Jr. Al-Khawaja is a political prisoner. She is in a cell with 14 others, some murderers. To maintain her dignity and to announce her difference from common criminals, she has refused to wear an orange prison jumpsuit. As a punishment, she is denied family visits, including by her baby. She is now on hunger strike. "Prison administrators ask me why I am on hunger strike. I reply, "Because I want to see my baby." They respond, nonchalantly, "Obey and you will see her." But if I obey, my little Jude will not in fact be seeing her mother, but rather a broken version of her. I wrote to the prison administration that I refuse to wear the convicts' uniform because "no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice." (Thoreau)." Al-Khawaja's thoughts on dignity and non-violence are more than worthy testaments to her mentor.
Sara Horowitz takes on the "micro-gig," a new kind of freelancing that allows people to employ others for small tasks, like delivering or assembling IKEA furniture. Horowitz, however, worries about what "micro-gigging" might mean for workers: "It's as if we're eliminating the "extraneous" parts of a worker's day--like lunch or bathroom breaks--and paying only for the minutes someone is actually in front of the computer or engaged in a task." Welcome to our piece-work future.
Chloe Pantazi considers the work of the photographer Chim, also known as David Seymour, on the occasion of a showing of his work at the International Center of Photography. Pantazi focuses in particular on Chim's photos of children, saying that as he "offers up the every day lives of such adults working within the industry of war (as soldiers, munitions workers) we trust that Chim's postwar photographs of children yield something close to their every day, as vulnerable innocents who-like the newborn seen suckling at its mother's breast in a photograph taken of the crowd at a land reform meeting at the brink of the Civil War, in Spain, 1936-were virtually reared on the conflicts of their time."
Lucy McKeon explores Russian poet Kiril Medvedev, who has renounced the copyright to all of his works. McKeon recounts Medvedev's rebellion against the bourgeois idea of artist as private citizen-a type idealized by Joseph Brodsky in his 1987 Nobel Prize address. Medvedev is searching for a post-individualized and post-socialist culture-what he calls new humanism. "Logically, Medvedev's answer to individualized disconnectedness calls for a synthesis of twentieth-century leftist political and intellectual thought, a situation where several senses of the word 'humanism' begin to collide." Where something from poetry meets something from philosophy; where postmodernism, logocentrism, psychology, culture and counterculture, "and probably something else, too, that we haven't though of yet," writes Medevedev, join to form "a new shared understanding of humanity." Only in this utopian future society could the artist as private citizen responsibly exist and create."
Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism
Part II: Music of Warsaw, Ludz and other Eastern Ghettoes
Learn more here.
Roger Berkowitz lauds the idea of early college. Jeffrey Jurgens considers Jeremy Walton's recent article "Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect." Cristiana Grigore responds to the recent New York Times article, "The Kings of Roma" by describing her own Roma upbringing in Romania. Kathleen B. Jones takes on New Materialism from an Arendtian point of view.
Of late there has been no shortage of commentary on the ten years that have passed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much of it has focused on the justifications for the war provided by members of the Bush administration, the lingering consequences of the invasion for President Obama and other policymakers, and the often harrowing experiences of American soldiers. These are certainly matters that should be discussed at length.
But U.S. public discourse continues to say little about the impact of the war on Iraqis themselves or about their efforts to survive and interpret it.
Much of it also remains tightly focused on the era after 9/11, as if those day’s events rendered the longer arc of Iraqi history—including the part that the U.S. has played in it—more or less irrelevant. To the extent that the country’s past is addressed at all, it commonly reduces “sectarianism,” “tribalism,” and other shibboleths to intrinsic and timeless features of Iraqi (and wider Arab and Islamic) life.
Two recent contributions on Jadaliyya (www.jadaliyya.com), a blog and e-zine published by the Arab Studies Institute, offer a counterpoint to these prevailing trends. The first is an interview with historian Dina Rizk Khoury related to the publication of her recent book, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Resistance (Cambridge, 2013). As Khoury rightly notes, most of the discussion in the U.S. has failed to recognize the fact that Iraqis spent the last twenty-three years of Baathist rule in a state of nearly continuous military conflict. First there was the Iran-Iraq War, then the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait, then the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuring embargo, and finally the most recent American invasion and occupation.
Under such conditions, Khoury argues, war became a matter of normalcy and bureaucratic governance that insinuated violence into the fabric of everyday life in Iraq. At the same time, it created recurring crises and ruptures that reshaped the structures of state authority and citizenship. And it enabled the Iraqi state to fabricate a myth of soldiering and martyrdom that, in the long run, helped to recalibrate Iraqis’ notions of national belonging along ethnic and sectarian lines. Wittingly or unwittingly, the actions of U.S. policymakers after the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion have reinforced Iraq’s societal divisions and the prevalence of violence as a mode of political action.
The second contribution is a commentary from Orit Bashkin, “The Forgotten Protagonists: The Invasion and the Historian.” Bashkin has written extensively on the politics of pluralism (The Other Iraq, Stanford, 2010) and Jewish displacement (New Babylonians, Stanford, 2012) in twentieth-century Iraq, but here she focuses on the present and future conditions of historical scholarship. She contends that our knowledge of the Iraqi past has grown in significant ways over the past decade. (If we take Melani McAlister’s book Epic Encounters seriously, this outcome should hardly surprise us: American cultural, scholarly, and geopolitical interests in the Middle East have long been tightly intertwined.) Such expansion has been facilitated in no small part by the relocation of the Baath Party archives to the U.S. in 2008. This move has allowed professional historians ready access to a crucial corpus of texts on Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Yet Bashkin also worries that the prospects for historical knowledge production will be decidedly less rosy in the years to come. In particular, many of the other materials on which historians of Iraq rely—Ottoman records, collections of poetic and theological writings, museums, archaeological sites, and so on—have been or are being destroyed in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
As a result, it will be considerably more difficult for scholars not simply to reconstruct the Iraqi past, but also to comprehend how Iraqi citizens relate to it. In particular, we will be less able to grasp the imperial and colonial practices, post-independence state policies, and other forces that have forged the country’s current ethnic and religious cleavages. And we will be less able to understand the multiple and competing nostalgias that now proliferate among Iraqi citizens. Such nostalgias include the ambivalent and paradoxical longing for the days of Saddam Hussein, when (in Bashkin’s words) “at least there was some sense of law and order.”
American public discourse is in desperate need of commentary that positions present-day Iraqis as complex actors who both shape and are shaped by the flow of local, regional, and global histories. As Khoury and Bashkin suggest, the current focus on the past ten years is both literally and metaphorically short-sighted. And yet, for a variety of reasons, lengthening our gaze will be easier said than done.
"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable."
—Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education
Hannah Arendt writes that the fact that we are born into the world—the fact of natality—is the essence of education. She means that every newborn baby comes into the world both free and yet also constrained. Newcomers are free insofar as there is no way of knowing in advance what a young person will become or who she will be. The newcomer is constrained, however, because he is always born into an already-existing world, one with particular customs, limitations, and opportunities. To educate that newcomer is to respond both to the freedom and constraint into which he is thrown. As free, the child must be taught to act courageously in new and surprising ways. As constrained, the newcomer must accept the responsibility as a member of an already existing world, one he must somehow make his own.
From the Latin educare, to educate means to lead into or draw out. Education is the activity of leading a child into the world, of drawing her into the world. Parents educate their children by drawing them out of their private selves and into the world of the family, their community, and their society.
Schools educate, in turn, by drawing students out of the confines of their families and into the wider political and social world. Education is always an entry into an old world. And yet, it is always a new experience with infinite possibilities for every new initiate.
Education, Hannah Arendt tells us in the quotation above, is about the love for the world. To have children, something she did not do, and to educate young people, something she did brilliantly, is to bring new young people into an old and existing world. To make that choice is to "assume responsibility" for that world, to love it enough—in spite of all of the evil and ugliness—to welcome the innocent. Only when we decide to assume such an awesome responsibility for the world as it is and to love that world, can we begin the activity of education.
Education is also a process of saving the world from ruin—a ruin that is inevitable for all mortal and human endeavors. Made by humans acting together, the world will disappear if we do not care for it and refresh it. The world is not a physical entity but is the "in-between" that connects us all. Like a "table that is located between those who sit around it," the world is the world of things, actions, stories, and events that connect and divide all persons living together in a common world. Without newcomers who are introduced into the world and taught to love it as their own, the world will die out.
There are of course some who reject the love for the world that makes education possible. There are always reasons to do so, ranging from poverty and racism to war and famine. Rebellion is, of course, sometimes justified. There are times, as with Arendt's judgment of Adolf Eichmann, where one must say simply: A world with such people as Eichmann in it is not a world I can love. That is why Arendt argues that Eichmann must be killed. But such judgments of non-reconciliation are, for Arendt, inappropriate in the act of educating young people.
To love the world enough to lead students into it means also that we love our children enough to both bring them into the world and leave to them the chance of changing it. Arendt writes:
And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing the common world.
If we love our children, and our world enough, then we do not make the decision to expel the children from that world. We don't make the decision of rebellion or non-reconciliation for them. The point is that education of the young must leave to the young the right of "undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us."
A teacher must not cross the line and tell the student what to do about the world, for that is the right of the student himself. All the teacher can and should do is prepare students for such a decision, by leading them into an existing world and offering them examples of those who, through freedom and constraint, have throughout history worked to renew and re-inspire our common world.
While teaching is never easy, it is particularly difficult in the 21st century, at a time when the "common world," the world of things that unite us, is changing at such a pace that that teachers and students increasingly live in very different worlds. It's one thing for teachers to not be up on the latest fashions or music; but when teachers and students increasingly get their news from different media, live in different virtual realities, and communicate differently about the worlds they inhabit, the challenges grow. Teaching is of course still possible, but it takes significantly more effort and reflection to think about what that common world is into which we are leading our students. The love of the world has never been so difficult or so necessary.
“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
Cultural memory is a concept – albeit in vogue always in periods of amnesia – that is deeply intertwined with identity. The link between the two is something as simple as what Agnes Heller observed in 2001: “Without shared cultural memory there is no identity”.
She says elsewhere in “Cultural Memory, Identity and Civil Society”: “Cultural memory is rather embodied in objectivations which store meanings in a concentrated manner, meanings shared by a group of people who take them for granted.”
Heller makes the argument that civil society has no cultural memory. The explanation is plausible and clear: Civil society is a heterogeneous mosaic of sometimes conflicting cultural memories and activities or institutions that are in no need of cultural memory.
Civil society – unlike the old community – can smoothly operate through clashes of interest and cooperation limited to short term future and without utopia. The question of identity then is nowhere raised with more rigor than when the cultural memory is challenged.
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) remains a textbook case of this challenge. My contention is that the preoccupation with the actual content of the Lebanese identity arose only when the shared cultural memory – once taken for the granted – was eroded through the war.
Of course many would challenge this view arguing that the ground was fertile for the war since the 1860’s under Ottoman rule and that only intensified in the years leading into the war. But in the realm of history, as moderns know well, theory is but a realm of consolations.
Every postwar society is faced with the enormous challenge of re-writing its own history and this is particularly difficult in the case of civil wars in which different cultural memories, often hostile to teach other share a legacy that came to them without a testament.
Over twenty years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War – in which neighboring countries, Western powers and Israel were at some point involved – the actual challenge of the memory in general remains a tense battleground of ideological and political conflict.
It is precisely this challenge that the interactive exhibition “Another Memory” has come to tackle: An open archive of Lebanese memory throughout the war years that aimed to confront the public with narratives about the war other than their own.
A number of key dates of the civil war were selected and front pages of the newspapers An-Nahar and As-Safir reprinted and juxtaposed in large displays. The public was encouraged to interact with the exhibit by adding their own footnotes to the articles in post-it notes.
An interesting article published in NOW Lebanon has pointed out how the exhibit – organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in partnership with Danish Rakidal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) – has gone where few others have:
While plenty of noise is made by Lebanese civil society groups and NGOs about the need for national post-civil war reconciliation, the issue is rarely tackled in concrete initiatives by political parties themselves.
The question of post-war reconciliation brings up a number of issues that were addressed in a dialogue between Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida established by Cláudia Perrone-Moisés in her “Forgiveness and Crimes Against Humanity: A Dialogue between Hannah Arendt & Jacques Derrida”, providing us with a framework to understand why initiatives like “Another Memory” are issues of the first order of relevance for Lebanon and any post-war society.
Derrida’s argument on forgiveness is that in the “globalized” market of human suffering that emerged after the horrors of the world wars, it is institutions and governments who are asking for forgiveness.
In this sense the spectacle of forgiveness is nothing but a simulacrum and he brings up the example of a South African woman whose husband had been imprisoned and tortured, who, before the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, said: “A commission or a government cannot forgive. Perhaps only I could do it. But I am not ready to forgive.”
Derrida and Arendt agree that forgiveness has the power to interrupt the flow of events and to create new beginnings – a paradox of cultural memory: how to begin anew with and in spite of the past?
But they differ in that what for Derrida is an essentially divine gesture, for Arendt remains a purely human experience.
Yet to forgive the unforgivable (and here we are dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity) it seems, is something that remains outside the limits of the law, and this is what the poet W.H. Auden articulates in a letter to Arendt: “The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged; only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish”.
Arendt replies to Auden saying that he’s right (and she was wrong) in that punishment is only an alternative to judicial pardon, but that accordingly, not everything is punishable. Derrida stays here at the level of forgiveness merely in the service of noble or spiritual ends.
Hannah Arendt goes further to establish a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation: In her journal entries from June 1950 – at a time when she was probably still working on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – she writes that “forgiveness and revenge are a unity of opposites that correspond to each other”.
According to her, forgiving takes place only among those who are “infinitely unequal” and that the mere act of forgiveness actually destroys the human relationship:
“Forgiveness, or what is normally understood as such, is in reality only an apparent success; in it one takes a higher ground and the other demands something that men cannot grant each other… Reconciliation instead has its origin in being averted with the mission that has been given to us.”
Reconciliation – beyond forgiveness and judicial pardon – isn’t based on the understanding that I could have done this as well, a quintessentially religious mistrust of human nature, but on the acute realization that “this should have never happened”.
Forgiveness breaks the relationship in its adamant refusal to share the burden for what has happened and rather prefers to “look the other way”. Arendt better articulated this several years later:
This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty per excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.
What “Another Memory” tried to do – even though it was open only from May 12th to 14th and with a rather limited attendance – was to open the vaults of memory not in order to sit in judgment but the afford the possibility of the antinomies in cultural memories; those probably are not to be overcome but rather accepted and understood. It is a facing up and resisting of reality.
Its enormous success in rehabilitating the public sphere isn’t necessarily something quantitative but the sheer quality of opening a space in which the past isn’t closed off – as the many postwar courts and tribunals often assume in many countries the world over.
It was a space of hope without promise since promises can only be delivered between one man and another; the living proof of what Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui remarked to me in a conversation:
For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.
(*) Hannah Arendt’s “Denktagebuch” is not translated into English. Excerpts above I translated from the original German. Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my own. For an essay on Arendt's idea of reconciliation as opposed to revenge and forgiveness, click here.
Bard student, Anna Hadfield reviews a new book by Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency.
Emergency, Elaine Scarry writes in her new book Thinking in an Emergency, is a claim that shuts down thinking in favor of action. When states make the claim of emergency, they are insisting that the nature of the situation requires that all existing procedures and deliberation be bypassed so that appropriate and rapid action can be taken. “The unspoken presumption,” she writes, “is that either one can think or one can act, and given that it is absolutely mandatory that an action be performed, thinking must fall away.” Emergency, therefore, justifies the abandonment of thinking.
According to Scarry, this dichotomy we perceive between thinking and acting is false. This is because, as she writes, “the acts of thinking that go on in an emergency are not recognized by us as acts of thinking.” These acts of thinking are habits, our “internalizing regulating mechanisms.” Like deliberation, which constrains our irrational impulses and forces us to stop and think about what we are doing, habit is a limiting force; it narrows the field of possibility in an emergency because it predisposes us to particular behavior and actions. The habits that take over in an emergency are by no means necessarily arbitrary; they can be consciously learned or practiced prior to an emergency so that they can come into play should one occur. Indeed, Scarry often equates habits with laws, protocols, and procedures, regulatory measures that we deliberate in advance of when we will need them.
The American Constitutional provisions that require particular steps be taken before we resort to military action are such habits; they are structures that are meant to automatically take over in an emergency. Yet these Constitutional roadblocks, or “stop and think” procedures, have been largely ignored since the invention of nuclear weapons. “Complaints are often made that involving Congress and the population in war decisions will slow down the act of going to war because so much energy is needed to persuade them. That is precisely what the Constitution intended,” Scarry writes. This displacement of thinking is not confined to the US alone: all eight of the nuclear powers, for example, have ceded control of nuclear weapons to their presidents or prime minsters, thereby removing legislatures and citizenry from the decision-making process. The practice of public and legislative deliberation has been pushed to the side exactly when deliberation seems most crucial, when just a few quick decisions have the potential to kill tens of millions of people within several hours.
The importance of thinking in an emergency, which is at the root of the constitutional brake on war, is illuminated by Hannah Arendt in her essay Thinking and Moral Considerations. Like Scarry, Arendt comments on the dichotomy between thinking and acting. In her discussion of what she terms “thinking as such,” Arendt notes that there is in fact a paralysis that accompanies the act of thinking and writes that “thinking’s chief characteristic is that it interrupts all doing.” However, while Arendt calls thinking a “resultless enterprise,” she by no means wishes to imply it is worthless. Not only does thinking actualize the “difference within oneself” by alerting us to our own consciousness and creating a dialogue with our individual selves, thinking also liberates judgment, which is the manifestation of thinking in the world of appearances.
Both Scarry (drawing from Aristotle) and Arendt differentiate between two different types of thinking. The first is the perception/contemplation type of thinking (“thinking as such” in Arendt’s terms) which does not aim for practical answers and which will never be able to demonstrate, once and for all, what “right” is and what “wrong” is as abstract notions. The second is deliberation, or, for Arendt, judgment, which enables the taking of action and is how we decide whether to do one thing or another. Deliberation/judgment deals with tangible particulars and ends in tangible results. It is not the ability to know right and wrong abstractly but rather the ability to tell right from wrong, in a given situation.
In an emergency, Arendt writes, “thinking ceases to be a marginal affair” and instead comes to the forefront in all political matters. Thinking as such, which brings out the implications of unexamined opinions and destroys them, is suddenly of much use in dire times, because it enables judgment. When we are confronted with the possibility of war, our primary approach is not to think in terms of what is a “just war” and what is an “unjust war”, abstractly. Rather, we attempt to evaluate whether the war in question is just or unjust, right or wrong. For both Scarry and Arendt, this deliberation, this ability to think, is exactly what is called for in an emergency.
One reason we sideline deliberation in times of emergency is that we think of emergencies as exceptional instances that are necessarily disruptive. Emergencies, as times in which we are forced to confront the possibility of real danger affecting our lives, take on a fundamentally different character than ordinary life. And yet the idea of emergency as an exception, as a break from the norm, may not fit the world today. As Mark Danner writes in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, “…the very endlessness of this state of exception—a quality emphasized even as it was imposed—and the broad acceptance of that endlessness, the state of exception’s increasing normalization, are among its distinguishing marks.” While we may envision the privileging of rapid action over deliberation to be isolated to times of actual emergency, this tendency, as can be seen in the ongoing erosion of law and Constitutional procedures, has become frighteningly normal.
We may indeed be living in a chronic state of emergency, due to two distinguishing markers of our political time: the notion of torture as a legitimate means of obtaining information, as advanced by the Bush administration, and the existence of nuclear weapons. Scarry illuminates the parallels between the two: “Both torture and nuclear weapons inflict their injuries without permitting any form of self-defense, both inflict their injuries without obtaining any authorization from their own legislatures or populations; both starkly nullify even the most minimal requirements of a contractual society; both destroy the foundational concept of law.” Torture and nuclear weapons are tolerated because we believe extreme times warrant extreme responses, but these phenomena end up intensifying and perpetuating the emergency itself; they are not a means for keeping us safe, but a means of endangering our political and social freedom.
In our time of emergency, what should we take from Scarry’s determined emphasis on the role of habit in emergency action? Ultimately, what she is pointing to is that deliberation itself is a habit. It is something that must be practiced: “It could be said that all congressional deliberation during peacetime, no matter how trivial or grand the subject, is a rehearsal, a constant act of practicing, for the moment when it will be called upon to debate the gravest matter of all, the matter of going to war.” This habit of deliberation entails taking responsibility for our own governance, by both Congressmen and ordinary citizens. It is a habit that we cannot afford to lose, and one that may end up, as Arendt writes, preventing a catastrophe.