Archive for November, 2014

Arendt and ‘Clicktivism’

November 19, 2014

We all have that friend on Facebook who persistently posts feminist articles, along with a self-righteous statement, cleverly crafted to reflect their colorful personality and hint their political views. Or that one Tumblr user who will not stop reblogging pictures of sad puppies to ‘raise awareness’ for animal abuse.  ‘All you need to do is click to donate just $5 to the [insert name here] Foundation.’  We usually  ignore it and scroll down to the next post.

Often times we see posts in social media about war, political injustice, abuse and violence our first reaction is the obvious  empathy and disturbance followed by a frantic youtube search for cute animals.  The internet gives us the opportunity to gawk at, shudder, and then subsequently flee from the situation whereas fifty years ago there was no such escape – the news was simply television, radio, and newspaper. God forbid, life gets out of hand and you can bury your nose in a book. The internet has nurtured our complacency and allowed for individual conscience to flourish. On social media we seek to assuade our conscience by reblogging, reposting, commenting, etc to give an impression of our compassion to the issue, however it does not serve much purpose than to further circulate the information and spread the word. Not to deny the importance of  ‘raising awareness,’ but seldom does recognition of an issue push for public political action.

Take the KONY 2012 campaign. Thanks to social media the attention it recieved was immense and had potential to be a huge turn out for international actvism. Millions of people watched the campaign video, pledged to get involved in ‘Invisible Children’ fundraisers  and so on. However the presentation and poor organization of information prevented the campaign from leaving the internet. What’s left of KONY 2012 are the stickers and  a whole lot of controversy.

Or, more recently, the ALS ice bucket challenge. How many people who did the ice bucket challenge actually donated to the cause? Many who doused themselves did so or had to donate $100 to the ALS Foundation. So, yes, indeed it ‘raised awareness’  – and all the wealthy celebrities got involved and donated most of the money. But this is the ultimate example of collective conscience. We douse ourselves for ‘visibility’ – we are feeding our own egos while simultaneously supposedly helping this cause. I am certainly not one to argue against the effectiveness or decry the effect/effort put into this internet movement. This is simply to point out the danger of ‘click-to-donate’  activism.

Whatever the cause is there is the common phenomenon of the information spreading like wildfire and then a quick burnout; no activism seen outside the computer screen. There is a visible international response  but no follow up, therefore rendering public politics innefective. Therefore much of our ‘clicktivism’ is us acting in compassion and/or perhaps conscience, yet rarely do we decide to take matters beyond making an online donation. “Here, as elsewhere, conscience is unpolitical. It is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed or in the  consequences that the wrong will have for the future of the world.” [Arendt p60].  What Arendt states here is that there is that conscience and the duty of being a good citizen are separate. Being a good citizen would require political action and the functioning of individuals in concert to represent a cause.

The problem that lies in ‘clicktivism’ or social media activism is that it does not involve genuine engagement in poitics in context of participation and public demonstration. Participatory democracy, in which individual citizens directly make political decisions about policies relevant to them, is becoming obsolete thanks to social media. Thus it  further damages politics by allowing private consumption/advertising and the propigation of the citizens personal beliefs rather than promoting facts. The basis of many social media interactions are emotional, which allows for apolitical activity such as conscience  to continue. Conscience is then manipulated in  a way that prioritizes  consumption before conscientious objection.




The miracle of the ordinary

November 11, 2014

It has become something of an ongoing joke in class that I have a tendency to emphasize how bleak everything is. I suppose it’s true. One can hardly spend large amounts of time studying the world of human affairs without becoming aware of the extraordinary levels stupidity, mendacity, and violence at work in how humans conduct themselves. Arendt was perhaps more aware of this than most of us; having lived through the rise of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, she knew quite well just how awful people–even supposedly civilized and moral ones–could be. Still, one of the things that is most interesting about her is that she insists not just on looking at the awfulness of human affairs squarely, but also insists on thinking about how to remain politically and morally responsible even in dark times.

Consider the following passage, which comes from her book, The Human Condition:

Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one achievement among others. It is then, indeed, no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object. This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward an end whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda (180).

As in all things with Arendt, there are a great many things going on in the passage (e.g., the reference to the “disclosure of the agent in the act” would take quite a while to explain; her claim, in short, is that it is through genuine action that we create/disclose who we are, as opposed to what we are); however, I want to highlight one core aspect, which is the interplay between the “miraculous” and the “ordinary” in this passage. Let us note first that, in the first sentence, Arendt is alluding to the idea that action is not just one achievement among others; to be sure, it can become this when “human togetherness is lost” (her example of this loss of togetherness–modern warfare–is interesting; on the one hand, the loss of togetherness is obvious in the sense that we are no longer together with the enemy, but even among “us”–the friends–this togetherness is lost. In becoming unified against “them,” plurality is lost. The space “in between” disappears as we become a unity).

Nevertheless, her language is quite clear: the “specific character” of action is to be something different from other achievements–different from, say, making a chair or cleaning the house. How is it different? Well, like violence, making a chair is instrumental; one does X, Y, and Z to achieve some specific end (the chair). Action, by contrast, has no pre-defined end; indeed, it is “open-ended,” in the sense that the meaning of my action depends upon how others receive and interpret my action (We can clearly see this in, for instance, in Jesus’s action to be crucified; the meaning of this action has clearly been interpreted and reinterpreted over the millennia. The action that inspired, say, the civil rights protesters was interpreted by Torquemada to support the persecution and torture of heretics. Whatever Jesus might have meant by his action, it is clear that he isn’t actually in control of how others respond to it). Action is connected to a form of speech that is not aimed at deception or dazzling with propaganda, but toward disclosing the actor, forming (or re-forming) a group, on creating something new in the social world.

Now, let us recall Arendt’s conception of power, which describes as an action in concert. Let us also note what makes this action in concert possible: in “On Violence,” Arendt notes that power (action in concert) derives its legitimacy from the “initial getting together rather than from any action that might follow.” In other places, for instance in her book On Revolution, Arendt makes it clear that this initial getting together is legitimate insofar as it is based on free and sincere promises. So we can say that legitimate power is a form of action in concert that arises on the basis of free and sincere promising. What is interesting here, however, is that promise-making is a rather ordinary activity. Action in concert–which as we see in the quoted paragraph above is extraordinary–is deeply connected to something rather everyday and mundane.

This, I want to suggest, is not an error or a contradiction; rather, part of what Arendt is trying to do is to orient us toward a recognition of the extraordinary in ordinary life. When we look at the world from this point of view, we can see that ordinary practices–promise keeping, speaking, and so on–can take on heroic or extraordinary dimensions. Action and speech sustains the social fabric, or maintains political reality, often in the face of extraordinary pressures to undo or destroy it.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean: In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes the remarkable case of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt. Schmidt ended up providing significant material support to the Jewish underground resistance movement in Poland. His actions were eventually discovered, and he was executed by the Germans in the spring of 1942. Arendt’s discussion of Schmidt is, I think, quite telling. One of the arguments frequently made by Germans in the aftermath of the war is that they didn’t resist the Nazis because such resistance would have been useless. Not only, the argument goes, would it have failed to achieve any real changes, but the resistance most likely would simply have been fully forgotten: it is in the nature of totalitarian regimes not just to purge all resistance but consign it to oblivion–to make sure that all traces of resistance are forgotten. Arendt counters this argument in the following way:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June 1942 on, to erase all traces of the massacres…were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation (pp. 232-233, emphasis in original).

Anton Schmidt’s actions were at once ordinary and extraordinary: nothing could be more ordinary and normal than helping another in need, in acting morally and with integrity; yet under conditions of terror, these ordinary acts become miraculous. Schmidt seemed to understand this. In his letters to his wife, he explained his actions by describing how he felt when he saw his fellow soldiers murdering children: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.” And he added, “I only acted as a human being and desired doing harm to no one.” With these words we can see why Arendt thought that only goodness has any “depth,” that only goodness was interesting. In the face of overwhelming social pressure and violence, Schmidt remained true to the core moral principle, “thou shalt not kill,” and this adherence is truly remarkable and worth thinking about.

And this is why his actions were not (and are not) in vain. In acting in ways that disclosed his integrity, in acting to maintain the social fabric, in reproducing human togetherness, he in fact achieved something extraordinary. Indeed, he achieved perhaps even the greatest thing humans can achieve in this world: he made the world fit for human habitation; he reminded us, in other words, that humans are still free, that we can still act, and that we can always maintain our integrity and our responsibility.

This, it seems to me, cuts to the heart of Arendt’s preoccupations. She wants to understand how action, power, and politics–how human activity, in short–can make this world still a place worth living in. All times humans have lived have been “dark times,” we might say. The question, then, is how we can act in ways that provide some light in that darkness.

Bernie Sanders Channels his Inner Arendt

November 8, 2014

In the wake of the recent midterm elections, I thought I would share this interview with the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (Sanders characterizes himself as a socialist, but in this interview he channels the idea of participatory democracy). The interview is around 25 minutes long, though you can read the transcript if you’d prefer. One key moment in the interview is this:

BILL MOYERS: How do you make the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party pay attention to the power of a populist message unless you’re in the debates in 2016, when most of the public is paying attention to political messages?

BERNIE SANDERS: This has been my political experience. When you rally the grassroots of the country or the city or of your state, when people begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. We want to do well by our kids. We want to protect the environment. We believe we should join the rest of the world in terms of having health care for all, single-payer health care for all, et cetera, et cetera.’

When people begin to move, the people on top will follow them. So, whether it’s Hillary or anybody else, what we have got to do is mobilize the American people in a way that we have not seen in recent history around a progressive agenda. Bill, every poll that I have seen, when they ask the American people, what is the most important issue that you’re concerned about? You know what they say? Jobs and the economy.

How come we are not investing heavily in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. $1 trillion invested in rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, rail creates 13 million decent-paying jobs. You know what? The American people want us to do that. They want us to raise the minimum wage. So, you need a very strong agenda. You need a mechanism. And you’ve asked a hard question. Easier to say than to do, to rally people around that agenda. And once you do that, things will take care of itself.

BILL MOYERS: This is what Barack Obama did in 2008. He asked people to take over the Democratic Party, progressives and populists, everyday people that you describe in your speech out in Richmond. He asked those people to come in and, elect me and we’ll do just exactly what Bernie Sanders would do if he were president. Hasn’t happened.

BERNIE SANDERS: I have lot of respect for Barack Obama. But, his biggest mistake is that, after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, where millions of people in fact were galvanized, young people, people of color came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some real change.’ The day after the election he said, okay, thank you very much. Now I’m going to work inside the Beltway and we’re going to start negotiating with Republicans and all that stuff. The simple truth is, in my view, nothing gets done unless millions and millions of people will demand it. Politics is 365 days a year.

BILL MOYERS: Not just voting?

BERNIE SANDERS: Exactly. And anyone, you can have the best person in the world as president of the United States, that person will accomplish nothing unless millions of people are standing behind him or her. Just an example, Bill, everybody, all the young people in this country are worried about student debt. The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people can’t even afford to go to college.

You have a million people, a million young people marching on Washington saying, there’s a vote coming up. And if you vote the wrong way, we know who you are. We actually are paying attention. You aren’t going to get reelected. We will lower the cost of college substantially and deal with the student debt crisis. It will not happen. It will not happen unless millions of people are activated.

The Arendtian notion of power here is quite obvious. There is a tendency, he argues, for people to think that social change occurs primarily through passing laws or getting courts to recognize various rights. In contrast to this, Sanders claims that passing a law is often only the beginning of a political conflict, not its end. Consider the ACA (also known as “Obamacare”). The law as passed in 2010; since then, the Republican party has taken every step it can to get rid of it. They have tried to repeal it and to get the court system to declare it to be illegal. But they have also taken steps to make sure that its implementation is unsuccessful (for instance, states where Republicans have majorities have not enacted the insurance exchanges the law calls for, thus requiring the Federal government to set them up instead; similarly, many Republican-controlled states have refused federal money to extend Medicaid coverage to the poor). In other words, for better or for worse (I make no judgment here), the Republican party has mobilized its supporters to treat the passage of the ACA as the start of an ongoing political battle. Sanders, in effect, is arguing that the Democrats need to do the same thing. If you want more spending to improve infrastructure, create better health care, or increase support for education (thus reducing student loan debt), we cannot wait for political leaders to spontaneously decide to do so. There must instead be the organization and generation of public power.

Of course, the trouble here is that this kind of power cannot (by definition) be fostered or administered from above. Moreover, for various reasons, almost no one has any experience in organizing or developing such power. We don’t even know where to begin, and so we have no “taste” for action, its joys and its obstacles. In this respect, Sanders’ comments might (or might not) be inspiring, but they also seem peculiarly hollow, at least to me. People have been making the point Sanders is articulating here for decades, but it’s still not entirely clear what precisely one could do to foster the kind of action he’s calling for.