Amor Mundi: The Freedom to Be Free
The Freedom to Be Free
Jerry Kohn has edited and published “The Freedom to Be Free,” a previously unpublished lecture by Hannah Arendt. The essay will appear in Thinking Without a Banister, Essays in Understanding, Vol. 11, by Hannah Arendt, edited by J. Kohn, to be published by Schocken Books in January 2018. The newly published “The Freedom to Be Free” follows closely the arguments made in On Revolution, but presents them in a synoptic version. Freedom is at the core of Arendt’s political thinking and in her book On Revolution she argues that the aim of all revolutions is freedom. One particularly novel formulation in this lecture is Arendt’s claim that “to be free for freedom meant first of all to be free not only from fear but also from want.” Arendt references an oft-overlooked distinction she makes in On Revolution between poverty and misery. It is very possible to be poor and still be free; one distinction of American revolutionary society was that poor white Americans were not desperately poor and were not miserable, as were the “laboring poor” in Europe and the slaves in the Americas. What this meant is that the revolution in France was driven in large part by the miserable poor while the revolution in the United States was led by what she calls (following William Penn) the “good poor.” For Arendt, while freedom sought by revolution depends on freedom from want, the effort to eradicate want through revolution leads to terror. On this fourth of July weekend, it is worth returning to Arendt’s claim that only the American Revolution, and not the French, succeeded in founding political freedom.
“The men of the first revolutions, though they knew well enough that liberation had to precede freedom, were still unaware of the fact that such liberation means more than political liberation from absolute and despotic power; that to be free for freedom meant first of all to be free not only from fear but also from want. And the condition of desperate poverty of the masses of the people, those who for the first time burst into the open when they streamed into the streets of Paris, could not be overcome with political means; the mighty power of the constraint under which they labored did not crumble before the onslaught of the revolution as did the royal power of the king.
The American Revolution was fortunate that it did not have to face this obstacle to freedom and, in fact, owed a good measure of its success to the absence of desperate poverty among the freemen, and to the invisibility of slaves, in the colonies of the New World. To be sure, there was poverty and misery in America, which was comparable to the conditions of the European “laboring poor.” If, in William Penn’s words, “America was a good poor Man’s country” and remained the dream of a promised land for Europe’s impoverished up to the beginning of the twentieth century, it is no less true that this goodness depended to a considerable degree on black misery. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there lived roughly 400,000 blacks along with approximately 1,850,00 whites in America, and, despite the absence of reliable statistical information, it may be doubted that at the time the percentage of complete destitution was higher in the countries of the Old World (though it would become considerably higher during the nineteenth century). The difference, then, was that the American Revolution— because of the institution of slavery and the belief that slaves belonged to a different “race”— overlooked the existence of the miserable, and with it the formidable task of liberating those who were not so much constrained by political oppression as the sheer necessities of life. Les malheureux, the wretched, who play such a tremendous role in the course of the French Revolution, which identified them with le peuple, either did not exist or remained in complete obscurity in America….
A comparison of the two first revolutions, whose beginnings were so similar and whose ends so tremendously different, demonstrates clearly, I think, not only that the conquest of poverty is a prerequisite for the foundation of freedom, but also that liberation from poverty cannot be dealt with in the same way as liberation from political oppression. For if violence pitted against violence leads to war, foreign or civil, violence pitted against social conditions has always led to terror. Terror rather than mere violence, terror let loose after the old regime has been dissolved and the new regime installed, is what either sends revolutions to their doom, or deforms them so decisively that they lapse into tyranny and despotism.”
A Worldly Freedom
In an interview touching greatly on questions of protest and political freedom, Judith Butler embraces Hannah Arendt’s understanding of worldly freedom, the idea that human freedom is only possible in a political world we build and share with others.
“I think that Arendt was right to criticize those forms of individualism that presume that freedom is always and only a matter of personal liberty. Of course, I am most glad to have my personal liberty, but I only have it to the extent that there is a sphere of freedom in which I can operate. That sphere is coproduced by people who live together or who have agreed to live in a world in which the relations between them make possible their individual sense of being free. So perhaps we might regard personal liberty as a cipher of social freedom. And social freedom cannot be understood apart from what arises between people, what happens when they make something in common or when, in fact, they seek to make or remake the world in common. I am struck by the way Arendt’s position echoes that of Martin Buber, whose cultural Zionism interested her a great deal in the 1930s. For Buber, the I only knows its world because there is a you who has consciousness of that world.7 The world is given to me because you are also there as one to whom it is given. The world is never given to me alone but always in your company. Without you, the world does not give itself. We are worldless without one another.”
More Cowardice in Academe
Trinity College suspended Professor Johnny Williams, ostensibly for his own safety, after threats against him followed his comments suggesting that first responders to the shooting of Representative Steven Scalise and other Republican Congressman should have let the Congressmen die. According to an article by Colleen Flaherty on Inside Education,
“Williams last week shared an article from Medium called “Let Them Fucking Die.” The piece argues that “indifference to their well-being is the only thing that terrifies” bigots, and so people of color should “Let. Them. Fucking. Die” if they’re ever in peril. The Medium piece linked to another Fusion piece about Republican Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot earlier this month in Alexandria, Va. It says Scalise has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.
In sharing the Medium piece, Williams used the “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag, and wrote that it is “past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”
Professor Williams comments are stupid. The appropriate response to such idiocy is to respond to it, as many have. That response seems to have worked. Thankfully, Professor Williams has apologized for his comments. “Williams has since apologized for his remarks and said he was not advocating violence against whites, only drawing attention to systemic racism.” So the question is, why has Trinity College felt the need to go further and suspend a tenured professor who has apologized for admittedly stupid and insensitive comments? As the Trinity College AAUP said in a statement, the administration’s cowardly reaction is a threat to academic freedom.
“We are particularly concerned about the implications that this decision has for issues of academic freedom and scholarly inquiry on campus, and the precedent that it sets. We have significant doubts about whether this decision is consistent with the College’s rightful and laudable attempts to build a diverse and critically engaged academic community. In conversations we have had among the faculty a common theme is: “If the administration is not going to stand up for Johnny Williams despite his international stature as a first-rate scholar on issues of race and society, who are they going to stand up for?” In these situations, we expect nothing less than a full-throated endorsement of academic freedom. We expect that the administration’s first impulse should be to protect and affirm the College’s faculty, rather than encourage the inaccurate and damaging interpretation of Professor Williams’ comments and to allow these attacks on academic freedom and personal safety to go unchallenged.”
Thou Shalt Not
Angela Nagel thinks that the current political mood can be explained by what we tell people not to do:
“Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression, and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan “It is forbidden to forbid!” than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right. Instead of interpreting it as part of other right-wing movements, conservative or libertarian, I would argue that the style being channelled by the Pepe meme–posting trolls and online transgressives belongs to a tradition that can be traced from the eighteenth-century writings of the Marquis de Sade, surviving through to the nineteenth-century Parisian avant-garde, the Surrealists, the rebel rejection of feminized conformity of post-war America, and then to what film critics called 1990s “male rampage films” like American Psycho and Fight Club. In these, as in the rightist chan culture, interpretation and judgment are evaded through tricks and layers of metatextual self-awareness and irony.
The cult of the moral transgressor as a heroic individual is rooted in Romanticism. The psychopath, like the artist, privileges id over superego, and desire over moral constraints. Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, asserts his own right to transcend the morality of the lesser masses when he kills a “worthless” old woman. Echoed in the style of contemporary transgressive anti-moral cultures like 4chan that later fused with the alt-right, is French writer Maurice Blanchot’s dictum that “the greatest suffering of others always counts for less than my pleasure.”
From One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and R. D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, madness was consistently recast as nonconformity in this transgressive style. For de Sade, the Surrealists, and later for the sixties anti-repression cultural politics most closely associated with R. D. Laing, insanity was considered a creative source, a rejection of mainstream norms and a political act of rebellion. The surreal became a pre-rational creative expression. The throwing off of the id that characterized this transgressive countercultural traditional also characterized sites like 4chan, and its culture of trolling and taboo-breaking anti-moral humor, which is often described as insane or unhinged to baffled outsiders.”
Reading The Illegible
Trevor Strunk tries to read cartoonist R. Sikoryak’s recent graphic novel of the iTunes terms and conditions agreement, just one example of a genre of texts that everybody has encountered and indicated assent to its terms, but that very few people ever actually read:
“The relationship between word and image in a work like Terms and Conditions is of course fraught, particularly if it is given the responsibility to confer meaning. There are readers who will embrace the zen-like experience of what conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith might enthusiastically call “being bored” by the text in Sikoryak’s work. Outside of learning a few things about the iTunes Terms and Conditions — for instance, I now know that people under 13 years old cannot open an iTunes account — there is something relaxing about reading a text with no clear meaning outside of its typical context. As in Goldsmith’s Day — a full-text reconfiguration of the September 1, 2000, issue of The New York Times into the form of a massive, traditional tome — once text appears outside of its typical configuration, it becomes defamiliarized, an object for distant and detached aesthetic consideration as opposed to pragmatic use.
We might thus read the sequential images that Sikoryak uses in Terms and Conditions as a way of directing this aesthetic consideration into particular avenues of thought by invoking comic scenes that already have emotional resonance. For instance, at one point Sikoryak adapts the famous scene in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen in which the Silk Spectre, Laurie Juspeczyk, discovers that her lover — the near-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan — has split himself into many different personas while making love to her. Instead of many Dr. Manhattans, however, Sikoryak gives us many Steve Jobs, each talking about the functions of privacy and password protection in one’s iTunes account. So when Laurie throws an iPhone at and through Steve Manhattan, and he fixes it without breaking from his monologue on password protection and data privacy, her horror at her lover’s depersonalization is felt by us as consumers. The monolith of Apple — presented more lovingly in pages featuring Steve as Calvin from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, or as Jon Arbuckle talking to an iMac Garfield — is here stripped bare and shown as a depersonalized shell with a stylish facade…
We might instead try to read the relationship between words and images in Terms and Conditions in a second, more or less opposed way: as indexical to a process rather than a meaning. Ironically, this reading may, in fact, align more closely with Sikoryak’s intentions, assuming that he is telling the truth when he writes in the novel’s “Development Notes” that while he “would occasionally shuffle the order of the drawn pages to allow for some interesting juxtaposition of word and image […] generally any connection between the two was happenstance.” There’s no reason we as readers need to take Sikoryak at his word here — the text itself is tongue-in-cheek enough to assume some dissembling — but if we do, we can also assume that the relationship between the text and the art means nothing, or nearly nothing, in the sense of authorially intended meaning. Outside of some spare “interesting” moments, the book simply fills the bubbles where it needs to and does not meaningfully engage with the text of the iTunes Terms and Conditions.”
The Gig Economy
Nikil Saval thinks that Silicon Valley’s idealization of disruption and innovation, exemplified by the ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft, is subverting the meaning of citizenship, collapsing it into the role of the consumer:
“The taxi system was and is an exploitative one, in which drivers were often classified as independent contractors. But ride-sharing is incalculably more exploitative. In regulated markets, taxi companies are at least required to maintain, acquire, and insure all the cars in a taxi fleet. Ride-sharing companies are not. This means for example, as Quartz reported recently, that Uber can force its drivers into “deep subprime” loans to acquire their vehicles, leaving them drowning in debt. In addition to undermining every possible regulation to screw their drivers more, Uber claimed as late as 2015 that drivers could earn $90,000 working for them. In a landmark piece for the Philadelphia City Paper, reporter Emily Guendelsberger worked as an UberX driver and discovered the truth. “If I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with one week off, I’d net almost $30,000 a year before taxes,” she wrote. “But if I wanted to net that $90,000 a year figure that so many passengers asked about, I would only have to work, let’s see . . . 27 hours a day, 365 days a year.” The jobs created by ride-sharing are emblematically crappy, part-time, and contingent. In fact, according to the loophole in labor law that ride-sharing companies exploit, they’re not even “jobs” so much as gigs; the drivers are independent contractors who just happen to use the ride-sharing app.
But lying and rule-breaking to gain a monopoly are old news in liberal capitalism. What ride-sharing companies had to do, in the old spirit of Standard Oil, was secure a foothold in politics, and subject politics to the will of “the consumer.” In a telling example of our times, Uber hired former Obama campaign head David Plouffe to work the political angles. And Plouffe has succeeded wildly, since—as Washingtonians and New Yorkers are experiencing with their subways—municipal and state liberals are only nominally committed to the standards that regulate transport. Never mind that traffic is something that cities need to control, and that transportation should be a public good. Ride-sharing companies—which explode traffic and undermine public transportation—can trim the balance sheets of cities by privatizing both. The choice we make should be between unchecked ride-sharing and fully funded mass transit. Instead, the success of ride-sharing means that we choose between Uber and Lyft.
What Plouffe and the ride-sharing companies understand is that, under capitalism, when markets are pitted against the state, the figure of the consumer can be invoked against the figure of the citizen. Consumption has in fact come to replace our original ideas of citizenship. As the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has argued in his exceptional 2012 essay, “Citizens as Customers,” the government encouragement of consumer choice in the 1960s and ’70s “radiated” into the public sphere, making government seem shabby in comparison with the endlessly attractive world of consumer society. Political goods began to get judged by the same standards as commodities, and were often found wanting.”
Fear and Politics
Suki Kim, who managed to get herself embedded in North Korea for long enough to write a book about it, writes about the political culture of that country, and the role that fear plays in the political consciousness:
“One of the questions I am most frequently asked about North Korea is whether the people there are “brainwashed under their Great Leader.” The question strikes me as deeply patronizing; citizens there are not simplistic robots. They may believe and not believe all at once. My North Korean students would, in unison, swear against the imperialist America and its puppet South Korea as their chief enemies and say that if a war broke out, they would kill their enemies without hesitation. But when I asked them, “What about me? I’m both South Korean and American,” they looked embarrassed and laughed shyly, mumbling, “But you are our teacher. You are different.”
Isn’t this the kind of paradox by which the human mind works? There is a place in our being that allows for simultaneous belief in something while knowing it not to be true—or for calmly speaking with students in a classroom while experiencing absolute terror about the consequences of being found out by authorities. I think of it as a kind of blind spot.
Despite the differences in circumstances in America, we have seen plenty of examples of the blind spot operating through the recent election cycle. It appears that an overwhelming sector of the population became convinced that a real-estate guy who played a boss firing people for eleven years on a popular reality TV show was uniquely qualified to lead the nation. Even in this country, where celebrity prestige seems to dictate the public conscience, it cannot be that people would confuse playing the boss on television with having anything to do with being the actual boss of a nation—but perhaps such was the comfort of indoctrinated habit. It’s of a piece with an American psychology that has allowed joking about the Great Leader to be our cultural norm. Movies like the animated Team America: World Police and the comedy The Interview are among the most popular reference points for North Korea; a country where 25 million people are currently being trapped and tortured has largely been figured into American mainstream culture as the butt of jokes.
Every time someone in an audience asks me how and whether all North Koreans are brainwashed, I am struck by how unintelligible such a question is, and how much it assumes a fundamental difference between the operations of their own minds and the minds of North Koreans. I often feel I am watching an object of fear grow to dominate the audience member’s brain and arrest their understanding. Perhaps there is a comfort in denying North Koreans their humanity, distancing their experiences as unreal. To do so allows us to have no obligation and responsibility to them, and it frees us from the vague sense of our complicity. They cannot touch us. The blind spot allows a person in such a situation to feign an act of agency that masks a deeper lack of agency; it is at once willful ignorance and knee-jerk self-protection.”
Posted on 2 July 2017 | 1:30 am
Back to News