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Amor Mundi: January 15th, 2017

"The Rage of Corruption Unveiled"

Uriel Abulof argues that we are witnessing the retreat of the liberal project of individual individualism in the face of a more fundamental and more powerful human need for collectivist tribalism. The drive for tribalism is real; but to understand why it has emerged so vigorously, we need to comprehend how tribalism is a response to what Hannah Arendt calls “the rage of corruption unveiled.”

“Sartre, an ardent atheist, believed there was “no exit” from this hell here on earth. More than 70 years later, a plurality of voting Britons and Americans begged to differ. Brexit and the election of Trump have all the markers of our age: social media spats, clashes of civilizations and generations, urban cosmopolitans voting against rural nationalists. But underneath the apparent divisions, a deeper divergence lurks, a mismatch between philosophies of life — actual existential anxieties. When existentialism goes political, hell is not merely other people; hell is also other peoples. Populist leaders — like Recep Erdoğan, Nigel Farage, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump – get it. We cannot stop these pied pipers without first listening to their tune, and grasping its appeal.

In 1941, German-born Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt fled to New York from Vichy, France.. Twenty years later she arrived in Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” she depicts the Nazi officer as a thoughtless groupie, a man who sought refuge from critical thinking by joining social groups whose clichés he mindlessly practiced. The Nazi party just happened to be the deadliest one.

A more accurate subtitle to Arendt’s treatise, and to her lifework, might have been “the evil of banality” (that is, of thoughtlessness), but she preferred the reverse, which was enough for many to level against her the accusation of blaming the Jewish victims. One such accuser was her friend Gershom Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism. In his letter to Arendt, Scholem deplored her “heartless” tone and denounced her for lacking “Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people.’” Arendt replied: “You are quite right… I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective… I indeed love ‘ ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” Scholem subsequently severed his relations with Arendt.

Arendt’s answer is a staple of late liberal thought. We should love people and loathe peoples. Collectives beget hate, not love, and love, we know, is what it’s all about. And so, as Aretha Franklin once said : “It’s not cool to be Negro or Jewish or Italian or anything else. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around. You don’t have to be black to have soul,” and Franklin knew a thing or two about soul. Still, though universal coolness might work poetically, can we have politics (or even just political philosophy) without particular identities?

Thus begins the liberal journey to square the circle. After using God as scaffolding to construct equal human rights, liberalism turned to imagine politicized people without “a people” and yet with groups in between. It’s almost as dim as it sounds. Just think of Hillary Clinton’s duo of slogans during the 2016 presidential campaign: the official “stronger together” and the popular “love trumps hate.” Who exactly will be “stronger” by being “together” remains opaque, lest it resonate explicitly with “America,” on whose behalf a claim for greatness seems like a fascist call for “hate” against all others — those who “love” people rather than peoples. Ultimately, for liberalism, it is in rational individuals, not the mindless collectives, that we should anchor our search for a healthy, wealthy, happy life.”

Abulof rightly opposes Arendt and Rousseau as the thinkers underlying the opposed camps of cosmopolitanism and collectivist nativism. Rousseau was a thinker of “the will of the people.” The search for a “General Will” is a search for that collective will which all the people in a nation must share; it is the rational truth, the necessary shared opinions and worldviews that unite a people. The problem Rousseau saw was that not every person would embrace the general will over his or her particular will. Which is why Rousseau famously concluded that freedom could only be secured when we forced the people to be free, when we coerced individuals to embrace the truth of the general will. Rousseau, for all his liberal dreams of protecting and legitimating individual freedom, imagined that true freedom could only exist in a collectivist fantasy united by either a lawgiver, a civil religion, or a demagogue.

Arendt recoiled at Rousseau’s collectivism, his justification of force as a means to ensure the free submission to a general will. But this does not mean, as Abulof writes, that Arendt turned to love to save us. While she valued love deeply, Arendt thought that love had no place in politics. Love erases the distance between people that respects their boundaries and their uniqueness. If politics is about unity, it is about a unity of people that preserves and respects their plurality.

Arendt also rejected the idea that freedom was founded upon free will, whether that will was collective or individual. To find freedom in the will is to equate freedom with self-control and thus with sovereignty, which means rule. Arendt rebelled against the traditional Christian and Western idea of freedom as sovereign rule. Instead, she argues that freedom is based in action—”to be free and to act are the same.” Since action is unpredictable and spontaneous, it evades all sovereign control. And since action is something that one only can do with and amongst others, action and freedom only emerge through acting in concert with others. Freedom is not found simply in the act of a sovereign individual; it comes to be when we act together with others.

Arendt surely saw that our modern politics was too fully influence by Rousseau’s collectivist and tribal political instincts. But she also saw that to oppose tribalism with a universal cosmopolitanism—to call for a world government or for a human tribe—was even more dangerous as long as we still imagine freedom as sovereignty.

Abulof ends his essay with a turn toward a kind of cosmopolitan universalism:

“But meaningful coexistence is not about toleration or about turning the other cheek; it is about looking deep into each other’s eyes, seeking interpersonal intimacy and intercommunal solidarity. Only by knowing the other can we transcend, if momentarily, the transient individuals that we are, and start living up to our humanity — making humanity our tribe.”

Arendt, however, was deeply suspicious of building a politics on “interpersonal intimacy and intercommunal solidarity,” on some universal ideas of what unites the human tribe. Politics, a human politics, is about plurality and difference. To establish one super-powerful sovereign to limit and bridle the various tribes risks having that super-sovereign dominate the world without opposition. A world government was, Arendt argues, even more dangerous because there would be no lesser governments to band together and oppose it.

Against Rousseau’s elevation of the sovereign and collective will of the nation as the solution to the problem of political unity, Arendt imagines a decentralized politics, a federalist politics, one in which many factions, many groups, and many institutions each pursue their own version of a meaningful life. Her politics does not set individualism against tribalism; Arendt seeks to empower constitutional and institutional traditions that allow tribalism and plurality to co-exist.

The modern version of tribalism has its root in the political claim of the “will of the people” that in turn has its origins with Rousseau. When the people appear in the streets and demand to rule as the people, they are rebelling against the hypocrisy of the elite. The people demand that we tear off the masks of those who falsely claim to rule in their interests. What drives the people is the claim of hypocrisy and the rage at corruption unveiled, the dawning realization that the powers that be have lied, cheated, and stolen. The problem with the drive to undo hypocrisy is that there is no one who doesn’t wear a mask. Which is why the political ambition to unmask hypocrisy so quickly can descend into terror and chaos, as happened in the French Revolution.

“When this force [hypocrisy] was let loose, when everybody had become convinced that only naked need and interest were without hypocrisy, the malheureux changed into the enragés, for rage is indeed the only form in which misfortune can become active. Thus, after hypocrisy had been unmasked and suffering been exposed, it was rage and not virtue that appeared—the “rage of corruption unveiled on one side, the rage of misfortune on the other.”

—Roger Berkowitz


The Civil Rights legend John Lewis will skip the Presidential inauguration on Friday. He says he questions the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election. Frank Luntz, the pollster, points out that nearly 1 in 4 Clinton voters (23%) don’t consider Trump to be a legitimate President. Masha Gessen reminds us that the questioning of Trump’s legitimacy only undermines the very institutions that we will depend upon to protect us. Gessen relentlessly questions the way that news organizations and others have in lock step accepted a short and skimpily sourced intelligence agency report.

“After months of anticipation, speculation, and hand-wringing by politicians and journalists, American intelligence agencies have finally released a declassified version of a report on the part they believe Russia played in the US presidential election. On Friday, when the report appeared, the major newspapers came out with virtually identical headlines highlighting the agencies’ finding that Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” to help Donald Trump win the presidency—a finding the agencies say they hold “with high confidence.”

A close reading of the report shows that it barely supports such a conclusion. Indeed, it barely supports any conclusion. There is not much to read: the declassified version is twenty-five pages, of which two are blank, four are decorative, one contains an explanation of terms, one a table of contents, and seven are a previously published unclassified report by the CIA’s Open Source division. There is even less to process: the report adds hardly anything to what we already knew. The strongest allegations—including about the nature of the DNC hacking—had already been spelled out in much greater detail in earlier media reports….

The New York Times called it “a strong statement from three intelligence agencies,” and followed its uncritical coverage with a story mocking Trump supporters for asking, “What’s the big deal?”

“How is it possible, if these intelligence reports are true, to count the 2016 Presidential election as unsullied?” asked New Yorker editor David Remnick in a piece published Friday. But since when has “unsullied” been a criterion on which a democratic process is judged? Standard measures include transparency, fairness, openness, accessibility to all voters and to different candidates. Anything that compromises these standards, whether because of domestic or external causes, may throw a result into doubt. But Remnick’s rhetorical question seems to reach for an entirely different standard: that of a process that is demonstrably free of any outside influence. Last month Paul Krugman at The New York Times railed, similarly, that the election was “tainted.” Democracy is messy, as autocrats the world over will never tire of pointing out. They are the ones who usually traffic in ideas of order and purity—as well as in conspiracy theories based on sweeping arguments and scant, haphazard evidence.

The election of Donald Trump is anomalous, both because of the campaign he ran and the peculiar vote mathematics that brought him victory. His use of fake news, his serial lying, his conning his way into free air time, his instrumentalization of partisanship and naked aggression certainly violated the norms of American democracy. But the intelligence report does nothing to clarify the abnormalities of Trump’s campaign and election. Instead, it risks perpetuating the fallacy that Trump is some sort of a foreign agent rather than a home-grown demagogue, while doing further damage to our faith in the electoral system. It also suggests that the US intelligence agencies’ Russia expertise is weak and throws into question their ability to process and present information—all this, two weeks before a man with no government experience but with a short Twitter fuse takes the oath of office.”

In (Literally) Dark Times

Slavoj Zizek, starting from a recent pollution crisis in China, takes stock of the state of the world:

“Perhaps the most surprising thing about this airpocalypse is its quick normalization: After the authorities could no longer deny the problem, they established procedures that would somehow enable people to continue their daily life by way of following new routines, as if the catastrophic smog were just a new fact of life. On designated days, you try to stay at home as much as possible and, if necessary, walk around with masks. Children rejoice in the news that on many days schools are closed—an opportunity to stay at home and play. Making a trip to the countryside, where the blue sky is still visible, becomes a special occasion one looks forward to (there are already agencies in Beijing specialized for such one-day trips). The important thing is not to panic and to maintain the appearance that, in spite of all troubles, life goes on …

Such a reaction is understandable if we take into account that we are being confronted by something so completely outside our collective experience that we don’t really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming. For us, that “something” is a blitz of enormous biological and physical alterations in the world that has been sustaining us. In order to cope with this threat, our collective ideology is mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception which go up to the direct will to ignorance: “a general pattern of behavior among threatened human societies is to become more blindered, rather than more focused on the crisis, as they fail.”

One thing is sure: An extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place right in front of our eyes—the impossible is becoming possible. An event first experienced as impossible but not real (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophe which, however probable we know it is, we do not believe will effectively occur and thus dismiss as impossible) becomes real but no longer impossible (once the catastrophe occurs, it is “renormalized,” perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always-already having been possible). The gap which makes these paradoxes possible is the one between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.”

Destiny and Progress

Dean Baker, in the first salvo of a larger round table, recognizes the role that globalization has played in our present political situations and spins a speculative economic history, and a details a possible future:

“While we cannot accept the racism and misogyny on which Donald Trump’s electoral victory fed, we must recognize that the white working-class voters who largely supported him have real grievances. They have been economic losers over the last four decades. They have seen their wages stagnate, and their kids face bleak labor-market prospects. Their plight resulted from economic policies that were designed to redistribute income upward. Globalization was the most visible of these policies.

Among the many myths about globalization, the worst is that the loss of large numbers of manufacturing jobs in the United States (and Europe) was inevitable. Because the developing world is full of low-paid workers, this argument goes, it was impossible for Americans to compete. Economists and politicians promoting this view might consider the outcome unfortunate for U.S. workers, but also unavoidable. They take comfort in the growing living standards of billions of impoverished people in the developing world.

This is a palatable view of the history of the last forty years for those who were not its victims, but it is wrong in just about every way.

Globalization need not have taken the course it did. There was nothing inevitable about large U.S. trade deficits, which peaked at almost 6 percent of GDP in 2005 and 2006 (roughly $1.1 trillion annually in today’s economy). And there was nothing inevitable about the patterns of trade that resulted in such an imbalance. Policy decisions—not God, nature, or the invisible hand—exposed American manufacturing workers to direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. Policymakers could have exposed more highly paid workers such as doctors and lawyers to this same competition, but a bipartisan congressional consensus, and presidents of both parties, instead chose to keep them largely protected.”

Ways of Being

In the wake of the death of art critic John Berger, Siddhartha Deb eulogizes how the writer kept what was most important to him right in front of him:

“Berger’s understanding of forced migration, of its implications for the modern world, and for the writer choosing to portray that world, was unusually prescient, capable of grasping its past colonial antecedents as well as the future iterations that have produced the pustular symptoms of Brexit and Donald Trump’s wall. A year after he won the Booker, Berger settled down in the village of Quincy in the French Alps, where he remained until he moved, near the very end of his life, to a suburb of Paris. His intentions were to immerse himself in the rhythms of the agricultural life that often lies at the lost end of migration. It would result, among other works, in his fiction trilogy, Into Their Labours, two collections of stories and a novel that traced, over two decades, the transformation of independent peasants into migrant labor adrift in alien cities, a relentless process that still goes on, furthered now by private capital, authoritarian governments, climate change, and resource wars, by the powerful idea that the only alternative to modernizing in the ways demanded by capitalism is to be subject to a kind of evolutionary extinction.

Against this extinction, Berger practiced a kind of immersion, in community, in family, in friendship, and in collaboration, that gave him depth without ever narrowing his vision. He offered, through example, a model for living freely and honorably, something one can get a glimpse of in the recent documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger….

“You are worried,” one of Berger’s contrarian farmers says, in the story, “The Value of Money,” to a tax inspector he has kidnapped. “I regret to have to tell you that there is a tax to pay on worry! There’s also a tax to pay on pain and a tax on shivering. A thousand francs a shiver!” The farmer, Marcel, is only throwing back at the taxman the absurd logic of the modern world, its taxes and its percentages, its instrumental grinding away at the relationships we try to form with our selves, with each other, with animals, with nature, and even with death. In such a world where everything seemingly wants to be money, Berger rebelled with joy in order to point out the more important things. As he put it in his Booker acceptance speech, “in the end—as well as in the beginning, clarity is more important than money.””

Nordic Surveillance

Hugh Eakin details the importance of Scandinavia to US cyber Intelligence operations, including, but not limited to, its role in inspiring the bulk data collection of the NSA and other agencies, which he traces both to their physical proximity to Russia and to the structures of their state and society:

“Since the extraordinary revelations that the Russian government sought to influence the 2016 US presidential election with information hacked from the computers of the Democratic National Committee and top Democratic officials, cybersecurity has become an urgent national priority. As US officials point out, the DNC hacking is only the latest in an accelerating series of Russia-linked cyberattacks aimed at political and other institutions in the West, including the Estonian government and media in 2007, the German Bundestag in 2015, Ukraine’s power grid in 2015, and the Swedish media in March 2016. Far less noted, however, has been the extent to which the US itself has coordinated with Sweden and other allies to develop hacking and surveillance tools that are far more advanced than the e-mail “phishing” strategies used in the recent Russian attacks. A major target of this technology is Russia itself.

NSA officials describe their Swedish counterparts as “extremely competent, technically innovative, and trusted,” and praised them for being “proficient in collecting a wide variety of communications.” Notably, the Swedish FRA had been given access to the NSA’s most powerful analytic tool, called XKeyscore, which, according to NSA documents, enables the retrieval from mass surveillance data of “nearly everything a user does on the Internet.”

The NSA further noted in its April 2013 report that the FRA “continues to gain access to more data from additional telecommunications companies” and that new Swedish legislation had also given the FRA expanded counterterrorism powers. According to the American agency, the broad leeway given to the FRA had made Sweden a more reliable surveillance ally than Great Britain. One document about the NSA’s WINTERLIGHT program reports that “continued GCHQ involvement may be in jeopardy due to British legal/policy restrictions, and in fact NSA’s goal all along has been…a bilat[eral arrangement] with the Swedish partner.””

Obama Lit

Christian Lorentzen reviews developments in the novel since the last time we inaugurated a new president:

“That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness — a moment of fake news but also a time when the reassurances of big data have proved fallible, when a shared civic reality has cleaved definitively into a pair of mutually distorting digital bubbles, exposing a national identity crisis that America’s left and its writers (most of them creatures of the left) didn’t know, or want to know, was happening. Even the president-elect’s hair seems to be a fiction. No wonder some are pointing to science fiction as the best predictor of what’s to come.

The dystopian narratives of the Trump regime will come along soon enough, but in the meantime, four strains of books have been particularly germane to the Obama years, and they spring from four strategies of approaching the problem of authenticity. First, autofiction: narratives that appear to do away with much of fiction’s familiar scaffolding — plots, scene-setting, the development of characters other than the hero; that eschew familiar modes of storytelling in favor of the diary entry, the transcript, or the essayistic digression; and that collapse the distance between the hero-narrator and the authorial persona by investigating that dual figure’s claims to authenticity. Second, fables of meritocracy, often satiric: social novels and comedies of manners in which higher education and its professional aftermath are both crucibles that allow characters to reveal their authentic selves and alienating systems that strip them of their native identities. Third, many historical novels have been set in the near past, locating in recent decades the romantic grit and violence their nostalgic authors find lacking in the sterile present. And, fourth, a set of narratives have placed the experience of trauma — rape, pedophilia, homophobic abuse, incarceration, the horrors of war — at their center, where it assumes an animating role: Suffering bestows meaning on an otherwise comfortable world. (Of course, these categories aren’t comprehensive, nor are they exclusive — plenty of books could be placed in two or three columns.)”

28 to 1

Westlands_LawnChris Sweeney seeks to put some hard numbers behind reports of a liberal bias on college campuses.

“The definition of conservatism has never been more muddy—depending on who you ask, it can range from white nationalists espousing hate to moderates such as Governor Charlie Baker. At many of New England’s most prestigious colleges, political conservatism has been reduced to stereotypes, conflated with the alt-right and branded as being so wrongheaded that it’s not even worth considering, let alone hiring professors who embrace right-leaning ideas. Long known as bastions of progressive thought, and home to the likes of Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, our region’s schools have always been suspected of putting the “liberal” in liberal arts college. Until recently, though, no one had quantified just how far left higher ed here had drifted.

Last spring, Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, decided to run the numbers. From the start, he certainly expected liberal professors to outnumber conservatives, but his data—25 years’ worth of statistics from the Higher Education Research Institute—told a far more startling tale: In the South and throughout the Great Plains, the ratio of liberal to conservative professors hovered around 3 to 1. On the liberal left coast, the ratio was 6 to 1. And then there was New England—which looked like William F. Buckley’s worst nightmare—standing at 28 to 1. “It astonished me,” says Abrams, whose research revealed that conservative professors weren’t just rare; they were being pushed to the edge of extinction.

This phenomenon has been quietly unfolding for years. Abrams, who describes himself as a centrist and earned a doctorate from Harvard, sees the decline as a canary in the higher education coal mine, undercutting the mission of college and diminishing the value of six-figure educations.”

Posted on 15 January 2017 | 9:00 am

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