This morning's newsletter included a link error in the piece on Steven Glick. The title, "Political Thinking," now points to the correct content. You can also find it here. We apologize for the hiccup.
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.
Oliver Remaud reflects on the life of the exile. "There is one impression that dominates when you are in the position of being an exile. The impression is of being in a new and different world, one whose unfamiliarity is disconcerting. It is not only others who see the individual in exile as a stranger; in his place of exile, he will also see himself as such. He will be unable to repeat things that he already knows or to extend his former abilities to this unfamiliar milieu. Since, in his new place, he cannot imitate anything on the basis of what he knows of his former situation, he is faced with solitude. Such solitude bears witness to a distance that, so he believes, cannot be reduced. It imprisons him, trapping him in an anxious sensation of disorientation. It cuts him off from most of his unspoken ways of understanding the world. It plunges him into the troubled waters of a limited choice: to live an artificial social life or else to opt for a life that is completely private.Between the enforced assimilation of the stranger who has only just arrived and his solipsistic withdrawal, the exile is faced with the need to acquire a new definition of himself. But how is it possible to believe that you are going to gain anything by frequenting a milieu composed of people who you do not know? How can you believe that it is not preferable to keep your own company within the reassuring cocoon of your memories and erstwhile certainties? You need a special kind of heroism to forge your own identity in exile. It is the mindset of the shipwrecked mariner that is peculiar to the exile and motivates him to recover the flotsam and jetsam of his memory. Ulysses discovered what it was to be shipwrecked as he strove to return to Ithaca. As he narrowly escaped being drowned beneath the waves, he was assailed by visions of death. He recalled concrete details. The tyranny of exile is the tyranny of specific things that come back to haunt you as if they were obsessions."
Remaud turns to Hannah Arendt to argue that "In exile, the problem is always the same: the fact that you suffer from not being able to appear in public, not being able to show yourself to be naked." The exile, deprived of his home, exists in a netherworld, possessed of historical existence he must deny if he is to find a home in his new world. The homelessness of exile means that the "exile has a personal history that he cannot proclaim, as if it were a shadow that he has lost and could never hope to recover. This is the complex from which he suffers, one that we may call the Schlemihl Complex." Discussing Adalbert von Chamisso's The Wondrous Story of Peter Schlemihl, the Shadowless Man, Remaud argues, "The conclusion, which opposes "living among men" to "living for yourself", is the ultimate achievement of this tale of the shadow. It provides a practical moral for the reflections of Said and Arendt about the difficulty of drawing any lessons from exile. Chamisso's story relates the worries and cares of the exile and of any citizen of the world who loses his shadow. Schlemihl is the victim of a process that is beyond his control, one that means that he can never feel at home in this world. He interprets the fact of having lost his shadow as a sign of the endless wretchedness of exile. Favoured by a nameless Providence that watches over his destiny and acts in an ad hoc fashion to assist him, he reconnects with nature through study and solitary travels. Chamisso's Schlemihl is not just an "unfortunate" in the German sense of the word, he is also an individual who transforms his fate into an opportunity: the chance to undergo within the wider world an inner edification, even though this may be at the cost of a series of disappointments. In the end, he knows what it would be right for him to do. He has acquired a precise knowledge of the social worlds that he has passed through. He can choose how he lives without limiting himself to the kind of world that everyone desires. He has learnt to distinguish between the essential and the inessential, the first stage on the path to renewal." --RB (h/t Julia F.)
Matthew Van Meter writes in the Atlantic about Judge John Coughenour - a Harley Davidson-riding Federal Judge who is causing controversy by resisting the extreme sentences required by the Mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Coughenour sentenced Ahmed Ressam to 22 years in prison for an attempted terrorist attack in 1992. Ressam had cooperated with law enforcement after 9/11 and had been held in solitary confinement for years. "The judge felt for the hapless Algerian and thought it would be in the interest of justice to lay off a bit on the penalty's harshness." The reduced sentence caused an uproar. So too has Coughenour's willingness of getting to know the prisoners he has sentenced. "So, twice a year for almost 20 years, Coughenour rode his Harley from Seattle to Sheridan to meet one on one with each of the men he had sentenced. And then, he started visiting prisons all over the country with the same purpose. To ensure candor, he insisted that the prisoners be unshackled and that the meetings be private. A corrections officer stood outside just in case, but in two decades, Coughenour only had to call the officer in once. During these meetings, the judge always asked the same questions: "How much time do you have left? What are you doing to prepare yourself for getting out? Are you dealing with anything you can't handle? Do you feel safe?" Sometimes, he'd compare notes about motorcycles-word traveled fast that the judge rode a Harley-and sometimes he'd just commiserate about prison food. The next prisoner would be escorted in 15 minutes later, and the judge would start over again. Coughenour resists the implication that his visits-and the hundreds of hours he has spent asking hundreds of prisoners about their lives-have influenced his judicial philosophy. But at the same time, Coughenour insists that the prisoners' stories all carry a clear moral lesson: Too many people are in prison for too long. One of Coughenour's favorite anecdotes from these visits is about a man from Everett, Washington, whose wife had multiple sclerosis. In the mid-1980s, the man was laid off from his job and, in desperate need of money, robbed five banks. Coughenour, who was then a young judge, now says, "I gave him a heavy hit." A few years after he sentenced the man, Coughenour saw the bank robber again, this time in the meeting room at Sheridan. He sat across from him again six months later. And again the next year. "Every time I went back to Sheridan," he says, "I saw this guy, and I started realizing how long it was that he was doing. And the meaning of time really hits you hard when you see these same guys there, year after year after year, and they're still there. It's easy to sit in an office room somewhere and say, 'Well, you know, you rob a bank, you should get 10 years.'" But watching those decisions play out among real men in real time was something else entirely. This sort of thinking is divisive. Judge Richard Sullivan of New York, the former head of narcotics at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, says, "Judges are generally very good at recognizing the humanity of the person in front of them." He argues that it's the humanity of victims that judges too often ignore. "Candidly," he says, as a counterpoint to Coughenour's prison visits, "I'm not sure how many judges have walked around Hunt's Point or some other neighborhood that's been overrun by drugs and drug violence to get a feel for the impact of these crimes on communities and families." "Judges," Sullivan says, "should also have some humility and recognize that we aren't, and probably shouldn't be, the only players in this drama."
Responding to a recent court ruling that the pop singer Kesha has to continue working with the record producer she claims sexually assaulted her, Lena Dunham has had enough: "So let me spell it out for them. Imagine someone really hurt you, physically and emotionally. Scared you and abused you, threatened your family. The judge says that you don't have to see them again, BUT they still own your house. So they can decide when to turn the heat on and off, whether they'll pay the telephone bill or fix the roof when it leaks. After everything you've been through, do you feel safe living in that house? Do you trust them to protect you? That explanation is really for the judge, Shirley Kornreich, who questioned why - if they could be physically separated as Sony has promised - Kesha could not continue to work for Gottwald. After all, she said, it's not appropriate to "decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated." Guess what else is heavily negotiated? The human contract that says we will not hurt one another physically and emotionally. In fact, it's so obvious that we usually don't add it to our corporate documents. To be clear, Kesha's case is about more than a pop star fighting for her freedom, or a $60 million investment in a shiny commercial career. It's about more than whether Kesha can strap on her cool leotards and make another album, free from a man who she says terrifies her. It's even about more than the systemic misogyny of the entertainment industry, or the way that women in music and film have long been controlled and coerced by abusive Svengalis and entities larger than themselves. (Think: the studio system of the '40s and '50s, when starlets were essentially chattel. Think: Ike and Tina Turner.) What's happening to Kesha highlights the way that the American legal system continues to hurt women by failing to protect them from the men they identify as their abusers."
Steven Glick explains why he resigned his position as a writing fellow at Pomona College: "Based on these incidents, which have occurred over many months, it has become clear that the Writing Center is harassing me because of my political beliefs. This is unacceptable, just as harassment based on gender, race, religion or any other demographic or ideological construct is unacceptable. My probation is not related to any inadequacy of my work at the Writing Center. Rather, it is due to my political views, which differ greatly from those of the Writing Center leadership. Each time I have been asked to meet with Writing Center leadership, I am asked to talk about controversial political issues that are unrelated to my work at the Center. Soon after each meeting, I have been informed I've done something wrong on the job and need to be punished. I had hoped that President Oxtoby's recent statement in support of free speech at Pomona College would be a game changer, allowing conservative, libertarian, and classically liberal students and faculty to share our honest opinions with our progressively liberal peers who seem to control the sanctioned conversation on campus. Unfortunately, I was naively optimistic. His words carry no meaning if they are ignored and countermanded by Pomona's faculty and staff."
Molly Crabapple reports from Aleppo: "Every day more bombs fall on the eastern part of Aleppo, the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, gradually turning neighborhoods into graveyards of rubble and dust. Recently, a member of the Aleppo's civil defense (also known as the "White Helmets") told me that airstrikes have targeted the city at least six times a day, concentrating on civil and residential neighborhoods. After bombing runs, he said, planes wait for first responders to gather, then bomb again. This is the notorious "double-tap" strategy that allegedly killed Canadian photojournalist Ali Moustafa and that was used in December against an MSF hospital in Homs. Describing the challenges of his job, the first responder recalled one morning when he and other civil defense employees watched the government helicopters buzzing like insects in Aleppo's sky. One dropped a barrel bomb on a group of civilian cars. The White Helmets ran over. "I saw a horrific scene when I went to search inside one of the cars, a mother pressing her child to her chest because of the strong explosion and fear. Both bodies were charred," he said. When asked about the toll of their airstrikes, the Syrian and Russian governments respond as governments always do. They deny killing civilians. According to them, their bombs kill only terrorists-and since 9/11, the Muslim terrorist has become a folk devil in the international imagination, whose existence justifies any torture, military aggression, or crime. As Russian airstrikes displaced tens of thousands of Syrians in mid-February, the Russian Ministry of Defense tweeted: "Near #Aleppo, terrorists are evacuating their families to the north of the province, to the Turkish border due to complicated situation." Even fleeing women and children become terrorists when seen through the funhouse mirror of military PR. Attacks on civilians are heinous but link civilians to terrorists, and to many people, such actions suddenly become palpable. It's not just the Russian government that engages in this kind of calculus, either. In December, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said of ISIS, "We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out." Not to be outdone, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has floated the idea that he would fight terrorists by "tak[ing] out their families." The US is no stranger to attacks on civilian infrastructure in Syria: In February, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that US airstrikes killed 15 when it hit a bakery in an ISIS-occupied town near the Iraqi border. Nor does the US necessarily spare hospitals. In October, a US gunship razed an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 30 staff and patients."
Nathan J. Robinson, responding to a small scandal that erupted last week when the gossip website Gawker tricked whoever runs Donald Trump's twitter into retweeting a quote from Mussolini, doesn't think the Trump jokes are funny anymore: "The stupid Mussolini gag is one small incident in a far larger pattern of hypocrisy among Trump's opponents. People who don't like Trump claim that he can be labeled a fascist (this includes Gawker). And there's a plausible argument for applying that word; policies like banning religious minorities, suppressing press freedom, and shutting down speech are strongly reminiscent of 20th century dictatorships. But if someone truly thinks Trump a fascist, really and sincerely believes this, then they should be arming a resistance militia rather than trying to coax an odious retweet. At the same time as Trump's opponents insist that he poses a major threat to the country, they behave as if he is a harmless clown to be prodded and mocked. In other words, if he's not a fascist, then there's no point to the Mussolini trick, but if he is a fascist, then there's nothing to be amused about. In fact, even though the vast majority of progressives believe that the election could have a devastating global impact, most Trump coverage is still about the most asinine day-to-day trivia, like the size of his hands or his latest bit of theatrical prop-based insult comedy. Ostensibly serious news organizations run Trump GIFs as stories. Even the New York Times dutifully compiled a database of Trump's colorful gallery of Twitter insults. In doing so, these organizations help lower our perceptions of the stakes; after all, if politics actually mattered, surely it would be reprehensible to spend even a second replacing Trump's eyes with lips rather than actually attempting to dissuade his supporters or building up an effective opposition force. By descending to Trump's level and reveling in gossip and minutiae, any sense of public urgency is steadily muted. This is the way political media operates generally, though. It simultaneously treats politics as both extremely significant and totally inconsequential. Trump is an existential threat to the Earth's people, yet we can spend our time mocking his hair or watching him make funny faces. George W. Bush was a war criminal who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, yet we could jest about his goofy malapropisms and difficulty handling Segways and pretzels. Liberals laugh at "robo-Rubio" and "fruit salad" fruitcake Ben Carson, but these individuals are competing to have access to a vast arsenal of nuclear weaponry. By being both pervasive and superficial, political media manages to treat political actors as tremendously important and worth obsessing over, while somehow obscuring the fact that bad political decisions actually devastate people's lives...while disaffection is understandable, a pernicious culture of easy ridicule also diminishes the seriousness of politics."
Rachel Kaadzi Ghanash visits James Baldwin's Paris house: "What makes us want to run away? Or go searching for a life away from ours? The term "black refugees" applies most specifically to the black American men and women who escaped in 1812 to the British navy's boats and were later taken to freedom in Nova Scotia and Trinidad, but don't many of us feel like black refugees. Baldwin called these feelings, the sense of displacement and loss that many Black Americans ponder, the "heavy" questions, and heavy they are indeed. Sometime in early '50s, after being roughed up and harassed by the FBI, James Baldwin realized that while he "loved" his country, he "could not respect it." He wrote that he "could not, upon my soul, be reconciled to my country as it was." To survive he would have to find an exit. On the train to Baldwin's house I thought more about that earlier generation and about the seemingly vast divide between Baldwin and my grandfather. They had very little in common, except they were of the same era, the same race, and were both fearless men, which in black America actually says a lot. Whereas Baldwin spent his life writing against a canon, writing himself into the canon, a black man recording the Homeric legend of his life himself, my grandfather simply wanted to live with dignity. It must have been hard then to die the way my grandfather did. I imagine it is not the ending that he expected when he left Louisiana and moved to Watts - to a small, white house near 99th Street and Success Avenue. After his death, I went back to the house in Watts that he had been forced to return to, broke and burned out of his home, and gathered what almost 90 years of black life in America had amounted to for him: a notice saying that his insurance claim from the fire had been denied, two glazed clay bowls, and his hammer (he was a carpenter). My grandfather had worked hard but had made next to nothing. I took a picture of the wall that my grandfather built during his first month in LA. It was old, cracked, jagged, not pretty at all, but at the time, it was the best evidence I had that my grandfather had ever been here. And as I scattered his ashes near the Hollywood Park racetrack, because he loved horses and had always remained a country boy at heart, I realized that the dust in my hands was the entirety of my inheritance from him. And until recently, I used to carry that memory and his demand for optimism around like an amulet divested of its power, because I had no idea what to do with it. What Baldwin understood, and my grandfather preferred not to focus on, is that to be black in America is to have the demand for dignity be at absolute odds with the national anthem. From the outside, Baldwin's house looks ethereal. The saltwater air from the Mediterranean acts like a delicate scrim over the heat and the horizon, and the dry, craggy yard is wide and long and tall with cypress trees. I had prepared for the day by watching clips of him in his gardens. I read about the medieval frescos that had once lined the dining room. I imagined the dinners he had hosted for Josephine Baker and Beauford Delaney under a trellis of creeping vines and grape arbors. I imagined a house full of books and life."
"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't."
-- Anatole France
Anatole France's Biography
Anatole France, pseudonym for Jacques Anatole Thibault (1844-1924), was the son of a Paris book dealer. He received a thorough classical education at the Collège Stanislas, a boys' school in Paris, and for a while he studied at the École des Chartes. For about twenty years he held diverse positions, but he always had enough time for his own writings, especially during his period as assistant librarian at the Senate from 1876 to 1890. His literary output is vast, and though he is chiefly known as a novelist and storyteller, there is hardly a literary genre that he did not touch upon at one time or another. France is a writer in the mainstream of French classicism. His style, modelled on Voltaire and Fénélon, as well as his urbane scepticism and enlightened hedonism, continue the tradition of the French eighteenth century. This outlook on life, which appears in all his works, is explicitly expressed in collection of aphorisms, Le Jardin d'Épicure (1895) [The Garden of Epicurus].
France had written several stories and novels before he achieved his first great success with Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (1881). The novel received a prize from the Académie Française, of which France became a member in 1896.
To read additional Thoughts on Thinking, please click here.
There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:
At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.
There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:
Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too," Rabbi Azman told Maariv. "I don't want to tempt fate," he added, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.
Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.
The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.
You can read the whole talk here.
Peter Ludlow in the Stone remarks on the generational divide in attitudes towards whistle blowers, leakers, and hackers. According to Time Magazine, “70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. This fits a general trend, one heralded by Rick Falkvinge—founder of the European Pirate Parties—at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last year, that young people value transparency above institutional democratic procedures. Distrusting government and institutions, there is a decided shift towards a faith in transparency and unfettered disclosure. Those who expose such in information are lauded for their courage in the name of the freedom of information.
Ludlow agrees and cites Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann for support of his contention that leakers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning acted justly and courageously:
“In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.”
Ludlow insists: “For the leaker and whistleblower the answer to [those who argue it is hubris for leakers to make the moral decision to expose wrongdoing], is that there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord. Systems are optimized for their own survival and preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one’s assigned organizational role.” In other words, bureaucratic systems have every incentive to protect themselves, thus leading to both dysfunction and injustice. We depend upon the actions of individuals who say simply: “No, I can’t continue to allow such injustice to go on.” Whistle blowers and leakers are essential parts of any just bureaucratic organization.
Ludlow’s insight is an important one: It is that the person who thinks for himself and stands alone from the crowd can—in times of crisis when the mass of people are thoughtlessly carried away by herd instincts and crowd mentality—act morally simply by refusing to go along with the collective performance of injustice. The problem is that if Snowden and Manning had simply resigned, their acts of resistance would have had minimal impact. To make a difference and to act in the name of justice, they had to release classified material. In effect, they had to break the law. Ludlow’s claim is that they did so morally and in the name of justice.
But is Ludlow correct to enlist Arendt in support of leakers such as Snowden and Manning? It is true that Arendt deeply understands the importance of individuals who resist the easy path of conformity in the name of doing right. Perhaps nowhere is the importance of such action made more markedly manifest than in her telling of the mention of Anton Schmidt when his name appeared in the testimony of the Eichmann trial:
At this slightly tense moment, the witness happened to mention the name of Anton Schmidt, a Feldwebel, or sergeant, in the German Army - a name that was not entirely unknown to this audience, for Yad Vashem had published Schmidt's story some years before in its Hebrew Bulletin, and a number of Yiddish papers in America had picked it up. Anton Schmidt was in, charge of a patrol in Poland that collected stray German soldiers who were cut off from their units. In the course of doing this, he had run into members of the Jewish underground, including Mr. Kovner, a prominent member, and he had helped the Jewish partisans by supplying them with forged papers and military trucks. Most important of all: "He did not do it for money." This had gone on for five months, from October, 1941, to March, 1942, when Anton Schmidt was arrested and executed. (The prosecution had elicited the story because Kovner declared that he had first heard the name of Eichmann from Schmidt, who had told him about rumors in the Army that it was Eichmann who "arranges everything.") ….
During the few minutes it took Kovner to tell of the help that had come from a German sergeant, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question - how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.
For Arendt, great civil disobedients from Socrates to Thoreau play important and essential roles in the political realm. What is more, Arendt fully defends Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers. It seems, therefore, that it is appropriate to enlist her in support of the modern day whistleblowers.
There is, however, a problem with this reading. Socrates, Thoreau, and Ellsberg all gave themselves up to the law and allowed themselves to be judged by and within the legal system. In this regard, they differ markedly from Snowden, Manning and others who have sought to remain anonymous or to flee legal judgment. For Arendt, this difference is meaningful.
Consider the case of Shalom Schwartzbard, which Arendt addresses in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Schwartzbard was a Jew who assassinated the leader of Ukranian pogroms in the streets of Paris. Schwartzbard stood where he took his revenge, waited for the police, admitted his act of revenge, and put himself on trial. He claimed to have acted justly at a time when the legal system was refusing to do justice. And a French jury acquitted him.
For Arendt, the Schwartzbard case stands for an essential principle of justice: that to break the law and act justly, one must then bring oneself back into the law. She writes:
He who takes the law into his own hands will render a service to justice only if he is willing to transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can, at least posthumously, be validated.
What allows Schwartzbard to serve the end of justice is that he took the risk of putting himself on trial and asked a court of law and a jury to determine whether what he did was just, even it were also illegal. By doing so, Schwartzbard not only claimed that his act was a matter of personal conscience; he insisted as well that it was legal if one understood the laws rightly. He asked the representatives of the law—the French jury—to publicly agree with his claim and to vindicate him. He had no guarantee they would do so. When they did, their judgment brought the justice of Schwartzbard’s act to the bright light of the public and also cast the legal system’s inaction—its refusal to arrest war criminals living openly in Paris—in the shadow of darkness.
When I have suggested to colleagues and friends that Snowden’s flight to Moscow and his refusal to stand trial makes it impossible to see his release of the NSA documents as an act of justice, their response mirrors the argument made by Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg—who turned himself over to the police after releasing the Pentagon Papers—has defended Snowden’s decision to flee. The United States of 2013, he argues, is simply no longer the United States of the 1960s. When Ellsberg turned himself in, he was released on bail and given legal protections. He has no faith that the legal system today would treat Snowden with such respect. More likely Snowden would be imprisoned, possibly in solitary confinement. Potentially he would be tortured. There is every reason to believe, Ellsberg and others argue, that Snowden would not receive a fair trial. Under such circumstances, Snowden’s flight is, these supporters argue, justifiable.
I fully admit that it is likely that Snowden would have been treated much less generously than was Ellsberg. But aside from the fact that Snowden never gave the courts the chance to treat him justly, his refusal to submit to the law makes it impossible for his act of disobedience to shine forth as a claim of doing justice. He may claim that he acted in the public interest. He may argue that he acted out of conscience. And he may say he wants a public debate about the rightness of U.S. policy. He may be earnest in all these claims. But the fact that he fled and did not “transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can be validated,” means that he does not, in the end, “render a service to justice.” On the contrary, by fleeing, Snowden gives solace to those who portray him as a criminal and make it easier for those who would to discredit him.
All of this is not to say that Snowden was wrong to release the NSA documents. It is clearly the case that the security state has gone off the rails and become encased in a bubble of fearful conformity that justifies nearly any act in the name of security. We do need such a public conversation about these policies and to the extent that Snowden and Manning have helped to encourage one, I am thankful to them. That said, Manning’s anonymity and Snowden’s flight have actually distracted attention from the question of the justice of their acts and focused attention instead on their motives and personal characters. They have, by resisting the return to law, diluted their claims to act justly.
It is a lot to ask that someone risk their life to act justly. But the fact that justice asks much of us is fundamental to the nature of justice itself: That justice, as opposed to legality, is always extreme, exceptional, and dangerous. Arendt knew well that those who act justly may lose their life, as did Socrates and Anton Schmidt. She knew well that those who act justly may lose their freedom, like Nelson Mandela. But she also knew that even those who die or are isolated will, by their courage in the service of justice, shine light into a world of shadows.
Peter Ludlow’s essay on the Banality of Systematic Evil is well worth reading. He is right that it is important for individuals to think for themselves and be willing to risk civil disobedience when they are convinced that bureaucracies have lost their moral bearings. It is your weekend read. And if you want to read more about Arendt and the demands of justice, take a look at this essay on Arendt’s discussion of the Shalom Schwartzbard case.