Hannah Arendt On The Rehabilitation Of George W. Bush

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, p. 144-145, [1963], 2006), Hannah Arendt, making note of Heinrich Himmler‘s ‘change of heart’–as German defeat loomed in the Second World War–with regards to the Final Solution, as he considered suspending the mass killings at Auschwitz, writes:

It was about at this time that a “moderate wing” of the S.S came into existence, consisting of those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvelous alibi, and those who were clever enough to foresee a return to “normal conditions,” when money and good connections would again be of paramount importance.

George W. Bush is making a comeback, and he is being welcomed back with open arms. He has defended the media, under fire from Donald Trump as the ‘enemies of the people,’ he has bemoaned the ‘racism’ present in the American polity’s discourse; he has received hugs from First Ladies; he has been talked up by stand-up comics and liberal talk-show hosts. Welcome back, Dubya; we missed ya. (Even though you walked back your ‘criticism’ of Donald Trump.)

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

Apparently, we love George W. Bush, a mass murdering war criminal, who oversaw torture on his watch, who having bided his time during the Obama Presidency, has now chosen to speak up during the Donald Trump years, all the better to take advantage of an ostensible dramatic contrast with a crude buffoon. George W. Bush remembers only all too well that the scorn that that is now directed at Trump was once sent his way; he is grateful for the cover our Great Orange Leader has now provided him, especially as he count on the fawning admiration of the same commentariat and pundit class that saw fit to deem Donald Trump ‘presidential’ once he had provided proof of his ability to read a prepared speech for television and indulge in the oldest political clichés of all time, that of paying homage to ‘our troops.’

It is unsurprising that George W. Bush’s stock would rise on stepping down from the Oval Office. Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is sui generis and ab initio (and any other Latin phrases you’d like to deploy to make the same point), that all is unprecedented, extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump. (To his credit, Trump has not as yet ordered illegal war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ‘furriners,’ though he might be sorely tempted to do so, given the standing ovation on Monday night.)

Why wouldn’t we forgive and forget? All the better to prepare ourselves for the next unprecedented moment in American history. The loss of memory is the best way to ensure novelty.

The ‘Pundits’ Are Right: Exploiting War Widows Is Presidential

It’s a hoary tradition; it’s what you do. You fight a war; you send men and women to their deaths (after they’ve sent other men and women and children to their deaths); then, at home, you make plans to fight another war, and you beat the war drums and fill up the war chests by parading the widows and the orphans out in the open for all to see. Here they are, the mourners; let us look somberly and seriously upon their grief-stricken faces, the evidence of the devastation of war all too apparent, and let us–while acknowledging their sacrifice–make plans to wage more war, kill more men and women and children, here and elsewhere, so we can find ourselves here, perhaps in a cemetery, perhaps in a legislative chamber, doing this all again, preparing to fight another war.

All those who wage war do it. It’s how you keep war going. The war dead are gone, consigned to the flames, or lowered six feet under; their families live on, as props in a grotesque stage-managed farce. The dead’s bodies are gone; but other modes of existence are still available to be called upon. As are those they leave behind.

Last night, Donald Trump invoked a poorly planned and executed raid that resulted in the deaths of a US Navy Seal and–let us not forget–several civilians, including women and children, to pay homage to the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, then attending Trump’s speech to the US Congress. Rather predictably, American punditry hailed this moment as ‘presidential,’ a sign that Donald Trump had acquired some new-found gravitas.

The pundits are right. Trump was indeed presidential at that moment. Presidents declare war; they are the Commanders-in-Chief; they sign the orders that kill. And then, to keep fighting wars, they engage in public embraces of the families of the dead, clasping their hands tightly, delivering beautifully drafted and crafted speeches, calling for ovations, and invoking the notion of being ‘blessed.’ (Donald Trump was honest enough to make sure the spotlight swung back to him by making note of how the resultant standing ovation had been the longest ever, thus once again fueling intense speculation about whether his hands are the only small part of his body.)

These acts of exploitation are part of a long-standing tradition called ‘honoring the troops.’ They are ostensibly displays of patriotism and nationalism; they are how a ‘grateful nation’ shows its appreciation of the ‘ultimate sacrifice.’ Everyone stands up; everyone claps; the pundits watching sagely nod their heads and comment on how intensely moving the moment was, how the nation ‘comes together’ at times like these, putting aside their political differences, and preparing to move on.

Greater horse shit hath no man.

There is a simple, less mawkish, less exploitative, less expensive way to honor the war dead, to recognize their ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ to ‘support our troops’: stop fighting wars. Bring home mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Get soldiers’ families off the stage, and back home.

The Best Little White House In ‘Murica: Carpetbaggin’ Days Are Here Again

The Pentagon and the Secret Service are about to start paying rent–like, you know, taxpayer money–to the US President. The President’s son goes on a business trip to Uruguay, eager to cash in on his new found fame and glory–he needs, besides expensive hotels, an expensive security detail, naturally. (Who wouldn’t want to, even if only as a public, humanitarian, service, try to wipe that odd, leering rictus, the one anticipating untold wealth, off his face?) The President’s daughter’s brand of cheap knockoffs has been displaced from malls and departmental stores nationwide, thus depriving young American women of the chance to dress up like a gaudy. overladen Christmas tree; in response, the President, in a remarkable act of parent-child role swapping, holds his breath till he turns a bright shade of Twitter-bird blue, throwing a fit, and wailing, “Me wanna Nordstorm be nice! Now!” The President’s adviser tells Americans to go out and buy the President’s daughter’s baubles, thus getting an early jump on the Christmas shopping season, forgetting only to list a toll-free number and a website at the bottom of the television screen. The President’s wife is upset she can’t milk the country’s advertisement agencies for the eight years she is going to live in Trump Tower, safely ensconced in the Penthouse, throwing down bits of cake at the peasants gathered below.

Back in the good ‘ol days, palefaces brought trinkets to trade with the Native Americans and sold them snake-oil instead; the Indians knew the White House, home of the The Great Father, was Snake Oil Central. The Trumps are Making America Great Again, returning us to our roots, to the frontier days, when wheeling and dealing and thuggery and plain ‘ol self-aggrandizement pushed the national dream onward and forward.  The grubby, commercial heart of the republic, of its legislative politics and foreign policy, has never been too artfully hidden; we, as citizens, know all about it. Yet, like guests at a Borat dinner party, we’ve agreed to be discreet, to make believe that nothing too sordid was underway, that gentility still emerged at the top of the pile of crass hand-in-the-till dipping. Those illusions are gone; carpetbagging season is well and truly upon us. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the Best Little Whitehouse in ‘Murica.

Trump and his family are remarkably honest. Let us not accuse them of disingenousness; they are frank and straightforward; they tell it like it is. To paraphrase Nasser Ali’s memorable line from My Beautiful Laundrette, “My dear boy, I’m not a professional American, I’m a professional businessman!” Think of Nasser Ali, living in the White House, squeezing ‘the tits of the system,’ and you have some idea of what the Trump family is up to. The budgets are bigger; a bright political future awaits Ivanka, beginning first with the speeches that she will deliver on the Conservative Ladies’ Club dinner party circuit; this milch cow has a lot to give, and she’ll be kept in the shed for a while. Before being sent off to the slaughterhouse.

The Donald Trump Impeachment Fantasy

Wishful thinking is in the air: this presidential incompetence is intolerable, it cannot last. Let us take bets on how long Donald Trump will last before he is evicted from the Oval Office by those who cannot put up with his trigger-happy tweeting, his brazen exploitation of the highest office in the land for personal financial gain, his reckless attacks on the independence of this land’s judiciary, his bizarre, unhinged, deployment of illegal executive orders, his juvenile foreign policy. Trump will be impeached before the year is out, before his term is over.

This is an exceedingly curious fantasy to entertain. Impeachment of a president requires the House of Representatives to vote to do so. (It also requires the Senate to conduct a trial and issue a verdict.) Do the proponents of these bizarre speculations imagine that a House of Representatives which is controlled by the Republican Party will ever float such a motion and act on it? And that a Republican Party-controlled Senate will issue an impeachment verdict to follow up? This the Republican Party that, lest we forget, has voted in lockstep to confirm all of Trump’s cabinet nominees, each one more spectacularly unqualified for the task. (So dogged has its defense of this cavalcade of incompetents been that yesterday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell invoked a slavery era rule–during Black History Month–to prevent Senator Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King, written back in 1986, which had opposed Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship because of his civil rights record.) This is also the Republican Party that has expressed virtually no public opposition to any of Trump’s policies–they’ve all either been cowed down by his relentless tweeting, or they do not find anything objectionable in his policies. After all, as McConnell put it, ““I think there is a high level of satisfaction with the new administration.”

This is not a party that is going to impeach.

These fantasies remind me, all over again, of the feverish frenzy that broke out during the election season when commentator after commentator wrote about the ‘implosion’ of the Republican Party, its death-throes, its being torn apart by the conflicting impulses that had been induced by the Trump candidacy. Precisely none of that happened. The Republican Party rolled on, won the election, maintained its majorities in both houses, and found itself a new President, who now sits in the Oval Office.

One of the biggest mistakes made by political pundits in writing about the Trump candidacy and the Trump presidency has been to imagine that there is a separation between it and the Republican Party, that this administration represents some radical break with the past, that Republicans of yesteryear were milder, less ideologically unhinged, less racist, less xenophobic, less invested in taking this country to the cleaners. It has let the Republican Party off the hook; but Trump is their creation, he is of a piece with the history of this party. This present moment does not represent a discontinuity or disjuncture with the past; it represents its logical continuation.

Trump will not be impeached by the Republican Party. To hope or wish for it is just that, a fantasy. There are far better fantasies to inform your politics with.

The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.

The Dependence Of Autobiography On Biography (And Vice-Versa)

A few weeks ago, I briefly spoke at a conference hosted in honor of my dissertation advisor’s eightieth birthday. In my talk I offered some personal recollections of having worked with Distinguished Professor Rohit Parikh, his intellectual influence on me, and the various lessons–personal, technical, moral–that I learned along the way from him. As I began my talk, I apologized for what I described as the ‘self-indulgent’ nature of the talk. After all, even though the talk was about Professor Parikh, it would keep me center-stage at all times; I was as much a character as him. The stories I would tell my audience were about him and me; they would describe my passage through my dissertation, my post-doctoral fellowship, and then later, my work as a faculty member of the City University of New York, all the while informed by my advisor’s presence. (And indeed, I found myself telling tales of my first encounter with my advisor, my decision to work on a dissertation topic that spun off from one of his papers, my struggles to become more mathematically proficient, the shaping of my philosophical world-view through the many discussions and conversations we had, and the various insights into mathematical method, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the nature of logic and knowledge that I gleaned over the years from him. I recalled memorable lines, jokes, profundities; I briefly mentioned our political differences.)

As part of my ‘apology’ therefore, I said that in trying to provide a biography of someone I had interacted with over an extended period of time, it was necessary to provide an autobiography as well. I went on to note that this was not surprising: after all, the recountings of our autobiographies must necessarily call on the biographies of others to be made complete. Our lives are not lived in isolation; they inform, interact with, and impinge upon, many other lives. We form relationships with others; we enter into them, and move on out again; they take us from station to station. The stories of our lives, thus, are also the stories of many others’: friends, lovers, enemies, teachers.

Biography and autobiography are fickle genres of story-telling; they rely on memory, and are infected throughout by all kinds of prejudice. The interaction between the two I describe here shows how these errors may accumulate: my autobiography might distort the biography of others. I might cast myself in a more favorable light, paint myself as more virtuous when contrasted with others; if my autobiography is relied upon as a biographical source for others’ lives, these errors will be perpetuated. In the particular forum in which I was recounting my ‘autobiography’ a converse possibility existed: that I would be corrected by the very person whom I was speaking about; my advisor could have raised his hand at some point and told me that he remembered additional details that I had forgotten, or that I had gotten some quote or location or time wrong.

No man is an island and all that.