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Amor Mundi: The Power of Lies

The Power of Lies

Robert Cottrel offers an account of why an autocrat lies.

“Putin lies as a display of power. Only powerful people can lie and get away with it. The more blatant the lie, the greater the show of power when your listener cannot or dare not contradict you.

It’s easy to see why Stone puts up with being lied to. He needs Putin’s indulgence to make the series. The harder question is why Putin made so much time for Stone, given that Putin has a country to run.

You have to assume that Putin enjoys Stone’s company, at least initially. Putin seems to have a thing for big old bruisers, given his history with Gerard Depardieu and Steven Seagal, perhaps because they are so much the antithesis of his trim, wiry, well-pressed self. And perhaps Putin was genuinely hoping to learn something from the process. The intelligent autocrat must always be open to new ideas for increasing his power and wealth.

But Stone does not have much to offer, and Putin cannot help but run rings around him for three of the four interviews. In the final part, with no more access left to lose, Stone makes a show of badgering Putin about whether Russia hacked the 2016 US presidential election; and Putin obliges by seeming a bit ruffled. But no serious harm is done, and Putin gets equal time to argue that the US has interfered in Russian elections for many years by funding opposition movements.

Putin is a persuasive speaker because his arguments are internally coherent once you accept his premise that Russia always means well. There is also Putin’s mastery of detail. He is probably the world’s best-informed person about Russia. Of course he is—he needs to know all the facts in order to depart from them.”


All The President's Lies

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

All politicians lie and truth, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, has never been considered a political virtue. And yet, when a politician lies with abandon it means that he simply feels unconstrained by reality; he imagines himself powerful enough to be free from the constraints of what is. Thus it is worth reading through the list of dozens upon dozens of lies Trump has told since being inaugurated. A list of the President’s lies was published this week in the New York Times.

“President Trump’s political rise was built on a lie (about Barack Obama’s birthplace). His lack of truthfulness has also become central to the Russia investigation, with James Comey, the former director of the F.B.I., testifying under oath about Trump’s “lies, plain and simple.”

There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. Every president has shaded the truth or told occasional whoppers. No other president — of either party — has behaved as Trump is behaving. He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.

We have set a conservative standard here, leaving out many dubious statements (like the claim that his travel ban is “similar” to Obama administration policy). Some people may still take issue with this standard, arguing that the president wasn’t speaking literally. But we believe his long pattern of using untruths to serve his purposes, as a businessman and politician, means that his statements are not simply careless errors.

We are using the word “lie” deliberately. Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naïveté to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.”


Welcoming The Critic

Adam Kirsch reminds us that openness to criticism is at the heart of political culture.

“But there is a danger when we see criticism as nothing but an expression of resentment. For in politics, as in art, the right to criticize is really the right to make an independent judgment of reality. Democracy relies on a citizenry informed and active enough to make such judgments; in a democracy, we are all critics. This pluralism is always frustrating to politicians, just as it is to artists, because both tend to believe so implicitly in their own sincerity and good will that they come to perceive opposition as mere obstinacy. In his Liberty University speech, Trump also said that “the system is broken. A small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think.” Why not simply sweep those voices aside, the way every creator must silence inner and outer doubts?

This is a standing temptation for democratic politics, and it was one of the chief appeals of fascism. A common theme of fascist propaganda was that parliaments were “talking-shops,” where speechmaking and idle criticism made effective action impossible. The promise of fascism was to replace plurality by unity — “one people, one state, one leader,” in the words of the Nazi slogan — thus making debate unnecessary. The problem, of course, is that plurality — the existence of profoundly different points of view on questions of morality and politics — can never simply disappear. It must be actively suppressed, which is why Communist and fascist states that emphasized the unity of the people’s will relied so heavily on secret police forces.

How to live with criticism is perhaps the hardest lesson that a liberal democracy teaches its citizens. No one really welcomes it, neither the left nor the right. “If we are free to loathe Trump, we are free to loathe his most loyal voters,” wrote Frank Rich in New York magazine in March, a sentiment that would be heartily reciprocated by readers of Breitbart. But as soon as our critics become our enemies — voices to be silenced and dismissed, rather than listened to — we have left the realm of politics behind.”


Searching For The White Working Class

John Zogby writes that ” The Democrats have clearly lost a connection with real people.” He offers some advice. Number One, he writes, is stop talking about the White Working class as if it were some aboriginal society they have just discovered.

“The White Working Class – one sure way to lose a key voting group is to impose a moniker on them that they themselves eschew. This term turns voters into a “them” not an “us”. Recently, the party and one of its important think tanks held a forum of pollsters and consultants on how to win back “TWWC”. Each paper spoke as if these were aliens, simple folks, people who under normal circumstances – i.e. “properly educated” – could become Democrats. The tone was patience for lesser brothers and sisters who are not enlightened. They can come around if “we learn how to talk to them”. For an elitist party, communications is always about “talking”, not “listening”. First of all, Democrats have to accept that not everyone agrees with their positions on everything and there are probably some good reasons. Lots of people go to a place of worship every week, or live in a town where Democrats may be corrupt, or they believe in older more traditional values. Second, a party that wants to lead needs to understand that it must address the aspirations of people, not engage in persuasion while sitting on a perch.”


Getting Under Your Skin

Open Casket, by Dana Schutz

Zadie Smith looks at two recent artworks that provoke by showing white people taking on black suffering—”Get Out” by Jordan Peele and “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz. Smith understands the pain of what is now called cultural appropriation: “A people from whom so much has been stolen are understandably protective of their possessions, especially the ineffable kind. In these debates my mind always turns to a line of Nabokov, a writer for whom arrival in America meant the loss of pretty much everything, including a language: “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?”” And yet, Smith offers a powerful and nuanced response that allows for and embraces the uncomfortable effort to get under each other’s skin. 

“I stood with my children in front of Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, the black teenager who, in 1955, was beaten and lynched after being accused of flirting with a white woman. My children did not know what they were looking at and were too young for me to explain. Before I came, I had read the widely circulated letter to the curators of the Whitney Biennial objecting to their inclusion of this painting:

I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum … because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.

I knew, from reading about this debate, that in fact the painting had never been for sale, so I focused instead on the other prong of the argument—an artist’s right to a particular subject. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.”

I want to follow the letter very precisely, along its own logic, in which natural rights are replaced with racial ones. I will apply it personally. If were an artist, and if I could paint—could the subject matter be mine? I am biracial. I have Afro-hair, my skin is brown, I am identified, by others and by myself, as a black woman. And so, by the logic of the letter—if I understand it correctly—this question of subject matter, in my case, would not come up, as it would not come up for the author of the letter, Hannah Black, who also happens to be biracial, and brown. Neither of us is American, but the author appears to speak confidently in defense of the African-American experience, so I, like her, will assume a transnational unity. I will assume that Emmett Till, if I could paint, could be my subject too.

Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern? Their grandmother—raised on a postcolonial island, in extreme poverty, descended from slaves—knew black suffering intimately. But her grandchildren look white. Are they? If they are, shouldn’t white people like my children concern themselves with the suffering of Emmett Till? Is making art a form of concern? Does it matter which form the concern takes? Could they be painters of occasional black subjects? (Dana Schutz paints many subjects.) Or must their concern take a different form: civil rights law, public-school teaching? If they ignore the warnings of the letter and take black suffering as their subject in a work of art, what should be the consequence? If their painting turns out to be a not especially distinguished expression of or engagement with their supposed concern, must it be removed from wherever it hangs? Destroyed? To what purpose?”

Smith understands the impulse to protect the Black experience. “But in this moment of resurgent black consciousness, God knows it feels good—therapeutic!—to mark a clear separation from white America, the better to speak in a collective voice. We will not be moved.” And yet she insists that such a clear separation is not only impossible, but counter productive.

“We have been warned not to get under one another’s skin, to keep our distance. But Jordan Peele’s horror-fantasy—in which we are inside one another’s skin and intimately involved in one another’s suffering—is neither a horror nor a fantasy. It is a fact of our experience. The real fantasy is that we can get out of one another’s way, make a clean cut between black and white, a final cathartic separation between us and them. For the many of us in loving, mixed families, this is the true impossibility. There are people online who seem astounded that Get Out was written and directed by a man with a white wife and a white mother, a man who may soon have—depending on how the unpredictable phenotype lottery goes—a white-appearing child. But this is the history of race in America. Families can become black, then white, then black again within a few generations. And even when Americans are not genetically mixed, they live in a mixed society at the national level if no other. There is no getting out of our intertwined history.”


Better Than Censorship

Suzanne Nossel argues against the conflation of speech and violence.

“On the left, theorists have long posited a porous boundary between speech and violence, and the linkage hit the mainstream in Toni Morrison’s 1993 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence,” she said. “It is violence.” Taken literally, Morrison’s analogy is obviously false. One way to interpret her remark is as symbolic: an invocation aimed to accentuate the potential for offensive speech to wreak grave and lasting harm, which permissive approaches to speech may seem to deny. Morrison was right to call on free speech proponents to own up to the psychological, emotional and social damage that invidious speech can inflict. Studies have documented the ravages that racial slurs can render on self-esteem, the trauma of slut-shaming, and instances of correlation between hate speech and hate crimes. Implicit in the legal protection of free speech, though, is the unavoidable truth that speech can offend, challenge, divide, disturb and hurt. If speech were always innocuous, no one would try to curtail it, nor need to protect it….

Rejecting the amalgamation of speech and violence does not mean we must ignore the nefarious potential of speech. We have many methods for fighting dangerous ideas: peaceful protests, counter-speech, fact-checking, official condemnations, and reasonable rules governing the time, place and manner of speech that allow it to be heard while containing its destructive potential. To be sure, these methods are imperfect and can fall short, letting damaging speech go inadequately answered. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s defense of democracy, though, we protect free speech not because an unfettered marketplace for ideas and opinions is idyllic, but because it’s better than letting governments censor, repress and punish speech at will.

In a democracy, the state is supposed to hold a monopoly on violence. If speech is violence, the state could extend its monopoly to control expression as well. Yet our law treats speech in precisely the opposite way, keeping it open to all and protected from government interference. Both right-wing provocateurs and left-wing protesters have a powerful interest in keeping it that way.”


The Right To Offend

In an article that has resonances with “Real Talk,” our annual conference from 2016, Jeannie Suk Gerson reviews a recent Supreme Court decision striking down a trademark rule that prevents the registering of offensive words or phrases:

“For the Justices, the Slants case was decided against a backdrop of conflicting impulses: on the one hand, to protect “underrepresented groups” from “demeaning messages,” as the government’s brief in the case put it; on the other, to enable free speech and open discussion in our society. Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion for four Justices across ideological lines reasoned that allowing speech that demeans people—even on the basis of race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, or sexuality—is part of “the proudest boast” of our law, which protects the freedom to express “the thought that we hate,” a phrase taken from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. We may loathe hateful speech, but the fact that the government can’t suppress it, even in a time of growing alarm about the rise of hate crimes, reveals our uniquely optimistic faith in free expression as protection against tyranny.

An opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by three liberal Justices, was concerned with a particular kind of discrimination known in free speech doctrine as viewpoint discrimination, in which the government singles out some speech for disfavor based on disapproval of the views expressed—and which is unconstitutional. Denying registration of some trademarks because they are offensive, Justice Kennedy said, “is the essence of viewpoint discrimination.” He decried the attempt to “remove certain ideas from a broader debate” and mused that an audience’s offended reaction to an idea might “prompt further reflection, leading to a more reasoned, more tolerant position.” We would have to hope so, to believe that unfettered offense-giving will not simply tear our society apart…

It may seem confounding that even though discrimination is illegal at work, at school, in housing, and in public accommodations such as restaurants, discriminatory speech is so strongly protected by law. The Court’s unanimous decision was part of a long line of cases assuming that, though words may hurt, the harm to our polity is far greater when the government gets to suppress the expression of some views and not others. But the debate will not end with this week’s ruling. Unlike governments, private institutions, such as most universities, are not constrained by the Constitution. Fierce debates on campus over what words and ideas are offensive and what best promotes inclusion may reach different results. But the principles animating the Supreme Court’s First Amendment decision are no less important in places where the Constitution doesn’t dictate an answer.”


Art During Occupation

A still from Woman Without a Home by Raida Adon

Roslyn Bernstein considers the status of contemporary art in Israel and Palestine, a space where the politics of occupation are routinely challenged:

“Renowned photojournalist and activist Miki Kratsman has a direct view of the asylum seekers from his storefront in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Kratsman, who lives upstairs, describes the space as a “store that doesn’t sell anything.” The area is full of asylum seekers; hundreds live across the street from him in a building whose façade is covered by a maze of intertwined electric lines. “They come here and I photograph them. I do not ask their names. I do not publish anything. My only publication is on the wall. When they leave, I give them a print of the image for free.”…

Kratsman now has sixty thousand followers on his Facebook page, Miki Kratsman: People I Met, and almost sixteen thousand likes, most of them from Palestinians, on the site where he uploaded the faces of eight thousand Palestinians, many of the photos taken at a huge parade in 2007. Kratsman asked viewers to put a circle around the people who were martyred and to send him information of the whereabouts of the others. “Only two people wanted their photos removed,” he said. “For this project, somehow, the comments became the output.” He cited two comments: “See him in the streets. He is still alive,” said one follower; “That child is now twenty-three and he was killed today in Jenin,” wrote another.

But despite his passionate activism, Kratsman feels deep loyalty to Israel. “I would prefer to boycott only the settlements,” he said, “and not boycott all of the country. I cannot boycott myself. I wake up every morning. The problem is that I am an optimist. I can’t live in any other place.”

Although she didn’t exactly says so, Raida Adon, a self-defined Palestinian and Israeli artist and film and video actress, would probably not live in any other place, either. “We have Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the family,” she said. “I can’t choose one thing. But, I can’t say that I am completely Israeli either.” Adon’s studio is based in her Jaffa apartment, where a suitcase that she made, just big enough for her to perform in, occupies one corner of the salon. The piece, Strangeness, follows from an earlier video, Woman without a Home, where she is seen on camera dragging her bed across a snowy landscape near Mt. Hermon. “I was trying to find my homeland when I was doing this,” Adon said. “But no one knew that I was really sick. That it was personal.” Before shooting all of her videos, Adon paints a storyboard, sews all of the costumes, and makes the entire set.”


Posted on 25 June 2017 | 9:30 am

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