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Amor Mundi: Feminist Toughs

Feminist Toughs

Jacquelyn Ardam writes about a study of tough women, and is particularly taken with the toughness of Hannah Arendt.

“Now seems like a particularly important time to be thinking about what it means to be both tough and a woman. Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough is a useful guide to a particular kind of toughness — toughness not just as a form of resilience, but toughness as a moral, ethical, and aesthetic stance in the face of pain and suffering. Considering the works of an eclectic collection of female subjects who cross disciplinary boundaries — Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion — Nelson affirms toughness (which she defines as coldness and lack of emotional expressivity) as more than just an aspect of their public personas. In particular, Nelson explores the ways that each figure conceives of the moral and ethical imperatives of unsentimentality as the only adequate response to the traumas that mark the 20th and 21st centuries….

Nelson traces a similar reaction to painful reality in her other subjects, most powerfully in her reading of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). The book was controversial for a number of reasons: for its claims that Nazi Adolf Eichmann was not a monster or sociopath but rather “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” and for its unemotional, matter-of-fact, often ironic tone. That Arendt herself was a German Jew who fled from the Nazis seems incongruous with Eichmann’s argument and aesthetic. But Nelson closely reads a number of passages of the text and traces the ways in which Arendt’s rhetoric — particularly her irony and “abrupt understatement” — undercuts Eichmann’s account of his actions during the Holocaust. “It is not that Arendt denies this story its horror,” Nelson observes, “but rather that she attempts to suggest its horror by not dwelling on it, instead letting the rhythm of her prose convey the weight of the evidence.” By focusing on evidence over feelings, on facts over emotions, Nelson finds that Arendt “insist[s] on facing painful reality as the price not only of sharing the world with others in their plurality but of having any world at all left to share.” For Arendt, it is not Eichmann’s lack of emotion, but his lack of thought that enabled his many crimes. To face facts, to face reality — the only ethical response to the Holocaust for Arendt — requires critical thinking, questioning, and judgment. Without these, we are no better than Eichmann.”

Silver Words in Dark Clouds

Liberal arts majors rejoice! Francine Prose admires the close attention paid to very specific details of language in last week’s James Comey hearings, which means that close reading, it turns out, is a potentially useful skill if you want to go into politics:

“Among the many riveting aspects of James Comey’s June 8 testimony under oath before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was the opportunity to observe the senators and the former FBI director discuss the precise meaning of critical words and phrases. Perhaps their efforts might have seemed less unusual, less necessary, and (at least to me) less moving had we not witnessed, in recent months, the emergence of an impoverished and debased public discourse: cryptic, incoherent, evasive, designed to prevaricate, insult, threaten—and inclined to ramble senselessly off topic. One measure of our frustration with Donald Trump’s disregard for clarity and truth was the avidity with which the public seized on his tweeted typo: “the negative press covfefe” had, as it were, spelled out the problem at last.

Yet those who fear that our society had ceased to care about language might take comfort in the committee’s strenuous attempt to parse what Trump meant by two seemingly simple words: “I hope.””

Gender Trouble

Former FBI Director James Comey takes his seat to testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday

Speaking of Comey and the parsing of words, Bonnie Honig notes an insidious undertone to the Comey hearings:

“During the hearing on Thursday morning, Comey’s feminization was only a subtext but many women watching were aware of it. In her New York Times op-ed, Nicole Serratore notes that it was like watching the interrogation of a woman who has accused a man of sexual harassment. In fact, several of the questions, posed to Comey on Thursday, were almost identical to those asked of Anita Hill, at another famous Senate hearing about how best to respond to a boss’s improper behavior. Why did you keep coming into work even after you say he made you feel uncomfortable? Why did you take no action at the time? Are you sure he really meant that? You said you didn’t want to be left alone with him again but then you took his phone calls. In the words of Senator Blunt, “So. . . . why didn’t you say, ‘I’m not taking that call. You need to talk to the attorney general’?” Senator Feinstein also expressed surprise at Comey’s failure to live up to the demands of masculinity:  “You’re big, you’re strong,” she said: “why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong—I cannot discuss that with you’?” (As if that would have made a difference.)

In all these questions, one key question is repeated:

Why should we believe you?

The problem for Comey is that the only way he knows to answer this last question is—reasonably enough—by reference to himself, his identity, his history, his principles, his agency. On Thursday, though, he demurred. His mother did not raise him to crow about himself. This demurral obliquely asserts the thing he refuses to say about himself: he is a good man. But once feminized, can he still say that? Be that? His efforts to defend himself may start to sound, well, defensive; his insistence on his integrity is easily cast as self-absorption; and his reliance on the support of old friends can seem needy. Gender has a slippery way of recoding everything. Before you know it, the authority that let you publicly chide Hillary Clinton for email carelessness is gone. Suddenly you have gone from being the head of one of the most powerful security apparatuses in the world to being a “showboat,” another 1950s supper-club word. It can happen to anyone. Just ask Sean Spicer.”

Et Tu?

Liberals on college campuses have been protesting against allowing conservatives to speak. And conservatives have wrapped themselves in the mantel of free speech. Now Lois Beckett considers the scandal of the Public Theatre’s new production of “Julius Caesar” featuring a “blond Julius Caesar … with a red tie and a svelte wife with a Slovenian accent.” For those who know the play, Caesar is assassinated. This has caused outrage amongst conservatives and the withdrawal of major corporate sponsorships. And suggests once again that meaningful support for free speech is endangered on all sides of the political spectrum.

“For anyone who has seen the Public’s production – or read Julius Caesar – the message is not particularly ambiguous. Julius Caesar is not a pro-assassination play.

“Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone,” a Public Theater spokeswoman said in a statement. “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.

“We stand completely behind our production,” the theater’s statement noted, adding that heated discussion and debate “is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy”.

Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespeare scholar at Harvard University, said: “What’s kind of amusing, in a slightly grim way, about this is to have Julius Caesar of all things suddenly the point at which the right can no longer endure free expression, which they’ve been hollering for … Every time they send out a crazy provocateur on campus, they go bonkers if there are protests.”

The point of the play, Greenblatt said, is that it can be dangerous to get what you think you want – and that the assassination of a hated leader “could bring an end to the very republic you’re trying to save”.”


Jim Rutenberg interviewed Alex Jones—the conspiracy theorist who argued 9/11 was carried out by the US government and that the Sandy Hook shooting massacre was staged by gun-control activists—and suffered little for it. He now speaks with Megyn Kelly who will be interviewing Jones on her show tonight. Kelly’s as-of-yet-unseen interview has caused protests and the withdrawal of advertisers. For many of Kelly’s critics, giving Jones a platform to speak is wrong. There are at least two separate issues. First, will Kelly do a good job of challenging Jones’ lies and debunked conspiracies? Second, is it important for the mainstream media to hear and respond to Jones’ brand of vile and defactualized rants? We don’t yet know the answer to the first question, but Rutenberg argues that Alex Jones needs to be heard, while also acknowledging the pain and disgust his wanton lies can cause.

“What we do as journalists is we shine a light on those with power, those with influence, those who have become culturally relevant,” she said. “Of course, it’s upsetting to know that doing that causes any upset to the Newtown families, many of whom I know well. But I have to do my job.”

Mr. Jones, she noted, has found new prominence in the Trump era. He’s gaining in popularity and, perhaps more important, has back-channel communications with the president of the United States, who has been known to espouse some of his theories….

“Too many people expect their media to choose sides,” Ms. Kelly said. “They want ‘evisceration journalism,’ and I think there are a lot of people who are very angry that Donald Trump is president and a lot of people who believe Alex Jones played a large role in it,” which, she said, she wouldn’t disagree with.

The broader goal of Ms. Kelly’s segment on Mr. Jones, she said, was to explore, “his influence and his — for lack of a better term — method for putting information together to figure out how he got to be so important in the president’s world, in millions of people’s world”….

So, where do I come down?

You can’t argue with the journalistic imperative; that’s why I interviewed Mr. Jones myself. As Ms. Kelly told me, while people may wish Mr. Jones didn’t exist, “he does exist and his influence is growing exponentially.”

At the same time, you can’t argue with the pain of the families of Newtown. The continuing, outrageous questions about the biggest tragedy that could befall any of us only worsens and prolongs the suffering.”

The Paranoid Style

Charles J. Sykes makes the case for taking Alex Jones seriously.

“His impact is not so much his bizarre individual conspiracy theories but that his style of righteous rage infects and, in some cases, dominates the political rhetoric on the right. Not all conservatives who read Infowars buy his outlandish theories; many seem to simply enjoy the theater and the anguish inflicted on the “swamp dwellers” targeted by Mr. Jones and his trolls.

The dirty secret of many conservatives is that they never admit to actually reading Mr. Jones’s ranting, but they also never publicly denounce him.

For years, we imagined that we could simply ignore the crackpots because they were postcards from the fringe. But I’m haunted by this question: Had we done more to expose the viciously dishonest hoaxes, might things have turned out differently?

At one time, the responsible gatekeepers of the conservative movement would have excommunicated Mr. Jones. Back in the 1960s, William F. Buckley Jr. famously used his immense authority to cast out the John Birch Society. Had something similar happened, and Mr. Jones had been exposed as the lunatic charlatan he is, perhaps not even Donald Trump would have deigned to be associated with him.

Mr. Jones peddles weapons-grade nut-jobbery, but he has been promoted by the Drudge Report, one of the most heavily trafficked media websites in the country, and may have played a key role in the 2016 presidential campaign. “I think Alex Jones may be the single most important voice in the alternative conservative media,” Mr. Trump’s friend and adviser Roger Stone said in an interview last fall.

Mr. Jones, Matt Drudge and President Trump himself have played a role in reviving what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Reread in light of today’s politics, Hofstadter’s 1964 essay seems eerily prescient.

The paranoid spokesman, he wrote, saw the world “in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.”

At the center of the paranoid worldview, Hofstadter wrote, was a sense on the right that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Since the situation is so dire and the stakes so high, the paranoid spokesman is not interested in half-measures. “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician,” Hofstadter wrote.”

Drawing With Light

Max Nelson reviews the films of revered American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, taking note of a particular moment when he turned the camera on his own family:

“By the mid-Eighties, when he’d settled in Boulder, Colorado to live, work, and teach, Brakhage was increasingly dispensing with the camera in favor of glorious hand-painted displays he applied to the film frame-by-frame. (In these cases, figurative footage occasionally still appeared in odd and unexpected settings—one section of The Dante Quartet was painted over what Brakhage identified as “a worn-out 70mm print of Irma la Douce.”) From then until his death in 2003 he was one of his country’s most revered experimental filmmakers. That the manipulation and processing by hand of 16mm film is still a dominant practice in American avant-garde cinema—from the otherwise disparate work of filmmakers like Phil Solomon, David Gatten, and Mary Helena Clark to the output of the Brooklyn-based collective Mono No Aware—has much to do with the enduring influence of Brakhage’s approach to dissecting light onscreen.

As his reputation and influence grew, Brakhage kept working at a compulsive pace. (In the Fifties and Sixties, to support his family, he had expanded his prodigious output still further to include TV spots for an electrical company, industrial shorts, and state-sponsored films like Pittsburgh and Colorado Legend.) He made his last movies, the calligraphic Chinese Series (2003), from his sickbed, scoring the film strips with his fingernails and softening them with spit. Watching Brakhage’s films, you feel something close to awe at the range of textures and depths of excitement he found in the most commonplace situations. The transporting sixty-seven-minute Text of Light (1974) came entirely from footage of the refraction of the sun’s beams in an ashtray.

This is not a sensibility that would seem to lend itself to making home movies, and there is a disquieting tension in many of the films Brakhage made about his family during his first marriage. He had a powerful impulse—one that extended less often to people outside his home—to film his wife Jane and their five children. He more than once filmed Jane giving birth, turned their arguments and lovemaking into cinematic subjects, embellished his footage of their life in rural Colorado with wild superimposed images drawn from Norse mythology, and—in the Eighties—made pained films about their separation and divorce. But the moment he turned his camera on his family they, too, became concentrations of light whose “qualities and varieties” he could study. The films he made of them shine with love and tenderness and at the same time suggest an odd disregard for the recipients of that love.”

Deep Water Ports

Samira Shackle visits Gwadar in Balochistan, a region in Pakistan that is undergoing rapid transformation because of a Chinese-funded project to build a big international port that would give both China and Pakistan easier access to global markets. Shackle travels with a delegation led by the Pakistani military, which argues that development will make Gwadar safe from the insurgency surrounding it in Balochistan. The grand claim is that Gwadar’s transformation will catapult a remote part of Pakistan in a province wracked by war into a cosmopolitan center, to make “Gwadar will be a place of consequence.”” China will get enormous access to Gwadar’s rich natural resources. And Pakistan, beyond its economic benefit, sees the Gwadar port as part of its nationalist war against subnational insurgents.

“Suddenly, an enormous octopus was projected onto the screen in the conference room, large lettering at the end of its tentacles reading “NATIONALISM” and “SUBNATIONALISM.”

“We need to know what we are up against,” said the army official. “Lack of integration is the cause of internal disturbances in Balochistan. These grievances have been exploited by subnationalists. Today things are much better. Balochistan is all set to exploit its full potential!”

The octopus remained, gormlessly and inexplicably beamed up onto the screen, as the official explained that through nationalism—promoting the love of Pakistan and a singular Pakistani identity for everyone—subnationalism could be defeated. Subnationalism, he explained, was a destructive force, selling the fictitious idea that people should identify more strongly as Baloch than as Pakistani. “The subnationalist narrative blames Punjab for deprivation and illiteracy,” he said. “Subnationalist actors abroad are involved in the exploitation of the common man, using him as fodder while enjoying affluent lives abroad.”

The octopus disappeared to make way for a video clip of a huge Independence Day event held at a stadium in Quetta, the provincial capital. “It was a conflict zone, but now things are much improved,” said a smiling woman in a colorful hijab.

“We have a slogan,” the official continued. “It is, ‘Long live Balochistan, long live Pakistan!’ This has taken the wind out of the sails of the subnationalists.””


Matthew Shaer profiles Chelsea Manning, the recently released former Army Intelligence soldier who leaked an enormous cache of Afghanistan and Iraq War documents to Wikileaks. Reviewing Manning’s circumstances, Shaer recognizes that sometimes world changing acts are undertaken for deeply personal reasons:

“Absent her own voice, a pair of dueling narratives had emerged. One had Manning, in the words of President Donald Trump, as an “ungrateful traitor.” The other positioned her as transgender icon and champion of transparency — a “secular martyr,” as Chase Madar, a former attorney and the author of a book on her case, recently put it to me. But in Manning’s presence, both narratives feel like impossible simplifications, not least because Manning herself is clearly still grappling with the meaning of what she did seven years ago. When I asked her to draw lessons from her journey, she grew uneasy. “I don’t have. … ” she started. “Like, I’ve been so busy trying to survive for the past seven years that I haven’t focused on that at all.”

But surely, I pressed, she must have some sense of the impact she had on the world. “From my perspective,” she responded, “the world’s shaped me more than anything else. It’s a feedback loop.”…

It occurred to me that if Manning sometimes seemed to have difficulty interpreting the effect her actions had on the world, it was in part a result of the extraordinary isolation she had experienced even before her arrest, in her childhood in Crescent, when she longed for a solution for her pain. Later, in solitary in Kuwait or Quantico, or in the special housing unit at the U.S.D.B., that isolation had been made physical: The “feedback loop” she had spoken of to me had been torn. Now she had the ability to live publicly and openly as she always knew she was, and she was adjusting to the idea, sinking into it as if it were a cold pond. More than once, as we walked the streets of New York, I felt I was in the presence of someone coming fully alive for the very first time. Manning told me she understood that her identity and the actions that led to her arrest have long been tangled up in the public imagination, sometimes in uncomfortable ways: An appellate brief filed last year by Manning’s legal team implied that the Army’s inability to treat Manning’s gender dysphoria was a contributing factor in the leaks. Manning didn’t want to discuss “hypotheticals,” what would have happened if circumstances were different, but she was adamant on one thing: “What I can tell you,” she said, “is that my values would have been the same. The things I care about would have been the same.””

Posted on 18 June 2017 | 9:30 am

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