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Dayenu in Reverse: The Passover Canon of Arendt’s Critics

26 Oct

One of the more recent criticisms I’ve read of Eichmann in Jerusalem—in Bettina Stangneth’s and Deborah Lipstadt’s books—is that far from seeing, or seeing through, Eichmann, Arendt was taken in by his performance on the witness stand. Eichamnn the liar, Eichmann the con man, got the better of Arendt the dupe.

For the sake of his defense, the argument goes, Eichmann pretended to be a certain type of Nazi—not a Jew hater but a dutiful if luckless soldier, who wound up, almost by happenstance, shipping millions of Jews to their death.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

According to evidence presented by Stangneth and Lipstadt, Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel was indeed a performance on Eichmann’s part. The truth is that he was a rabid anti-Semite who took initiative and on occasion defied the directives of his superiors in order to make sure even more Jews went to their death; at one point, Lipstadt reports, he even personally challenged Hitler’s order to allow some 40,000 Hungarian Jews to be released for emigration to Palestine via Switzerland.

At every stage of his career, Eichmann knew what he was doing. In power, he did it with zeal; out of power, in the dock, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t, or that if he had, that he had no choice.

Arendt’s vision of the banality of evil, her critics claim, rests upon a failure to see this, the real Eichmann. Eichmann the trickster, Eichmann the con man, rather than Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel.

As I’ve written before, I think there’s something to this argument about Arendt’s failure to apprehend Eichmann’s performance as a performance. Arendt sometimes, though not nearly as often as her critics claim, did take Eichmann at his word, and it never seems to have occurred to her that he would have had the cunning—and necessary self-awareness—to fashion an image of himself that might prove more palatable to the court.

But if Eichmann was indeed a liar, that, it seems to me, argues in favor of Arendt’s overall thesis of the banality of evil, not against it. Once you work through the implications of Eichmann the liar—as opposed to Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel—it becomes clear that it is Arendt’s critics, rather than Arendt, who have not only failed to come to terms with his evil, but who also may have, albeit inadvertently, minimized what he actually did.

So let’s work this one through.

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To repeat: At the heart of Eichmann’s evil, Arendt believes, was a certain kind of cluelessness about what it was that he did, which was rooted in his inability to see how his actions and statements might appear to another person, particularly someone who had been the victim of his acts. Eichmann might admit, as he did on the stand, that the Holocaust was “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity,” but those were just words. He simply did not grasp the meaning of what he did. Or said.

Arendt offers plentiful evidence for this claim, some of which cannot be construed as lies on Eichmann’s part. After she writes that Eichmann “never realized what he was doing,” for example, she says:

It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted.

That Eichmann thought he had found a sympathetic audience for his sob story of slights and snubs at the hands of the SS in the form of a German Jew—whose father, Lipstadt informs us, Eichmann knew to have been killed at Auschwitz; perhaps Eichmann even thought his interrogator might identify with him as a fellow victim of the SS—was an indication, Arendt believed, of his inability to think from “the other fellow’s point of view,” an inability that outlasted his time in the sun with the Nazis.

But it was when he was on the witness stand that Eichmann truly proved himself a thoughtless man. For when Eichmann presented himself in what he clearly thought was an exculpatory light he only wound up indicting himself even further. This, for Arendt, was the horror—and comedy—of the man.

Eichmann thought he was offering himself up (whether sincerely or not) to the court as a more palatable specimen, not realizing: first, that given what he did (and admitted to having done), there was nothing he could do or say that would redeem him; and, second, that the exculpatory examples he offered were only further confirmation of his evil.

Arendt writes, for example:

None of the various “language rules,” [the Nazis’ various euphemisms for their murderous deeds, what Eichmann called “winged words”] carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for “murder” was replaced by the phrase “to grant a mercy death.” Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain. During the trial, he showed unmistakable signs of sincere outrage when witnesses told of cruelties and atrocities committed by S.S. men—though the court and much of the audience failed to see these signs, because his single-minded effort to keep his self-control had misled them into believing that the was “unmovable” and indifferent—and it was not the accusation of having sent millions of death to their death that ever caused him real agitation but only the accusation (dismissed by the court) of one witness that he had once beaten a Jewish boy to death.

This is the sort of passage that makes critics of Arendt think, ah, there she goes again, giving Eichmann the benefit of the doubt, taking him at his word, assuming he’s more humane than he in fact was.

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument, however, that Arendt’s critics are wrong, that she was not taken in by Eichmann and that she had him, at least here, pegged right. Any reader of this passage can see that her point is not that Eichmann was humane but that he was morally and politically—and ultimately intellectually (though not psychologically)—deranged. That he could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions—something he admitted to on the stand, Arendt reminds us—but think that his crimes were mitigated by the fact that he neither caused people unnecessary pain nor ever laid a hand on a poor Jewish boy and in fact was genuinely outraged by any sign of cruelty by the SS: that for Arendt was a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done.

Now let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Arendt’s critics are right, that she was in fact taken in by him and that this was all a big lie for the witness stand. It doesn’t change her point at all; in fact, it only strengthens it. That Eichmann could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions but nevertheless think that the court would somehow conclude he wasn’t so bad because he didn’t cause people unnecessary pain nor ever lay a hand on a poor Jewish boy—and then, on the basis of that lunatic assumption, deceive the court in the hope that it might get him off or get him a lighter sentence: that too should be taken as a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done. For who but Eichmann could possibly believe that that mitigated his crime in any way?

Whether Eichmann believed what he said or was lying to save his ass, his failure to think—the banality of his evil—is demonstrated by the fact that he assumed there might be something he could do or say that would get him off the hook. Even at the moment when he was facing his own death, he couldn’t imagine the enormity of his crimes, how they would appear to others.

At the heart of Arendt’s assessment, then, is the idea that once Eichmann set down the path of mass murder of the Jews, nothing he did or didn’t do, nothing he said or didn’t say, could change, alter, soften, or otherwise mitigate that fact. It was that enormous. To think otherwise was not to understand the enormity of the crime.

One can cite other examples from Eichmann in Jerusalem. Like this one:

Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann’s undoing. It was sheer rodomontade when he told his men during the last days of the war: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews…on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” He did not jump, and if he had anything on his conscience, it was not murder but, as it turned out that, that he had once slapped the face of Dr. Josef Löwenherz, head of the Vienna Jewish community, who later became one of his favorite Jews. (He had apologized in front of his staff at the time, but this incident kept bothering him.)

Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.

Arendt did not believe that this kind of cluelessness was peculiar to Eichmann; it was rife throughout the Nazi high command.

Himmler’s order in the fall of 1944 to halt the extermination and to dismantle the installations at the death factories sprang from his absurd but sincere conviction that the Allied powers would know how to appreciate this obliging gesture; he told a rather incredulous Eichmann that on the strength of it he would be able to negotiate a Hubertusburger-Frieden—an allusion to the Peace Treaty of Hubertusburg that concluded the Seven Years’ War of Frederick II of Prussia in 1763 and enabled Prussia to retain Silesia, although she had lost the war.

And far from seeing this thoughtlessness as a sign of the petty bourgeois origins of Eichmann, Arendt found it at the highest rungs of society. She could barely contain her disbelief at the aristocratic conspirators of 1944 who tried to kill Hitler but thought, like Himmler, that they could negotiate a “just peace” with the Allies that would allow Germany to keep Austria and the Sudetenland (the fruits of Hitler’s earliest crimes of aggression) and a “’leading position for Germany on the Continent.’”

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Once we realize how little of Arendt’s banality thesis hinges upon whether Eichmann was a liar or a believer of his own bullshit, we begin to see that there is something peculiar about the claim that Arendt was taken in by Eichmann.

As a simple empirical observation, the claim is perfectly plausible and unobjectionable, and indeed, as I’ve already said, can shed some interesting light on Arendt’s other ideas about performance and lying.

But Arendt’s critics want to use Eichmann the liar as a cudgel: not against Arendt in error (most philosophers make errors) or even against Arendt the dupe. No, they want to make Arendt into, if not an abettor of or apologist for evil, than at least an evader or minimizer of evil, who denies the wickedness of the Holocaust by insisting on the banality of one of its perpetrators.

Richard Wolin makes the point simply and directly:

It is at this point that the ultimate stakes of the debate over Eichmann’s “banality” emerge most clearly. For if Eichmann was “banal,” then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined.

And should the implication not be clear, he makes it plain:

What should have been clear then and should certainly be clear now is that if the Holocaust was banal, then it was not evil.

It’s not clear how any of this follows logically (if Jefferson was a benevolent slaveholder, does slavery become benevolent?), but Arendt’s point was just the opposite: the Holocaust was evil, Eichmann was banal, and the terrifying puzzle at the heart of it all—she called it “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying”—was how could such a smallness be a source, if not the source, of such a terrible largeness?

Lipstadt is more balanced and circumspect in her final judgment of Arendt, but she too ventures into some strange territory.

Lipstadt begins with a claim about Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem that, on its own terms, is straightforward enough:

Her work, even as it tried to explain critical aspects of the most extensive genocide in human history, submerged the most fundamental and indispensable elements of this event. She ignored the bedrock of the Holocaust: the long, tortured (torturing) history of anti-Semitism.

Nor, however, can one dismiss the way in which she so seamlessly elided the ideology that was at the heart of this genocide. She related a version of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism played a decidedly minor role.

Unlike some of her defenders, I think Arendt does underplay Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. (Oddly enough, a similar charge could be leveled at her Origins of Totalitarianism, a book that has never aroused the kind of wrath and rage that Eichmann has.) Unlike her critics, however, I don’t see Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism as the moral failure on her part that they apparently see it as. I simply think she was wrong, and while her error is symptomatic of certain blinders she had, those are not the sort of blinders that should turn Eichmann or its author into an occasion for an exorcism.

But for Lipstadt and other critics, they are. For Arendt’s refusal to see Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is part and parcel of her fraternization with, even indulgence of, the anti-Semitism of her friends and lovers.

Hannah Arendt spoke with many voices. One modulated itself for the likes of Mary McCarthy and her set, many of whom delighted in and felt liberated by a Jew’s severe critique of Ben-Gurion, Israel, and her fellow Jews. Her comments freed them from having to self-censor when they spoke of Jewish matters….This Arendt may also have been subliminally writing for her teacher and former lover, the revered philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, ejected Jewish professors from the university where he severed as rector, affirmed Nazi ideals, and never recanted his wartime actions.

At one point, Lipstadt even compares Arendt to Eichmann:

She was guilty of precisely the same wrong she derisively ascribed to Adolf Eichmann. She—the great political philosopher who claimed that careful thought and precise expression were of supreme value—did not “think.” She wanted to provoke her readers to re-evaluate their assumptions, but she either did not care or did not fully consider how her caustic comments might be heard by them.

(It never seems to have occurred to Lipstadt that the only reason we (and she) are still talking about Eichmann in Jerusalem a half-century after its publication is that, for all of its caustic comments, the book has managed, like all great works of political theory, to consistently provoke its readers to reevaluate their assumptions.)

Hovering around the edges of these statements is the suggestion that Eichmann in Jerusalem enabled a genteel anti-Semitism—liberating the long suppressed feelings of Arendt’s goyish friends—and trafficked in its far more malignant forms, channeling the spirit of the Nazi Heidegger and mirroring the thoughtlessness of the Nazi Eichmann. In other words, sleeping with the enemy.

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There’s no question that Arendt herself believed that the Nazis had committed a crime of massive proportion and that Eichmann had a major, if overstated, hand in that crime. And unlike Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and a great many others in Israel and elsewhere, Arendt had no doubt that Eichmann ought to hang for his deeds (even Ben-Gurion, Lipstadt claims, had momentary doubts about that). Even if Arendt underplayed Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, even if she got his banality wrong, she was absolutely clear that he had helped perpetrate one of the greatest mass murders in history, that he was a moral catastrophe of the highest order, and that he should hang for his crimes. None of these final judgments of hers was dependent on her assessment of his anti-Semitism or banality. For Arendt, it was enough that he was a mass murderer and an ethical catastrophe that he should hang.

So why all the high dudgeon of her critics? Why this operatic suggestion from them that by minimizing his anti-Semitism and insisting on his banality Arendt was somehow letting Eichmann off the hook? It’s almost as if, to these critics, sending millions of Jews to their death, and being a moral catastrophe, is not in fact enough. Certainly not enough for Eichmann to hang.

The reaction of Arendt’s critics makes me wonder whether Eichmann the liar might not have had a point, whether there might not have been a method to his madness on the stand. His gamble on the stand was that if the court could see how little he enjoyed his work, how little taste for blood he actually had, how upright he was in the execution of his duties, they’d let him off the hook.

Whether this was a strategy or the truth wouldn’t have made a difference to Arendt. In either case, she would have concluded, he was guilty of mass murder; in either case he was a moral catastrophe; in either case, he was banal; in either case he should hang; in either case he was evil. But maybe what her critics are saying is: if he was a mass murderer and banal, if he was a mass murder and not anti-Semitic, then somehow his crimes really would be less. As Wolin says, no banality, no evil.

At Passover, we sing a song called Dayenu. Dayenu means “it would have been enough,” it would have been sufficient, it would have sufficed. We sing it in honor of all the things God did for us, as Jews, in the Exodus and after that. After we cite each one of these things God did for us, we say, Dayenu, it would have been enough. The cumulative force of the song is that just one of these things would have been enough, but God did so much more. Had God only led us out of Egypt, it would have been enough. But God also led us across the Red Sea. And had God only led us across the Red Sea, it would have been enough. But God also drowned our enemies there. And had God not only drowned our enemies there…you get the picture.

It seems as if, for Arendt’s critics, there’s a kind of reverse Dayenu at work. Their Passover canon goes like this: Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe and would have been hanged for his deeds, it would not have been…you get the picture.

Sheldon Wolin’s the reason I began drinking coffee

23 Oct

Sheldon Wolin‘s the reason I began drinking coffee.

I was a freshman at Princeton. It was the fall of 1985. I signed up to take a course called “Modern Political Theory.” It was scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays at 9 am. I had no idea what I was doing. I stumbled into class, and there was a man with white hair and a trim white beard, lecturing on Machiavelli. I was transfixed.

There was just one problem: I was—still am—most definitely not a morning person. Even though the lectures were riveting, I had to fight my tendency to fall asleep. Even worse, I had to fight my tendency to sleep in.

So I started drinking coffee. I’d show up for class fully caffeinated. And proceeded to work my way through the canon—Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, along with some texts you don’t often get in intro theory courses (the Putney Debates, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, and for a last hurrah: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations)—under the guidance of one of the great readers of the twentieth century.

More than anything else, that’s what Sheldon Wolin was: a reader of texts. He approached The Prince as if it were a novel, identifying its narrative voice, analyzing the literary construction of the characters who populated the text (new prince, customary prince, centaur, the people), examining the structural tensions in the narrative (How does a Machiavellian adviser advise a non-Machiavellian prince?), and so on. It was exhilarating.

And then after class I’d head straight for Firestone Library; read whatever we were reading that week in class; follow along, chapter by chapter, with Wolin’s Politics and Vision, which remains to this day the single best book on Western political theory that I know of (even though lots of the texts we were talking about in class don’t appear there, or appear there with very different interpretations from the ones Wolin was offering in class: the man never stood still, intellectually); and get my second cup of coffee.

This is all a long wind-up to the fact that this morning, my friend Antonio Vazquez-Arroyo, sent me a two-part interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Wolin, who’s living out in Salem, Oregon now. From his Wikipedia page, I gather that Wolin’s 92. He looks exactly the same as he did in 1985. And sounds the same. Though it seems from the video as if he may now be losing his sight. Which is devastating when I think about the opening passages of Politics and Vision, about how vision is so critical to the political theorist and the practice of theoria.

Anyway, here he is, talking to Hedges about his thesis of “inverted totalitarianism”:

In classic totalitarianism, thinking here now about the Nazis and the fascists, and also even about the communists, the economy is viewed as a tool which the powers that be manipulate and utilize in accordance with what they conceive to be the political requirements of ruling. And they will take whatever steps are needed in the economy in order to ensure the long-run sustainability of the political order. In other words, the sort of arrows of political power flow from top to bottom. Now, in inverted totalitarianism, the imagery is that of a populace which is enshrined as the leadership group but which in fact doesn’t rule, but which is turned upside down in the sense that the people are enshrined at the top but don’t rule. And minority rule is usually treated as something to be abhorred but is in fact what we have. And it’s the problem has to do, I think, with the historical relationship between political orders and economic orders. And democracy, I think, from the beginning never quite managed to make the kind of case for an economic order that would sustain and help to develop democracy rather than being a kind of constant threat to the egalitarianism and popular rule that democracy stands for.

Capitalism is destructive because it has to eliminate the kind of custom, mores, political values, even institutions that present any kind of credible threat to the autonomy of the economy. And it’s that–that’s where the battle lies. Capitalism wants an autonomous economy. They want a political order subservient to the needs of the economy. And their notion of an economy, while it’s broadly based in the sense of a capitalism in which there can be relatively free entrance and property is relatively widely dispersed it’s also a capitalism which, in the last analysis, is [as] elitist as any aristocratic system ever was.

Have a listen and a watch. Part 1 and then Part 2.

David Brooks, Edmund Burke, and Me

23 Oct

David Brooks:

Burke is famous for his belief in gradual change….I’m sticking to my Burkean roots. Change should be steady, constant and slow. Society has structural problems, but they have to be reformed by working with existing materials, not sweeping them away in a vain hope for instant transformation.

Edmund Burke on the East India Company:

It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.


The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read….Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.

David Brooks:

Gail, as you know I have a policy of teaching at colleges I couldn’t have gotten into, and as a result I find myself teaching at Yale….I just got out of a class in which we discussed Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

Adolph Eichmann: Funny Man?

22 Oct

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann to be so unintentionally funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man. Many at the time found this distasteful; since then, her ironic appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been a sign, to Arendt’s critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:

This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann's lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even thought their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.

When I draw comparisons between libertarians and slaveholders…

19 Oct

When I put libertarians and slaveholders in the same orbit, libertarians go ape-shit.

But when they do it

We treat John C. Calhoun as a precursor of modern public choice theory. Calhoun anticipates the doctrine of public choice contractarianism as developed by Buchanan and Tullock and expands this approach in original directions. We consider Calhoun’s theory of why democracy fails to preserve liberty and Calhoun’s suggested constitutional reform, rule by unanimity. We also draw out parallels between Calhoun and Hayek with regard to theories of social change and Hayek’s analysis of “why the worst get to the top.” The paper concludes with some remarks on problems in Calhoun’s theory.

—it’s all good.

Of course, it helps if you can resolve that pesky question of slavery like so:

Furthermore, Calhoun furnishes only weak ethical foundations for his advocacy of the concurrent majority…

This lack of ethical foundation shows up in Calhoun’s defense of slavery, which continues to hurt his reputation and draw attention from his more valid and interesting contributions.

H/t Suresh Naidu

Of Collaborators and Careerists

17 Oct

The announcement of the death of David Greenglass has got me thinking a lot about collaborators. Though much of twentieth-century history could not be written without some discussion of collaborators—from Vichy to Stalinism to the Dirty Wars to McCarthyism—the topic hardly gets a mention in the great texts of political theory. Eichmann in Jerusalem being the sole exception.

In my first book on fear, I tried to open a preliminary discussion of the topic. That discussion drew from a wide range of twentieth-century experiences, in Europe, Latin America, the US, and elsewhere, as well as from my reading of Eichmann and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Reading over what I wrote, I’d say I failed. I was so intent on breaking apart the conventional understanding of the collaborator as someone who aids and abets a foreign enemy that I wound up broadening the category too much. So intent was I, also, on breaking apart the three-legged stool of perpetrator-victim-bystander—where was the collaborator in all this, I wondered—that I wound up conflating low-level perpetrators with collaborators; I now think there’s an important difference there.

That said, I thought I’d reprint my discussion here. As I said, political theorists have yet to grapple with the problem of collaboration. Or of careerism, which is a related topic. One day, when I’m in my dotage, I’d like to write a book, a kind of political theory of careerism and collaboration. Arendt thought we should take our theoretical cues from actual political experience; political theory was first and foremost an attempt to understand what we are doing. That’s why she wrote books and essays on totalitarianism, revolution, action, and other political phenomena. But when it comes to careerism and collaboration, we have yet to understand what we are doing. So here goes.

 • • • • • 

By conventional understanding, a collaborator is one who assists an enemy, helping groups to which he does not belong threaten groups to which he does belong. (1) But this definition, it seems to me, is too restrictive. It presumes that a group is a discrete whole, that once in it, we can’t get out of it or have competing affiliations.

Collaborators, however, cannot be so neatly bound. Some do not entirely belong to the group they betray; others, like the French fascists of Vichy, have a deep affinity for the enemy they aid. Informers are perhaps the most common kind of collaborator, but they are notorious chameleons, making it virtually impossible to pin down their affiliations at all.

Knud Wollenberger, an East German dissident who secretly kept the Stasi apprised of his wife’s subversive activities, claims that his collaboration was entirely consistent with his membership in the couple’s oppositional circle. One way to challenge the government, he explains, was “through open dissidence, and the other way [was] through government channels. I was on the inside and the outside at the same time.” (2)

Harvey Matusow joined the American Communist Party in 1947, began informing on it in 1950, recanted his testimony in 1954, and then lied about all three phases of his career in his memoir False Witness, published in 1955. So promiscuous were Matusow’s politics, it is impossible to know what he had been false to, except the truth. The title of another FBI informant’s memoir—I Led Three Lives (as Communist, informer, and “citizen”)—was more apt, suggesting the multiple identities the collaborator regularly assumes. (3)

I don’t wish to carry this notion of multiple affiliations too far. Wollenberger could very well be rationalizing a past of which he is ashamed, and Matusow may simply be the hollow man many at the time suspected him to be. Whether we belong to one group or another in some existential sense, in the course of our lives we do incur moral obligations to our comrades and friends, whom we betray when we aid our opponents.

But to avoid the question of identity that restrictive definitions of collaboration entail, I will use the definition contained in the word’s Latin root collaborare: “to work together.” By collaborator, I simply mean those men and women who work with elites and who occupy the lower tiers of power and make political fear a genuinely civic enterprise.

Collaborators may be low- or mid-level perpetrators; suppliers, like the warehouse in Jedwabne, Poland, which provided the kerosene local residents used in 1941 to burn a barn containing 1,500 Jews, or Ford and General Motors, which funded a Brazilian security outfit that interrogated and tortured leftists; attendants (cooks, secretaries, and other supporting staff); or spies and informers. (4) Though all are not equally compromised by their deeds, each is guilty of complicity.

The collaborator is an elusive figure. With the exception of The Persian Letters and Eichmann in Jerusalem, he seldom makes an appearance in the literature of political fear. One of the reasons for his absence, I suspect, is that he confounds our simple categories of elite and victim. Like the elite, the collaborator takes initiative and receives benefits from his collaboration. Like the victim, he may be threatened with punishment or retribution if he does not cooperate. Many collaborators, in fact, are drawn directly from the ranks of the victims.

Perhaps then we can distinguish between collaborators of aspiration, inspired by a desire for gain, and collaborators of aversion, inspired by a fear of loss. The first are akin to elites, the second to victims. But even that distinction is too neat. Elites also fear loss, and victims hope for gain, and as the economist’s notion of opportunity costs attests, the hope of gain often informs the fear of loss. (5)

Collaborators serve two functions. First, they perform tasks that elites themselves cannot or will not perform. These tasks may be considered beneath the dignity of the elite: cooking, cleaning, or other forms of work. They may require local knowledge—as in the case of informers, who provide information elites cannot access on their own—or specialized skills.

We often think of torturers, for example, as thugs from the dregs of society. But torture is a weapon of knowledge, designed to extract information from the victim, often without leaving a physical trace. The torturer must know the body, how far he can go without killing the victim. Who better to assist or direct the torturer than a doctor? Thus, 70 percent of Uruguayan political prisoners under that country’s military regime claim that a doctor sat in on their torture sessions. (6)

Second, collaborators extend the reach of elites into corners of society that elites lack the manpower to patrol. These collaborators are usually figures of influence within communities targeted by elites. Their status may come from the elite, who elevate them because they are willing to enforce the elite’s directives. (7)

More often, their authority is indigenous. Figures of trust among the victims, they can be relied upon to persuade the victims not to resist, to compound the fear of disobedience the victims already feel.

During its war against leftist guerillas in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Salvadoran army worked closely with such indigenous leaders. In 1982, a battalion officer informed Marcos Díaz, owner of the general store in the hamlet of El Mozote, with friends in the military, that the army was planning a major offensive in the region. To ensure their safety, the officer explained, the townspeople should remain in the village. Though many in El Mozote thought such advice unsound, Díaz was the local potentate who knew the army’s ways. His voice held sway, the villagers did as they were told, and three days later, some eight hundred of them were dead. (8)

Because their functions are so various, collaborators come in all shapes and sizes. Some travel in or near the orbit of elite power; others are drawn from the lower orders and geographic peripheries.

One common, though unappreciated, influence upon their actions is their ambition. While some collaborators hope to stave off threats to their communities and others are true believers (9), many are careerists, who see in collaboration a path of personal advance. In Brazil, for example, torture was a stepping stone, turning one man into the ambassador to Paraguay and another into a general, while doctors advising the torturers in Uruguay could draw salaries four times as high as those of doctors who did not. (10)

Whether the payment is status, power, or money, collaboration promises to elevate men and women, if only slightly, above the fray. Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101, for example, was a unit of five hundred “ordinary men,” drawn from the lower middle and working classes of Hamburg, who joined the battalion because it got them out of military service on the front. All told, they were responsible for executing 38,000 Polish Jews and deporting some 45,000 others to Treblinka.

Why did they do it?

Not because of any fear of punishment. No one in the 101 faced penalties—certainly not death—for not carrying out their mission. The unit’s commander even informed his men that they could opt out of the killing, which 10 to 15 of them did. Why did the remaining 490 or so stay?

According to Christopher Browning, there were different reasons, including anti-Semitism and peer pressure, but a critical one was their desire for advance. Of those who refused to kill Jews, in fact, the most forthright emphasized their lack of career ambitions. One explained that “it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance. . . . The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.” Another said, “Because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one . . . it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.” (11)

Though ambitious collaborators like to believe that they are adepts of realpolitik, walking the hard path of power because it is the wisest course to take, their realism is freighted with ideology. Careerism has its own moralism, serving as an anesthetic against competing moral claims. Particularly in the United States, where ambition is a civic duty and worldly success a prerequisite of citizenship, enlightened anglers of their own interest can easily be convinced that they are doing not only the smart thing, but also the right thing. They happily admit to their careerism because they presume an audience of shared moral sympathy. How else can we understand this comment of director Elia Kazan in response to a colleague’s request that he justify his decision to name names? “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [the head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.” (12)


(1) According to Jan Gross, the word “collaboration” first took on this negative connotation—as opposed to the more neutral notion of two parties working together—with the Nazi invasion of France, whereupon it was used to refer to natives of occupied countries who colluded with the Germans. Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 5, 205-6.

(2) Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism (New York: Vintage, 1995), xiii.

(3) Herbert A. Philbrick, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, ‘Communist,’ Counterspy (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1952); Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little Brown, 1998), 310-13, 344-349.

(4) Gross, 97-100; Lawrence Weschler, A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, 1998), 44.

(5) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope (New York: Modern Library, 1970, 1999), 42; Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), 19.

(6) Weschler, 126.

(7) Levi, 33.

(8) Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (New York: Vintage, 1993), 17, 20, 23, 50, 59.

(9) Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 77-82; Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Penguin, 1980, 1991), 3-69; Gross, 37-40, 60-62, 65, 91, 123-125; Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992, 1998), 162, 177, 180, 196-200, 202.

(10) Weschler, 76, 127.

(11) Browning, 1-2, 55-77, 169-170; Bauer, 37.

(12) Stefan Kanfer, A Journal of the Plague Years: A Devastating Chronicle of the Blacklist (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 173. Even if Kazan had refused to testify and been penalized by Hollywood, he undoubtedly could have had a thriving career as a Broadway director—a point he affirmed before his death. Bernard Weinraub, “Book Reveals Kazan’s Thoughts on Naming Names,” New York Times (March 4, 1999), E1.

Violence Against Women and the Politics of Fear

7 Oct

Last week, Gloria Steinem had this to say:

If you added up all the women who have been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11, and then you add up all the Americans who were killed by 9/11 or in Afghanistan and Iraq, more women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

PolitiFact then confirmed the truth of her claim.

How can this be, you ask? How can something that is so dangerous to the population (at least a majority) not galvanize political attention and public policy in the same way that something less dangerous does?

That was a question that inspired my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Here’s what I wrote there:

Political fear can work in one of two ways.

First, leaders or militants can define what is or ought to be the public’s chief object of fear. Political fear of this sort almost always preys upon some real threat—it seldom, if ever, is created out of nothing—but since the harms of life are as various as its pleasures, politicians and other leaders have much leeway in deciding which threats are worthy of political attention and which are not. It is they who identify a threat to the population’s well being, who interpret the nature and origins of that threat, and who propose a method for meeting that threat. It is they who make particular fears items of civic discussion and public mobilization.

This does not mean that each member of the public actually fears the chosen object: not every American citizen, for instance, is actively afraid today of terrorism. It merely means that the object dominates the political agenda, crowding out other possible objects of fear and concern.

In choosing, interpreting, and responding to these objects of fear, leaders are influenced by their ideological assumptions and strategic goals. They view danger through a prism of ideas, which shapes whether they see a particular danger as threatening or not, and a lens of political opportunity, which shapes whether they see that danger as helpful or not.

I elaborated this argument in a more recent piece that I wrote for Jacobin.

It is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties.  When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state.  Instead, the government makes a choice:  to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events.

Even though this power to define the objects of public fear suggests that danger or harm is whatever the state says it is, Hobbes did believe that there were real dangers that threatened a people. The sovereign had every reason to make the proper determination of what truly threatened the people and to act only upon those determinations.  The sovereign’s interest in his own security dovetailed with the people’s interest in theirs. So long as the people were, or at least felt, secure, they would obey the sovereign; so long as they obeyed the sovereign, he would be secure.

Hobbes also assumed that the sovereign would be so removed from powerful constituencies in society — in his time, the church and the aristocracy — that the sovereign would be able to act on behalf of an impartial, disinterested, and neutral calculation of what truly threatened the people as a whole and of what measures would protect them. Because the sovereign’s power depended upon getting these calculations right, he had every incentive not to get them wrong.

The reality of modern state power, however, is that we have inherited some of the worst aspects of Hobbesian politics with none of its saving graces.  Governments today have a great deal of freedom to define what threatens a people and how they will respond to those threats. But far from being removed from the interests of and ideologies of the powerful, they are often constrained, even defined and constituted, by those interests and ideologies.

To cite just one example:  it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties.  Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.

In the Hobbesian account, this constitutes a grievous failure; in America, it has been a semi-permanent boundary of state action.  At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.

When we talk about the politics of fear, this is what we mean.

If you want to learn more, buy my book!


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