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Amor Mundi: Bureaucracy and Violence

Bureaucracy and Violence


Rush Limbaugh went on a rant the other day in which he argued that Hannah Arendt predicted the kind of violence like the mass shooting in Las Vegas; what caught Limbaugh’s attention was the possibility that Arendt attributed the rise in violence to the rise of bureaucracy. (h/t Bonnie Honig) Limbaugh writes,

“I am quoting Hannah Arendt:

“The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

Let me explain this. As a democracy bureaucratizes, which we have. Another name for bureaucracy would be called the deep state. The bureaucracy is cabinet level administration, every government agency you can think of. And believe me, there are more government agencies than any single one person could name from memory. They are many, and they are redundant. And what do bureaucracies do? They’re like plugging the drain on a bathtub.

When you have to deal with a bureaucracy, if you have a grievance, you’re not gonna get a solution because you get passed up to the next department, to the next supervisor. You never get an answer, you never get a solution, because nobody is empowered to make one. A fully fleshed out bureaucracy, the total bureaucratization of a democracy, of a country, leads to average, ordinary Americans having no power whatsoever to address grievance, particularly grievance that have its origins within the state….

If Health and Human Services has some stupid rule that penalizes you or your business, there’s nowhere you can go to fix it. You can’t even go to Health and Human Services. You try it, and it is like everything is the DMV where you never get your license updated. And she theorizes this is gonna lead to mounting frustration with unstable people being unable to deal with the lack of action, the lack of solution, the lack of movement, and they’re gonna go nuts. And she theorized the attraction to violence from frustration will increase because there is nobody in a fully developed bureaucracy, there is nobody with whom you can argue. There’s plenty of people to argue with.”

Limbaugh’s focus on the bureaucracy of the Health and Human Services Administration is not exactly what Arendt has in mind. Arendt distinguishes different types of bureaucracy. Her original critique of bureaucracy does not target the civil service but administrators who rule without oversight. In a chapter of Origins of Totalitarianism called “Racism and Bureaucracy,” Arendt argues that bureaucracy is what allows racist administrators to rule over colonies without responsibility or limit. There is a difference between bureaucratic rule that empowers bureaucratic Viceroys to rule with absolute power and a civil service that employs bureaucrats in an effort to administer the law and practice good government.

Read the rest of this piece on Medium.

American Sonderweg

Writing from the American Academy in Berlin, Thomas Chatterton Williams compares the thesis of the German Sonderweg—that German Nazism was a result of a specifically German cultural flaw—with the recent American Sonderweg theory—that the national triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide “don’t just reverberate through the ages — they determine the present.” Williams writes that Ta-Nehisi Coates has done more than anyone else to popularize the American Sonderweg, according to which, in Coates’ words, “white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.” After interviewing many of the leading figures of the White Supremacist movement in the United States, Williams argues that Coates, by giving Whiteness talismanic powers, “mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.”

““We Were Eight Years in Power” can leave a reader with the distinct impression that its author is glad, relieved even, that Donald Trump was elected president. It is exhibits A through Z of Mr. Coates’s national indictment, proof that the foundations of the United States are anti-black and that the past is not dead — it’s not even past, to echo William Faulkner.

This argument, which would have been much harder to prosecute had Wisconsin and Pennsylvania stayed blue, is compelling because there is much disturbing truth in it. Pent- up white racism did fire Mr. Trump’s candidacy, and he happily fanned the flames. Yet that alone cannot explain why, in 2016, of the nearly 700 counties that voted for a black president twice, over 200 opted for Mr. Trump rather than backing a member of the white Washington establishment.

Given the genuine severity of the Trump threat, some readers of this essay may wonder, why devote energy to picking over the virtue and solidarity signaling of the left? Quite simply because getting this kind of thinking wrong exacerbates the very inequality it seeks to counteract. In the most memorable sentence in “The First White President,” Mr. Coates declares, “Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.”

"Flooding" and Censorship

Tim Wu argues that the First Amendment, while important, is not up to the job of protecting and regulating speech in the new era where speech is cheap and attention is scarce. While Wu, I think, underestimates the possibility and threat of government censorship of dissenting speech (just ask those dissenters sitting in Russian prisons), he is right to see the need for creating thinking about new threats to meaningful public speech. Troll armies, as Wu argues, can silence and chill those who would express controversial or unpopular opinions. Even more important in the efforts by governments to suppress or control publicly meaningful speech may be the technique Wu calls “flooding.”

“Reverse censorship, which is also called “flooding,” is another contemporary technique of speech control. With roots in so-called “astroturfing,”72 it relies on counter-programming with a sufficient volume of information to drown out disfavored speech, or at least distort the information environment. Politically motivated reverse censorship often involves the dissemination of fake news (or atrocity propaganda) in order to distract and discredit. Whatever form it takes, this technique clearly qualifies as listenertargeted speech control.

The Chinese and Russian governments have led the way in developing methods of flooding and reverse censorship.73 China in particular stands out for its control of domestic speech. China has not, like North Korea, sought to avoid twenty-first-century communications technologies. Its embrace of the Internet has been enthusiastic and thorough. Yet the Communist Party has nonetheless managed to survive — and even enhance — its control over politics, defying the predictions of many in the West who forecast that the arrival of the Internet would soon lead to the government’s overthrow.74 Among the Chinese methods uncovered by researchers are the efforts of as many as two million people who are paid to post on behalf of the Party. As King, Pan, and Roberts have found:

[T]he [Chinese] government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We show that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public and change the subject, as most of these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.75

In an attention-scarce world, these kinds of methods are more effective than they might have been in previous decades. When listeners have highly limited bandwidth to devote to any given issue, they will rarely dig deeply, and they are less likely to hear dissenting opinions. In such an environment, flooding can be just as effective as more traditional forms of censorship.

Related to techniques of flooding is the intentional dissemination of so-called “fake news” and the discrediting of mainstream media sources. In modern times, this technique seems, once again, to be a key tool of political influence used by the Russian government. In addition to its attacks on regime critics, the Russian web brigade also spreads massive numbers of false stories, often alleging atrocities committed by its targets.76 While this technique can be accomplished by humans, it is aided and amplified by the increasing use of human-impersonating robots, or “bots,” which relay the messages through millions of fake accounts on social media sites like Twitter.

Tufekci has documented similar strategies employed by the Turkish government in its efforts to control opposition. The Turkish government, in her account, relies most heavily on discrediting nongovernmental sources of information. As she writes, critics of the state found “an enormous increase in challenges to their credibility, ranging from reasonable questions to outrageous and clearly false accusations. These took place using the same channels, and even the same methods, that a social movement might have used to challenge false claims by authorities.”77 The goal, she writes, was to create “an ever-bigger glut of mashed-up truth and falsehood to foment confusion and distraction” and “to overwhelm people with so many pieces of bad and disturbing information that they become confused and give up trying to figure out what the truth might be — or even the possibility of finding out what is true.”78

While the technique was pioneered overseas, it is clear that flooding has come to the United States. Here, the most important variant has been the development and mass dissemination of so-called “fake news.” Consider in this regard the work of Philip Howard, who runs the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University. As Howard points out, voters are strongly influenced by what they think their neighbors are thinking; hence fake crowds, deployed at crucial moments, can create a false sense of solidarity and support. Howard and his collaborators studied the linking and sharing of news on Twitter in the week before the November 2016 U.S. presidential vote. Their research produced a startling revelation: “junk news was shared just as widely as professional news in the days leading up to the election.”79

Howard’s group believes that bots were used to help achieve this effect. These bots pose as humans on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and they transmit messages as directed. Researchers have estimated that Twitter has as many as 48 million bot users,80 and Facebook has previously estimated that it has between 67.65 million and 137.76 million fake users.81 Some percentage of these, according to Howard and his team, are harnessed en masse to help spread fake news before and after important events.

Robots have even been employed to attack the “open” processes of the administrative state. In the spring of 2017, the Federal Communications Commission put its proposed revocation of net neutrality up for public comment. In previous years, such proceedings attracted vigorous argument by (human) commentators. This time, someone directed robots to impersonate — via stolen identities — hundreds of thousands of people, flooding the system with fake comments, all of which were purportedly against federal net neutrality rules.82

As it stands, the First Amendment has little to say about any of these tools and techniques. The mobilization of online vitriol or the dissemination of fake news by private parties or foreign states, even if in coordination with the U.S. government, has been considered a matter of journalistic ethics or foreign policy, not constitutional law. And it has long been assumed (though rarely tested) that the U.S. government’s own use of domestic propaganda is not a contestable First Amendment concern, on the premise that propaganda is “government speech.”83 The closest thing to a constitutional limit on propagandizing is the premise that the state cannot compel citizens to voice messages on its behalf (under the doctrine of compelled speech)84 or to engage in patriotic acts like saluting the flag or reciting the pledge of allegiance.85But under the existing jurisprudence, it seems that little — other than political norms that are fast eroding — stands in the way of a full-blown campaign designed to manipulate the political speech environment to the advantage of current officeholders.”

Horkeimer and Education

Max Horkeimer published an essay after Israel’s arrest of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, republished recently by Verso Books. Horkeimer argued that Israel had no right to try Eichmann and that doing so would backfire. Horkeimer’s jurisdictional objections were widely shared, but Hannah Arendt rejected them, arguing that Israel should have the right to put Eichmann on trial. Horkeimer’s other arguments, including his claim that using the trial as a means of propaganda might backfire, remind us that the impact of political action is notoriously difficult to control—a point central to Arendt’s understanding of action.

“A subordinate in the ranks of National Socialism, Eichmann by name, who was specially charged with the elimination of the Jews in Germany and in German-occupied countries, has been arrested in Argentina by Israeli nationals and brought to Israel. There he is to be tried and judged. The number of Jews murdered at Eichmann’s orders is variously estimated at from three quarters of a million to four or five million. He was proud of his role in the “final solution” and, indeed, was on the side of the law according to the prevailing unjust law. If the Israeli court wants to prove itself competent, it will declare itself incompetent.

It is evident that the formal grounds given for the proceedings are untenable. Eichmann did not commit his murders in Israel, and Israel cannot want the arrest of criminals inside the sanctuary which they have, rightly or wrongly, obtained, to become the rule. Punishment is the means by which a state forces men to observe the law within its own boundaries; its purpose is deterrence. All other theories of punishment are just bad metaphysics. To suppose, however, that punishment inflicted in Israel will deter possible imitators of Eichmann is nonsense. Indeed, whatever be the sentence passed on Eichmann in Israel, it will prove the weakness, not the strength, of Jews’ awareness of their rights; it will be a usurpation, not a legitimate manifestation, of civil authority. Everyone knows, moreover, that it is only because of the present political situation that people are letting pass this kind of arrest in a foreign country; the procedure itself recalls the methods used in states quite different from Israel.

The internal grounds given for the arrest and trial are no less inadequate. The trial, it is claimed, will make the youth of Israel and other nations aware of the true nature of the Third Reich. If, however, such knowledge must win the place it ought to have in the consciousness of present and future generations, not by way of the solid literature that is now available in scientific as well as in generally accessible form in all the major languages, but only by way of up-to-the-minute trial reports and international sensationalist journalism, then prospects for that knowledge are poor indeed. The mind upon which the death of the Jews under Hitler can make an impression only through new headlines has very little depth and is hardly likely to retain any recollection of what it reads. It is difficult to foresee the real effects of repeated references during a trial to the elimination of the Jews; it is difficult, that is, to foresee the real political and psychological effect on various peoples. The youth of Israel and many people in other countries whom the authorities hope to win over will entertain the frustrating suspicion that the dead are here being used as a political or even a pedagogical tool, a tactical weapon or a piece of propaganda, even if in the pursuit of a very praiseworthy national purpose. The opposition of the forces of good to those of destruction around the world will be paralyzed, because here the opposition is using the very intellectual weapons which the the enemy takes for granted. Criminal trials for calculated ends belong in the arsenal of antisemitism, not in that of Judaism. Such trials will certainly not stop the many evil men among the nations of the earth from such crimes as can occur without the earth opening up to swallow the perpetrators.”

The Social Network

Max Read attempts to take stock of the massive global entity that is Facebook:

“What is Facebook? We can talk about its scale: Population-wise, it’s larger than any single country; in fact, it’s bigger than any continent besides Asia. At 2 billion members, “monthly active Facebook users” is the single largest non-biologically sorted group of people on the planet after “Christians” — and, growing consistently at around 17 percent year after year, it could surpass that group before the end of 2017 and encompass one-third of the world’s population by this time next year. Outside China, where Facebook has been banned since 2009, one in every five minutes on the internet is spent on Facebook; in countries with only recently high rates of internet connectivity, like Myanmar and Kenya, Facebook is, for all intents and purposes, the whole internet.

But, like the internet, Facebook’s ­vertigo-inducing scale, encompassing not just the sheer size of its user base but the scope of its penetration of human activity — from the birthday-reminder mundane to the liberal-democracy significant — defies comprehension. When I scroll through the news feed on my phone, it’s almost impossible to hold in my mind that the site on which I am currently considering joining a group called “Flat Earth—No Trolls” is the same one whose executives are likely to testify in front of Congress about their company’s role in a presidential election. Or that the site I use to invite people to parties is also at the center of an international controversy over documentation of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Facebook has grown so big, and become so totalizing, that we can’t really grasp it all at once. Like a four-dimensional object, we catch slices of it when it passes through the three-dimensional world we recognize. In one context, it looks and acts like a television broadcaster, but in this other context, an NGO. In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, John Lanchester argued that for all its rhetoric about connecting the world, the company is ultimately built to extract data from users to sell to advertisers. This may be true, but Facebook’s business model tells us only so much about how the network shapes the world. Over the past year I’ve heard Facebook compared to a dozen entities and felt like I’ve caught glimpses of it acting like a dozen more. I’ve heard government metaphors (a state, the E.U., the Catholic Church, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets) and business ones (a railroad company, a mall); physical metaphors (a town square, an interstate highway, an electrical grid) and economic ones (a Special Economic Zone, Gosplan). For every direct comparison, there was an equally elaborate one: a faceless Elder God. A conquering alien fleet. There are real consequences to our inability to understand what Facebook is. Not even President-Pope-Viceroy Zuckerberg himself seemed prepared for the role Facebook has played in global politics this past year. In which case, how can we be assured that Facebook is really safeguarding democracy for us and that it’s not us who need to be safeguarding democracy against Facebook?”

Direct Democracy

In the wake of independence referendums in both Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, Neal Acherson attempts to pin down the odd political character of the referendum in the context of the quest for political independence. Hanging over all of this, although Acheson leaves this unsaid, is whether the recent catastrophe in Puerto Rico, caused by Hurricane Maria, exacerbated both by the tepid response of the US government and the ongoing political and economic crisis there prior to the hurricane, has catalyzed a strengthening of the independence movement there:

“Most of the world, these days, calls any decision by direct popular vote a referendum. Democratic nation-states dislike them, feeling that they confess a failure of representative democracy. France is one country that has tried to tame the referendum. At first, French republicans damned it as a tool of Bonapartism, since it was used by Napoleon III in the nineteenth century to bypass parliaments and base his dictatorship on “the people.” But later, republicans worked the measure into their curious rules for orderly regime change: first a revolution, then a provisional government to prepare elections for a constituent assembly to draw up a new Constitution; next comes a referendum to approve the Constitution; and then, finally, the first parliamentary elections of the new Republic…

Behind referendums and plebiscites lies the idea of popular sovereignty. But does that legitimize a “right to self-determination,” when it’s a vote about leaving an existing nation state? That right is, anyway, a fine-sounding collective right, which is almost impossible to define, let alone to enforce. It can be made to mean almost anything: for instance, German postwar “expellees” from Central Europe claimed that it meant their right to return to their homeland and evict the Polish and Czech settlers who had replaced them.

Still less is there a generally recognized right to secede. (I believe one of the Soviet Constitutions included such a clause, but nobody would have dared to invoke it.) Until the 1992 Maastricht Treaty introduced regional policy, coaxing EU members to devolve wide self-government powers to their provinces and peripheries, some European Union members still regarded even local autonomy as a challenge to the integrity of the state. Juristically, most independence movements amounted to treason.

But of course, independence movements do arise within old nation-states, and some of them are thoroughly justified, and some of them—Catalonia’s, in fact—grow so strong that legal appeals to a Constitution or volleys of rubber bullets can’t suppress them. Then, only sober pragmatism helps. Was it really so tragic for Britain when Ireland won her independence? Isn’t it the case that Slovakia’s departure from Czechoslovakia has made relations between Prague and Bratislava actually warmer and easier than they were before? It is hard to imagine any worse way to handle the Catalan challenge than the legalistic bullying and forceful suppression adopted by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.”

The 21st Century Public Intellectual

Cody Delistraty profiles New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik, and considers the place of the public intellectual in 2017:

“Why, though, do we need a highbrow cultural critic like Gopnik at all? The world is falling apart in so many ways, so what is the point of reading about how cafes are deigned fashionable or how Richard Avedon altered modern photography or how, as Gopnik wrote in his first feature for The New Yorker, parallels might be drawn between baseball and Renaissance art?…

Gopnik’s cultural criticism is a weapon against domination and against drudgery; and, if he seems pretentious because he focuses almost exclusively on highbrow culture, one need only look at how refinement better stakes itself as authoritarianism’s enemy. Gopnik’s unapologetic desire to write essays about Argentine-Israeli pianists, Michel de Montaigne’s invention of liberalism, or dining at Le Veau d’Or — these are, in fact, important additions to the cultural landscape, precisely because of their unabashed highbrowism.

Today, there are desperately few American public intellectuals. The magazine Foreign Policy annually lists their “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” focusing on “thought leaders” and “public intellectuals.” The men and women listed most frequently in the 10 years they’ve published versions of their list include Angela Merkel, The New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, Hillary Clinton, and former chairperson of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke. None of those people have any cultural bona fides, except, perhaps, Friedman (although to call Friedman culturally influential seems a stretch). The French, on the other hand, have perhaps the strongest current tradition of the public cultural intellectual, with the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Pascal Bruckner, who maintain a strong influence on governmental decisions, such as the NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya. They write newspaper op-eds, go on news shows to share their views, and have bent the ear of the Elysée toward them. Like the late André Glucksmann and other members of the “French New Philosophers,” these men come from a cultural background. They are philosophers, writers, literary critics, and historians. American public intellectuals — if we are to believe Foreign Policy’s list — are mostly career politicians or economists, not cultural figures.

This distinction is important. The views of outspoken public intellectuals really can sway matters of governance. Whether the loudest opinions are coming from those with cultural backgrounds or from political and economic backgrounds can fundamentally alter political decisions. And, although Gopnik says he does not think of himself as a public intellectual, he does group himself within “an American tradition” of the “amateur scholar.””

To Err is Human

Just in time for the playoffs, Stephen Marche praises baseball’s error statistic:

““It is, without exception, the only major statistic in sports which is a record of what an observer thinks should have been accomplished,” Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, wrote in his “1977 Baseball Abstract.” “It’s a moral judgment, really.” James, supremely utilitarian, regarded the moral dimension of the error as a failing; it didn’t capture the nuances of what had really occurred on the field. And James was right: as a metric, the error is more or less completely useless.

For baseball, it doesn’t just matter what events transpire but how they transpire. Take one of the most famous errors in history—the ball trickling through Boston Red Sox first baseman Billy Buckner’s legs in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, on a slow grounder by Mookie Wilson, of the New York Mets. Had Wilson hit the ball harder or a little to the left—if it had been registered as a hit rather than an advance on an error—the result of the game would not have changed. But baseball’s institutions, not just the fans, consider it essential to record that the game wasn’t won. It was lost. A game without a record of its errors would feel half-forgotten. Just because a statistic is useless doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless…

In the Olympics of ancient Greece, the pankration, a kind of all-in wrestling, sort of like ultimate fighting, was the most important and the greatest sport—the highlight of the games. The reason for its centrality was its brutality: there were no judges. The competitors themselves determined who won and who lost, either by surrendering or by dying (and many did die). Pankration offered a purity of outcome, which was its own kind of justice.

Baseball has another vision. It is a spectacle of fairness as well as of accomplishment. What are we watching when we watch a game of baseball? We are witnessing the progression of a struggle toward an outcome through which the skill and power of the players and the team can be expressed, like in any sport, but we are also watching the lines of a moral universe being demarcated in a game played, uniquely, without time. The error declares that might is not always right, that win and loss is an insufficient measure of the experience of human contest. The error belongs to the moral dimension of American life—a highly systematic, entirely futile effort to imagine the terms of a perfect world inside even so minor a forum as the official rulebook of a boys’ game.”

Posted on 8 October 2017 | 8:37 am

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