The chains are locked and tied across the door

21 07 2017

How does helplessness become resentment?

I’m in the midst of reading Robert Gellately’s edited transcripts of psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn’s interviews with Nazis at Nuremberg, Nuremberg Interviews; what is striking are the protestations that they could have done nothing other than what they did.

They were helpless.

They were helpless before Hitler’s charisma, helpless before his charm, helpless to do anything other than their sworn duty—to the military, to Germany, to their own high moral principles. And those who weren’t personally helpless emphasized Germany’s helplessness following WWI and the victors and their unjust Treaty of Versailles.

And as for the Jews, well, while these Nazis disclaimed any personal anti-Semitism, they did point to Jewish dominance of German cultural life and that so many Communists were Jews—so really, was it so wrong to want to free Germans from the yoke of such an alien people? Goldensohn paraphrased Alfred Rosenberg:

The cause of the Jewish question was, of course, the Jews themselves. The Jews are a nation, and like every nation, have a nationalist spirit. That’s all every well, but they should be in their own homeland. … Why couldn’t the Jews be allowed to remain where they were , in other lands? They would have been all right if they didn’t do bad things, but they did. What did the Jews do? They spat at German culture. How? They controlled the theater, publishing, the stores, and so on.

Similar sentiments were expressed by others: Jews provoked anti-Semitism by their involvement in German life. What else could Germans do? Of course they had to defend themselves.

There has been a great deal of discussion of the role of resentment in politics, but isn’t behind resentment some notion of victimhood, helplessness? How does despair over the inability to control one’s own life become politically virulent?

Propaganda, inarguably, but that can’t be the sole catalyst, can it? What makes it work?

And while it is supremely easy to dismiss the rationalizations of Nazi defendants, what cannot be dismissed is that some peoples have been victimized, are being victimized, and may justifiably feel helpless amidst the conditions of their oppression. Is it not just that they be freed?

Political mobilization draws in part on moving people from a sense of apathy or despair and toward action; when is this mobilization just, and when is it malignant?

One quick response might be that any mobilization which relies on or stokes resentment tends toward malignancy, but, honestly, that seems too quick: what, for example, distinguishes “righteous indignation” from “resentment”?

It could be that this distinction is too caught up in ideology to be of any analytical use, that is, that my good views will always be based in righteousness, while your bad views are riddled with resentment.

Again, there’s a ton of work, both scholarly and journalistic, on resentment in politics, so likely nothing I’m saying here is at all original—for originality, I recommend Nietzsche.

Still, Nietzsche disdained the ressentiment of the weak toward the strong; the resentment of the strong toward the weak, well, that would not even have occurred to them: to be strong was to be above it all.

We might as well try: We do what we’re told, told to do

5 08 2012

Libertarianism and anarchism are necessary adjuncts to any theory, but as theories themselves, they are shit.

Now, if I were as clever as Nietzsche, I could leave it at that: the man knew that aphorisms are so much more delightful—for the writer of them, at least—than their elaborations.

But I am duller than the mad German, more (if only fitfully) dutiful in extending my pronunciamentos into argument.

Still, I am in an aphoristic mood, so allow me to miss the dot-and-cross of explanation in favor of elision and leap and speculation: after all, even political theorists have to play.

And so, declaration upon declaration, a piling up standing in for the more consequential lock of link by link:

I had stated previously that no theory of politics which cannot take account of how we humans are deserve the name of theory; I may even have used the term political science fiction.

And, alas, as much affection as I hold for anarchism, it is as fantastical as libertarianism in its approach to human being. If libertarianism can’t think of value beyond liberty, anarchism cannot imagine the irreconcilability of interests. Libertarianism conceives of humans as adults emerging fully formed from the mud, anarchism sees us instinctively in communion. They see the state, the corporation, as the obstacles to our true selves, the heavy gate locking us away from utopia.

In short, libertarianism is too small in its understanding of humans, while anarchism would have us floating above the ground. One thinks too little of humans, the other, too much; neither knows what to do with coercion.

And there’s the rub: there is no human polity without coercion, no human congress at all, so any political theory which is to direct us has to take coercion’s measure, calculate how to deploy and constrain coercion in a manner most congenial to that theory’s purpose.

Neither libertarianism nor anarchism is fitted to such calculations. Libertarianism falls into hysterics at the merest whisper of coercion, imagining itself Mel Gibson’s William Wallace rasping out “Freedom!” as it is gutted by the king’s men, while anarchism, too, imagines that if it gets rid of kings and bosses it gets rid of coercion. They share the delusion that if only individuals or the people were left alone, that if the state and the corporation were to disappear,  power and interest would disappear with them.

Forced to toil in service to real theory, however, these adjuncts serve a real purpose. Libertarianism reminds one of the massive accumulation of coercive power in the state, and how easily that state may justify to itself any use of that power; if one cares at all the liberty and integrity of the individual, it is good to have a counter-valence to the state. Anarchism remembers that these same individuals and the communities in which they live are capable, often more capable, than is the central state in providing, or at least arranging the provisions, for themselves.

To put this more simply, when serving as a minor chord in a major theory, they are forced to reckon with elements they would otherwise dismiss, and by this reckoning they provide a leavening necessary to the continued functioning of that theory. Their resistance creates breathing room that theory in its denseness would not otherwise provide.

Libertarianism and anarchism, then, are honorable resistance fighters, but it is best if they rarely, if ever, defeat what they resist.

Break like the wind

19 05 2011

Not a fan of Lars von Trier.

I should say up front that I haven’t actually seen a von Trier film in its entirety: I’ve seen chunks of Dancer in the Dark and bits of Breaking the Waves but, for the most part, I have been quite content to let his Dogma pass me by.

I’m not quite sure why, oh, hell, I know exactly why—because I don’t care to spend 90 or 120 or 150 minutes watching women get the shit beaten out of them physically, sexually, emotionally, and/or intellectually. I know, he’s supposed to very artistic in his assaults, and perhaps he’s even making some kind of point about the status of women, but point or not, I don’t want to watch it.

(I consider this a bit of a failing on my part, actually, that I am unwilling to sit through movies which make me uncomfortable or set me off, but, well, let me hold off on why I think so.)

Still, as a non-connoisseur of his works, I admit that I may be missing something wonderful and sly, and that people who love his work might have terrific reasons for doing so. I even have a bit of admiration for that whole Dogma thing—not because I sign on to worth of its strictures, but because the attempt to place limits on oneself in service to art is a worthy practice.

Calling oneself a Nazi in service to art is, however, puzzling.

I’m with The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody when he argues that

it should not be troubling to anyone that he claims to understand Hitler; it’s the job of artists to attempt to understand and enter into imaginative sympathy even with monsters; what makes artists artists is their ability to illuminate the darkest regions of the soul.

I don’t think you have to be a Nietzschean (although it might help) to see that art has its own morality, one which does not and perhaps even should not have much to do with ethical or political norms.
Still, it is perhaps unsurprising that when a man-of-the-movies opines at a film festival press conference on sympathies which, um, heavily intersect with history and politics, that there might be some complications:

But, anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out I’m really a Nazi, because my family was German, Hartmann, which also gave me some kind of pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. But I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.

He continues the ramble (you can read it at the link, above) with asides about Israel (“a pain in the ass”) and  Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier and a thumbs-up for Albert Speer, only to have it all end (more or less) with him saying “Okay, I’m a Nazi.”

The Cannes Film Festival booted von Trier, although his film Melancholia remains. That seems about right.

Yes, even with my the-artists-must-be-free schtick (and even as I accept that von Trier might be less artist than huckster—but that’s another conversation), that they ought to have the freedom to create even the most outrageous art, that doesn’t mean they get a free (ahem) pass to say whatever they want wherever they want without consequence. Slap, and be slapped in turn.

And given the Cannes Film Festival’s own history—it was created as an explicit counterpoint to the fascist-overrun Venice Film Festival—it is unsurprising that organizers would take a dim view of anyone claiming sympathy with Nazis, even if done so (half?)-jokingly and without any apparent forethought.

Maybe he thought he was being clever and provocative, maybe he panicked as a stray thought managed to find its way into words and he had no way of reining it back in. Maybe he did mean it. Maybe he’s just a prick.

I tend to go with a combination of clever/provocative and panicked. He did apologize, which suggests either cravenness and/or abashedness; again, I go with the combo option.

I also think the fest organizers’ actions ought to be the end of it. Certainly, some moviegoers might want to avoid his films as a result or some actors might not take a call from him—if you can’t get past the man to experience the work—but there’s no ipso facto reason to avoid his films.

None of this is to excuse von Trier, bumbling offender though he may be, nor is it an excuse for Woody Allen or Mel Gibson or Roman Polanski. Again, if you can’t get past the man—I can’t, really, with Gibson—then it makes sense to avoid the work, but I don’t know that this is so much a moral position as an aesthetic one.

And that you like the work of  von Trier, Gibson, Allen, or Polanski doesn’t make you a Nazi, a violent and anti-Semitic misogynist, a schmuck, or a rapist, nor does appreciation for their work signal acceptance of their behavior. And please, if you do love the work of people who’ve done or said wretched things, don’t feel like you have to minimize said wretchedness (“it wasn’t ‘rape’ rape”) in order to justify that love.

Have the courage of your artistic convictions.