Amor Mundi: The American Left Today
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
A Letter from Roger Berkowitz
The tradition of liberal constitutional democracy is on the defensive. Reinvigorating democracy requires more than platitudes; we must re-think and re-imagine democracy. In such an effort, there is no more invaluable guide than Hannah Arendt.
Our 11th Annual Conference, “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience,” explored outbreaks of civil disobedience and what they mean for a meaningful politics. Theda Skocpol, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Kenyon Adams, Micah White, Chantal Mouffe, and more explored the rise of citizen engagement, from the Tea Party to the Trump Resistance movement, from peaceful democratic protests in South Korea to the recent wave of teachers’ strikes in middle America. You can watch a complete video of the conference by clicking below.
In 2019 the Arendt Center will focus on the rising tide of hate sweeping across the globe. President Trump’s ruthless cynicism reflects and draws out underlying currents of antisemtism and racism that persist in the US and abroad. Political dog whistling about globalists, the insulting of immigrants, and fear-mongering in general have emboldened antisemites and racists. Our annual Fall Conference, “Racism and Antisemitism,” will build upon Arendt’s understanding of antisemitism as a racist fantasy, a political ideology that justifies oppression, and even annihilation, of Jews as foreigners who instigate the problems of the world.
Arendt’s approach to racism as an ideology begins with her distinction between racism and race thinking. Race thinking is an opinion, a prejudice. Prejudices are, of course, frequently wrong and dangerous. Yet, prejudices are deeply human and are “an integral part of those human affairs that are the context in which we go about our daily lives.” Prejudices are part of the fabric of a plural world in which people prefer the company of some rather than others. It is better to acknowledge prejudice than engage in the dangerous and flattening rhetoric that denies fundamental differences. More importantly, Arendt reminds us that anti-racism cannot mean the elimination of all prejudices. Instead, politics is the activity of challenging and transforming unjust prejudices, which requires self-reflective thinking and judgment. Save the date:
The Hannah Arendt Center 12th Annual Conference
Racism and Antisemitism
Oct. 10-11, 2019
Members Attend Free!
Racism and Antisemitism
Oct. 10-11, 2019
Members Attend Free!
A part of our democratic crisis is rooted in the increasing inability to speak with people with whom one disagrees. The Arendt Center’s Campus Plurality Forum (CPF) aims to address this hyper-polarized national debate over free expression on campus by providing intellectual skills, effective tools, and replicable models to tackle the wide range of disputes that threaten to undermine democratic values such as: race and racism, gender and sexuality, political power and historical injustice, and socio-economic inequality. Toward that end, the Campus Plurality Forum is developing an integrated program of applied research, clinical courses, traveling workshops, and investigations of contested political, ethical, and cultural flashpoints.
The “Courage to Be” Seminars continue with incredible courses and lectures asking, how does one act with moral and political courage in a world increasingly defined by bureaucratic institutions that undermine responsibility? The 2019 Courage to Be Lecture Series will feature acclaimed community organizer and social entrepreneur, Rana Abdelhamid; CEO of Village Health Works and leading advocate for the most impoverished people, Deo Niyizonkiza; and Executive Director of Citizen Action New York, Karen Scharff.
What would it mean to refresh liberal-constitutional democracy in the 21st century? The Arendt Center has inaugurated a new institute dedicated to this very question. The Bard Institute for The Revival of Democracy through Sortition (BIRDS) aims to be a space for considering innovative projects that think creatively about citizen engagement in government. Our 2020 Annual Conference will focus on the strategies for Democratic Revival. If you want to learn more about sortition, you can watch this conversation we hosted with David van Reybrouck and Zephyr Teachout.
Our Virtual Reading Group continues as a regular series in which we engage our members in a vigorous and spirited conversation around selected texts from Hannah Arendt. This year, we examined essays from the recently published Thinking Without a Banister, edited by Jerome Kohn. In 2019 we will be reading Hannah Arendt’s first book Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. The VRG is free and open to all new and renewing members.
Every Sunday, the Hannah Arendt Center releases its signature publication, Amor Mundi. We deliver essays, commentaries on current events, our Quote of the Week, videos, and selections from the HA journal directly to your inbox. Subscriptions are free to all who sign up. Subscribe and read the latest edition of Amor Mundi here.
Our dedicated team at the center continues to grow. Roger Normand brings 20 years of experience in international human rights to lead the Arendt Center’s effort to pluralize and deepen intellectual engagement through the Campus Plurality Forum. Mark Williams Jr., Bard College ’18 who founded and led the Arendt Center’s “Tough Talks” lectures, is working with Roger Normand to lead CPF Workshops at Bard and around the country. Craig Rothstein joins us as our Media Coordinator in charge of our websites and online programs. We also welcomed an incredible group of fellows: Senior Fellows include Wyatt Mason, Thomas Bartscherer, Ann Seaton, and Zephyr Teachout; The National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Fellows are Micah White and Chiara Ricciardone; and the Klemens von Klemperer Post-Doctoral Fellow is Libby Barringer.
This year we added another stellar team of student fellows to our center: Misbah Awan, Livy Marie Donahue, Angela Woodack, Emily Walshin, Adrian Costa, Charlotte Albert, Saul Amezcua, Tyler Williams, and April Perin Wogenburg. We also welcome our returning student interns; Annah Heckman, Paris Adorno, and Sacha Medjo-Akona [Marketing Interns], Isabelle Emma Menuez Santana and Maeve Schallert [Program Fellows].
More than ever our world needs Hannah Arendt’s fearless and bold inquiry into the political need to fight cynicism with active citizenship.
The Hannah Arendt Center is an intellectual space for passionate, uncensored, and non-partisan thinking that reframes and deepens the fundamental questions facing our world. We aim to nurture bold and provocative thinking that seeks, in the spirit of Hannah Arendt, to “think what we are doing.”
We cannot do it without you! We are grateful for your continued support of the Hannah Arendt Center. Please help by renewing your membership, or by making a year-end contribution to the Center today!
Membership has its perks! The first 10 people to join at the $100 level will receive a free 2018 Conference T-shirt. All new and renewing members will receive a conference scout book too.
A large part of our annual budget, including our annual conference, is supported by contributions from members like yourself. Your support is necessary and deeply appreciated. We wish you a very thoughtful and provocative holiday season, and hope to see you at Arendt Center events in 2019!
Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College
American Left Today
By Samantha Hill
Tim Shenk turns to Hannah Arendt to think about the collapse of liberal societies and the American left in Tablet, responding to Paul Berman’s call for a patriotic leftism. The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was published in 1951, argued that the fascist movements of the 20th century were in part a response to the decline of the nation state. Shenk begins here asking why some people are more susceptible than others to the rhetoric of demagogues. He writes,
Her answer centered on the failings of the status quo. ‘What the defenders of liberalism and humanism overlook,’ she observed, was that it had become ‘easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become pious banalities.’ Why was that? Well, people had eyes. They could see that elites who proclaimed themselves champions of civilization were ‘parading publicly virtues which [they] not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt.’ Everybody knew the whole thing was a joke, except for the great men who bought into their own propaganda. Confronted with this hypocrisy, ‘it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values, and general amorality because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest.’ Sure, the alternative was farcical, but at least everyone would be able to stop mouthing the same old lies, and that offered a kind of liberation.
Berman’s desire to align left principles and American principles is a noble one, but a patriotic leftism is still an -ism as Arendt would have defined it. And I think this is in part what Shenk is picking up on but never quite teases out. In Origins Arendt argues,
Ideologies are harmless, uncritical, and arbitrary opinions only as long as they are not believed in seriously. Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted. The insanity of such systems lies not only in their first premise but in their very logicality with which they are constructed. their first premise but in the very logicality with which they are constructed. The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.
The existence of mass society, alienated from the world, is attracted not just to ideologies, but to isms that provide answers to their sense of mass loneliness and homelessness. There is a paradox here though: The collapse of the nation state leads to the conditions of mass loneliness and alienation, and at the same time demagogues use this collapse to appeal to a renewed nationalism and patriotism, which offers a sense of nostalgia and meaning. The demagogue sees the vacuum created by the decline of the nation state and mass loneliness and utilizes it to achieve a political end, as Donald Trump has done. If we follow Arendt here, it is difficult to imagine how crafting a rhetoric of patriotism, even a left patriotism, can help us move forward. This is not to say that one can’t be patriotic, but being patriotic is not the same as adopting a patriotism.
Antisemitism & the Women’s March
The Women’s March has been roiled by allegations of antisemitism. According to a report in Tablet, the official leadership meeting was rife with antisemitic tropes and accusations, some of which are largely propagated by Louis Farrakhan. According to Tablet, as the various women met for the first time in person, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez allegedly “asserted that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people—and even, according to a close secondhand source, claimed that Jews were proved to have been leaders of the American slave trade. These are canards popularized by The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a book published by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam—“the bible of the new anti-Semitism,” according to Henry Louis Gates Jr., who noted in 1992: “Among significant sectors of the black community, this brief has become a credo of a new philosophy of black self-affirmation.”
And now in the aftermath of the reporting California organizers have canceled the anniversary Women’s March because they feared it would appear “overwhelmingly white.”
The local organizers are continuing to meet and discuss how to broaden representation in the organizing committee to create an event that represents and supports peoples who live here in Humboldt. Up to this point, the participants have been overwhelmingly white, lacking representation from several perspectives in our community,” the group said Friday in a statement. “Instead of pushing forward with crucial voices absent, the organizing team will take time for more outreach. Our goal is that planning will continue and we will be successful in creating an event that will build power and community engagement through connection between women that seek to improve the lives of all in our community.
Journal Feature: The Courage to Refuse
by Eyal Press
Fifty-two years ago, in 1963, Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem, her seminal account of the trial of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. As Arendt concluded in the book, which was subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil—a phrase that has since entered both popular and scholarly discourse—evil acts are not always perpetrated by abnormal madmen or perverted sadists. They are often carried out by people who are, as she memorably described Eichmann, “terrifyingly normal.” In the half-century since Arendt’s study appeared, the idea that ordinary people thrust into morally compromising situations are capable of doing terrible things has become painfully familiar, and painfully clear.
The idea that equally ordinary people may find their courage in such circumstances is far less familiar. One reason for this, I think it’s safe to assume, is that such dissenters are comparatively rare: a lot more people, faced with evil and wrongdoing, fall silent and conform rather than find the courage to refuse.
But I think another, arguably more important, reason is that in the literature on obedience and conformity, a kind of “situational reductionism” has come to prevail, whereby following malevolent orders is depicted less as a matter of choice and volition than as a product of situational pressures. This is the theme of the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s bestselling book The Lucifer Effect, which describes the famous experiment Zimbardo oversaw in California in 1971, in which a group of college students was assigned to be guards in a mock prison and entrusted with unchecked power over their wards. As those familiar with the experiment know, within a few days these students started mercilessly abusing the volunteers in the experiment who were assigned to be prisoners. Take a group of seemingly decent people and put them in the wrong situation, Zimbardo concludes, and they will soon begin behaving like monsters, irrespective of their character traits.
No doubt situational factors do exert a powerful hold over all of us. But I think we should be wary of the claim—often made, after the fact, by perpetrators and their enablers—that those who obey and conform merely did what anyone in their shoes would have; that on account of the circumstances, they had no real choice, which makes it difficult to judge, much less hold accountable, those who invoke this claim.
What do situational accounts fail to tell us? Let’s begin by considering a historical event: the massacre in Kafr Qassem, a small Arab village in a part of Israel known as the Little Triangle, which bordered the West Bank. On October 29, 1956—the first day of the 1956 Suez War—members of Israel’s border police were sent to this village to enforce a curfew that was set to begin at 5 p.m. They informed the village headman about the cur- few that afternoon, only an hour or two before it went into effect, which meant that hundreds of Arabs still out working in the fields didn’t learn about it in time. When they started returning home later that night, the Israeli border police began dragging them out of their vehicles, lining them up and shooting them. Forty-nine Arab civilians were killed; dozens more were injured.
News of the Kafr Qassem massacre soon trickled out and, some time later, the perpetrators were brought before an Israeli military court. Their defense rested on the claim that they were carrying out the orders of their superiors, a convenient excuse that happened to be true. Hours before being dispatched to the village, officers from the border police were summoned to a meeting where they were told that the curfew should be enforced “without sentiments” and that it applied to everyone. If you com- bine this with the fact that it was the first day of a war and that at the time, Arabs in Israel lived under martial law and were seen by many Jewish Israelis as an “enemy within,” it would seem like a textbook illustration of how situational factors and social pressures can turn ordinary men into callous, unthinking perpetrators.
There is one problem with this explanation. That problem is that on the same day other members of the Israeli border police were sent to neighboring villages with the exact same orders—and did not follow them. They, too, were told to enforce the curfew without sentiments, but they didn’t shoot anyone. “I did not accept the order,” one platoon commander later said. Another said he was planning to accept it until he spoke to the head of the village and changed his mind. Some of the officers who refused testified about this at the trial. Their testimony clearly influenced the judge in the case, Benyamin Halevy, who held in an opinion still widely quoted today, that orders which are manifestly illegal not only can be disobeyed—they must be disobeyed. “The distinguishing mark of a manifestly illegal order,” Halevy ruled, “is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: ‘Prohibited!’”
That ruling was later cited by another Israeli court—the one that tried Adolf Eichmann. Halevy’s ruling affirmed a principle the Western world was understandably eager to champion in the aftermath of World War II and the Nuremberg Trials: that soldiers cannot simply defer responsibility to their superiors when given blatantly unjust orders. Being instructed to commit a flagrant atrocity doesn’t excuse doing so, even if we agree that the greatest blame belongs to those higher up in the chain of command.
How should we label the acts of the soldiers who refused to obey the order to shoot the curfew violators? Some people would say we should call them acts of “goodness” or “compassion.” Simple acts of human decency, in other words. But I don’t think this illuminates much; exhibiting com- passion when there is no risk of offending the authorities, when it comes at no cost to oneself, is fairly easy, and fairly ubiquitous. We can all be com- passionate with our friends, with our fellow soldiers, in situations where it is socially approved. Extending compassion to the enemy, to villagers who are different from us, when the authorities and our fellow citizens may not approve, is much harder and requires something more than mere good- ness. It requires moral courage—the courage to stand by a value or conviction when it is risky and inconvenient, when doing so could cost you your reputation, your career, and, in extreme cases, even your life.
How does moral courage differ from other forms of courage? I thought about this a lot when writing my book Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, and never more so than when composing the section about Avner Wishnitzer. The subject of Chapter Three of Beautiful Souls, Avner grew up on a kibbutz in central Israel, deeply patriotic, dreaming of serving his country by becoming a soldier, which he feared he wouldn’t be able to do because he was too skinny, too interested in books, too meek. At age 14, Avner poked his head into the recreation room on the kibbutz and watched a martial arts class taking place there. The martial art was Taekwondo, which Avner soon began to practice with fierce determination, in the hope of shedding his meekness. Three years later, at 17, he was anointed the junior national Taekwondo champion in his weight class. A year after that, Avner was con- scripted to serve in the Israeli Army and, after making it through a highly selective training regimen, entered the ranks of Sayeret Matkal, the most elite commando unit in Israel. Serving in this unit was the ultimate validation of Avner’s toughness, his manhood, his courage.
Or so Avner thought. A year or so after he’d finished serving in the Army, he attended a lecture at the invitation of his sister. There Avner saw images of Palestinian shepherds and farmers being harassed and mis- treated by Jewish settlers in the occupied territories: their farmland burned, their water wells poisoned, their crops destroyed. Avner was sufficiently unnerved that, after the lecture, he decided to visit this place in the occupied territories. From that point on, he started going to the territories more regularly, and the more he saw and learned about the degrading conditions under which Palestinians lived, the more disillusioned he became.
Eventually, in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, after being ordered to serve in Operation Defensive Shield, a massive incursion into the West Bank ordered by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Avner called the commander of his unit, whom he regarded as a father figure, to tell him that he could not bring himself to serve in this operation, or any operation in the occupied territories. He was joining the ranks of refuseniks, the Israeli term for conscientious objectors. Soon after he placed this call, Avner was kicked out of his unit. After a story aired on Israeli television identifying him by name, he was denounced and vilified, as a traitor, as a coward, as a yafeh nefesh, the Hebrew term for “beautiful soul,” which in Israel connotes being too pure, a bleeding heart. It is not a compliment but an insult.
So how—in Avner’s mind—did the courage not to serve, to refuse, differ from the courage to serve? It was “ten times scarier,” he told me, because, when he was in the Army, even when he was taking enormous risks, Avner knew that his society was behind him. “Ha-ru-ach haya ba-gav,” he said—Hebrew for “the wind was at my back.” When he refused, by contrast, the wind was in his face, and its force completely upended him. Given how unnerving this can be, why would anyone do it? What sets apart people who display moral courage? I have no magic formula to answer this. There is something mysterious and ineffable about every such act, which is why, I think, many of us find the people who carry them out so intriguing. My book begins with a quote from Susan Sontag: “At the center of our moral life and our moral imaginations are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said No!” They are great stories, in part, because there is something mysterious about them.
That said, I do think we can draw some conclusions about what people who display moral courage in difficult circumstances generally are—and are not. One thing they’re not is figures of angelic virtue, as some of the literature on Holocaust rescuers, the so-called “righteous among nations,” suggests. In some of the more honey-coated contributions to this literature, what we get are sanctimonious portraits of saints. More often than not, these portraits are exaggerated or fanciful. Oskar Schindler, who saved hundreds of Jews during World War II, was a manipulator, a womanizer and a briber, not a saint. Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb I wrote about in the second chapter of my book, risked his life to save Croats in the middle of the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, in an act of extraordinary courage. He would be the first to tell you that he is anything but a saint. Individuals who display moral courage can be bullheaded. They can be shortsighted. They can be reckless. They can also be disarmingly ordinary.
We do them no favors by pretending otherwise. Indeed, the impulse to gloss over their flaws may be rooted in a less noble impulse: if we think that only people of unqualified virtue can display moral courage, then we let the rest of humanity off the hook. We relieve ourselves of even attempting to emulate their example.
None of the people I wrote about in my book are saints. Nor are any of them rebels who, from an early age, were pining to break ranks. This may sound strange, since displaying moral courage almost invariably requires undertaking a rebellious act: defying one’s superiors, blowing the whistle, saying no.
But think of Avner Wishnitzer. He didn’t grow up wanting to rebel against his society and the Israeli Army. He grew up desperately wanting to serve in an army he believed was exactly what the Israeli military claims to be: “the most moral army in the world.” Avner was not a rebel but a true believer, and this idealism was, ironically, one of the reasons he ended up becoming a refusenik. How could “the most moral army in the world” allow itself to be tarnished and corrupted by a brutal occupation, he kept asking himself.
A similar streak of idealism was evident in the other people I wrote about, among them Leyla Wydler, a broker who blew the whistle on a massive act of financial fraud in this country. Originally from El Salvador, Leyla didn’t enter her profession with a cynical view of the American financial system. She entered it believing that it was a system in which, unlike in Latin America, corruption and fraud would not be tolerated, which is why she was sure the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would investigate her claims. Transparency, due diligence: Leyla believed unswervingly in these principles. Like Avner, her identification with the system, her investment in these principles, and her desire to see them honored, was what led her to report the shady practices of an institution that was violating them—an institution that happened to be her employer, at least until she blew the whistle. (The SEC waited six years before investigating Leyla’s claims, by which point the firm, Stanford Financial, had orchestrated the second largest financial fraud in U.S. history.)
I don’t want to overstate the case. There certainly are idealists out there—true believers—who become dutiful conformists rather than principled nonconformists. Adolf Eichmann, a committed Nazi who firmly believed in the ideology of Nazism, was one such person. Beyond being idealists, another quality distinguishes the dissenters I wrote about: the ability to consider things from the perspective of others, more specifically from the perspective of the people whose lives they have been conditioned to dismiss and discount. This is what Aleksander Jevtic did when, in defiance of his fellow Serbs, he acted to protect a group of Croats trapped in a Serbian detention facility, at a time when Serbs and Croats were at war. It is what Avner Wishnitzer did when, in the middle of the Second Intifada, when a wave of suicide bombings led most Israelis to pull together against a common enemy—the Palestinians—he refused to serve in a mission he believed would victimize innocent civilians on the other side.
What Avner and Aleksander exercised at these moments was their moral imaginations, a faculty the philosopher and economist Adam Smith described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published more than 250 years ago, in 1759. Among economists today, Smith is best known for his writings about laissez-faire capitalism, in particular in The Wealth of Nations. But in his own lifetime, Smith was better known for Moral Sentiments, which begins with a rumination on what makes human beings feel dis- comfort when they see someone suffering—a person being “tortured on the rack.” Smith continues:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.1
Let’s not be naïve. As the past century has repeatedly shown, the imagination can lead human beings to behave cruelly and callously: under the influence of fear, under the sway of prejudice, when the imagination is inflamed by the kind of group hatred that crystallized in Rwanda in 1994, when Hutus were encouraged to think of Tutsis as their enemies—to imagine them as subhuman, as cockroaches—and to exterminate them. This is how the genocide was unleashed that led to the slaughter of nearly a million Rwandans.
But even then, at the height of the slaughter in Rwanda, as at the peak of the ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities that engulfed the Balkans in the early 1990s, some people did not allow themselves to imagine this, and instead imagined what it would be like to be among the victims. The dissenters in Beautiful Souls all use their moral imaginations in this other, transgressive way. They extend sympathy to outsiders, to those under threat, to the very people for whom sympathy was supposed to be cut off. Being true believers, exercising their moral imaginations—these are two of the qualities shared by the people I wrote about. A third shared trait is a willingness to assume responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This may sound like a fairly easy thing to do, but in fact, in the modern world, it is all too easy not to assume responsibility for the consequences of our actions. One reason for this is that many of us don’t see these consequences. Thanks to technology or the choices we make, we remain distant from the people affected by our actions. Another reason is that many of us end up working in large bureaucratic institutions where, if something goes awry, it’s easy to pin the blame on someone else, such as the boss who told us to do it or the subordinate who carried it out. This is the essence of modern bureaucracy, where the tasks are cut up and sub- divided in such a way that an individual can easily shift responsibility to someone else when things go wrong.
In a world governed by large, impersonal forces, where the link between cause and effect is increasingly unclear, resisting this temptation, as did the whistleblower Edward Snowden, is not easy. It is a choice. As Snowden’s story usefully reminds us, those who make such choices—particularly when doing so may embarrass their own government—are always easier to approve of from a distance, after the fact, rather than up close.
We can see this in the profusion of harshly disapproving editorials and essays that have been written about Snowden in the past year or two, characterizing him as “a grandiose narcissist who deserved to be in prison” (Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker), a person “completely oblivious to his betrayals . . . and the damage he has done” (David Brooks, the New York Times), and “a dupe, a tool” (Fred Kaplan, Slate). Kaplan began his Slate piece by comparing Snowden to another famous American whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who in 1971 released the top- secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers, thus exposing the lies that various administrations had told the American people about the Vietnam War. “I regard Daniel Ellsberg as an American patriot,” Kaplan wrote, before going on to explain why he thought Snowden was anything but a patriot.
It’s possible, of course, that Kaplan and others simply believe Ellsberg behaved more responsibly than Snowden and that the lies he exposed were far more serious. But it’s also worth noting that, four decades after the fact, it’s fairly easy to regard Daniel Ellsberg as a patriot. It was different in 1971, when the Vietnam War was raging and many denounced Ellsberg as a traitor for divulging secrets that embarrassed the U.S. government and bolstered the morale of America’s enemies. At the time, as Taylor Branch noted with Charles Peters in a 1972 book about whistle- blowers, Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest, even many dovish critics of the Vietnam War believed Ellsberg was “crazy.” The debate about Ellsberg was actually not so different from the debate today about Snowden, who, I would hasten to guess, will be viewed more favorably 20 or 30 years from now.
It’s a lot easier to admire people who blow the whistle or engage in acts of principled noncooperation when we share their principles, when we agree, in the case of Snowden, that mass surveillance is a grave threat to democracy and that this justifies releasing classified information. But what if we don’t agree with this? To take it one step further, what are we to make of individuals who take a risky and courageous stand for a prin- ciple that we find abhorrent? How do we distinguish their conduct from the acts of people who take courageous stands for principles we admire? In Beautiful Souls, I try to grapple with this question by writing about another group of refuseniks that has emerged in Israel in recent years: religious soldiers who disobey orders not because they oppose the occu- pation but because they support it. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, in the process ordering the Army to dismantle all the Jewish settlements that had been built there illegally and to evacuate the people living in them. During the disengagement, 95 Israeli soldiers were pun- ished for disobeying this order, most of them religious soldiers who believed that Jews have a Biblical injunction to settle the land in Gaza, in accordance with God’s command. “A Jew does not evacuate a Jew!” pro- claimed a soldier arrested during the disengagement. His name was Avi Bieber, and when I interviewed him, he cited the importance of consulting his conscience rather than obeying orders or following the law. To this day, Bieber is regarded as a hero by many Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Can we deny that what Bieber did took courage? Although I could not disagree more strongly with his view of the Gaza disengagement, I don’t think we can deny his courage. I also don’t think we can deny that he followed the dictates of his conscience, the “inner voice” that individuals consult when they refuse to obey a law or order based on deeply held personal convictions. In this country, during the civil rights movement, some men and women of conscience engaged in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters so that equal rights could be extended to African Americans. Others defied federal orders so that the privileged place of white Americans would be preserved in the segregated South. Both said no to a situation they regarded as unconscionable after consulting their consciences.
Measured by the depth and sincerity of their convictions, perhaps there is little difference between the people who carried out these acts. Measured by moral content, there is a vast difference. One way to draw out this dissimilarity is to examine how much, or how little, those who “say no” have stretched their moral imaginations to extend sympathy to people who are different from them, to “the other.” Refuseniks in Israel who disobey orders that harm and humiliate Palestinians have made this imaginative leap. Right-wing refuseniks like Avi Bieber have not. The humiliation of Palestinians does not weigh on their consciences; only the perceived humiliation of their fellow Jews, just as the disgraceful treatment of African Americans prompted no reflection or remorse among racist Southerners who defiantly opposed efforts to end segregation in the 1960s.
The fact that conscience is so personal and subjective is one reason that those who act in its name often spark controversy. An additional source of controversy concerns the goal of such acts. Is the goal to bring about social justice and create a better society? Or is it merely to make the individual feel better about himself? In the view of the philosopher Hugo Adam Bedau, it is the latter. The primary aim of conscientious objection, Bedau has argued, is “not public education but private exemption, not political change but (to put it bluntly) personal hand-washing.”2
Hannah Arendt articulated a similar view. Conscience, she wrote, “is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed or in the consequences that the wrong will have for the future course of the world. It does not say, with Jefferson, ‘I tremble for my country’ . . . because it trembles for the individual self and its integrity.”3
Henry David Thoreau would seem to agree. After all, he is the author of “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” an essay composed shortly after he was jailed for refusing to pay his taxes because he didn’t want to lend his support to a government that tolerated slavery and that was fighting what he regarded as an unjust war in Mexico.
This would appear to be an act carried out in order to transform society. But that is not what Thoreau himself said.
It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong. He may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.4
This is the creed of what Arendt called “the good man,” who thinks only about his own moral purity, as opposed to the “good citizen,” who thinks about the well-being of society and is therefore willing to make compromises so that society as a whole may benefit.
Is Arendt justified in her criticism of the “good man,” the man, or woman, of conscience? I think she is partly justified. It’s true enough that some acts of conscience are carried out merely to preserve the purity and integrity of the individual, and that these acts sometimes do little to address the larger injustice purportedly at stake. Think of an Israeli soldier who is ordered to raid the home of a Palestinian family in the occu- pied territories. He doesn’t want to dirty his hands in such an operation, he thinks it’s unconscionable, so he tells his commander how he feels, and the commander quietly excuses him, assigning him to sit at a desk instead. The soldier sits at his desk, feeling a lot better about himself, and the raid goes forward as planned, with a different soldier taking his place, a soldier who feels no moral qualms about the operation and may, for this reason, carry it out more brutally.
Had Avner Wishnitzer merely done something like this—quietly excused himself and done a desk job, which happens fairly often in Israel, so much so that the military has coined a term for it, gray refusal—he would have fit Arendt’s derisive description of the “good man.” But Avner did not merely do this. In addition to calling his commander, he also aired his views publicly, in a letter to Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon. This was an act of personal hand washing and an act of public education.
And Avner didn’t stop there. He has continued to protest, to refuse, to air his views publicly about the injustice of the occupation, through an organization called Combatants for Peace, a group of Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters who have put down their guns and are now trying to convince their fellow citizens to do the same.
What does this tell us? First, that the line between the “good man” and the “good citizen” isn’t always so clear. The person who feels compelled to wash his or her hands of a wrong may also, later, feel compelled to eradicate that wrong, as happened in Avner’s case.
Second, it tells us is that the question of responsibility on such occasions doesn’t stop with individual dissenters. For whatever their aims may be, these individuals can’t possibly transform society on their own. Their power ultimately depends on the rest of us: on whether we choose to pay attention to them, on whether we are willing to look past the labels—“traitor,” “beautiful soul”—used to dismiss them, or whether, if we agree they might have had good reason to act, we may be willing to join them or try to change the unconscionable situation that led them to break ranks.
Near the end of Beautiful Souls, I quote Darrel Vandeveld, a military lawyer who was the lead prosecutor of detainees in Guantanamo Bay— until he felt the flicker of conscience and became one of the more outspoken critics of the Bush administration’s detention-and-interrogation program. An individual dissenter cannot change society, Vandeveld told me: the only impact he can have is to bring pain on himself.
As I go on to argue, this is true only to the extent that the individuals who undertake such acts remain isolated and unheard. Ensuring that they are not isolated and unheard is a responsibility that all “good citizens”— and for that matter “good men”—must share.
1. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: A. Millar, 1790), available online
from The Library of Economics and Liberty, accessed August 9, 2015, http://www.econ lib.org/library/Smith/smMS1.html, I.I.1.
2. Hugo Adam Bedau, “Introduction,” in Civil Disobedience in Focus, ed. Hugo Adam
Bedau (London: Routledge, 1991), 7.
3. Eyal Press, Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 96 (quoting Hannah Arendt).
4. Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” in Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
(Stilwell: Digireads.com Publishing, 2005), 7.
Video Feature: The Courage to Refuse
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