We might as well try, 1: See how we are

12 07 2012

D’oh!

First, an error (which will nonetheless remain): I was thinking we might as well try was a Beth Orton lyric, but it is not; the line I was thinking of, from “Pass in time” is You might as well smile/cause tomorrow you just don’t know. Since we might as well try fits so well, however, it’s staying.

That’s how it is.

(That whole cd is fantastic, by the way. Central Reservation. I’ll post a vid, below, along with the X vid; I know that lyric is right.)

Anyway, to begin the beguine, the human.

Hannah Arendt’s admonition that we should pitch “human nature” in favor of the “human condition” made a kind of intuitive sense to me when I first read it, although I couldn’t put that sense into words.

The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum (“a question I have become for myself”) seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. . . . [I]f we have a nature or an essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a “who” as though it were a “what.” The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with “natural” qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?

She says, in effect, that we can’t get outside of ourselves, which is what is really sufficient to be able to determine any essential qualities; more to the point, even if we could determine an essential what, that helps us not at all with the how and who of us.

On the other hand, the conditions of human existence—life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth—can never “explain” what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely.

Arendt noted earlier that

The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. . . . In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same condition power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.

I know, right? Right?

Okay, so it was good that Arendt was such an acute thinker, because she wasn’t always the sharpest writer. Still, I wanted to give you the excerpts, if only to give you a base from which to jump off and all over my interpretation of that base.

Which is: we are whats, material beings, but not just whats. To  divine a human nature is, in a sense, to reduce us to a what, and since we can’t get outside of ourselves (which would be necessary for such a reduction), it makes no sense to try. We may, in fact, never fully understand even our whatness, much less the how and who (and don’t even bother with the why) of humanness, but we can look around and make sense of the world we live in, both given and constructed. Thus, to speak of the human condition is to refer to that double-existence: one (please forgive the Heideggerianism) always already there, and one we are constantly re-shaping and re-creating.

And of course you understand that even the givens are fluid—Heraclitus and all that, right?

I’m as bad as Arendt, aren’t I? To boil this nub into a nib: We live in a world made over by us, and which makes us over. We condition and are conditioned, and the best chance we have of making sense of our selves is to make sense of those conditions and conditionings.

And that nib into a bit: We live in our relations to the natural world, the world we make, and to one another; we cannot make sense outside of these relationships.

So what does that mean for this project? That we start in the world, with actual human beings in all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses and not in some abstracted stick-figure of what someone things we should be, if only we could get rid of all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses.

The mess is our condition; get rid of that, and you get rid of us.

~~~~~~

And now, as promised, Beth Orton:

And X:





Osama bin Laden is dead; and. . . ?

2 05 2011

A few thoughts on the death of a murderous fanatic:

1. I am opposed to the death penalty, in every case. Thus, as I noted in a comment at TNC’s joint, I may be parsing matters to consider bin Laden not the subject of a criminal trial, but a casualty of war.

2. I don’t like facile comparisons of bin Laden to Hitler or Al Qaeda to the Nazis; whatever the totalitarian similarities, the differences, I think, are are even greater.

Nonetheless, this quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem came to mind:

[J]ust as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang. [emph. added]

To want to cleanse the world of its inhabitants makes you an enemy of the world and its inhabitants and gives us license to treat you as such.

I don’t celebrate his death—“grim satisfaction” seems the appropriate cliche—but I do think a kind of rough justice was done.

3. There are concerns that this action will give the US cover to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later. Would that this would be so.

4. The death of bin Laden matters. I say this not as an expert on terrorism but more generally as a political scientists: Even if the death were only symbolic—his operational role was said to have diminished greatly in the past few years—the symbolism still matters. In both war and politics, symbolism matters.

As to whether this will lead to a retrenchment or fracturing of Al Qaeda, well, either is a possibility. Bin Laden was apparently a charismatic figure, and his former number two (now presumptive leader) Ayman Al-Zawahri is not; that could matter in terms of holding together a far-flung criminal operation.

Or not: The cell structure of Al Qaeda may mean that those freelancers gathered under the Al Qaeda banner have long since left the base of The Base behind.

We’ll find out.

5. Some are concerned at what happens next.

As a general matter, I’m not concerned; something always happens next.

As for specifics,  I (somewhat surprisingly) again agree with Jeffrey Goldberg:

Television-based analysts are already asking if the killing of Bin Laden will provoke revenge attacks by al Qaeda. Is there a stupider question in the world? The implication, of course, is that now, al Qaeda will truly be pissed off at the U.S. Unlike in 2001, when al Qaeda was only marginally angry at the U.S.

He backs off that somewhat in later posts—yes, some terrorists may be moved to strike out in rage or grief—but as Al Qaeda was not much a political organization, that is, it was not an organization with which one could negotiate, any acts around it or in reference to it or against it would lead to a reaction.

That there are reactions does not mean there should be no actions.

6. There are domestic political implications of all this, but it seems small, today, to consider them.

7. To circle back around to the Arendt quote: Yes, I think she got it right.

There are a lot of reconsiderations of her work in light of a new book on Eichmann (The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah Lipstadt), but I don’t know that any of the old or new criticisms can erode the acuity of that judgment, which deserves repeating:

[J]ust as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations. . . we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.





The way is dark, the light is dim

15 01 2011

So I was going to write something about civility in politics.

Three times, I was going to write something about civility in politics—even had a header for one of ‘em—but then I remembered: Been there, done that.

I think civility is a fine thing, and as mentioned in a very early post, I very much like the idea of going at it hammer and tongs with someone—and then eating pie.

Argument and pie: What could be better?

I still believe that. But I also believe that, in the face of incivility, tut-tutting about the rudeness of the other fellow is of no use; no, the correct response is tit-tatting: if he broke a metaphorical bottle over your head, and if you don’t like having metaphorical bottles broken over your head, then you smash one over his. If he comes back with a verbal fist to the face, then a lexical plank upside the head is appropriate.

Do not let the adversary get away with anything. Make him pay. And when he gets tired of being bloodied—and acts accordingly—then so should you.

The rules of politics are set and enforced by the participants, so if you want civility, you not only have to practice that civility, you have to enforce it—which means you have to punish incivility.

There is no other way.

~~~

It should be obvious that what works in politics does not necessarily work in, say, intimate or even collegial relationships, nor, for that matter, in the practice of science or in the arts or religion. (The truly interesting question is whether these gladiatorial tactics are appropriate to war—but I leave that to the military strategists among you.) My understanding of politics is predicated on conflict; my understanding of friendship is not.

~~~

I don’t think the Tea Partiers are fascists anymore than I thought GW Bush was Hitler, and any such comparisons are as sloppy and mendacious as those linking Obama to Stalin or Osama bin Laden.

“Sloppy and mendacious”: But what if people really are afraid that Obama is a Secret Musselman in thrall to an anti-colonialist anti-American communist conspiracy?

Grow up.

The evidence is lacking, just as evidence that Bush planned the hijackings on Sept 11 is lacking. The sincerity of beliefs matters not one whit if those beliefs are, to quote a couple of automotive philosophers, “unencumbered by the thought process”.

The proper response to such charges is either mockery or a swift linguistic kick in the shins.

~~~

Well, okay, the fists-up response is not always appropriate. One can engage in a kind of political discourse which seeks understanding, and to which nonsense might best be met with questions as to why the interlocutor believes that, or even a polite I disagree.

And, ff course, if one is outnumbered and such verbal disagreement could lead to a physical beatdown, keeping one’s trap shut is also a fine tactic.

~~~

I hate eliminationist talk, and find it stupid and counterproductive, if not potentially dangerous. I don’t  engage in such talk, don’t laugh at jokes about assassination, don’t as a general matter invite the spectre of real violence into the arena of politics.

It’s not because I’m good, but because I’m an Arendtian, and I think politics has a purpose which can be shattered by violence.

(Yes, I have invited public figures to engage in anatomically impossible acts on themselves, and will likely do so again the future. These aren’t my best moments, but I think a not-unreasonable response to the denigration and dehumanization of an entire category of human beings.)

Aristotle and Arendt both thought politics ennobling; a part of me agrees that yes, it offers the possibility of us inhabiting one of the highest kinds of human being.

But, as Machiavelli pointed out, one rarely reaches that pinnacle unscathed.

h/t, and for a completely different set of views, see James Fallows here, here, here, and here





“While violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it”

8 01 2011

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ, was shot at point-blank range today.

She is in critical condition; according to press reports, 18 people were injured and as many as six were killed.

This is very bad news.

Every shooting is very bad news, of course, as is every murder. But political murder in a representative system carries another meaning, one which states that, in effect, the will of the people does not matter.

There’s a lot to criticize in the notion of “the will of the people”, and a lot to question in our version of representative democracy; nonetheless, it’s what we’ve got and it’s how we confer at least a bare legitimacy on our system of governance. We don’t have to like it, of course, and so we bitch and we organize and we try to sway our fellow citizens and our members of Congress to change.

This means we’re always failing: If Dems win, GOPers lose, and vice versa. Those who want change battle those content with the status quo. There may be some win-win or lose-lose situations, but in a pluralist democracy, you don’t always get your way.

To be political is to reconcile oneself to failure—without giving up.

Political assassins will not so reconcile themselves. Whatever their motivations, whatever their goals, they cannot accept that they lose, cannot accept that others may legitimately win. And so they seek to destroy the adversary’s victory, destroy that legitimacy, and, symbolically, to destroy not only those others, but everyone who allowed the victor to take power.

In so doing, the assassin acts against us all: as citizens, as participants in the political process, as those who, whatever our misgivings, in the end accept a flawed and frayed system of governance over the alternatives of purges and violence, who in the end accept the ballot over the bullet.

What we’ve got is not the best, but is what we’ve  got, it is ours—assassins be damned.





Anything you can do, I can do better

12 09 2009

Who would you like to see together?

Don’t be perverted—not like that! No, more along the lines of Here are two people who I’d love to see do whatever it is they do, together.

I was watching  clip of k.d. lang singing a Leonard Cohen song, and thought, Man, I wonder what she’d sound like with Cassandra Wilson?

Two amazing vocalists and interpreters, together.

So, my first duet: k.d. lang and Cassandra Wilson

Then again, I’d long thought that it would be great to listen in as Hannah Arendt and Edward Said argued.

Thus, the first duel (albeit a friendly one): Arendt and Said.

Who else?

  • Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg
  • Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X
  • Arendt and Malcolm X
  • Malcolm X and Bernard Lazare
  • Janis Joplin and Cass Elliot
  • PJ Harvey and Patti Smith (definitely a duel)
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Dawn Upshaw (Really. Have you heard her on Golijov’s Ayre? The woman can sing anything.)
  • Eddie Cochran and The Clash
  • Brett Favre (back in the day. . .) and Randy Moss
  • Martina Navratilova (back in the day. . .) and Serena Williams
  • k.d. lang and Lizz Wright
  • Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen (just for the hell of it)
  • Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell (hot and cool, together)

Who else?

I can’t be the only one who wastes her time thinking about this kind of thing. . . .





Power to the people

15 06 2009

The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. —Hannah Arendt

The events in Iran thrill, in every sense of the word: the demands for liberation, the fear of the reaction, the unpredictability, and as the most basic argument for a notion that power is about politics—the public gathering of citizens—and that violence is the antithesis of power, that it scatters the public and as such, eliminates power.

Violence: Witness the crowds literally scatter as the motorcycle cops accelerate into them, their riders swinging batons at anyone near.

Power: Watch the crowd assert itself against the agents of the state, pushing back against the police and security forces, as when those around a BBC reporter kept a security agent from interfering with his broadcast.

Unfortunately, as Arendt knew, politics was bound up in what she termed the ‘frailty of human affairs’, such that Wherever people gather together, [political space] is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily, and not forever. Power is evanescent, ‘not an unchangeable, measureable, and reliable entity,’ but one utterly dependent upon the presence of others, a presence which can be dissipated by apathy, more urgent needs, and, of course, weapons.

But while violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it.

Ahmadinejad and the Iranian security apparatus may succeed in dispersing these crowds, in denying these bodies politic their destabilizing (not least because of their unpredictability) potentialities, but in so doing will have condemned themselves:

[From the destruction of power] results the by no means infrequent political combination of force and powerlessness, . . . In historical experience and traditional theory, this combination. . . is known as tyranny, and the time-honored fear of this form of government is not exclusively inspired by its cruelty. . . but by the impotence and futility to which it condemns the rulers as well as the ruled.

Yes, there is always the concern about mob rule, but as the photos [hat tip: Daily Dish] and videos of protesters aiding injured policemen attest, the ‘mob’ in Iran are the ones wearing the uniforms—or the be-robed men directed the men in uniform.

Who knows how this will end: the beauty of Arendtian politics is inseparable from its terror, the potentiality from its frailty.

But still! To witness what we can do! The promise. . . !





Violence cancels politics. . .

14 06 2009

. . . and politics cancels violence.

It’s a basic Arendtian equation.

See what’s happening in Iran: check out Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish.

I was never a huge fan of Sullivan’s, especially in his brash I-know-how-to-be-an-America-better-than-you-do phase, but in these past few years he’s been chastened by life—and become a much more interesting thinker as a result.

More to the point, for this post, is that he’s been posting as fast as he can on the situation in Iran, throwing up amazing photos (here, among others) and videos (here, and here, among others)  of street protests, as well as a variety of commentary on the elections. The urgency of the posts matches that of the activity; the Times’s coverage is pallid, by comparison.

Fascinating, heartbreaking, and breathtaking. Go. Read it all.








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