Arendt and Sontag on Conservatism, Romanticism, and ‘Interesting’ Politics

Last week at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute‘s Spring 2012 Faculty Study Group met to discuss Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, which aims to identify substantive theses central to that political tradition by way of an intellectual history of conservatism; more precisely, by close readings of some central works of the conservative canon. (The Faculty Study Group is organized by the Wolfe Institute every semester to read and discuss an academic work of interest; this semester’s selection of The Reactionary Mind had already generated some pre-discussion controversy.)

Our meeting last week was considerably enhanced by Corey Robin himself,  who joined our discussions of Chapters 6, 7, 8. I expected the discussion to not be restricted to these chapters, of course, and I was not disappointed. Over the course of our two-hour interaction, we were able to get Corey to describe the book’s central thesis–that conservatism is reactionary, counter-revolutionary politics, infused with romantic sentiment, responding vigorously to perceived threats –, clarify some theoretical points, and consider possible sharpenings and applications of his thesis. (One extension of great interest to me is to apply Corey’s central claims to conservatism beyond American and European shores.)

One of the most interesting clarifications of Robin’s thesis was the centrality of the romantic impulse in conservatism. Indeed, it seemed, after our discussions, that the romantic impulse is perhaps even more central than the reactionary, counter-revolutionary component of conservatism; it certainly explains conservative fascination with war, the attraction it presents to ‘outsiders,’ its glorification of strength and individual striving. (I intend to write a post very soon that explores the connection between the sentiments of the immigrant and the romantic imagination.)

There are some interesting theoretical resonances of this association of conservatism with romanticism.

First, here is Hannah Arendt (again!) in On Revolution, Penguin, 1990, page 197:

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century.[emphasis added]

Then, here is Susan Sontag, in ‘An Argument About Beauty’, (from At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007, page 9), where, after considering that works of art might be described as ‘interesting’ as opposed to ‘beautiful’ in an attempt to make them ‘more inclusive’:

What is interesting? Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good). The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out. The wicked too. To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious. Connoisseurs of ‘the interesting’–whose antonym is ‘the boring’–appreciate clash, not harmony. Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political written in 1932. (The following year he joined the Nazi Party.) A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics–and war–are interesting. [links added]

The FBI, Elaborate Entrapment and Hannah Arendt on Secret Police

David Shipler writes in today’s New York Times about an interesting aspect of a series of ‘lethal terrorist plots’ that have been successfully interdicted by the nation’s law enforcement agencies:

[These] dramas were facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training. Suspects naïvely played their parts until they were arrested

Shipler goes on to describe the elaborate entrapment methods followed by the FBI and its agents and asks:

This is legal, but is it legitimate? Without the F.B.I., would the culprits commit violence on their own? Is cultivating potential terrorists the best use of the manpower designed to find the real ones? Judging by their official answers, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are sure of themselves — too sure, perhaps.

In most cases, entrapment defenses do not hold up in court because ‘the law requires that they show no predisposition to commit the crime, even when induced by government agents.’ The entrapment schemes followed by the FBI are distinctive because, before the 9/11 attacks, ‘it would be very unusual for the F.B.I. to present a crime opportunity that wasn’t in the scope of the activities that a person was already involved in’  and that is because ‘There isn’t a business of terrorism in the United States’. So what the FBI has to do, apparently, is ‘find somebody who would jump at the opportunity if a real terrorist showed up in town.’ (Someone indulging in ‘Thought Crimes’ before those thoughts were directed toward action?)

The FBI’s entrapment includes not just providing material support but also at times, positive encouragement to those ‘terrorists’ that might be vacillating or reluctant. Read, for instance, the description of how James Cromitie, a defendant in the plot to bomb synagogues and shoot Stinger missiles at military aircraft was led on and maneuvered, which concludes with:

It took 11 months of meandering discussion and a promise of $250,000 to lead him, with three co-conspirators he recruited, to plant fake bombs at two Riverdale synagogues.

This pattern of entrapment and its distinctive nature was noted by Judge Colleen McMahon, who, even as she rejected Cromitie’s entrapment defense and sentenced him to 25 years, noted:

Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope.

These activities of the FBI are not unknown, of course, they have been commented on before, most notably by Glenn Greenwald.

So it is worth wondering how many of these men would have remained at the level of grumbling malcontents unless they had been led on by their FBI handlers. Causal analysis and determination of intent in these cases seems especially murky and ambiguous, a little too indeterminate to warrant the crystal clear clarity of the sentence handed out.

In any case, as I read Shipler’s article I was reminded of a little passage in Hannah Arendt’s  On Revolution, which occurs in the chapter ‘The Revolutionary Tradition and its Lost Treasure’:

It certainly is not conspiracy that causes revolution, and secret societies – though they may succeed in committing a few spectacular crimes, usually with the help of the secret police (endnote 71) – are as a rule much too secret to be able to make their voices heard in public.

Endnote 71 notes:

The record of the secret police in fostering rather than preventing revolutionary activities is especially striking in France during the Second Empire and in Czarist Russia after 1880. It seems, for example, that there was not a single anti-government action under Louis Napoleon which had not been, inspired by the police; and the more important terroristic attacks in Russia prior to war and revolution seem all to have been police jobs.

Hyman Strachman the Pirate AKA Troops Supporter

Hyman Strachman is a pirate. But he doesn’t fly the Jolly Roger, drink rum, hop around on a pegleg with a cutlass tucked neatly into a cummerbund, board ships while yelling “aarrr!” or call anyone a ‘scurvy bilge rat.’ Rather, he buys DVDs, makes multiple copies of them using a ‘duplicator’ and ships them to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has not kept an official count but estimates that he topped 80,000 discs a year during his heyday in 2007 and 2008, making his total more than 300,000 since he began in 2004….

That sounds like massive copyright infringement to me. And it is. But Mr. Strachman is not going to be brought to justice any time soon. Not even by the MPAA:

Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America said he did not believe its member studios were aware of Mr. Strachman’s operation. His sole comment dripped with the difficulty of going after a 92-year-old widower supporting the troops. “We are grateful that the entertainment we produce can bring some enjoyment to them while they are away from home,” Mr. Gantman said.

Mr. Strachman’s activity, if carried out by anyone else, for any other reason, would have brought the wrath of the Righteous Copyright Enforcers, sorry, the MPAA, on his head. But Mr. Strachman is doing it for ‘the boys over there,’ fighting for our freedom. So Mr. Gantman eases up, knowing well that if there is one line you do not cross, it is the one that would turn you into a non-supporter of the troops. (Except when you are going after retired generals speaking unfavorably about the conduct of wars overseas; then you load both barrels and fire.)

Of course, the studios have tried to help ‘our boys’ as well, ‘sending military bases reel-to-reel films…and projectors for the troops.’ The reason studios send ‘reel-to-reel films’  to military bases and not DVDs is that they are well aware that DVD-burners and laptops are a dime-a-dozen on bases, and that the young, just-above-teenaged soldiers who make up a sizable portion of the troops overseas are quite likely to respond to DVDs in precisely the same way that young, just-above-teenaged men and women in the US react to DVDs back home: They’d make copies of them or rip them and pass those on. The studios love ‘our boys,’ they just don’t trust them to observe the laws they are defending.

Note:  As expected, the New York Times article linked to above uncritically parrots an MPAA talking point:

Although the most costly piracy now takes place online through file-sharing Web sites, the illegal duplication of copyright DVDs — usually by organized crime in Eastern Europe and China, not by retirees in their 90s in the American suburbs — still siphons billions of dollars out of the industry every year.

It would be extremely useful for the Times to tell us how these staggering ‘billions and billions‘ numbers are calculated. For I have no idea. It would also be a useful enhancement of this debate if once, just once, the Times might talk about how movie attendance is enhanced by the word-of-mouth buzz created by the presence of ‘pirated’ DVDs and torrented versions of movies. Just once.

The Real Social Software: ‘Crowd Solutions’ To Co-ordination Problems

Consider a familiar, mundane, urban situation: You walk into an ATM vestibule in a bank. Your arrival has been preceded by other customers. No queue exists. But a ‘queue’ forms nevertheless and it deploys a simple algorithm: You simply wait till everyone that was there before you takes his or her turn. You don’t care in which order the rest of the ‘crowd’ uses the ATM; it is sufficient that you not use the machine before anyone else was there. You presume–and you would be right–that everyone else in the vestibule is following the same principle. If there are any ‘jumpers’ they will–in all probability–get called out; you don’t need to do this enforcement for those that were before you, they will take care of it. You might however, need to do this for someone who shows up after you and tries to use the machine before you. There is no conversation, no explicit agreement among the users. Rather, an implicit convention, the contours of which are familiar to the ATM users from a host of other situations requiring an efficient ‘crowd procedure’ to solve a problem, is put into place and followed. An extraterrestrial watching this scene would notice that a gaggle of people standing around in various positions in this enclosed space had somehow agreed upon an ordering in which to use the machine without negotiating among themselves.

Crowds solve co-ordination problems like this all the time, without explicit instruction (and in doing so, they solve problems that in their abstract form are not amenable to tractable mathematical modeling or solution). A classic well-known example is, of course, the sports fans who file out of a stadium and empty it quickly, and efficiently. As lines of fans exit into the aisles, they quickly fall into an alternating scheme that lets every other person go ahead into the exit. Later, on the exit ramps, things can become chaotic (and sometimes even go terribly wrong when stampedes occur). But the preliminary filing out into the exit ramps is almost always orderly. Or consider conference attendees asking questions of a speaker using a two-mike arrangement (one in each aisle of the auditorium): the questioners take alternate turns at each mike, a convention that does not need to be enforced. (There is a slight wrinkle here; sometimes one line grows quicker on one side than the other, and then, the questioners on the other side need to recognize this and grant priority accordingly. But by and large, the alternation works).

Because I live in a large populous city, I have ample opportunity to observe successes and failures of this kind of social software. On 34th Street, at the Herald Square station, crowds persistently fail to solve a simple co-ordination problem. Sometimes only two turnstiles will be available at one entrance for users to exit and enter. Bizarrely, the simplest, most efficient solution is never arrived at: one line should use one turnstile for exiting, the other should use the other turnstile for entering. Instead, an undignified hustle to try to sneak in before another user can exit takes place (and vice-versa). Watching this is mortifying: it’s like witnessing a demonstration of collective stupidity. It’s puzzling too: why can’t the crowd figure it out? The absence of an explicit shaming mechanism has something to do with it, of course. Getting called out for queue-jumping is one thing; being accused of simply trying to get ahead in a free-for-all isn’t. Conventions and mores like these–at some level–underlie the failures and successes of almost all crowd solutions to co-ordination problems.

These sorts of co-ordination mechanisms have been studied by many different disciplines–economics, computer science, philosophy, sociology for instance–precisely because they manifest themselves in so many ways. (Think about language for instance, in the way that Wittgenstein analyzed it in the Philosophical Investigations.) And they remain endlessly fascinating because the kinds of co-ordination problems that social interaction can throw up promise to remain diverse, unpredictable, and imprecisely amenable to the kinds of solutions and failures noted above.

Buber, Eichmann, and the Death Penalty

As part of the discussion generated by my posts on the death penalty (prompted by the Anders Behring Breivik case; here and here), my colleague, the brilliant Noson Yanofsky, wrote in to say,

This reminds me of Martin Buber’s fight to keep Israel from executing Eichmann. His reasoning was not practical but moral. He lost the fight but generated a lot of discussion.

I’d like to thank Noson for pointing me to that episode in Buber’s life; its details are worth revisiting.

After his capture and kidnapping by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1961, Adolf Eichmann was brought to Israel and placed on trial.  The resultant high-profile prosecution by an Israeli court, needless to say, generated intense debate in both philosophical and legal registers (Hannah Arendt‘s memorable Eichmann in Jerusalem anyone?). Initially, Buber resisted the idea of trying Eichmann in an Israeli court rather than an international one; for him, the ‘victims’ had  mistakenly cast themselves as judges. While making it clear he was not advocating a pardon he suggested too that the idea that Eichmann had indulged in a unique evil was mistaken. Buber met David Ben-Gurion to ask the death sentence not be carried out, who replied that while he personally didn’t care about the sentence, the then Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi most assuredly did.

Buber’s opposition to the death penalty for Eichmann, unsurprisingly, was grounded in his reading of the Scriptures. In particular, that the Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ applied to the state just as much as it did to the individual. As Buber said, ‘I do not accept the state’s right to take the life of any man.’ He noted that though observance of the Commandments could often be intractable, ‘as far as it depends on us, we should not kill, neither as individuals nor as a society.’ Later, after Time would quote Buber as quoting Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk, “What the Torah teaches us is this: none but God can command us to destroy a man”, Buber wrote in response that the sequel to these words was even more significant: ‘And if the very smallest angel comes after the command has been given and cautions us: Lay not thy hand upon…, we should obey him.’ Buber would also say to Newsweek, ‘The death sentence has not diminished crime–on the contrary, all this exasperates men…Killing awakens killing.’

Notably, Buber believed that executing Eichmann could lead German youth to believe that by this ‘symbolic justice’ they had been relieved of the guilt for the Holocaust. Presumably, this would also relieve them of the need to engage in moral reflection about the larger German role in it, over and above the actions of the National Socialists.

(Source: Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber’s Life and Work, Wayne State University Press, 1988, pp 355-359)

Buber’s opposition, then to the death penalty, invokes theological, practical and moral considerations, the same ones that continue to inform all thoughtful opposition to the death penalty today. While this case is an unusually high-profile one, and the magnitude of Eichmann’s crimes throws Buber’s opposition into particularly sharp focus, the same issues recur in every dramatic, supposedly singular instance of human wrongdoing thought to be punishable by the death penalty.

Update: Noson has pointed me to a very interesting paper by Erica Weiss titled ‘Finding Neo-Israelite Justice for Adolph Eichmann‘. (Journal of Hebraic Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 2009), pp 169–188)

The Death Penalty Revisited

My post on Anders Behring Breivik and the argument his case provided against death penalty sparked some very interesting responses. Will Schenk described an interesting–and from the sound of it, extremely disturbing–meeting with a person whom he felt ‘deserved’ to be destroyed. I don’t think I’m exaggerating; please correct me if so. For Will did say,

It’s not my place to pass these judgements, not really sure if it’s anyones place, but there’s a sense of letting my fellow people down by not acting on the impulse to destroy this person. It’s not retribution nor even a matter of breaking the law, it’s a impulse that there needs to be some level of common humanity between everyone for us to live together, and that on some level this person wasn’t really Human. He was too Different.

Will’s comment expresses the feeling that the death penalty should be deployed against those who are not part of our ‘community of persons’ (that is what the capitalized ‘Human’ is pointing to in his comment). The failure to abide by some agreed upon standard of membership–in this moral community–is the disqualification for further continuance of life. But of course, the decision to act on what might be a flawed assessment of this failure to achieve a ‘level of common humanity’,  or not a universally shared one, is what is problematic: Why is destruction an appropriate response to this recognition of an Other? That still needs an added argument – we share our world with many creatures that are not persons and do not share our common humanity (and many of them are dangerous to us) – but we do not destroy them all, surely?

Noah Barth also wrote, expressing another intuition that might be familiar, that the death penalty could be brought out for those ‘beyond redemption’:

I think that Breivik illustrates the most cogent argument I have heard in favor of the death penalty. Namely, that some people are beyond retribution. On some level or another any moratorium campaigner is anti-capital punishment because they want to believe in the sacredness of human life. Part of this is the assumption of one’s ability to redeem oneself. But what about a case of a clear, absolute sociopath such as Breivik? He undoubtedly will never be able to re-enter society.

Note that Noah links the argument against death penalty to a belief in the ‘sacredness of human life.’ This might be implicit in my earlier post and if so, there is a flaw in my argument. I don’t think human life is ‘sacred’ in any way. There is moreover, another problem: How are we to gauge the possibility of redemption? On a case-by-case basis? That seems intractable especially since it is not clear how such evaluations could be carried out; they appear subject to too many prejudices. Which brings me to the next comment.

Daniel Kaufman wrote in to say,

The death penalty is unacceptable for one simple reason: it is an irreversible punishment. Given the inherent fallibility of human institutions, states should never issue punishments that cannot be taken back later, if it turns out that a mistake was made. The death penalty is such a punishment and for that reason alone, is indefensible..

This argument has some very desirable features: it avoids mention of the intrinsic value of human life, avoids difficulties in assessing membership of a moral community and in ascertaining possibilities of redemption. It concentrates on an undeniable aspect of the death penalty: it cannot be reversed. Of course, neither can time spent in a jail, but there at least the possibility of release remains a ‘live’ one. (No pun intended!)

Video Games and Literature: Producers of Social Dysfunction?

In the December 20th 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote a profile of the video-game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of, according to Wikipedia–“some of the most successful video game franchises of all time, including MarioDonkey KongThe Legend of ZeldaStar FoxF-ZeroPikmin, and the Wii series“). In the course of that article, Paumgarten wrote that games, regardless of how much we may love them, are by definition trivial and superfluous,” and that they are  a “structured, commodified, and stationary technological simulation.” This latter remark inspired reader David O’ Grady to write,

Such adjectives could also be used to describe most literature, but we would hardly argue that reading prevents us from living out our own stories.

While I am not a video-game player and still find the sight of many of my friends’ teen-aged sons sitting in basements or bedrooms, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, glued to their consoles, off-putting, I have slowly moved past the stage where I might have considered this attachment the harbinger of a social dysfunctionality.

For Grady is right. At a superficial level, those reading books also indulge in similar anti-social behavior – they demand to be left alone with their precious tomes, immersed in their pages, lost in their characters and ‘make-believe situations’, fantasizing sometimes about lands and peoples far away, sometimes reading about violence, sex, extreme dysfunctionality (and that’s just some of the milder stuff that you can find in our great literary canon). But this ‘extreme engagement’ with the textual culture of the book has not prevented readers’ engagement with the world. Indeed, as a culture that a valorizes the book, we see these acts of reading and imaginative flight as crucial to the reader’s ability to engage with the world in a richer, more linguistically informed manner. To read is not only to educate oneself, it is to indulge in one of the most richly textured acts of self-creation.

As a quick thought experiment, consider the following reaction that participants in a culture of oral transmission of literature might had to the printed book:

We used to get together and swap tales. Now people just want to be by themselves, curled up with this accursed new invention, the book! Where’s the interaction with the ‘author’ gone? All people do these days is engage with these clumsy artefacts, rather than participating in the rich, one-on-one, face-to-face interactions with story-tellers.

 The confusion that Paumgarten displayed in his response to video-games is a common one: it is borne out of unease with the coupling of technological artefacts with fantasizing; it imagines that this builds a royal road to anti-social withdrawal.  Many video-game players display all the hallmarks of the clichéd, pathologically disengaged recluse, but many others are their perfect antitheses. There is a similar variance in book-readers if anyone would care to notice. The reasons for the recluse’s disengagement–sometimes chosen, sometimes forced–require a deeper, richer diagnosis than the all-too-quick indictment of the latest technological ‘intruder’ into our idealized vision of ourselves.

Note: The response that video-games are inherently superficial because they are ‘visual’ while books are ‘textual’ requires  a much longer post than I can provide at the moment. Suffice it to say that that distinction is a little tenuous at best, and, moreover, movies anyone?