Amor Mundi: February 19th, 2017
In Praise of Hypocrisy
Masha Gessen rightly cites Hannah Arendt in Gessen’s essay in praise of hypocrisy.
“Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how fascism invites people to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy” and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. Hypocrisy can be aspirational: Political actors claim that they are motivated by ideals perhaps to a greater extent than they really are; shedding the mask of hypocrisy asserts that greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.
In the last decade and a half, post-Communist autocrats like Vladimir V. Putin and Viktor Orban have adopted this cynical posture. They seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles. This stance has breathed new life into the old Soviet propaganda tool of “whataboutism,” the trick of turning any argument against the opponent. When accused of falsifying elections, Russians retort that American elections are not unproblematic; when faced with accusations of corruption, they claim that the entire world is corrupt.
This month, Mr. Trump employed the technique of whataboutism when he was asked about his admiration for Mr. Putin, whom the host Bill O’Reilly called “a killer.” “You got a lot of killers,” responded Mr. Trump. “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” To an American ear, Mr. Trump’s statement was jarring — not because Americans believe their country to be “innocent” but because they have always relied on a sort of aspirational hypocrisy to understand the country. No American politician in living memory has advanced the idea that the entire world, including the United States, was rotten to the core.”
Gessen and Arendt are not arguing that we should welcome hypocrisy as a sign of good government. On the contrary, excessive hypocrisy is a sure indicator of a corrupt moral and governmental environment. But Arendt understood that hypocrisy is “the complement that vice pays to virtue.” At the very least, the hypocrite upholds the public face of virtuous government. While the hypocrite may think and act differently outside the glare of the public, the need to at least keep the mask of hypocrisy believable sets a limit to the actions of the hypocrite.
What is more, we all wear masks in public. The word “hypocrisy” is from the Greek for a play actor. It is one who wears a mask, as did the Greek actors in ancient tragedies. Similarly, the word “person” was a legal term in ancient Rome indicating those who were legal citizens. It literally means “those in whom the law sounds through.” To be a citizen is to wear a mask of legality and to be someone who, whatever his or her private thoughts and failings, must act a certain way in public and, in return, receives certain public rights and considerations. Thus, all persons are hypocrites.
The politics of anti-hypocrisy is hugely compelling, to tear off the masks of corruption and expose the elite as corrupt and deceptive. The danger of unmasking is a political strategy, however, is that we come to accept as true and real the ugly truth of what had long been hidden by the mask of hypocrisy.
The Power Writer
Robert Caro explains how he came to write books about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.
“I loved being a reporter. I loved finding out about how things really worked and trying to explain them in my stories, and I became more and more interested in politics because I was starting to feel that it was important to explain political power. The paper assigned me to cover this bridge that Robert Moses wanted to build. The bridge was supposed to run from Oyster Bay to Rye. I can’t remember the details, but it would have required something like six more lanes on the Long Island Expressway just to handle the traffic. And the bridge itself would be so big that the piers on which it crossed Long Island Sound would have disrupted the tidal flow and caused pollution.
The bridge was still years away, but there was some minor measure, a bill or appropriation or feasibility study, perhaps, pertaining to it that Moses needed to keep the project moving forward. I went up to Albany, I saw Governor Rockefeller, I had a long session with his counsel. I saw the assembly speaker, a guy named Tony Travia, and I saw the president of the state Senate, Joseph Zaretzki. They all understood that this bridge was just a terrible idea.
So I went back and told my editor, The bill is dead. And then a couple of months later, a friend in Albany called me and said, Robert Moses was up here yesterday. You better come back up. And I drove back up there and walked into the assembly chamber just as they were approving the bill by a huge majority.
See, before that, I had written articles on politicians, investigative pieces, and I had won a couple of journalism awards. They were really minor awards, but when you’re young and you win any award, you think you know everything. So I thought I was accomplishing my purpose, which was to explain political power to my readers. But driving home from Albany to Roslyn that night, all the way I kept thinking, Everything you’ve been writing is bullshit, because everything you’ve been writing is based on the belief that political power comes from the ballot box, from being elected. Here was Robert Moses, a guy who was never elected to anything, and he came up to Albany for one day and changed the entire state government around, from the governor to the assembly. How did he have the power to do that? You have no idea and neither does anybody else. I said to myself, If you really want to explain political power, you’re going to have to understand that. So I decided to apply for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to study urban planning, and I got it. I was taking a course taught by two professors who had written a textbook on urban land-use planning, and they were explaining why highways get built, where they get built, and they were explaining it as if it were a mathematical equation, and with every class, they added a couple of factors—population density, grade elevations, things like that. Totally rational. I would sit there diligently taking notes, and then one day I suddenly said to myself, This is all wrong. They don’t know why highways get built where they’re built, and I do. They get built where they’re built because Robert Moses wants them built there.”
Righting An Old Wrong
“One of the interesting things about Beckmann is how much the paintings moved and morphed under him. The form of the triptych was arrived at adventitiously; he simply had more material than could be fitted onto one canvas. Colours shifted all the time. In the course of five months, the portrait of Quappi went from ‘green and blue’ to ‘green, black and yellow’ to ‘blue, green and yellow’ to the final ‘grey’. The seated figure, outlined in black, upright, smoking, arms and legs crossed, is wearing an elegant pale grey hat and coat, against a green, round-shouldered chair and a grey and brown panelled wall. Earth colours, nature colours. The curve of necklace, ear and chin, the gleaming hair breaking on the shoulders, the bend of the arms and the endless drape of the long-fingered hands with crimson nail-varnish: it’s as lovely as anything by Matisse or Modigliani. Objects – Beckmann had a positively theatrical way with ‘speaking’ props and costumes – and expressions were there one day, gone the next: a smile, a raised forefinger. A circus trapeze gives way to a flugelhorn; a ‘Leda and the Swan’ is made over into the exquisitely provocative Woman with Mandolin in Yellow and Red.
In some way, these paintings are not copied from any reality, not Platonic approaches, or aspirations towards any ‘ideal’ scene, so much as improvised solutions to self-set problems of structure and colour. Plaza (Hotel Lobby) of 1950, one of very few New York subjects painted by Beckmann in his time there (and no exteriors), may look like a stained-glass rendering of a jam-packed subway scene, but basically it dramatises the rhythmic return of an orangey red – in a fez, a woman’s hat, a man’s face, a woman’s hair – while the tonic green appears in two versions, jade and a yellowish pea-green, strong and weak, at the top and bottom of the picture…
Structurally, or formally, it is striking that so many of the pictures are in longish formats, in many cases further narrowed by vertical framing devices, drapes or ladders or unspecified blinkering blocks of colour or a zigzagging pattern. We see things in Beckmann’s pictures as though through closing elevator doors or theatre curtains. An image is barely retrieved: imperilled, exalted, made precious by its height. And then, as Rilke says in ‘The Panther’, it is fetched into the heart and abruptly ceases to exist.”
Growing Up Absurd
Reacting both to the increasingly bizarre political cultures emerging around the world after last year’s populist wave, and the nativist and nationalist undercurrents guiding those waves, Anjuli Raza Kolb turns to Palestinian novelist Emile Habiby to find a way through:
“There is a word that has been hovering around me like a familiar since the morning after the U.S. presidential election. It comes from the title of the Palestinian novelist and politician Emile Habiby’s bizarre and wonderful 1974 book, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (al-mutasha’il, a mashup of mutafa’il [optimism] and mutasha’im [pessimism]). Through the oxymoronic condition of pessoptimism, the novel—which Edward Said styled the national epic of Palestine—describes life for a fairly ordinary Arab on and across the borders of Israel, roughly from the Nakba in 1948 through the June War of 1967. The facts of this ordinary life for Saeed, whose first name means “happy,” include separation from his family, a politically expedient marriage arranged by a party boss, a stint in jail for overzealous loyalty to the Israeli state, the loss of his child and wife, multiple relocations, forced anti-communist spying, the constant threat of expulsion, the stripping of rights, and, most importantly, a radical, deranging solitude…
In light of the recent resurgence of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee sentiment in the West, and the consequences of the immigration ban, I have come to think of the Pessoptimist as an archetype of those who stay and survive in inhospitable places, by noble and ignoble means, and necessarily compromise themselves in the process of fighting for justice even within a state or system of states they wish to dismantle. Saeed’s letters give us no recommendation for party politics, no blueprint for reform. They recount a withdrawal from rights-based life and its uneven distribution. They inhabit a mode of non-futurity, of dispersal and fugitivity, an oscillation between ungovernable presence within the state and a total absence of being.
If we take the unlucky Saeed as a model, the tragic absurdity of autocracy and its capricious hypocrisies can only be survived in forms of life that are equally improvisatory and often nonsensical. In Saeed’s case, it is a kind of babbling toward justice—an insistence on being, and making a record of one’s being over time, letters sent to nowhere that declare the horror of each event with undiminished astonishment, embodying the kind of dummy Theodor Adorno accused Walter Benjamin of being, perhaps admiringly: an astonished presenter of mere fact.”
Madness and Civilization
This week, as the psychiatrist who chaired the committee that put together the DSM IV writes to the New York Times to say that we need to stop diagnosing President Trump as mentally ill, (sound advice; along similar lines, we also need to stop reacting to the President’s actions by saying “this is not normal”) W.J.T Mitchell turns his thoughts to whether all of society has lost its mind:
“I want to turn now to a question that I’m sure has been troubling you throughout my remarks so far: Is my use of the language of madness simply a rhetorical tool, an instrument of polemic? Is it nothing more than the usual litany of insults and accusations (i.e., you’re crazy, foolish, ignorant, a lunatic, an idiot, a moron, out of your mind, deranged, deluded, hallucinating)? Or does it have real potential as a way of analyzing a mentality, a style of thinking and feeling that is resistant to persuasion, but might be susceptible of understanding? It is one of the characteristics of an epochal moment like this that it is going to be very difficult to distinguish rational analysis from polemic. It may in fact be the case that there are times in history when reason and outrage have to converge, and the whole liberal style of calm deliberation and the comfort of long views will seem radically inadequate. My colleague Lauren Berlant has diagnosed our moment as one of “flailing” between genres, as if we don’t even know how to narrate our present moment. Marx thought that history could repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. But what if a moment in history feels like tragedy and farce at the same time? To be adequate to such a moment, we may have to flail about a bit, to be experimental with our genres, and to remember that flailing is not only a metaphor for aimless thrashing about, but also an actual tool of the harvest, an instrument for separating the wheat from the chaff, for threshing as well as thrashing.
Accordingly, I have adopted as my critical flail in this essay (criticism, by the way, comes from the Greek word for division or separation) the framework of collective psychology — more precisely, the discourse of madness and psychosis, and more specifically, an American psychosis peculiar to the history of our nation. As a student of visual culture, I see the category of collective psychosis, not merely as a discursive label, but as an optic, what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a mode of “seeing as,” or “aspect seeing.” Like any optic, it will see some things clearly, and will also be vulnerable to blind spots. For now, however, it seems like a productive framework for analyzing a crazy moment in history.
This is especially true when the language of insanity is everywhere in the vernacular of American politics. Partly, this everyday language of insanity can be attributed to the shock of surprise; and then, the unveiling of the awful truth: He was not kidding. He was not being metaphorical. The unthinkable has happened. He is insane. This is insane. But rather than dismiss this media chatter as hyperbolic or decry it as ableist, I want to take it seriously as a symptom of an underlying disorder in our democracy. “
Describing how reconciling herself to her disabilities following a bicycle accident that left her partially paralyzed led her to embrace both grief and melancholy, Christina Crosby considers the power of grief to mobilize worldly action:
“Like physical pain, the mental pain of mourning is also singular, yours alone. I have discovered that my attachment to life is attenuated and is likely to remain so as my physical difficulties increase with aging. I am glad, then, that memories of my life before the accident are vital enough to return me in my imagination to those earlier days. My pleasures were so embodied, and I was so alive to my pleasure! I can still feel kayaking—how I initiated the force of each paddle stroke by driving from my feet through the torque of my hips and torso, and the simultaneous push and pull of my arms. How I kept my balance and the deep, absorbing satisfaction of physical effort and skill. These memories that afford pleasure can, of course, quickly sharpen into the pain of loss. Yet the pleasure is real, and I’m committed to memory. I carry with me the body I once was, and I will not lay my burden down, because to be disburdened of the past would leave me utterly bereft.
To some working in the field of disability studies or active in the movement, public discussions of grief and pain are unwise… activists and scholars alike have turned to pride as a counter to condescension. Pride announces a fundamental rethinking of received ideas about disability. Being differently embodied, scholars argue, gives you a conceptual lever forceful enough to displace the fixed negativity of dis/ability. “Crip pride” breaks decisively, and derisively, with the idea that disability is by definition in need of a cure. You announce not only that disabled bodyminds are by no means inferior, but also that anomalous embodiment can afford a singular, necessary apprehension of the world. Sexual pleasures, for instance, unfold in extended time and may require forethought and planning for their execution and enjoyment. The expansive understanding of human sexuality afforded by disability picks up certain aspects of queer sexuality—both are life-affirming in their perverse indifference to phallic normality…
I am not proud; I’m angry. I want to live my life freed of barriers to mobility, freed of anxieties about capacities, and I want that freedom for everyone. Sustained by grief, and carrying with me in memory the body that I once was, I want radical changes. Why not imagine, and then demand, universal access everywhere? I’m ready to march with others insisting on universal access, the universal design necessary for that access, and a revolutionary respect for all bodyminds. I need curb cuts everywhere now, and subway elevators that always work—as does anyone pushing a stroller or grocery cart. In fact, everybody surges through those curb cuts every time the walk light flashes at an intersection in Manhattan. No one is impeded; all have access. That’s why it’s called universal design.
The radical claim of militancy and mourning is that you are not required to set aside the messy, dark, grieving, perverse, incapacitated, angry, or shameful parts of yourself to be admitted to the public world.”
A Divided World
Sarah Stillman considers the photography of Peter van Agtmaeil, which focuses on the fissures on American culture:
“With this new book, we take another step closer, to see American violence in even more subtle, less studied forms; these images could be layered over van Agtmael’s past work like a decoder ring. There are multiple photographs of children with weapons: a boy, in Kentucky, who presses a toy pistol to his throat on a quiet porch; two brothers with BB guns, in Louisiana, who trek across a gorgeous landscape, hunting rabbits. The book ends with an image of toy soldiers and plastic pistols from van Agtmael’s own boyhood bedroom, where he first cultivated his obsession with war.
Alongside the intimate origins of conflict, “Buzzing at the Sill” explores a related theme: racial and class-based traumas, and how they leave their marks on both landscapes and bodies. We see the tattered vestiges of a Choctaw allotment in Hugo, Oklahoma, after the tribe was forcibly expelled along the Trail of Tears. We find a young black man in Atlanta who works hard to pursue a master’s degree in African studies, even as student debt confines him to a ramshackle boarding house with six other men in states of transience. Many miles away, on a South Dakota reservation where the unemployment rate nears eighty per cent, another young man is shown being placed under arrest. At a K.K.K. rally in Maryland, in 2015, van Agtmael reveals in his text, Klansmen decried ISIS training camps that they said were created by the United Nations and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and referred to the President only as “Barry Soetoro,” the surname of Obama’s stepfather.
Whiteness is up for unusual examination here. To be “white” has never been a coherent conceit, and “Buzzing at the Sill” catalogues its many American permutations. One mesmerizing photo comes from the annual Kentucky Derby festivities, where a crew of well-manicured white youths looks scornfully at the photographer, as he attempts to capture their drunken revelries. In his text, van Agtmael writes of growing up in a mostly white, upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., where he was “surrounded by people who benefited from the American dream,” and acknowledges that he “didn’t particularly question it.” He recalls watching the verdict of the O. J. Simpson trial in high school, and the cheers that erupted from a small handful of black students when “not guilty” came across the screen. “When a few white students began grousing that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice,” he writes, “a black student replied, ‘Like the past four hundred years of our history.””
Posted on 19 February 2017 | 9:00 am
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